Data: we need a better metaphor
How employers rule our lives
In 2011, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, published an exposé about the working conditions at a local Amazon warehouse. That summer, temperatures inside the warehouse had risen above a hundred degrees; managers, citing concerns about theft, had refused to open the doors for ventilation, instead stationing ambulances outside so that employees could be hospitalized if they collapsed. Job applicants, desperate for work, lined up to replace the fallen.
Stories like this are surprisingly common, Elizabeth Anderson writes, in “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It)”; in fact, they characterize life for millions of Americans. Anderson reports that audits by the Department of Labor have found “sweatshop-like conditions” in ninety-three per cent of the garment factories in Southern California. In many poultry plants, employees are denied bathroom breaks and must wear adult diapers. Forty-one per cent of workers have unpredictable schedules, with employers summoning and dismissing them at will; ninety per cent of restaurant workers say that they have been sexually harassed; millions of employees are subject to drug screening without cause. According to some studies of wage theft, as much as fifty billion dollars is stolen from workers every year by employers who simply refuse to pay.
After the Morning Call article, Amazon spent fifty-two million dollars to install air-conditioning in its warehouses, but, strictly speaking, nothing about that overheated warehouse (or those hyper-efficient poultry plants) is illegal. In general, workers are seen as consenting adults who have entered into mutually satisfying agreements with their employers. Because employees can quit at any time, bosses are free to treat them more or less however they want.
In “Private Government,” Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.”
A usual response to this is that employees are free to walk away from a job, a boss, or a company they don’t like. Well, they certainly can… but not without putting their livelihood in jeopardy. More so if, as is increasingly the case, one has signed a non-compete agreement.
for many workers, there is nowhere to emigrate to. Especially at the lower end of the income scale, bad working conditions are so pervasive that switching jobs just means trading one bad boss for another.
The private-public distinction is thus:
whether you’re a C.E.O., a mayor, or the head of a campus commune, there are two ways of being in charge. If you exercise “public government,” you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield “private government,” the rules are not up for debate.
In public government, decision-making is everybody’s business—the government “belongs” to everyone, like a public park. In private government, it belongs to the governor, as his or her private possession. When parents say that their rules exist “because I say so,” they are exercising private government over their children. By contrast, our democracy is a public government, in which citizens have a say over the content of their laws.
Giving “a voice,” through a system of workers’ councils, to allow them to elect representatives who participate in executive decision-making has been tried, in Germany and elsewhere, and it has sometimes made workplaces better. However, in the Anglo-American world corporations are run privately.The reviewer concludes:
One reason we don’t talk about it is that we don’t want to acknowledge how much the rhetoric of American freedom outruns the constraints of private government. Corporate power was always going to win out over libertarian fantasy. This defeat is hard to admit.
You do the math
Efficiency is overrated
We’re all great drivers
I have lived and worked in many countries and in some of these countries I have lived and worked in many cities. I travel for work, domestically and internationally, and I often rent cars to get to my destination. In other words, I have driven thousands of miles, in hundreds of cities, in tens of countries, and here’s a universal fact: everyone rates themselves as great drivers. It’s not a normal (bell curve) distribution around the “good” mean. Most people think they’re great drivers.
And here’s what I suspect is another universal fact: upon reading the above statistic you thought “well, some people are just not realistic about their driving abilities. I wish they acknowledged it. The roads would be safer”.
What does this have to do with management?
It turns out that several surveys report that 70% of managers rate themselves as “inspiring and motivating”¹. Seventy percent – that is not a normal distribution either. And I know what you’re thinking: “well, some people are just not realistic about their management abilities. I wish they acknowledged that. The workplace would be better.”
And while you ponder on how you fare with respect to other managers, here’s the reality: 65% of employees would forego a pay raise if it they could fire their managers² and 82% find their managers to be uninspiring.
There are 120,000 excess deaths per year attributed to ten workplace conditions³ and they cause approximately $190 billion in incremental health care costs. That makes the workplace the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. — higher than Alzheimer’s, higher than kidney disease.⁴
I’m going to list them here. As you read through the list, please identify the ones that are directly within a manager’s purview:
- Being unemployed sometimes as a result of a layoff.
