Quotation-as-title by Seneca. Image from top-linked post.
Tag: culture (page 1 of 2)
Some people in the world want to fit in. Others want to change it. Still others want to fit in by changing it. Robin Hanson has a theory about how paternalism appears in a culture, linking it to a pattern of behaviours that bestows a form of prestige on those creating and enforcing rules.
The key idea is that there are many “rulesy” people in the world who specialize in learning of and even creating rules, so that they can then find and reveal violations of these rules around them. This allows them to beat on their rivals, and also to raise their own status. It obviously raises their dominance via the power they wield, but they prefer to be instead seen as prestigious, enforcing rules whose purpose is more clearly altruistic. And what could be more altruistic than keeping people from hurting themselves?
So many people who are especially good at noticing and applying rules, good at finding potential violations, good at framing situations as rule violations, and willing to at least gossip about violators, are eager for a supply of apparently-paternalism-motived rules they can enforce. So they take suggestions by elites regarding what is good behavior and work to turn them into rules they can enforce. They push to turn norms into laws, and to make norms out of the weak behavior patterns of elites, or common sorts of praise and criticism.Robin Hanson, Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism (Overcoming Bias)
I like Hanson’s explanation of how this can work in practice:
For example, maybe at first some elites sometimes wear hats. Then they and others start to praise hat-wearers. Then more folks start to wear hats, and get proud of how they are good hat people. Good candidates for promotion to elite they are. Then hat fans start to insinuate that people who don’t wear hats are not the best sort of people in various ways, and are only hurting themselves. They say that word needs to get out about the advantages of hats. And those irresponsible people arguing against hats really need to be dealt with – everyone should be told that their arguments don’t meet the highest possible standards of scientific rigor. (Though neither do pro-hat arguments.)
It becomes a matter of pride to teach your children to wear hats. And to have hats taught in school. And to include the lack of hats in lists of problems that problem people have. Hat fans start to push the orgs of which they are part to promote hats, sometimes even requiring hats at org functions. Finally it is suggested that wouldn’t it be simpler and more efficient to just have the government require hats. Then foreigners who visit us won’t think we are such backward non-hat people. And its really for their own good, as we all know.
At every step along this path, people can gain by pushing for stricter and stronger hat norms and rules. They are good people, pushing a good thing, which just happens to let them dump harder on rivals. Which is plausibly why we tend to end up with just too many overly restrictive rules. Rules rise with the ratchet of crises that can be blamed on problems said to be fixed by adding new rules. But between the crises, we rarely take away or weaken our rules.Robin Hanson, Rulesy Folks Push Paternalism (Overcoming Bias)
You might not work remotely right now, but the chances are that at some point in your career, and in some capacity, you will do. Remote work has its own challenges and benefits, which are alluded to in three articles in Fast Company that I want to highlight. The first is an article summarising a survey Google performed amongst 5,600 of its remote workers.
On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says [Veronica] Gilrane [manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab]. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.
That doesn’t surprise me at all. Even though probably spend less AFK (Away From Keyboard) as a remote worker than I would in an office, there’s not that performative element, where you have to look like you’re working. Sometimes work doesn’t look like work; it looks like going for a run to think about a problem, or bouncing an idea off a neighbour as you walk back to your office with a cup of tea.
The main thing, as this article points out, is that it’s really important to have an approach that focuses on results rather than time spent doing the work. You do have to have some process, though:
[I]t’s imperative that you stress disciplinary excellence; workers at home don’t have a manager peering over their shoulder, so they have to act as their own boss and maintain a strict schedule to get things done. Don’t try to dictate every aspect of their lives–remote work is effective because it offers workers flexibility, after all. Nonetheless, be sure that you’re requesting regular status updates, and that you have a system in place to measure productivity.
Fully-remote working is different to ‘working from home’ a day or two per week. It does take discipline, if only to stop raiding the biscuit tin. But it’s also a different mindset, including intentionally sharing your work much more than you’d do in a co-located setting.
