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Software Is Not a Substitute for Brains

Yesterday at the holiday lunch, a colleague told us about his background.

"I used to jump out of planes," he shared.

"That's pretty impressive," someone said. "You were a paratrooper?"

He laughed. "In the Marines, we just called it jumping out of planes."

In a nutshell, that's how I feel about the term "employee engagement." Because a paradoxical thing has happened by virtue of using this term.

While paratroopers will always jump out of planes, the term employee engagement itself has become a kind of substitute for action.

In other words, we talk about it and talk about it, and we throw a lot of money at it, but very few companies actually do it in a way that is successful. As of January 2016, according an article in Gallup Business Journal called "The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis," just 32% of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs, and on a global level this percentage is a miniscule 13%.

Obviously this is not a good situation.

But I disagree with Gallup's recommended approach to addressing it, which is essentially to fold employee engagement into the overall goals of the company, and then to measure it. Not because they're "wrong," but rather because such cold and dry tips miss the point.

"Employee engagement" is a human term, it's an emotional metric, and only a qualified communications professional who understands the unique culture of the organization is situated to boost it successfully.

Engaging people is an art and a science. It is not reducible to logic or reason: Believe it or not, salary is only weakly correlated with motivation. And it's not enough to know your company does meaningful work, nor how you fit into the big picture.

Some may think that tribalism is the key determinant of employee engagement. But one could also argue that feeling too much a part of the company can actually be suffocating. Google, for example, is widely considered a top employer precisely because its employees are a prized, cushioned, walled-off elite. Yet as one former Google employee said, the insularity can get to bee too much: "You start making the same choices day in and day out. You hang out more and more with the same people you work with."

Some organizations try to address the issue of employee engagement by allowing staff to create their own social environment, through the use of internal networking software. But according to at least one study, by Altimeter, quoted in Harvard Business Review ("Why Nobody Uses The Corporate Social Network," April 2015), less than half of employees actually use them. Again, this is not because the software itself is flawed, but because its implementation must be guided by a skilled professional--a human being--who is able to draw employees out and create safe spaces for online interaction.

The bottom line is, employee engagement is really a marketing function. And study after study has shown that internal communications professionals have a demonstrable impact on employee engagement; here is just one example.

While it may be tempting to reduce the work environment to controllable, cheap, automated technologies, the fact of the matter is that emotions are messy. People need people to understand what they are going through, address their concerns and higher-level needs, and communicate back with them in an empathetic and inspiring manner.

Companies with high levels of employee engagement are situated for all manner of risk reduction as well as greater revenue both immediately and down the road. Conversely, those with staff who are just "marking time" are actually losing money on every employee, every hour, every workday.

You market your product to outside customers. It makes sense to invest in building a loyal customer base internally as well.

All opinions my own.

The Radical Left's Silent Coup - Trying To Illegally Turn Electors Into Iran-Style "Guardian Council"

This will be brief, but it is important.
  • President-elect Donald J. Trump has filed a motion to stop California elector Vinzenz J. Koller from backing out of his commitment to serve. The case is called Koller vs. Brown. The presiding judge is Edward J. Davila, and the case number is 5:16-cv-07069.
  • The issue at hand is the illegal attempt to overthrow our elected next President by subverting the Constitution. Electors are supposed to execute the will of the people, not act as a deliberative body and in essence hold a second election.
  • Their legal strategy is straight out of Iranian law and that is why Donald Trump's lawyers have cited Iran's constitution to explain what they are trying to do. See screenshot.
  • The Democrats know their tactics are unconstitutional but are trying to convince the American people otherwise. The point is to stall for time so that when the Electors meet on December 19, a consensus will not be met and the matter will go to Congress. 
  • Why don't they want Trump in office? Because unlike the Establishment, he is independent and cannot be controlled. They want a third-party candidate chosen who will be controllable.
  • This effort is not a joke. Harvard University law professor Larry Lessig yesterday stated that he already had 20 electors "flipped." Only 17 more are needed.
I realize that this sounds like fake news and therefore encourage you to read more about this crisis. See direct links below.
  • Trump Warns US Federal Court That Clinton Is Using Islamic Law To Overturn Election
  • Court document, posted by Politico.

All opinions my own.

