I will be out of town and up at "the lake," vacationing. Back in the office and blogging about August 14.
--Enjoy, Dan Erwin
Seek simplicity, then distrust it.
--Alfred North Whitehead
As a result of the financial and ethical meltdown, both HR organizations and colleges are rethinking relevant corporate ethics and what to do about them. As all of us in business recognize, since the collapse of Enron, the fraud at Worldcom and the ethical meltdown of the finance industry, the media blasted away at the perpetrators and started searching for underlying causes. But the causes are not nearly as obvious as most think, and the solutions border on the impossible.
The search for causes led to answers of varied sort: regulatory failure, bad apples and business incentives. Of course what the media and the public wanted were corporate and governmental changes to keep employees from acting unethically. The passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002, for example, targeted changes to reduce corrupt behavior. But as all of us know, though the Sarbanes-Oxley functioned to reduce intentionally-corrupt behavior, it has become a gatekeeper for only certain kinds of ethical misbehavior.
In a thoughtful and intriguing survey in Social Justice Research, Harvard’s Max Bazerman and Mahzarin Banaji (see #1) update us on ethical research. What’s helpful is that the authors and colleagues put the ordinary unethical behavior front and center, and then argue for a different understanding and process for managing ethical misbehavior. I find it especially helpful because I’ve long been aware that the materials and classes on social ethics in my seminaries were an utter waste of time. And it took very few years after graduation from school to realize that now well-researched fact. Indeed, the research clearly finds that my typical background knowledge of ethics from both philosophy and theology plainly doesn’t work. There are far, far better insights and recommended practices from the field of social psychology.
What do we know about ordinary ethical failure?
Although the Sarbanes-Oxley is useful for intentional ethical failure, it bypasses the vast majority of unethical behaviors that occur without a person’s conscious awareness of engaging in them. Extensive research surfaces a number of reasons for ordinary ethical failure.
What resolutions are successful?
Historically, ethical behavior has been taught by an emphasis upon ethical theory, some discussion and application of ethical principles and the use of relevant cases. If you read the typical newspaper column written by your local ethics or philosophy teacher, you know what I mean. This approach assumes that by highlighting the moral implications of decision, business folk will be better able to “choose the moral path.” Research, however, points only to limited success using these methodologies.
In more fruitful research, Bazerman and Banaji argue that the problem with ethics training is that it focuses nearly solely on unethical practice. And if our unethical strategies are out of our awareness, that typical focus of the past centuries won’t work. Furthermore, in an aside, the authors point out that the most ethically challenged will give a deaf ear to such approaches.
Instead, the authors suggest that the best approach to ethical development is better aimed at understanding our psychological tendencies. To as significant degree this is the same approach that’s been applied to managerial decision making for the past 25 years, and the results have been fairly successful.
Fortunately, the process for becoming a skilled decision-maker (see #2) is no more complex than becoming a skilled athlete. It can be taught—and it can be learned. That means, for example, that if you understand that decision making is inevitably flawed and characterized by unconscious, feelings-oriented processes, that we’re inevitably overly confident, and that where we’re least capable we tend to be more certain, then we’d better be sure to go slowly in making important decisions. And most of all, that means we become systematic about our decisions and be sure to work at disconfirming them before we get very far down the path.
Flickr photo: Center for Study of Ethics at UVU
1. Bazerman, Max and Mahzarin Banaji, The Social Psychology of Ordinary Ethical Failures. Social Justice Research, V 17, No. 2, June 2004.
2. Russo, J Edward and Paul JH Schoemaker, Winning Decisions. (New York: Currency Doubleday),
It’s astonishing how little attention is paid to the discipline of conversation. Nor is there any recognition that conversation is a discipline. Yet, extensive research has shown that one of the most important changes in business is the burgeoning role of conversation. Fifteen years ago, “conversational leadership” was emphasized as a key component of success. Most recently, Michael Slind and Harvard’s Boris Groysberg have flipped that idea on its head, revealing that leadership is conversation.
