Search This Blog

On The Crap Advice Novice Managers Get

"He's a manager now, he does manager things." Photo by Phil Dokas via Flickr.

It is easy to blame it all on Mark Zuckerberg, who turns 30 today. Mashable had fun with his irreverent approach to work attire, the hoodie which symbolizes "corporate is a waste of time."

As a cultural influence Zuckerberg promotes an "open and connected" world, i.e. no distinction between your personal and professional identities or past and present identities. You are always one and discoverable. On this there is intense debate, particularly since he personally lives such a private life.

As a boss, too, he seems rather traditional - getting positive reviews for listening thoughtfully, focusing on the work and making a decision. See for example "Working With Zuck" and the multiple answers on Quora.

But Zuckerberg does represent social flattening, even subversion of traditional hierarchies, and the hoodie is his way of showing it. Other executives build this concept into their business model. For example Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey is a fan of the idea of extreme social bonding with employees.

"I know this sounds weird, but there's something about sleeping in the same house and then fixing breakfast or dinner together that is very much a bonding experience." - BBC, 7 April 2014

Consider what a high and exploitive bar that is. Beyond technical proficiency or emotional intelligence. You've got to jump through the hoops of high school, college, and standardized tests, only to have to shape yourself into some kind of perfect Play-Doh, able to make it through Weekend at Bernie's.

"This level of personal interaction, says Mr. Mackey, prevents staff compartmentalising (sic) their work life and personal life, and means workers can relate on a deeper level." BBC, 7 April 2014

So in the name of egalitarianism, you are stripped of your private self, forced into emotional bonding (bondage), and then hired only on probation. After a time, peers conduct a secret vote as to whether to keep you.  (Luckier Amazon recruits get $5,000 to go away.)

This is immoral, scarily sophisticated service economy thinking, "be likable or die." Other messages: Be productive or die, on our kind of team. You are lucky to be here, and the profits accrue to Whole Foods. When we toss you out, that part of you that bonded with us stays here as well.

Steering this kind of ship (generally, and correcting it back to a more ethical place, which seems imperative) is actually harder than running the ordinary, top-down, command-and-control type of vehicle. In fact I'd argue that it brings up problems most managers would never have thought of.

Yet management headlines with their current "soft" focus make the whole thing look easy. They vastly underestimate the task. Worse yet, they mislead people into thinking that it's somehow "wrong" to actually be a boss. For example:

Don't misunderstand me - culture is all, or nearly all. As Peter Drucker said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." (Here's a useful article on that.) But you've got to know what you are doing. And take responsibility for doing it right, and consider the consequences of what you do.

Certainly Whole Foods is succeeding. As BBC notes, it has held Fortune's "Best Companies To Work For" status for nearly two decades, versus as Gallup found, in the U.S. employee disengagement stands at a huge proportion, 70%. In a tough economy, Whole Foods had its best sales year ever in 2013.

And they build their culture carefully. It's deliberately "egalitarian" (even though it's not - there is still a 19 times pay differential between the average employee and executive staff). Those who don't fit in, get voted out by their peers, not by management. A precise number of teams manage each store relatively independently, and innovation starts at the edge not the core.

So casual on its face. But the result of nonstop effort. Similar to writing - a Great American Novel is never really a fluke. Lena Dunham, the creative force behind Girls, told Vogue that she writes all the time. All the time! Think about that. She is consumed by this thing - it isn't something she can toss off naturally in five minutes, even if it seems very natural.

Great managers work hard to become excellent at being excellent. They learn to provide staff with goals, objectives, priorities and expectations. To motivate them. To monitor their performance. And to distribute rewards and negative consequences fairly. There is no getting away from these tasks, no matter how "egalitarian" you are.

You can't drive a car just by watching movies about cars. Similarly managers should educate themselves on management, and not take it casually or for granted. Even a little bit makes a difference that everybody can feel and appreciate.

* All opinions my own.

It's OK Not To Know

The experience of hospital. You have no power here. You pray a lot.

Someone said to me recently, I respect you more when you say "I don't know." Been turning that one over in my mind.

Me, the mom and the manager. Advice-giver on the side.

After my husband's surgery, after the recovery room, after six hours of holding back crying, after actually crying, and fifty thousand calls, texts and emails to and from the family, we went back to the room. My aunt called. I was on the computer. It was late at night.

"How are you?" she said.

"You want to talk to him?" 

"No. How are you."

"I'm on the computer. I'm freaking out."

There it was. I didn't know it all or have it together.

It felt really good to admit it. For the first time. To begin to just always be real. To stop the whole nonsense of "think brand first," which made no sense in the first place and even if it has a place, has gone way too far.

* All opinions my own. Photo out the hospital window by me. 

Toxic Culture As A Form Of Autoimmune Disease

Onion cells - via Wikipedia

In autoimmune disease the body fights off its own healthy cells. The same is true of a toxic organizational culture. During a flareup, healthy activities of any kind - such as offering thoughtful feedback - may be treated as a threat by the system. 

In autoimmune disease there are many healthy periods and the illness is not centered in one particular organ. You don't know when the next flare up will come, or what body part will be affected. 

The same is true of the toxic culture. There are many happy and healthy times, and many parts and people that work extremely well under the circumstances. Many may even believe that "nothing is wrong" -- that is, until the next seemingly inexplicable "attack." 

With autoimmune, attacks are often brought on by stress. The same is true of a toxic culture. Things are fine until something goes wrong, and the dis-ease beneath the surface comes rumbling forward. The response is therefore out of proportion and people are jarred out of their sense of security.

In autoimmune, problems look generic until you find out there is way more under the surface. You think "a headache is just a headache" and superficially blame an ordinary known trigger. 

Similarly in a toxic culture, you may draw simple associations between employee complaints and their cause. 

Lack of recognition, confusing processes, bad bosses are all ordinary triggers for employee dissatisfaction and common complaints. But when the problem is systemic, all of these triggers are not the real point and addressing them individually won't solve the problem. 

Worse yet, if you don't know the problem is systemic you may attack triggers that are actually healthy. For example a boss who implements corrective measures will necessarily trigger huge complaints and the unhealthy parts of the system will try to eject them. Yet those complaints are a sign that something positive is happening. Understood correctly, the negative feedback is actually a plus.

It follows that just like with autoimmune, in a toxic culture the numbers don't tell the story alone; what you see is not what you get, and the seeming problem is really a manifestation of something else. You need anecdotal feedback to get a sense of context around activity.

Finally with autoimmune, the condition never really resolved, and you need a team of specialists to maximize quality of life and length of lifespan. Similarly in a toxic culture, you have to accept that longstanding problems and pain points will never really heal. 

The goal in addressing a toxic culture is not perfection. It is to make explicit among the workforce at all levels that things have gone wrong at the systemic level and so we shouldn't be fooled when symptoms flare up.

Ideally the message is, we have to work together to reduce our collective stress and live well and healthily in a working, productive community. This will sometimes mean change actions that feel bad. Ultimately though the closer we get to objective measures of cultural health, the more easily flareups should resolve.

And we can stop living by quantitative measures of satisfaction alone, turning instead to focus groups, interviews, ethnographies, and other sources of qualitative data.

* All opinions my own.