- Not having health insurance.
- Working shifts and also working longer periods, e.g., ten or twelve-hours shifts.
- Working long hours in a week (e.g., more than 40 hours per week).
- Job insecurity (resulting from colleagues being laid off or fired).
- Facing family-to-work and work-to-family spillover or conflict.
- Having relatively low control over one’s job e.g., workload.
- Facing high work demands such as pressure to increase productivity and to work quickly.
- Being in a work environment that offers low levels of social support (e.g., not having close relationships with co-workers.)
- Working in a setting in which job- and employment-related decisions seem unfair.
In my leadership programs as well as in my coaching conversations with managers we often go over these items, identify the ones that are directly under one’s control as a manager and distinguish them from those that are more broadly defined by the organization’s policies and cultural norms.
There are two that most often stand out:
6. Facing family-to-work and work-to-family spillover or conflict.
7. Having relatively low control over one’s job e.g., workload.
#7 speaks to intrinsic motivation. As per data from McKinsey & Company, when employees are intrinsically motivated, they are 32% more committed and 46% more satisfied with their job and perform 16% better.
This makes sense: it is easier to derive satisfaction from the work itself⁵, to feel good or fulfilled about a job well done, when we have autonomy over the work we do. In other words, it’s hard to experience the work as “my” work when there is little to none of “me” in it.
This begs the question: Am I the type of manager who tells people what to do (and how to do it) or am I the type of manager who provides clarity on the expected outcome and allow for people to attain that outcome on the manner they see fit. And just as in the case of the quality of one’s driving, we should focus not on what we think but on what our direct reports experience.
We come to #6: Facing family-to-work and work-to-family spillover or conflict. For now, I want to focus on the latter. The short version is this: the way you treat your direct reports has an impact not only on them but on their families and the communities to which they belong. A person frustrated at work necessarily carries that frustration with them in their communities – it spills over. The longer version of this point is that what is even more detrimental than the frustration we experience at work is the effort we put in trying to “compartmentalize” and not have it spill over. Unfortunately, it always does. If not to others around you, at the very least to your own health.
Managers have the ability to impact the lives of their direct reports in significant far-reaching ways. The way they treat people day-to-day over a period of time has an impact on their psyche, on their body, on their families, and on their communities.
In other words: your manager is more important to your health than your primary care doctor.
When we look back at our experiences at work we can all acknowledge that our managers have played a significant role in making our lives somewhere on a continuum:
miserable – tolerable – acceptable – enjoyable – inspirational
And once we acknowledge this for ourselves as someone’s direct report then we as managers can at least be deliberate about what we want our direct reports to experience. And I’m not suggesting that “inspirational” is what all managers should be aiming for, if only for the simple fact that not all direct reports want to be inspired. A lot of folks are fine with “acceptable” and “enjoyable” (“tolerable” entails some form of discomfort and I’m assuming that no one wants to be “miserable”). And if you’re deliberate about what you want your direct reports to experience you can then identify
- Ways in which you will carry that out as well as
- Some means by which to identify whether your direct reports are there: your own means (ones that befit the people on your team and the context in which they work) rather than the general and generic corporate engagement survey.⁶
I acknowledge, as I did earlier, that the workplace experience is affected by company policies and culture. It is also nonetheless affected by how managers treat their direct reports.
I’m not talking about the one-time, the extraordinary, the heroic, the bandied-about in the company’s newsletter.⁷ I’m talking about the every day, the day in and day out, over the course of weeks, months and years. It’s not what you think you’re doing or the impact you think you’re having, it’s about what your direct reports experience.
In this regard I believe that people have a misguided sense of legacy when they think it’s about the accomplishments that people are going to remember about them. In reality, what we carry with us after a manager leaves, what stays with us after they are gone, is how they treated us, and how they made us feel.⁸
So, how’s your driving?