Over the past five years many of my clients have dragged me into the depths of their conversational issues. They paint their situation in subdued language, quote their colleagues and clients, and then, often desperately, ask for help in developing the necessary language competencies. Their jobs depend upon conversational success, making development is priority one.
Although a number of books have been written about conversations over the past years, few zero in on the strategic communication issues faced by organizations. That’s especially true when it comes to intentional interaction, especially as related to research and development, problem solving and decision making, innovation, interdisciplinary teams and strategic sales.
Why then are conversational skills missing from the business radar?
The most obvious reason is that for the last century managers looked down their noses at conversation. Conversation, so the line goes, is “just talk” and of no value at work. Thus, it’s “stop talking and get to work, “and “walk the talk,” or even complaints that “that’s just rhetoric.” In the mid 20th century conversational competency was not that necessary. Pounding that widget, screwing in that bolt, and doing all the things of assembly line manufacturing did not require much in the way of conversation. Talk was viewed, often rightly, as emotional and intellectual stupidity--a waste of time in the assembly line world.
The consequences of that assembly line mentality were numerous: no focus upon intentionality, little development of work and professional vocabulary, no training in conversation, and not the slightest emphasis upon intelligent language consumption. Furthermore, it never registered that talk is work. In sum, conversation was ignored because the assembly line did not require it—and didn’t want it.
For another thing, the soft skills are far more difficult to learn and manage than the hard skills. In contrast to physics, chemistry, computer science, engineering, logistics, manufacturing or any other fundamentally hard skill, communication and the social sciences are far, far less predictable, and thus, often frustrating. And in contrast to the hard skills, revise, revamp redo and start all over again, are the norms for professional conversation. And that requires superb vocabulary, knowledge of conversational patterns, intentional planning, quick responses, a terrific amount of adaptability, and, often, a great deal of self-confidence. Some necessary conversations are downright scary. So you can see confidence wane as a person wonders whether a question should be asked, but is fearful to engage. Numerous folk say point blank that they “just can’t ask (or say) that.” As a result, their business suffers monstrously.
A third reason talk competencies are ignored is that many folk think effective communication is just “natural.” You’ve got it—or you don’t. But if you’ve paid much attention to those “natural’ conversationalists, you’ve seen few who can cut through the crap, get to the point and identify the patterns and implications buried within the conversation. In short, their fumbled inarticulateness suggests that conversation can’t be learned. Furthermore, if a person decides it can be learned, there’s little in the way of significant help for gaining “business talk competencies.” And certainly there are neither overnight formulas nor classes in instant communication.
A final reason that interactional communication gets short shrift is the lack of protocol-oriented case studies. Case studies in the field are beginning to show up, however, they tend to be written from an organizational behavior perspective, with little insight into how to behave and what, concretely, to say. The level of inference, those abstractions, opinions and recommendations, from which educators teach and train is simply not operational. They focus on theory but do not provide the verbal data needed to understand. All of us learn by watching and mimicking. Although we are born with a grammar, the vocabulary has to be added. But the vocabulary necessary for success in today’s business is often, sometimes largely missing. As a consequence, even when coaching execs from some of the finest backgrounds in the world, I’m asked, “how do you say that?” For many, that will require a great deal of vulnerability.
Can professional conversation be learned?
Thirty years ago, physicians and nurses were given absolutely no training in communication skills. Zip! Nada! None! Older generations remember that many physicians of the past were arrogant communication assholes, not even conversationalists. We were fearful to ask them questions and they didn’t think we needed the answers, especially if they didn’t really know the answer. And they sure as hell had no competencies for explaining medical issues in lay language. Most were neither interested-- nor capable--of putting the cookies on the bottom shelf.
