Creating a Safer Workplace

Workplace-related suicides have increased in recent years, and organizations and businesses need to ensure they are doing right by their staff by sustaining healthy work conditions and providing appropriate resources for colleagues facing difficult times. The RANE network just published an advisory for its clients about mental health in the workplace and interviewed me (Carmen) for the piece. Rebels at Work, of course, encounter stress in the workplace; the chapter in the book Rebels at Work on rebel self-care is among the most popular. Here are some excerpts from the article and at the end a link that will download the PDF file of the complete text.

My comments emphasized that the default way organizations function creates tensions in the workplace. One example is the stigma against rocking the boat. Even when organizations do not specifically state it, employees often perceive that “companies do not like it if they challenge the organization in any way, including by offering a new idea or by stating that they have too much work.” A related dynamic is the value that so many organizations place on “smoothness.” Managers that let employees know they value stability and smoothness are also making it harder for individuals to tell you they perceive a problem or need some time off to deal with personal issues.

Organizations also promote stress by creating a work plan and objectives that require 100% of workforce time to achieve. There is no flex in the schedule to deal with personal emergencies, unexpected work load, or hiccups in the supply chain. Businesses that consistently run at the red line are guaranteed to burn up their employees.

I suggested that companies instead design their annual goals in such a way that the organization retains some excess capacity that can be used to deal with contingencies or to allow staff to pursue new projects. Companies interested in creating a psychologically-safe work environment should conduct cultural audits to reveal all the subtle ways they impose unnecessary stress on employees—from how they talk about performance appraisals to the way they run meetings and the expectation to answer emails during non-work hours. The introduction of artificial intelligence to knowledge work will be a new stress point for staff, some of whom may find that what they are good at is now done better by a machine.

There’s much more good content in the article including some specific information about preventing suicide in the workplace from Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. Download the complete text here.

For Active Adults Only

Employees seeking empowerment.

Employees seeking empowerment.

There’s a new development under construction in my neighborhood and a big sign at the construction site advertises the new complex will include an “active adults” community. And every time I walk by I ponder how the phrase “active adults” means almost exactly the opposite of what the individual words signify; I’m anticipating that many not-particularly-active adults are already queuing up to lease or buy.

This has led me to reflect on several terms that appear almost every day in the business literature—terms I have grown to dislike and which usually end up meaning the opposite of what the words signify. So here’s a few of them.

EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT. Some of my favorite recent “headlines” on this topic (along with my parenthetical, snarky asides) include:

The Ultimate Starter Guide to Employee Empowerment (So you want to empower your employees, but don’t know where to begin…)

Don’t be Afraid to Give Employees Real Autonomy (I guess as opposed to fake autonomy.)

Corporate America’s New Flexible Dress Code is Indicative of a trend toward Employee Empowerment (I just don’t even know where to begin here!)

These headlines reveal what I think is the problem with the discussion around employee empowerment. Empowering the staff appears to be a tactic the manager/leader can use if they want. Rather than what I think it should be: a fundamental principle at work. Talking a lot about employee empowerment is a telltale sign that there isn’t any.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. Aaargh!! Where to begin? I know that the usage of this term is often well-intentioned. Leaders recognize that just increasing the diversity of their staff is insufficient; they need to ensure that diverse voices have meaningful (equal?) impact in the workplace. But the use of the word inclusion is, I think, a mistake—actually counterproductive.

The use of the word “inclusion” just leads me to wonder how come I don’t naturally belong. Why does there have to be a “special” effort to include people who for whatever reason differ from the corporate norm? Why do we have a corporate norm in the first place? I can’t put it any better than Aubrey Blanche who wrote in a recent post that

Inclusion is like someone calling you saying: Hey, I am having a party and the people I wanted to come over are not joining, so you can come now. I am not interested in being included in spaces designed for specific groups of people who have no interest in what I can bring to the table. 

COLLABORATION. I remember a young man I knew briefly in college—not well—who was agonizing over how to acquire “class.” I guess he suspected he was lacking in it (although I have no idea why he thought I might be helpful in this regard.) And all I could think (but not say) was that trying to think of ways to acquire class was itself kind of classless.

And that’s how I think about collaboration. Trying to make collaboration happen when it isn’t occurring naturally is not very collaborative. Adding steps to a process to “promote collaboration” doesn’t usually work; at best you get deconfliction, which is sadly what many organizations settle for.