Maximize Your Most Valuable Asset

Whack-a-mole is a game where you stand over a machine with a bunch of holes on the bottom. Faces pop up really quickly, and you smash them down as fast as you can.

It's fun.
As adults we experience whack-a-mole all the time, except that the reality of it is not so fun.

Overwhelmed by problems, some expected and most of them not, we bring that mallet down on the board. Faster, faster, we tell ourselves, hoping the timer won't run out until we're ready.

What can we do to make our lives easier and more manageable? How can we reduce the onslaught of tasks, requirements, challenges, puzzles, deadlines and demands that seem to have no end?

The answer might lie in the way we think about "problem" and "solution."

Chris Argyris was a pioneer of "double-loop" learning for organizations, which he developed as a way of helping them transform from dysfunctional and "stuck" to agile and adaptive--in essence, to help them learn.

The task as he saw it was to overcome "single-loop learning," meaning the tendency to focus on a presenting problem and tackle it with an incremental and obvious solution.

The sophisticated organization practices "double-loop learning," meaning they challenge their assumptions about what the problem is before devising a strategy in response.

Double-loop learning is uncomfortable and even risky -- there's no doubt about it.
  • It makes you slow down, when all you want to do is hurry up and allay the anxiety of knowing that something is wrong.
  • It exposes the wound for all to see, when everybody wants to cover it up.
  • It makes the people involved feel pain, when everyone would vastly prefer a horse-sized tranquilizer dart.
  • It makes people look at the consequences of others' behavior, creating the possibility of organizational conflict.
  • It makes people accountable for their own actions, which exposes them to the potential loss of status, material benefits and even legal liability.
But if the organization -- and by extension, the individual -- can tolerate all of the above, the potential benefits they stand to gain are enormous.

If "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" -- then it follows that sanity means changing the way you do things when necessary.

By engaging in double-loop learning, over and over again, over time, you not only learn how to handle a current challenge better but you also learn how to prevent future problems from occurring.

This is essentially the practice of branding in a nutshell. Branding means reflection. It is a long-term, preventive approach to your professional life and your personal life. The emphasis is on thinking through what your assumptions are, and holding them up to evidence, before you make any decisions.

A simpler way of saying all of this is as follows: Your most valuable asset is the capacity to reflect.

Some people say that time is the most valuable commodity in the world, and whoever has lots of it is wealthy.

But most people have time on their hands. And too often, they waste it.

I would argue that the capacity to reflect is what makes your time valuable.

If you regularly think about what you're doing, and whether it makes sense, and what the likely future impact will be -- that is a great use of your time.

Every minute you spend reflecting is a way of challenging your own deeply held assumptions about the world.

The result will be a more effective method of handling things. In other words, less heads popping up from that whack-a-mole machine.

I'm reminded of a joke my father-in-law, may he rest in peace, used to tell so very well.

"Little boy, why are you banging your head against the wall like that, over and over again?"

"Because it feels so good when I stop."


All opinions my own. Main photo: Geralt/Pixabay (Public Domain). Whack-a-mole photo: Emil Ovemar via Flickr (Creative Commons). Single- vs. Double-Loop Learning Graphic: Ian Guest via Flickr (Creative Commons).

How To Identify #FakeNews

This morning an article ran across my feed that was pretty attention-getting, to say the least. It purported to "prove" that during the Presidential campaign, the Clinton camp had paid some high-profile Republicans off to trash Donald Trump.

Two variations of the headline are out there:

The content repeats on a variety of alternative news websites.