But go to any of the better clinics or hospitals today and listen to the wonderful changes. You’re asked permission before any diagnosis or interaction takes place. You’re told what will happen, how it’s liable to feel and why it’s being done. Then you’re kept up to date as the procedure continues, and even told the diagnosis, when available, all in layman’s terms. Why the change? Schools of medicine and nursing now spend a great deal of time teaching their candidates cutting-edge patient conversational competencies. In fact, if med students or nurses can’t demonstrate they’ve learned those competencies, they’re liable to be dropped from the program.
Admittedly, physicians and nurses have a built-in control of the doctor/patient situation that few in business, even CEOs, ever have the good fortune to achieve. There’s a reason for that: business folk typically face levels of interactional and language complexities far beyond that of the medical field.
Learning how to communicate effectively is not at all hopeless. For a model protocol-oriented case, you will find my own white paper instructive: “How to ask questions and not be perceived as a dumb ass.” The contributors of that white paper were a number of folk who wanted to learn how to question and got involved in its writing and rewriting. What the paper reveals is that we were able to up the ante by designing interventions people truly wanted and involving them in the process. And that’s one learning model you’ll find very helpful at your organization.
Flicker: Conversations from Breaking Bad, by Carole
Over the years I’ve asked that first question of more than 500 clients and their 7,500 respondents in face-to-face, one hour interviews. Far more often than not they start out by telling me what my client says of himself—he’s a good communicator. But when I drill down into those responses, as I’ll inevitably do, the picture is usually quite different. The answer was a shock to my system. At bottom their definition of a good communicator is someone who can share information and avoid conflict. That understanding is not going to help people who want to succeed in today’s marketplace.
So why does it matter? In the new economy, where conversations are the new organizational power, the demands for communication expertise have rocketed. It’s not just the obvious flattening of organizations or the need for more bottom-up and less top-down communication. But the challenge of attracting and retaining talented people has spurred senior execs to look at communication very differently. And that’s not all. With product launches, quality control, client relationships, multi-disciplinary relationships all needing nearly daily attention from all levels of the organization, conversations and communication skills have taken on very significant bottom line value. For example, if high-level conversational expertise is not available, potential sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars each may never get to first base.
The consequences of those demands are that once obvious, even “natural,” skills are light-years away from today’s needs.
Take, for example, questioning skills. Distinctions such as yes/no or open-ended/closed-ended questions are kindergarten competencies. Professionals today need to understand how to use questions to build relations and trust with people. How to gather information about complex products or services. How to dig into mindsets and mental models that get in the way of effective decisions. How to find out what motivates a person and what demotivates. How to gather information when an individual is not at all certain that he or she wants to reveal that information. How to sequence questions to open up a situation rather than close it down. And especially, how to get employees to reveal their opinions, explain the data on which those opinions are based and, when possible, ask questions that will open up the conversation to change. Effective business questioning has no relationship to lawyerly interrogating and the judiciary. It’s collaborative, not adversarial.
But astute questioners also recognize that as responses to their questions surface, they will inevitably require them to rethink, revamp and, often, drastically change their own ideas—doing it in such a way that makes for authenticity and productivity.
Nearly every communication skill will require far more learning than any of us ever got in those two basic college communication courses. Furthermore, understanding or knowing the competency has little correlation whatsoever when it comes to doing and executing. In short, effective communication and conversation within the business organization are making demands that few of us are ready to respond to professionally. Spooked by all this information? That’s as good a motivator as anything else.
Flickr photo: Search engine people blog
It used to be thought that the major source of power for managers and leaders was their position. It was his vested position that gave a manager the controls of productivity, strategy and the firm’s future. That is simply no longer the case.
Out of the thousands of books on communication in organizations, Talk, Inc. takes today’s changing world of business seriously and provides a unique perspective. As findings by Harvard's Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind reveal in their new book, Talk, Inc., leadership is fundamentally conversation-powered. Indeed, as the authors declare, conversations are the new source of organizational power.