Collaboration is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in healthy teams. An organization is likely to make more progress achieving collaboration by working on creating a positive and psychologically safe environment. You can design a process that requires Team A to coordinate with Team B on Issue Zed, but if the two teams don’t trust each other all you will get is box-checking.

Just some closing thoughts on a term I’ve grown tired of—LEADERSHIP—but not because it has an ambiguous or contradictory meaning. We all agree that individuals who are leaders are responsible for motivating the team, setting the vision, anticipating the future, solving cold fusion, and quantifying dark matter. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Business, much more I think than other disciplines, still worships enthusiastically at the altar of the Great Man, and it is still usually a man. There are currently 27 female CEOs among S&P 500 companies; indeed, there are more men named Jeffrey than women.

I’m convinced the cult of leadership still does more to hinder rather than advance excellence in organizations. Or rather let me put it a different way. Every organization needs more people who behave like leaders. Leaving it up to one or two exalted individuals is just asking too much from flawed human beings. Each of us has the potential for an important contribution. So go and make it! Be an active adult!

Rebels, You are Needed!

We can gain some insight about the domains that desperately need some rebel energy by checking out the demographics of our Twitter followers at https://twitter.com/rebelsatwork?lang=en A strong plurality if not a majority work in the health industry. Check out this word cloud generated by followerwonk derived from our followers’ twitter bios.

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Another large group of followers are government workers from all levels— state, local, regional and federal. Of course in many countries health workers are also government employees, most notably in the United Kingdom where the National Health Service has recently become interested in promoting positive change agents. By the way, here is a map showing the global reach of @rebelsatwork.

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An interesting subset of our government followers are individuals who work for the US Intelligence Community. That’s where one half of @rebelsatwork learned their lessons, mainly me! Although I no longer hold any security clearances, I still attend the occasional intelligence-related conference and that’s where I was earlier this week, attending the 2019 GEOINT symposium, devoted to all forms of geospatial information and analysis. One of the more interesting panels, for example, dealt with using geospatial intelligence to help fight California forest fires.

But I digress. A highlight of the annual symposium is the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to a geospatial pioneer. This year’s awardee is Dr. Annette Krygiel, a woman who helped create modern geospatial analysis. She shared her most important best practice with the audience:

Humans solve problems or accomplish complex tasks by collaborating—by working together in teams.
My lesson learned is it can be beneficial, even NECESSARY, to employ teams that are composed using
diversity as an organizing criteria…think REBELS AND WILD CARDS.

(You can catch her comments here.)

After her talk, Dr. Krygiel told me she was going to order the book Rebels at Work, although it sounds to me that she could have written it. Just goes to show that society has always had and needed rebels. It seems to be a lesson that is in constant need of relearning.

Innovation is the Opposite of Policy

Lois Kelly and I are regularly amazed and humbled by the resonance that Rebels at Work continues to have. And just when we think there aren’t any new wrinkles out there for us to share, we come across a new voice.

Daniel Hulter is in the US Air Force. He is writing about innovation on LinkedIn. And he shared a piece recently that made a wonderful and necessary distinction between innovation as the glamorous endeavors of Mavericks and the almost routine actions of individuals who figure out the right thing to do in any given situation. Like the individual in a bureaucracy who has the wisdom to see that a policy, written forty years ago by individuals perhaps no longer on this mortal coil, cannot be followed in a particular human situation.

Hulter has the hunch—and we agree—that if organizations worried more about encouraging the latter and less about their flagship innovation projects, they would improve just as quickly with less sturm und drang. A simple and meaningful definition of Innovation is the Opposite of Policy. Policy incorporates what the past has told us about the best way to do something—and let me just say that the “best way” incorporates a whole set of assumptions that merit examination. For example, organizations often think that smooth operations are the BEST operations; the desire for smoothness, however, can trample over other good things such as diversity of thought and trying out new ideas.

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But let me add a qualifier. Not all policies are bad and not all innovation is good. Amy from Minneapolis (not his real name) wrote me to complain that it’s not a good thing when employees in a large organization ignore security policies and thus open themselves to malicious hacking. Some policies are worth having and some innovations are just stupid. It is an annoying fact of life that to navigate it successfully you must learn to maneuver through the grey. Shades of grey are difficult to distinguish from black or white. What I thought was a simple matter turns out more nuanced. That’s why you need allies, disagreeable givers, a wild pack, and, yes, even opponents to help you see.