"Alternative": Because this adjective is such a hot-button for many people, and is frequently equated with "fake news," let's clarify a few things now:
  1. The word "alternative" means "independent of the mainstream media." It is not synonymous with fake news, which is generated by the mainstream media and the alternative media. 
  2. Fake news is generated both overtly and covertly, by making stuff up; omitting facts; presenting quotes out of context; or going out of one's way to create sympathy for a subject.
  3. Fake news is also generated by sources who supply the media ("echo chamber") with "information" that is then repeated over and over again as valid. Repetition of the information, with believable quotes, creates the impression that it is true.
  4. There are multiple motivations for creating fake news, including the desire to manipulate people into thinking a certain way and the desire to make a profit through "clickbait," meaning dramatic headlines that pique curiosity.
  5. Values-based reporting can be legitimate if those values are disclosed, but frequently journalists blur the line between "fact" and "opinion" such that it is almost unrecognizable and they do not disclose the implicit values that accompany their reporting. 
Back to this article, and the quest to find out if it was true. It sure sounded important:
  1. The storyline fit into the "Clinton corruption" narrative and the "Republican corruption" narrative, as well as the "they're in it together, drain the swamp" narrative.
  2. It included details that sounded like they could be true, mentioning the sender and receiver (John Podesta, Huma Abedin) and the purported document number (1078645).
  3. It had mysterious-sounding quotes that sounded like the type of thing a secretive political official would write: “He is on board, will retract the invitation to speak. Eyes only.”
  4. It had historical-sounding details that alluded to financial corruption: "FEC reports shows that two large donations from PACS and private sources ln early October went to John McCain right after he attacked Trump publicly criticized Trump (typo is in original article - DB).That happened shortly after a slew of emails concerning moving money to support one candidate and move support from another."
  5. It named names, specifying who precisely in the Republican camp had "sold out" and what they supposedly got for it.
But the fact that the accusations were so explosive made it all the more important to try and verify the information as much as possible.

Upon doing so, I learned that there is no evidence such an email exists.

Here are the steps I took to determine whether this headline and article content were accurate or not.
  • Googled the headline to see who else is reporting the same thing. Not too many, except for some alternative news sites and message boards citing the headline.
  • Looked for the supposed source of this information by seeking out links in the articles. One link took me only to, not the document itself, which was unusual. 
  • Since we are clearly not talking about classified government information (which federal employees are forbidden to search for on Wikileaks), I searched for the phrases quoted, in whole and in part. No results.
  • Searched for the timeframe noted (July 2016) within "Podesta emails" (since the article said the email came from John Podesta) and again, nothing.
  • Googled the quotes to see if they were reported independently anywhere else, with a link to the source. (In other cases where the information was real, there is a snapshot of the document itself, sometimes with the verifying code on top, and the specific text quoted is highlighted.)
Of course, these measures are not foolproof. And sometimes you just don't know if a story is true or not, but it is so important that you feel it must be shared. But taking the extra step to find out the facts helps to bolster your credibility as a sharer of information. 

More importantly, it helps you to be more sophisticated about the people and groups who are trying to own your mind.


All opinions my own.

What Donald Trump Is Doing Wrong

If you have worked in or near Washington, D.C. for any length of time you have at some point been exposed to the Hillary Clinton method of leadership.

And while we can talk about the bad stuff, I don't really want to do that right now.

The point is, there are things that she did well, and did extraordinarily well. She looked and sounded like a President. She projected strength and resolve. She embodied the idea that women are people first, not sexual objects. She talked about empowering women and children. And she could, in any situation, somehow figure out how to say the right thing.

In addition, she built a strong and resilient network of loyal, intelligent, thoughtful, innovative and above all knowledgeable people. 

The strengths that Hillary Clinton brought to the table were so strong, in fact, that I think it is fair to say not a single person here believed she would actually lose the election.

When you consider the amount of negative baggage associated with her, this is an unbelievable accomplishment. It is a testament to many things, but not least to the power of her personal brand and her understanding of what we think a President should look, act and sound like.

This is where I think President-elect Trump is running into some problems. What worked for him on the campaign trail--that scrappy, combative, individualistic, do-it-my-way braggadocio--is not going to work for him in Washington. 

It may work in the rest of the country, but he has to do well with the people here.

They say that when you take on a new job, you should first observe the culture for a period of time before taking any action. Trump unfortunately has taken lots of action without appearing to consult with the ordinary people who actually work here.

I understand that he believes D.C. is dysfunctional, politics-ridden, and poorly performing--that we need to "drain the swamp." I applaud that.

Yet no matter what kind of entity you are leading, whether it's a small work team or a nation, you can't make the people who work for you feel badly about themselves. You can't disregard their expertise, publicly and privately. It's arrogant, it's misguided, and it comes off as dictatorial to a nation that has gone through eight years of President Obama heavily wielding the executive pen.

It's great that our President-elect wants to turn this country around. It's great that he wants to see us winning. We need that.