- “Why frontline workers are disengaged”, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2, 2016.
- Casserly, Meghan, “Majority Of Americans Would Rather Fire their Boss Than Get A Raise”, Forbes, October 17, 2012.
- Cavaiola, Alan A., “Is Your Job Killing You? Literally Killing You?”, Psychology Today.
- McGregor, Jena, ”This professor says the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.”, The Washington Post, March 22, 2018. This reference and the previous one are both drawn from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, Harper Collins, 2018.
- As distinct from the outcome of the work: recognition, acknowledgement, salary, etc.
- I want the book to be a “could” book rather than a “should” book. The purpose is to make the reader think and come to their own conclusions. There are enough management books that tell you what you should do and the challenge with these prescriptions is that they might have been effective for the person writing the book but management is contextual, so the prescription might only work if you find yourself in the very same circumstances as the author of the book. On the other hand, you could think about things you have not thought about before, think in a different way about things you have already thought about, and/or be invited to re-think things you have thought about a while back when your circumstances were different and maybe you also were different.
- Nor am I talking about, as I shared in an earlier post, what we do and the example we think we give, but also (and perhaps more importantly) who we are to them.
- As per the Maya Angelou poem.
What contributes to a person’s capacity to do their job most effectively
In a recent survey of 14,500 U.S. workers, employees report working to their full potential when:
- They are clear about what they are expected to do.
- They are willing to ask questions and feel safe doing so.
- They are not overwhelmed with rules about how the work has to be done or with unproductive meetings.
- Their organization supports creative problem solving (e.g., implementing employee suggestions for improvements) and provides rewards and recognition for jobs well done.
- Supervisors notice and acknowledge employee feelings, understand how their decisions will impact employees, and help them manage their emotions.
- They see purpose and meaning in their work and are committed to their organization. (HBR)
Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe
Some transitions are invisible
We too often overlook subtracting
By far the most substantial piece of content I read recently is from Jay Rosen. He is a press critic who writes about the media and politics. He is a professor at the School of Journalism at New York University.
Here is how it starts:
"When in doubt, draw a distinction."
Not sure where he got it, but in grad school one of my teachers told me that. Some of the best advice I ever received.
This THREAD is about some of the key distinctions I draw on to do my work. If you're into that kind of thing.😎
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 22, 2021
And here are some of the distinctions he draws in this Twitter thread:
- Public vs. audience
- Journalism vs. the media
- Truth-seeking vs. refuge-seeking
- Political vs. politicized
- Issues vs. troubles
- Ritual vs. transmission
- Expect vs. predict
- Subscription vs. membership
He says that
For distinctions to work, the terms have to be sufficiently close that prying them apart clears space for thought. If I write, “bending is not the same as breaking,” well, who said it was? That one is going nowhere. But “naked is not the same as nude” is an idea with legs.
It’s not just semantics. Well, it is, but it’s more than that. It’s a show of clarity of ideas in your field of endeavor. In his case, it’s media and politics.
And it occurs in all fields.
Just last week, I bumped into a few more instances:
- My friend and colleague Ed Carvalho invited us to draw a distinction between intelligence and intellect;
- And then this one in the Harvard Business Review between habit and routine:
When we fail at forming new patterns of behavior, we often blame ourselves, rather than the bad advice we read from someone who doesn’t really understand what can and cannot be a habit.
A habit is a behavior done with little or no thought, while a routine involves a series of behaviors frequently —and intentionally— repeated. A behavior has to be a regularly performed routine before it can become a habit at all.
The problem is that many of us try to skip the “routine” phase.
There are other distinctions that Rosen does not discuss in his thread, including
- Lying vs. bullshitting
- Experience vs. expertise
- Exit, voice, and loyalty
- Information overload vs. filter failure
Anyone who took part in one of my leadership development programs will have heard me discuss exit, voice, “loyalty”/conformity, and sabotage as a way to distinguish how different people react differently to finding themselves in conflict situations.
The take-aways from this piece?