Trust is a Muscle!!

“How do I know when I can trust a Rebel at Work?”

 We often get asked this question. A manager or team leader hears Lois or I present, agrees with our message that the people who work for him often have solutions for the team’s problems or can identify new opportunities, but double clutches at the point of empowerment. Can I trust her?

In this instance, the manager is using the word trust to mean: Can I rely upon her to execute successfully? Can I be completely confident? Admittedly that is one of the dictionary meanings of the word. But there’s another sense of trust that is more relevant to the manager/rebel relationship. To quote from a short paper prepared about ten years ago for the Canadian Department of Defense by Dr. Barbara Adams:

A trust judgement…is characterized by a specific lack of information, and by the need to take a “leap of faith” from what is known to what is unknown.

(Here’s a link to her short monograph which is well worth your time. Isn’t the internet wonderful?)

Trust, according to Dr. Adams, is only operational in situations with risk. But when managers want to know when they can TRUST rebels at work, what they really want to know is how can they make sure that their empowerment of a rebel is risk-free.

Which is the wrong expectation!! Fundamentally, trust is a judgment call. The leader is making a decision even in the absence of some data—such as previous experience with an individual in a similar circumstance. But the leader can reason that the risk is justified by the potential gain. And that potential gain is not just measured by whether the idea works or not. When a leader trusts an employee with a new initiative, they not only send a signal to that individual but to the rest of the team that it’s not just experience that matters; new ideas have value too.

In fact, it’s kind of circular.

The only way to determine whether you can trust a Rebel at Work is by trusting one. Trust is a muscle. It benefits from being used. The first time you provide space for team members to work on their new ideas you can’t be sure how it will turn out. But by doing so you gain experience that will inform your next trust moment and the expectations of your team.

At some point, particularly if you rarely use your trust muscles, one of your decisions will misfire. (No pain, no gain!) And you will have learned something important about the individuals involved, including yourself. As Dr. Adams notes, “a trust decision typically involves the formation of an impression about another person rather than merely making an estimate with respect to a discrete and specific task.” Trust is an investment in your team and an engagement with them as individuals.

The only way to strengthen it is by using it!

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The Rebel Gardener

 I didn’t come easily to gardening. In fact, until I was about 55 years old (and that was almost 9 years ago) I paid gardening no mind at all. Zilch.

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All I could see in gardening was way too much physical labor, almost all of it during hot Washington D.C. summers. Just a lot of sweat.

But somewhere in my body lurked the gardening gene just waiting to express itself. Geneticists have determined that for some genes, expression is indeed a function of age. And clearly that was the case for my gardening gene. In the spring of 2010, it began to stick out its tendril-covered head. I began modestly with a few tomato plants. But in just a couple of years, I was starting most of my plants as seedlings and slowly reclaiming the ivy-infested parts of my lawn. It’s an ongoing project.

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I wish someone had told me sooner that gardening was a learning activity. Only by paying attention to how the plants behave under different conditions can you improve your gardening success rate. If you get into it, gardening is a deeply analytic activity. 

And, of course or I wouldn’t be writing about it here, gardening offers a series of lessons for Rebels at Work. Being a Rebel at Work calls upon your analytic talents. And the more experience you have as a Rebel, the smarter you will be about advocating for change in organizations. But beyond that…

Failure is an essential component of gardening and of being a Rebel at Work. It’s only been in the past year that, as a gardener, I’ve become comfortable in ripping out plants that didn’t work out where I put them. I used to think such bad outcomes were an indictment of my underdeveloped gardening skills. Now I understand that only through experimentation can I learn what works and what doesn’t. Now Rebels at Work probably can’t afford too many bad ideas, but if you can master the art of tiny pivots—small experiments that can test some aspect of a proposal, you can learn to leverage “failure.” Before gardeners invest real money in a new flower bed, they should first test just a plant here or there to see what works in the soil and light.

The shady spots are never as shady as you think and the sunny spots are never as sunny. This partly explains why failure is an essential component of gardening. Just a few feet of separation can produce significant changes in light. I once planted two rose bushes within three feet of each other on the southeast exposure of my lawn. One prospered but the other faltered because of the dappled sunlight that reached it through overhanging trees. When I moved the laggard to what I had previously thought of as the too-shady side of my lawn, it doubled in size. Rebels can sometimes make facile assumptions about what parts of the organization would be most receptive to change. The team you think is ideal for your prototype because the leader is so friendly may actually harbor bamboo spikes underneath its surface. Go beyond superficial appearances.