Fundamentally, as Greg Galant, CEO of a full-remote organisation, comments, it’s about trust:
“My friends always say to me, ‘How do you know if anyone is really working?’ and I always ask them, ‘How do you know if anybody is really working if they are at the office?’” says Galant. “Because the reality is, you can see somebody at their desk and they can stay late, but that doesn’t mean they’re really working.”
If managers are adhering to traditional management practices, they’re going to feel anxiety with remote teams. They’re going to want to check in constantly to make sure people are working. But checking in constantly prevents work from getting done.
Remote work is strange and difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. You can, for example, in the same day feel isolated and lonely, while simultaneously getting annoyed with all of the ‘pings’ and internal communication coming at you.
At the end of the day, companies need to set expectations, and remote workers need to set boundaries. It’s the only way to avoid burnout, and to ensure that what can be a wonderful experience doesn’t turn into a nightmare.
Also check out:
- 5 Great Resources for Remote Workers (Product Hunt) — “If you’re a remote worker or spend part of your day working from outside of the office, the following tools will help you find jobs, discover the best cities for remote workers, and learn from people who have built successful freelance careers or location-independent companies.”
- Stop Managing Your Remote Workers As If They Work Onsite (ThinkGrowth) — “Managers need to back away from their conventional views of what “working hard” looks like and instead set specific targets, explain what success looks like, and trust the team to get it done where, when, and however works best for them.”
- 11 Tools That Allow us to Work from Anywhere on Earth as a Distributed Company (Ghost) —”In an office, the collaboration tools you use are akin to a simple device like a screwdriver. They assist with difficult tasks and lessen the amount of effort required to complete them. In a distributed team, the tools you use are more like life-support. Everything to do with distributed team tools is about clawing back some of that contextual awareness which you’ve lost by not being in the same space.”
The title of this post is a quotation from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can attest to its truth.
That’s why, when someone shared this post by Grace Krause, which is basically a poem about work culture, I paid attention. Entitled Appropriate Channels, here’s a flavour:
We would like to remind you all
That we care deeply
About our staff and our students
And in no way do we wish to silence criticism
But please make use of the
The Appropriate Channel is tears cried at home
And not in the workplace
Please refrain from crying at your desk
As it might lower the productivity of your colleagues
Organisational culture is difficult because of the patriarchy. I selected this part of the poem, as I’ve come to realise just how problematic it is to let people know (through words, actions, or policies) that it’s not OK to cry at work. If we’re to bring our full selves to work, then emotion is part of it.
Any organisation has a culture, and that culture can be changed, for better or for worse. Restaurants are notoriously toxic places to work, which is why this article in Quartz, is interesting:
Since four-time James Beard award winner Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune’s doors in 1999, she, along with her co-chef Ashley Merriman, have established a set of principles that help guide employees at the restaurant. According to Hamilton and Merriman, the code has a kind of transformative power. It’s helped the kitchen avoid becoming a hierarchical, top-down fiefdom—a concentration of power that innumerable chefs have abused in the past. It can turn obnoxious, entitled patrons into polite diners who are delighted to have a seat at the table. And it’s created the kind of environment where Hamilton and Merriman, along with their staff, want to spend much of their day.
The five core values of their restaurant, which I think you could apply to any organisation, are:
- Be thorough and excellent in everything that you do
- Be smart and funny
- Be disarmingly honest
- Work without division of any kind
- Practise servant leadership
We live in the ‘age of burnout’, according to another article in Quartz, but there’s no reason why we can’t love the work we do. It’s all about finding the meaning behind the stuff we get done on a daily basis:
Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.
It’s important to remember this, that we choose to do the work we do, that we don’t have to work for a single employer, and that we can tell a different story about ourselves at any point we choose. It might not be easy, but it’s certainly doable.
Also check out:
- People Who Claim to Work 75-Hour Weeks Usually Only Work About 50 Hours (New York Magazine) — “People overestimate how often they do all sorts of things they “ought” to be doing, often by even larger margins than with work for pay.”
- Employee privacy in the US is at stake as corporate surveillance technology monitors workers’ every move (CNBC) — “In the workplace, almost any consumer privacy law can be waived. Even if companies give employees a choice about whether or not they want to participate, it’s not hard to force employees to agree.”
