Calm in the Storm

Practical Strategies for Effective Management

Month: April 2015

Bossy Technology and Its Consequences: Part Two

happy emploee

 

The commodification of our lives and identities raises concerns about privacy, but it also illustrates two principles important to managers, as I noted in my last post: First, the increase in workplace distractions reduces worker productivity, and increases stress. Secondly, the commercialization of the internet also illustrates another, and perhaps more significant principle: the law of unintended consequences.

As managers, we face all kinds of problems: Bickering employees, workplace bullying, falling morale, static salaries, dysfunctional bosses, declining budgets. Most of us have developed a bucketful of tactics and strategies to address them, for example, using intrinsic rewards, like workplace recognition programs and “employee of the month” awards. We may have good procedures for review, evaluation and discipline, as well as specific programs to thwart bullying or harassment. Most of us learn to “manage up” to work well with supervisors, although if a boss is truly toxic we may have to leave.

So what does this have to do with the development of the internet? First conceived as an academic and government tool to share research and to communicate easily across time and space, the internet has devolved into a place where, while those initial goals have been superbly met, it has also become a venue for the exploitation of its users, through the commodification of the preferences and experiences of millions of people. Those shoes you looked at on Zappos suddenly appear as an ad on your Facebook page. Check out a picture on the web of your sister’s new car, and all of a sudden you are trailed across the internet by a plethora of Hondas and Chryslers. The Law of Unintended Consequences is at work here!

Those early attempts to develop the internet were not initially seen as  commercial endeavors (I remember when there were no ads anywhere!) but the internet just grew, without a coherent plan or purpose other than linking as many people as possible. Consequently, individuals who could see profit potential in a particular area began to shape its future, piece by piece, and I would argue, without a long term vision of its taxpayer-funded purpose for the common good.

So is it true for managers. The best intentions to resolve problems in the workplace will be confronted by the Law of Unintended Consequences. A typical example is the troublesome employee: a lawyer who is rude to paralegal staff, a professor who intimidates average students, an admin who is chronically late, a physician who refuses to take certain kinds of difficult cases. What is the usual consequence? High turnover among the paralegals, small classes for the professor, angry customers whose phone calls aren’t answered, an overload of patients for the other docs in the group. So you try multiple remedies: The admin is disciplined, and ultimately fired. You end up hiring more paralegals.

But there are few disciplinary remedies for the lawyer, the physician, and the professor. In your willingness to meet another professional halfway, you might arrange honors classes for the professor so he is not dealing with “average” students, a new paralegal for the lawyer, and a lighter case load for the physician, in order to mitigate the negative consequences for the office, the college, and the hospital. In trying to solve the problem, you have unintentionally rewarded the bad behavior.

The key to a good strategy in this situation is to remember that everyone is watching. They can see that bad behavior has been rewarded. Morale plummets for all of those who are better behaved, and more professional, and are probably more competent than their troublesome peers.

So, the moral of this story is this: When dealing with difficult people at work, how will my actions affect the overall common good for other employees, customers, students, patients, or clients? Will my “solution” be seen by others as a reward for bad behavior? Will others start acting out so that they get preferential treatment too? Will your decision appear to be an example of “punishing the good, while rewarding the wicked?”

Bossy Technology and Its Consequences: Part One

angry

I am getting really annoyed by the bossy world of tech. Example: You are cruising on your iPad, surfing the web for another color of those shoes you saw in the store, or reading an article about the drought in California, or a science blog on the relative sizes of the planets, and up pops a screen:

“Do you want to continue in your browser or sign in to our Facebook page” another asks more politely.

“Use our app! It’s better!” it screams.

Or: “Sign in through your Facebook page or Twitter account!” a third one nags.

Well, of course they want me to sign in, because it is better for data mining and product placement for their ads, but it comes as another distraction in the world of the internet. It interrupts me when I am on a roll. It distracts me from something else I need to be doing. It slows me down, so that something that was just a quick check becomes tediously slow, while I hunt for passwords, or download the app, or close the pop-up.

The intrusiveness of these commands is intentional, of course. Neither sustained thought nor comparison shopping is desirable in the world of marketing that dominates the commercialization of the internet. To capture my loyalties through an app or to add to Facebook’s advertising potential is the goal, not customer satisfaction, relationship building, or open access to research, for example. It is interesting how the evolution of the internet has progressed (or regressed!). Initially it facilitated low cost communications compared to old fashioned long distance phone rates and printed newsletters and books. It enhanced access to research tools and reference libraries that were unavailable to many people. Today, however, these early benefits have been commercialized, and despite many advantages of that evolution, increasingly we are ourselves commodities to be sold to the highest bidders.

So how does this connect to management?

First, I am not saying that we need to return to a non-digital age! That would be ridiculous, not to mention impossible, and that view overlooks the many benefits of technology. But I think it is important to keep in mind what research is beginning to tell us: In a world of constant noise and distraction, we need to find ways to provide mental and physical quiet spaces for ourselves and our colleagues. (And there are apps for that!) Not everyone needs to be part of a team for every aspect of work, even if it is a team project. Silence enhances creativity. Constant busyness is NOT necessarily a sign of productivity, and in fact may undermine it. So how do we do this?

Give each other encouragement not to respond to email nights and weekends. It is ok to read it if you must, but don’t respond. “But what about emergencies?” you cry! I have never heard of a workplace emergency that was communicated via email (warnings, yes, but not the emergency itself). Typically a real emergency is communicated by phone call, or text, or by a police officer at your door. Not by email.

Second, quiet space should be available, even if it is via noise cancelling headphones. Research shows that constant noise increases stress, even music (or especially music, since few of us have the same tastes). This is why, for example, well run MRI units provide earplugs to patients.  In addition, as Susan Cain writes in Quiet, one out of every two or three of us is an introvert, for whom the constant stimulation of chatter and noise undermines their normally high levels of creativity and productivity.

Third, constant internet access may be critical for some jobs, but there are others for which it is a distraction. Unless your work is cloud based, it may be possible to disconnect on a regular schedule of your choosing. The Freedom app, developed by Fred Stutzman, “locks you away” from the internet for a specific period, up to eight hours a day (macfreedom.com). And since the goal is removing temptation, there is also Anti-Social (anti-social.cc) to turn off social media while you try to write or think or compose. I am not personally recommending these two programs, since I’ve never tried them, but those of you who diet best by not bringing ice cream into the house might like them, since the same principle is at work. They have been reviewed by the NY Times, NPR, and other reputable sources.

The commodification of our lives and identities does raise concerns about privacy, but it also illustrates two principles important to managers: First, the increase in workplace distractions reduces worker productivity, and increases stress, as I have noted above. Secondly, the commercialization of the internet also illustrates another, and perhaps more significant, principle: the law of unintended consequences, which I will discuss in my next post.

What We Can Learn from Other Drivers: Culture in the Workplace

corporate culture

A recent trip to Arizona reminded me how complex culture is across this country, and how much of it is revealed by ordinary aspects of everyday life. In Tucson Arizona, highways are smooth and elegantly designed, and not surprisingly, there are no frost heaves! Drivers drive close to the speed limit, rather than 5 or 10 miles over it. Yet, like many of us, I have been in other states where the norm appears to be more aggressive and competitive. Some drivers refuse to pull over for others entering the highway, despite a disappearing on-ramp. Some states “economize” by making on-ramps serve double duty as off- ramps, which means that rapidly accelerating cars are sharing space with those that are slowing down. Use of turn signals may be absent, or yellow lights ignored, or rolling stops may be common, depending on a region’s “road culture.” We have all observed these phenomena, and some states and cities have the reputation for having terrible drivers or misbehaving pedestrians. I have lived and worked in a dozen different states and one foreign country and have my personal list –what’s yours?

You might argue that this is a fairly silly way to think about culture, although it is something we all have experience with. Culture is a highly complex field of study with a huge presence on the web. But identifying the culture that you are working in is very important, especially when starting a new job. So beyond driving patterns, how do you identify the culture in your new environment and work place?

The most important rule of thumb I have learned is: Pay Attention!

I start my observations with the formal:

  • What is the organization’s structure? Is there an org chart? Is it flat? Hierarchical? Team based? And, then, how does it REALLY work?
  •  Are there written policies? Are they followed?
  •  What happens at meetings? Do people show up on time? Is there an agenda? Are the meetings useful?

A disconnect between formal documents about structure or rules and how they are actually practiced is a signal that something needs attention. Are the policies outdated? Illegal? Arbitrary? Or are they good up-to-date policies that are not honored? It’s the same with the org chart: If everyone ignores boss X, and goes right to X’s supervisor, you need to ask yourself what is going on? Do people routinely make end runs around the org structure? Is there a problem?

Then, I try to observe informal interactions:

  • How do people address each other? There are still some professions, places, and regions, especially in other countries, where people do NOT routinely use first names. When is it appropriate to do so? Do executives insist on titles, but call staff by their first names? “Name calling” will tell you a lot about an organization!
  • Who eats lunch with whom, or does everyone eat at their desks?
  •  What celebrations are there? How are the organization’s successes celebrated? An annual holiday party? A picnic? A lunch? Does the office celebrate birthdays or the anniversary of date of hire?

I’ve seen the range there: One president sent me a birthday card, which very much surprised me– and it really didn’t feel appropriate since we saw each other only a few times a year. Another organization gave out 5 year service pins. Sigh. I once was a new manager in an organization that celebrated nothing, which, among other things, reflected a culture where people felt unappreciated and suspicious. I instituted an annual “reception,” with refreshments, candle light, music, and wine–out of my pocket– to celebrate individuals’ accomplishments. Despite pushback and suspicion at first, over a number of years it became an eagerly anticipated event. Although I left that workplace years ago, they still hold the reception every year.

Finally, how are raises, resources and perqs distributed? In my view, some ways are more productive and fairer than others:

  • Do prime vacation weeks go to those with the most seniority? First come, first served? Grace and favor? To those with kids? Random assignment?
  •  Who gets new computers, prime office space, or new office furniture?
  •  And raises? What are raises or bonuses REALLY based on?

While there is a lot more to culture than these few examples, of course, being successful in the workplace means being attuned to its culture. If it is a good one, celebrate and nurture it! If it is not, your awareness can help you find ways to nudge it into more productive practices, depending on your role and responsibilities. But be aware that it can take many years to change a negative work culture; and it is nearly impossible to change a pathological one.

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