Some things just take time. Plants have to settle into their new environments. Weather varies year to year. My transplanted rose bush only gave one weak flower the first year in its new location. But now it’s a reliable producer, if still not as robust as its sun-blessed twin. And so it is with organizational change. Expecting immediate results should be a rookie mistake, and yet we see it everywhere. I often think the most successful change efforts are the ones that people don’t quite realize are happening. Tiny pivots accumulate and without sturm und drang the organization finds itself in a better place. Rebels who want instant ego gratification normally aren’t willing to take the tortoise approach. And so their garden doesn’t grow.

Do the work. I’ve always had a problem with routine tasks. I’m just downright lazy about them. But gardening has knocked some sense into me on this front. Unless I do the work, nothing good happens. Failing to do the work is lethal to gardeners and Rebels. The Rebel who enjoys talking about her vision but doesn’t come up with a viable implementation plan is failing to do the work. If the Rebel isn’t into details, then she needs to ally herself with someone who is. 

Someone has to sweat the details!

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Do You Have a MAC?

Do You Have a MAC?

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No, this isn’t another installment in the PC/MAC wars. What we want to know is whether you, the plucky change agent at work, know your Minimum Acceptable Change, that first step—or perhaps just a half-step—that you believe will put your organization on the path to progress. I was introduced to this idea just a few weeks ago at a leadership seminar for civil servants in the Federal Government.

We put considerable emphasis on the tactics Rebels at Work need to use in meetings to be successful. For example, rebels should be parsimonious in the time they take to lay out their change ideas, and generous in the time they allot to discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting is not for the rebel to hear himself talk but rather for the rebel to listen to what others have to say. And that’s why obsessing over a “perfect” presentation may not be such a good idea; less perfect presentations provide more openings through which others can contribute. The worst aspect of wonky presentations is how closed they are to other people’s suggestions. When confronted with a slide chock full of bullet points, you have a hard time justifying adding one more.

By the way, on the topic of slide decks, have you all caught the clever commercial where a “Bond villain” tortures his prisoner with a slide presentation on his plans for world domination?

 

But I digress.

Another excellent preparatory step you can take before you present your change ideas is to have in mind your Minimum Acceptable Change. The MAC is that action, or series of actions, that you believe moves your group in the direction of improvement, toward goodness. The MAC will be different for each organization. In a sclerotic bureaucracy, the MAC may simply be an agreement to present your idea to the next bureaucratic layer. Because often in bureaucracies, climbing the hierarchy is a type of progress.

Knowing your MAC is useful in a couple of ways. First, it forces you to be realistic in considering what type of change your organization is likely to accept. It is rare indeed for a Rebel at Work to part the waters at her first meeting. But often that’s the only contingency she’s planned for so when the audience is not blinded by her brilliance, she has no alternative to offer. With a MAC in her back pocket, the Rebel at Work has a better chance of directing the discussion toward a viable interim step. A rebel I talked to last year told me that she’s all about Tiny Pivots, one quarter-step after another that eventually add up to change

Also, having a MAC allows you to avoid unsatisfying compromises. Indeed, your Minimum Acceptable Change can be quite different from a compromise. In passive-aggressive organizations, compromise is often a type of off-ramp—a way to get the rebel off the road where he can do less harm. So, for example, the clever bureaucratic black belt in the meeting might suggest that you go talk to the Talent staff about your idea, calculating that it will be months before he’ll hear from you again. But if you’ve thought about your MAC, you might be ready instead to suggest a small change in HR practices that could test your new idea.

The MAC strategy works best when everyone can agree that “We need to do something!” Often, we can all see that the status quo is unsatisfactory, but we can’t agree on how to fix it. A MAC proposal should have several characteristics:

·       The change advocate should believe it would be a useful first step.

·       At least one or two individuals who oppose dramatic change should be willing to support it. (This requires some discussions and prework before the meeting.)

·       It should not require significant changes in regulations or large amounts of new funding.

·       Its potential impact should be apparent early on, and the Rebel at Work should have an idea for how to observe/measure it.

During my CIA career, I pushed for the Agency to embrace digital publication methods and move away from the once-a-day “newspaper” format. But that was not my MAC. My initial starting point was a database that we populated with intelligence articles as soon as they were deemed ready. A small number of individuals had access to the database, but they soon testified to its utility. An unanticipated but essential benefit of the MAC was that it revealed many of the other issues that would need resolving before we could embrace digital media.