But like a very good boss told me once, very accurately, as a leader you have to bring people along--not disrespect them. Not step on their heads as you promote how very brilliant you are.

If he wants to be a successful President, our President-elect should study Hillary Clinton.

All opinions my own. 

#CIACoup Is A Wake-Up Call

As a federal communicator--and as always I speak only for myself here, not my agency, or any government entity, or the government as a whole--it is deeply troubling to launch one's Twitter feed and see the hashtag #CIACoup.

The hashtag represents a belief that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency will somehow try to stop President-elect Trump from being inaugurated.

To be blunt about it, there is no evidence to suggest that this accusation has any basis in fact. Yes, the U.S. government is going to investigate whether Russia tried to influence our election, but President Obama has already said he accepts the results. And yes, as part of its budget, the government will pay to stop foreign disinformation campaigns and also to discredit and dismantle terrorist networks.

Guess what, we're also using technology to scan social media networks for threats, as well as to mine the "dark web" to catch pedophiles and other criminals.
The problem I have is that the government does not adequately explain these actions, and many others, in a way that people can understand. Moreover, the government does not regularly make the case for such actions, does not provide data that can be independently verified, and does not engage with deeply dissenting parties on the pop culture platforms where people congregate.

As a result, people impute their own meaning to whatever facts they can find. And as this hashtag shows, some have reached an incredibly dangerous conclusion from the perspective of not only trust in the government (which is already at a record low) but also public safety.

Now, we all know that politics is a dirty game and countless TV shows make drama of political corruption in DC: "Designated Survivor," "Scandal," "Shooter," "House of Cards," and so on. (Bureaucratic corruption, e.g. fraud, waste and abuse, is more difficult to portray and we tend to see less of it dramatized on TV and more of it reported in the newspaper.)

Whatever its form and wherever it happens, corruption is inherently deviation from the established rule of law. Even in the case of corrupt states, e.g. dictatorships, one normally finds that the citizens perceive their current legal framework as abnormal. Even if they do not have the power to affect change, people know the difference between a state accountable to the rule of law, and a state where there is no such thing.

Having spent many years working as a communicator for the government, I understand that the bureaucracy is loathe to stir up any more controversy than already exists. I understand that a policy of silence, or an attempt to refocus the public on other subjects, is also the norm. But these attitudes, which may have been useful half a century ago, are completely wrong today and even counterproductive.

In a world where communication is dominated by social media, official silence on matters of public concern is in effect an admission of guilt. That in turn creates the perception that the government cannot be trusted, and the result is a domino effect of rumor, gossip, misinformation that can have disastrous consequences.

Particularly in a time of political turbulence, in a time when we seem to be talking past each other more than talking with each other, government communication must be proactive. At this time, federal communicators should be out there providing real, clear, substantive and verifiable information; dispelling myths and rumors; and generally helping to allay fear and anxiety through the rational application of evidence.

I remember years ago after 9/11, when I joined U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the public wanted us to check every single cargo container incoming to the ports for weapons of mass destruction. We knew that people were terrified, and in response we issued official communication that explained why we couldn't do that, but what steps we were taking instead.

That kind of straightforward approach--we did not shy away from the facts or the complexity of the matter--was incredibly effective.

Why can we not respond to public concerns in a transparent, honest, evenhanded way--all the time, 24/7, across the board?

It seems to me that building trust with the public is the most vital function the government has. Without trust you have nothing.

Federal communicators are also private citizens. We live in the real world. And as a private citizen I know how vital it is that people be free to express their views, concerns, and yes, even suspicions of the government. In turn, the government should be responsive and open.

Even when the government cannot answer a question, as the communications guru Shel Holtz once said, it is absolutely acceptable to say "we cannot comment at this time" or "that information is privileged, we just cannot tell you."

But to totally ignore what people are saying, with the justification that "we don't want to dignify such comments with a response," or any other excuse, is in my professional view not helpful.

We could take a cue from, where it's easy to reach a customer service professional, and no question is too stupid or unworthy to receive a meaningful response, or to be escalated to level after level of management. Ultimately the customer always walks away either satisfied with the response, or unsatisfied but in possession of a clearly articulated reason why they cannot get the result they want.


All opinions my own. Photo by PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay.