Calm in the Storm

Practical Strategies for Effective Management

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 5)

Moving!

 

moving-boxes1It has been a long time since I posted to my blog, though I have been thinking about it a lot. Life intervened over the past few months with a 1200 mile move as well as helping to care for a family member with a serious illness. I am more than ready to get back into a rhythm again!

A friend asked me recently about the impact of moving.  “Since you have moved so often,” she asked, “where do you consider home?”  Her question stopped me cold.

And then I realized that in my life wherever my books are, that is home to me. During my adult life, I have hauled those same books from California, to France, from France to California, to Florida, to Maryland, to upstate New York, to Chicago, to Maine and then to Chicago again.  I did it as a child too, circumnavigating the U.S. from Cleveland to California, to Maine, to California to Cleveland, to Chicago to California…

What did all those moves teach me about management?

A good manager has to be flexible, openminded, and curious enough to learn about the culture she finds herself in, without prejudgment or bias. Few things are as off putting at the newcomer who says “well, at my old job, we did this and that and it worked much better than the way you do things here.”  (Very similar to its analogue from the long-time employee who responds “Well we tried that twenty years ago and it didn’t work.”)

A good manager has to be attentive to reading body language and nuance from individuals, to avoid faux pas to be sure, but also to read what is really going on. A new manager brought in from the outside may well be expected to solve some deep problems—usually personnel problems— that have not been articulated. Are there multiple agendas here?

A good manager has to be objective and analytical; able to see through Smiling Sam’s attempt to co-opt the new boss, or Sneaky Patti’s attempts to undermine her. Patience in getting to know people, careful listening, and asking advice, are helpful tools.

A good manager asks advice. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to TAKE the advice, but it is a great way to learn from and about the people you work with. And, sometimes, the advice is worth taking.

A good manager is grateful for the opportunity to learn new ways of doing things and to widen his or her perspective on the world.  It keeps us humble!

All in all, moving is a wonderful experience. It teaches us both about others and ourselves, and allows tremendous opportunities to grow in wisdom as well as experience.  It’s the road to feeling at home anywhere—as long as you bring your books.

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.

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