- Workers Should Be in Charge (Jacobin) — “Every day, private equity companies snatch up firms and strip them dry. But there’s an alternative: allow workers to buy their workplace and run it themselves.”
This article on Recode, which accompanies one of their podcast episodes, features some thoughts from Adam Grant, psychologist and management expert. A couple of things he says chime with my experience of going into a lot of organisations as a consultant, too:
“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.”
Exactly. There’s only so many ways you can slice and dice hierarchy, so people do exercises around corporate values and mission statements.
“I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’” he added. “Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”
If organisations really want to be innovative, they should empower their employees in ways beyond mere words. Perhaps by allowing them to be co-owners of the business, or by devolving power (and budget) to smaller, cross-functional teams?
Another thing that Grant complains about is the idea of ‘cultural fit’. I can see why organisations do this as, after all, you do have to get on and work with the people you’re hiring. However, as he explains, it’s a self-defeating approach:
Startups with a disruptive idea can use “culture fit” to hire a lot of people who all feel passionately about the mission of these potentially world-changing companies, Grant said. But then those people hire even more people who are like them.
“You end up attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, ‘Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?’” he said. “So you end up with this nice, homogeneous group of people who fall into groupthink and then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside, and they have trouble innovating and changing.”
I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but the short article is solid stuff.
Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:
As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What’s clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.
I think it’s great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.
Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.
Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:
- Connect to a mission and purpose
- Reconsider your view of failure
- Cultivate a sense of ownership
However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a ‘sense’ of it.
Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.
As this article points out, organisational culture is a delicate balance between many things, including accountability and anonymity:
Though some assurance of anonymity is necessary in a few sensitive and exceptional scenarios, dependence on anonymous feedback channels within an organization may stunt the normalization of a culture that encourages diversity and community.
Anonymity can be helpful and positive:
For example, an anonymous suggestion program to garner ideas from members or employees in an organization may strengthen inclusivity and enhance the diversity of suggestions the organization receives. It would also make for a more meritocratic decision-making process, as anonymity would ensure that the quality of the articulated idea, rather than the rank and reputation of the articulator, is what’s under evaluation. Allowing members to anonymously vote for anonymously-submitted ideas would help curb the influence of office politics in decisions affecting the organization’s growth.
…but also problematic:
Reliance on anonymous speech for serious organizational decision-making may also contribute to complacency in an organizational culture that falls short of openness. Outlets for anonymous speech may be as similar to open as crowdsourcing is—or rather, is not. Like efforts to crowdsource creative ideas, anonymous suggestion programs may create an organizational environment in which diverse perspectives are only valued when an organization’s leaders find it convenient to take advantage of members’ ideas.
The author gives some advice to leaders under five sub-headings:
- Availability of additional communication mechanisms
- Failure of other communication avenues
- Consequences of anonymity
- Designing the anonymous communication channel
- Long-term considerations
There’s some great advice in here, and I’ll certainly be reflecting on it with the organisations of which I’m part.
I read a lot of stuff, and I remember random bits of it. I used to be reasonably disciplined about bookmarking stuff, but then realised I hardly ever went back through my bookmarks. So, instead, I try to use what I read, which is kind of the reason for Thought Shrapnel…
Surely some people can read a book or watch a movie once and retain the plot perfectly. But for many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.
Well, indeed. Nice metaphor.
In the internet age, recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind—has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, [Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne] says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.
Exactly. You need to know how to find that article you read that backs up the argument you’re making. You don’t need to remember all of the details. Search skills are really important.
One study showed that recalling details about episodes for those bingeing on Netflix series was much lower than for thoose who spaced them out. I guess that’s unsurprising.
People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t “read” all of them. It’s hard to imagine that’s decreased in the nine years since. In “Binge-Reading Disorder,” an article for The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. “Reading is a nuanced word,” she writes, “but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it ‘sticks.’”
For anyone who knows about spaced learning, the conclusions are pretty obvious:
The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.
So apply what you learn and you’re putting it to work. Hence this post!