The hard skills are easy to learn. It’s the soft skills of conversation and relationships that easily sabotage workers’ hopes for the future. And, as businesses are learning, the lack of those soft skills also sabotages strategy and the bottom line. So Groysberg and Slind’s new work is a welcome addition to every manager’s bookshelf. Indeed, the authors do something long overdue in this field: they refashion the concept of organizational communication around face-to-face conversation.
Four practical, learnable “talk” principles
As a result of extensive research in widely disparate industries and companies of all sizes, the authors discover a set of conversational principles for this new economy. There’s no one way, monologic approach to communication here. Instead, the authors find that successful leaders engage with a new social technology, comprising four concrete skills:
Is this really new?
Aristotle implied all this stuff in his “Rhetoric,” and the twentieth century drove it home. But Talk, Inc. sets its competencies inside the organization of the 21st century. This is really new. And it’s a book every manager and employee will want.
Boris Groysberg & Michael Slind, Talk, Inc. (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press), 2012.
Flickr: by Steve Unlikely
The phone rings—with a potential client on the line telling you he’s interested in your services. And, he’d like you come in and make a presentation. Beware! There’s a high possibility if you’re a consultant or sales rep you’re going to be disappointed. Very disappointed.
As often as not, the client has already made a decision and he wants to use you to confirm the decision he’s already made. You’ll be giving away your time, your planning, your intellectual software--and walk away frustrated by the fact that you’ve been used.
One frustrating learning experience
Quite a few years ago, one of my long-term clients told me that his boss--a person he just happened to have little respect for--had asked about my coaching services and been given my name. Shortly afterward, I got a phone call from the VP, asking me to come in and talk about my services. I walked into a conference room with him, and a few minutes later, in came his director of human resources. She immediately sat down and asked about my services, my coaching processes, my success/failure rates, telling me also specifically what “I needed to know.”
Being quite gullible at the time, I shared proprietary information and spent an hour answering her questions and listening to her analysis of the situation. As the meeting closed, the VP said he’d get back to me. A few days later the HR director called, saying she’d decided to work with another firm. The job was wired and I’d been screwed. It was obvious that I was used to confirm a previous decision.
I’ve learned a number of things from such experiences. For example, if a person tells me exactly what he wants without my analysis and input into the situation, there’s a high possibility he doesn’t know what the hell he really needs. Furthermore, if he knows exactly how I should go about the job, that’s another red flag. And if a client wants to know specifically and immediately how you’re going to solve the problem, there’s a high potential that you were brought in solely to gain free ideas for confirmation of decisions already made. All of these situations mean that there’s little possibility of a job--and that you’re being used.
Avoiding customers not ready to buy
As a result of these experiences, I’ve taken a number of steps to make certain that I never fall for them. Here are my strategies:
Problem solving for clients in an interview inevitably involves my proprietary, intellectual software. Let the client know he’ll be charged up front for the interview. Physicians do it all the time. Unless the client is one with which you’ve had a long-term working relationship, up front charges are fair game. I’ve never had that expectation dashed. Furthermore, the surprising consequence is that the majority of the 20 to 25 times in which I made the demand, I also received the job. I think, without looking at related research, that most business people appreciate a consultant who knows what he’s worth and will agree to the contract without discussion.
The more proactive your approach to the client’s phone call, the better the results for you. The passive consultant or sales rep who permits the client to make the bulk of the decisions, will find himself on the short end of the stick. You want seriously relevant information before you get into a decision mode. Clients who are resistant to these approaches are not worth your time. I’m aware that a great number of consultants, even sales reps, might find some of these protective steps gutsy. However, they’re quite realistic and very much to your advantage.
Flickr photo: by angusmci
Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” has notched up those periodic discussions of patriotism that surface in times of national conflict. Sorkin, known for “The West Wing” and “The Social Network,” favors staccato-paced dialog, point-counterpoint, and dialog driven material. His stuff is inevitably worlds away from the Hallmark cable channel of slurpy, screwball romance. And Sorkin’s as addictive as hell.