- When in doubt, draw a distinction;
- Doing so is a way to manifest that you are a thinker – that you don’t take things at face value but you do reflect on them and come out with your own thoughts;
- Drawing distinctions is also a manifestation of where you put your attention, that is, what your field of endeavor really is.
And since a lot of readers of this newsletter are managers then it begs the question: are your distinctions mostly about the domain of expertise that preceded your becoming a manager or are they about management itself?
The content of this post is an edited version of an entry in my free, monthly newsletter in which I share my own writing as well as links to articles and research on management, leadership, and strategy. It’s easy to subscribe… and unsubscribe.
You don’t. You never do.
Leading by example is based on a faulty assumption: that people will see only the behavior you want them to see and follow only the behavior you want them to follow.
News flash: the people who work with you see everything.
They see not only what you want them to see but they also see what you don’t want them to see.
They see not only what you do but they also see what you don’t do and what you choose not to do.
They see what you choose to do or not to do and to whom.
They see what you choose to do or not to do and for whom.
As a matter of fact, the more time they spend with you, the more clearly you reveal yourself to them. The longer they observe you, the less what you say matters. What matters more are your actions – and specifically how consistent they are over time.
They see when and how often you tell them what to do.
They see when and how often you ask for their opinion.
They see when and how often you admit not knowing something.
They see when and how often you admit you made a mistake.
They see when and how often you apologize… and when and how often you apologize in public when you offended in public.
They see when, how often, and how well you listen.
They see when and how often you praise in public. And how specific your praise is: not the anemic “good job!” but rather a vigorous acknowledgment of what exactly a team member does well and how that contributes to the good of the team.
In addition to being based on a faulty assumption, “leading by example” might also be caused by attribution bias (you believe that your behavior has caused theirs, that your “leading” has caused their “following”) or by buying into the narrative of the “heroic manager” (what I call the “Gandhi complex”). But that will have to wait for another post.
In memory of my mother’s passing, I’m paraphrasing a passage from a book by Parker Palmer. It expresses exactly what I experienced. I share this as a way to reach out to other people who are dealing with loss and grief.
A few years ago, my mother died. She was more than a good person, and the months and years following her death were a long, hard winter for me. But in the midst of that ice and loss, I came into a certain clarity that I lacked when she was alive. I saw something that had been concealed when the abundance of her love surrounded me. I saw how I had relied on her to help me cushion life’s harsher blows.
When she could no longer do that, my first thought was, “Now I must do it for myself.” But as time went on, I saw a deeper truth: it never was my mother absorbing those blows but a larger and deeper grace that she taught me to rely on.
When my mother was alive, I confused the teaching with the teacher.
My teacher is gone now, but the grace is still there. And my clarity about that fact has allowed her teaching to take deeper root in me. Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being.
I’m a jazz fan, always have been. And I’m a Monk fan.
Monk created this list when a musician joined his band for a multiple-week gig.
I encourage the managers I work with to have a readme document for themselves and to have a structured, personal way of welcoming new members to their team. It also goes a long way for that welcoming to include peers.
In any case, here’s Monk’s list. What does yours look like?
- Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
- Pat your foot & sing the melody in your head, when you play.
- Stop playing all that bullshit, those weird notes, play the melody!
- Make the drummer sound good.
- Discrimination is important.
- You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?
- All reet!
- Always know… (monk [backwards])
- It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.
- Let’s lift the band stand!!
- I want to avoid the hecklers.
- Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!
- The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.
- Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined.
- What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.
- Always leave them wanting more.
- A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.
- Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, & when it comes, he’s out of shape & can’t make it.
- When you’re swinging, swing some more!
- (What should we wear tonight?) Sharp as possible!
- Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene.
- These pieces were written so as to have something to play, & to get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.
- You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (to a drummer who didn’t want to solo).
- Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along & do it. A genius is the one most like himself.
- They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along & spoil it.
Source: Open culture
To make the cut technologies had to have the potential to spur progress in societies and economies by outperforming established ways of doing things. They also needed to be novel (that is, not currently in wide use) yet likely to have a major impact within the next three to five years.