So before your next meeting, decide for yourself what the best small step forward looks likes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!

The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)

 

In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

On the Rebel Road

I've been on the road for the last few weeks. The second half of October saw me in Spain, my favorite destination in Europe because of the deep intermingling of several world cultures--ancient Rome, Catholicism, the Moors just to mention the top 3. My last stop was Barcelona where a real rebellions of sorts is underway as the Catalans seek independence from Madrid. I don't have an informed view on the issue of Catalonia's independence, although I'm never much impressed with the argument that stability is good for its own sake. In fact, arguments from complexity science tell us that the healthiest organisms live on the edge, in a state of almost constant adaptation. 

But it was interesting to observe how rebel behavior manifested in Barcelona, at least the three days I was there. The city seemed calm; people went about their business and/or pleasure as per normal.....except when they didn't. You would turn a street corner and run into an impromptu gathering. Catalans would rush by with their flags--which they seemed to have with them at all times just in case--to join the demonstration. And then they would disperse, probably to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of cava. 

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators   

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators

 

It appeared natural and spontaneous. There's a lesson in that for Rebels at Work: sometimes small moments of serendipity provide the best opportunities to mobilize your supporters. You don't need to wait for the big offsite next month to discuss your new idea; maybe your new method is so simple you can bring it up while you're standing next to a colleague in the lunch line. And unlike you--the rebel mastermind, your supporters don't have to live your rebel manifesto every waking moment. (Actually, we don't think that's such a good idea for the rebel leader either. Obsession is a pathology, not a strategy.) Everyone trying to make change happen at work needs to remember to breathe!

Speaking of the latest headlines, how about the shift change that's occurring in society around the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace? Actually shift change is an understatement: we're witnessing a volcanic eruption. In the future, historians will try to figure out what triggered the explosion. But for now, recent events lead me to reflect on two of my legacy Rebel truisms.

Everything stays the same until it changes.

and 

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

Indeed, everything stays the same until it changes. Rebels ALWAYS tend to underestimate how long a sclerotic Status Quo can linger, expecting change to happen much faster than it ever could. And Traditionalists always assume that when the rebellion doesn't materialize, that they've beaten back the pressures for change. Both parties are wrong at different times.

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come has a critical corollary. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time is NOW!

Breaking the Soil

The book on my nightstand right now is Willa Cather's My Antonia. I've come to Willa Cather way too late in life. Cather writes compelling novels, mostly about pioneers, that brim with insights about people doing hard things. In My Antonia, she describes the tribulations of the settlers of the vast Midwest prairies, focusing on an immigrant family from Bohemia and their daughter, Antonia.

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I had occasion to mention the book recently when I was chatting with someone who has so far been unable to change the conversation in his organization. He described a group of people so set in their ways that their skin had the bluish tint of rigor mortis. Agendas of meetings are so tightly controlled that it's impossible to introduce new ideas. What could he do?

"Break the soil" I said, channeling my inner Willa Cather. In My Antonia, Cather describes the difficult process by which the farmers prepared their soil after the frigid winter. Before any seeds could be planted, the settlers trudged behind their oxen or horses to break and turn the cold soil. Unless this work was done, sowing seeds was pointless. Seeds don't grow in ill-prepared soil.

And that's what needs to be done in frozen organizations where change seems impossible. Unless the Rebel at Work steps back to "break the soil", his seed ideas are unlikely to take root. So what does breaking the soil look like in organizations and businesses? We'd love to hear your ideas but here are some of ours.

  • Take advantage of any extracurricular activities, such as a "giving back to the community" days or the annual office picnic, to improve your relations with others, understand what makes them feel good, and perhaps gently encourage some reflection on how things are going.
  • Share articles, videos, etc. that promote interesting ideas. Don't pick negative articles; don't editorialize! Just share! And try to find ideas that the organization can claim it is already implementing--whether it's true or not! The group's perception of itself is key. If people start thinking of themselves as modernizers, they're more likely to consider other "new" ideas.
  • Engage in reciprocity. Do favors for others. Help someone advance an idea you're not that fond of in hopes they will do the same for you some day.
  • And one of our favorite evergreen ideas: have lunch with a bureaucratic black belt in your organization. Ask them about what's most important to the group and why. Have them talk about previous successful initiatives and what has worked in the past. When planting your new seeds, it's best to start with those that will thrive in the current soil.