By now, everyone is familiar with Will McEvoy’s volcanic rant on patriotism in the first show. (See it at “On Demand.”) McEvoy, along with two correspondents, a political liberal and a conservative, are presenting to a large audience at the Northwestern University journalism school. Asked by a sophomore college student, “Why is America the greatest nation on earth—in a single sentence,” the politicos provide typical fodder. The Democrat: “Diversity and opportunity.” The Republican: “Freedom, freedom, freedom.”
Now it’s McEvoy’s turn and, at first, he agrees with his colleagues. He’s pushed further: “The Constitution is a masterpiece. The Declaration of Independence is the greatest single piece of American writing.” Pushed still further, he rants that “America is not the greatest country in the world. There’s absolutely no support for the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. 7th in literacy. 27th in math. 178th in infant mortality,” etc. You know where he’s going.
The Newsroom is less than two weeks old, but everybody and his brother, Left, Right and otherwise, has something to say about it. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum has a critical review. So too, the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan, and Politico has “10 vicious reviews of the Newsroom.” Yeah, the show is filled with Sorkinian archetypes. But what’s most intriguing to me is that The Newsroom is getting so damned much attention.
What’s in it for me?
The Newsroom’s popularity is indicative of the fact that it’s now appropriate, perhaps expected, that the American public is getting turned on by conversations and narratives regarding patriotism. The economy, this country’s need for change, Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision, the Affordable Care Act and immigration policy and the role of government are only a few of the issues driving this conversation. Candidly, we really, really need this conversation. But it needs more than a little historical knowledge to get the conversation away from screaming idiocies, and back to the underpinnings of our nation.
Specifically, it’s obvious that there is often a shocking, ignorant departure from the Founding Fathers’ understanding of the necessary tensions for our nations’ success. As Kurt Andersen puts it in "The Downside of Liberty", a thoughtful, brilliant NYTImes Op/Ed, “from the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal.”
Andersen is an American novelist who is also host of the Peabody-winning public radio program Studio 360, co-production between Public Radio International and WNYC. In a well-thought-out perspective, Andersen argues that what’s happened since the 1960s is all of a single piece. Whether ‘60s hippies or Bohemians, business people and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. In short, selfishness and greed won. That being the case, the middle class will go the way of the dinosaur, democracy will come to an end, and everyone—yeah, the top 10% too, will suffer. Unless, of course, the thinking of our nation and our party system get seriously reformed.
“The downside of liberty”
In his article, Andersen points out with a great deal of accuracy that freedom and liberty are not always all they’re cracked up to be. Indeed, since the ‘60s, we’ve participated in the downside of liberty in the form of an ethos that explains not only social liberalism but greed. This business of going overboard and indulging our propensities to self-gratification has a long history—during the 1840’s, the Gilded Age and again in the 1920’s.
But since the 1960’s, American individualism has been fully unleashed.
A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed. Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits, with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
People on the political right have blamed the late 60’s for what they loathe about contemporary life—anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ‘60s legacy of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967.
So it’s very important, nationally important, that we pay attention to one founder, Thomas Jefferson:
In that letter from 1814, Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require “correctives which are supplied by education” and by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator.”
What better time than this to take advantage of The Newsroom’s setup and revert to my old profession, that of the preacher?
Flickr: Photo by MsNeverAgain
One of my long term colleagues, a former seminary prof, recently got such a kick out of this blog, written last year, that I thought I'd publish it again. It doesn't actually fit a 4th of July audience. But historically, we Americans have had and still do have our share of these folk. You may find these expletives especially useful for analyzing some politicans, political operatives and commentators in this 2012 political season.
I orginally wrote this as a defining response to the use and misuse of expletives. Rhetorician that I am, I decided that verbal accuracy in expletives could be helpful. Since then, I've decided on the title for the fourth category of frustrating people: the righteous.