 

Rebel at Work or Reactionist?

Last week was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago. The Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel remembered Diana in a long article for The Guardian in which we learned that Diana thought of herself as a rebel. Mantel writes that Diana described herself “as a ‘rebel,’ on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else.”

And then Mantel makes this key observation:

Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave…That is reaction, not rebellion.

Oh, I thought. Mantel has put her finger on a phenomenon Lois and I see all the time when we talk to groups about being more effective Rebels at Work. In the question and answer period, we always hear from several people who pose a question that goes something like this.

How do I get people to listen to me when I know they are wrong? When I speak up at a meeting I can see them all rolling their eyes.

Now, thanks to Mantel, I can explore whether their problem might be that they are just Reactionists and not really Rebels at Work. If you know your Russian history—and who among us doesn't—Reactionist sounds like one of those anti-Tsarist groups. Nihilists, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Reactionists. And like all of those groups, Reactionists can sometimes be just as destructive. They often disagree just for the sake of it; no matter what anyone says, they’ll take the opposite viewpoint.

It’s always easy to find fault with however your boss or your organization is running things. It’s much easier to mock a decision than to make one. But you know, that gets old quickly and your teammates will soon just start tuning you out. 

I know this from personal experience. During the 1990s at the CIA, I acquired a reputation for being cynical and negative. As one friend commented, “Carmen, I think the only thing that will shut you up is if we all acknowledge that you are right” I had to admit she had nailed it. I wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone acknowledged I knew more than they did.

Let me just say this is not a path to success.

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So if some of this is ringing true to you, the reader, let me offer a regimen to contain your inner Reactionist. (And none of us is immune to the Reactionist tendency, by the way.)

  1. At your next team meeting don’t say anything until the last ten minutes. Just listen. If you’re a veteran Reactionist, your very silence will shock your colleagues and provide you an immediate tactical advantage—the element of surprise!
  2. Because you’ve been quiet for most of the meeting, no doubt you will have generated a long list of stupidities that you want to comment on. Reflect on that list. If it’s particularly long, you can be confident that you are either A) on the worst team of ALL TIME, or—and more likely— B) A World-Class Reactionist, sort of an Eeyore and Cassandra wrapped up in one package.
  3. Assess your list of stupidities and decide to bring up only one of them. Obviously it should be one you think is important but more crucially—if you want to repair your Reactionist image—it should be something on which you can offer a constructive suggestion. And something you can frame in a positive way. Perhaps you can say something like this:
    I think doing X will take us in the right direction, and we could build on that by insert your suggestion.
     
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary.

Smooth and Easy DOESN'T Cut It!

The LinkedIn Conversation on our post Stupid Things Bosses Say! led to a robust series of comments worth summarizing here. The bottom line is reflected in the title: the tendency of organizations to reward the "smooth leadership style" is detrimental to diversity of thought, discourages everyone from offering potentially helpful suggestions and/or dissents, and leads to lowest common denominator outcomes.

One reader asked whether there is a magic potion leaders can take to become more welcoming to different opinions. Our answer: there is no magic potion and the very idea that there could be a magic potion is part of the problem. But there is an insidious dynamic in most workplaces that--if removed--would make it easier for managers to welcome healthy debate on their teams.

Organizations need to stop grading leaders on how "smoothly" their operations run. You usually don't get diversity of opinions when teams run "smoothly". And yet most organizations I'm familiar with reward managers who run "tight ships." "You never hear about any problems from her team." goes the familiar refrain. "She must be a good manager!"

Maybe not. When decisions are made quickly, it may very well mean that dissent is not tolerated or even suppressed. Feisty teams aren't ever going to be quiet teams.

And that leads to another situation.. Once different opinions are allowed to surface, meetings become crunchier and, even when everyone has the best of intentions, some ruffling of feathers will occur. Most managers don't know how to deal with "diversity tension". And no one really bothers to teach them. In fact leadership and management training focuses instead on alpha capabilities such as vision and decision-making. Instead we need to learn how to empower employees who disagree with us and how to tell when you the manager is dead wrong. 

Sounds pretty radical, right?

But at Rebels at Work, we like radical. We like texture and crunchiness.

And we don't mind it when it's rough and hard!

 

 

 

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