Although some may think that Bob Sutton of Stanford fame started this discussion with his recent book, The No Asshole Rule, Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy prof, beat him to the punch in 2005. Frankfurt’s tome, though scholarly, is little more than a brief essay entitled, On Bullshit. Still, his work provides a useful analysis of the subject.
Let’s frame the issue this way. I’m approaching these personalities as a serious attempt to build your vocabulary and your street smarts. In fact, the haphazard or spontaneous labeling of someone as an asshole or bullshitter provides little in the way of realistic cues for effectively managing such a person. And as most will admit, it’s very important to learn how to manage these difficult people.
Yeah! What I’m suggesting is that if you’re pissed enough with somebody’s behaviors to label that person with a hostile pejorative, do it accurately.
What’s actually driving my blog, though, is a comment that one reader made on a previous blog , Five questions for testing relationship behaviors. She began with a compliment and ended with a consciousness-raising insight:
It's possible that you've misconstrued the situation based on your own experience and assumptions but from what I read here, you are pretty smart and well educated and there are a lot of jerks out there. Sometimes you have to go with your hunch (that the guy is a jerk) unless he starts to show otherwise.
So in the interest of workplace relationships and rhetorical accuracy, I intend to deal with four frustrating personalities, including assholes and bullshitters. In a later blog I’ll make some suggestions for dealing with them in the workplace.
Sutton defines assholes as employees who are insensitive to their colleagues: corporate bullies, bosses who just don’t get it. He writes that they are flat out rude, selfish, uncivil, mean-spirited, and don’t really seem to care about whom they step on. He goes on to distinguish the asshole as a person whose language and relationships leave people feeling threatened and demeaned. I believe that assholes are planful and intentional which makes them very painful.
Frankfurt makes it clear that bullshitters are in a different category. He compares bullshit to humbug. Bullshit, he writes, is short of lying and those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way. The bullshitter is always trying to get away with something, and has no interest in the truth of what he or she says. These folks, when trading their wares, seem to be intense, even passionate when telling stuff that they want you to think is significant. But it’s not “for real.” Like assholes, their behaviors, too, are quite intentional.
I’ve never seen an analysis of jerks. However, jerks exist in a still different category. Contrary to Sutton, I think it’s a miscalculation to confuse assholes with jerks. In my mind, assholes have a pretty strong sense of what they’re doing and they delight in it. Jerk behavior, like muscle spasms, is involuntary and not usually intentional. Jerks, in contrast to assholes or bullshitters, are socially dumb and dumbly unaware. They merely blunder on in their ways and can’t read the body language that they get from other people.
Though many think of these characters as male, that’s merely because in the corporate world male managers outnumber managers of the other sex. I have it on good authority that there are plenty of females who fit these categories, especially in retailing and the restaurant industries.
I don’t have a colorful name for the fourth category, but I can spot them from a mile away or within seconds of a conversation. I’m troubled because they are showing up more and more in the workplace, made visible because of the growth of religious fundamentalism. Since writing this last year,I've now decided to call them "the righteous." Indeed, many of them are actually among the “professionally religious.”
When I was in the parish ministry, which, by the way, was loads of fun and a glorious experience, I stayed away from these people as much as humanly possible. I often held a quiet little party when they left the church. They were religious in the worst sense of the word. Always sincere, and, oh god, were they humble (at least they wanted everyone to think that of them), often inept, except that they inevitably presented themselves as paragons of virtue, goodness and religion. Although there are more and more men fitting this category, women seem to have a lock on the personality structure.
A few years ago, I was bitching to another seminary faculty member about a certain church organist, complaining about her uninspiring performance and lack of organ color (I’m a nut about great organs and great organists). He suggested that she might not last. I commented, to his laughter, that she was “very sincere, extremely religious and terribly humble, all of which meant she’d keep the church organist position forever.” In my mind, that personality is a form of well-practiced religious bullshit that many parishioners think goes with the territory and which some seem to believe to be appropriate. It is not involuntary, like the jerk, but quite intentional.