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Physical discomfort

February 6th, 2012 No comments

A few times now I’ve seen the same facial expression of physical discomfort for the same reason and while I doubt all control freaks share it, I bet they all have some physical tick that appears under the same circumstances.

The reason for the discomfort is when they realise they are not going to get the credit for something that someone has done within their perceived area of control. This might be someone who works for them, or a colleague who does something special in an area they also cover or maybe just an area where that they want to move into and seize from others. To be clear though it does not happen when the person who gets the credit is recognised, but only at that point that they realise it won’t be them. The recognition could come a long time later by which time they’ve normally composed themself and put on an appropriate face of support, though not so overdone as to suggest that this is something they could not have done easily.

The mentality of this is interesting because most people assume that credit always goes to the person who deserves it, but control freaks know the truth, which is that the credit is entirely free floating. If they know how then they can pick it up wherever they find it. They don’t even have to pretend that they did the work behind it, nor do they need to cut the real person behind the work from the picture.

All they do is consider the group they want to get the credit from and think what is the single most important point about this work as far as that group are concerned and make it seem that they were the first to spot that. Preferrably by repeating this point over and over. Now if you are the person who actually did the work then you are normally trapped by your own involvement at this point. You can’t focus on just one point because you know you work you did is this rich tapestry of benefits and you feel compelled to at least give a glimpse of this, if not to reveal it in all its glory. Unfortunately the single-mindedness of the control freak in just stressing the one point means that will be all that sticks in most peoples’ minds and they end up with the credit not you.

But if by chance or by design you do spot that one most important point and state that publicly in a way that can’t be hidden or forgotten (they will certainly try both tactics so be prepared) then that’s when you will see the physical discomfort on the face of the one who thinks they’ve missed out. And if they are only a control freak in training then they might make the error of picking a less important benefit and trying to make it sound like that is the most important one. But by then it’s generally too late.

Categories: Organisations, People

Everything I do is so much harder than anything you do (the hero expression)

February 1st, 2012 No comments

After a while in a senior position, control freaks begin to deliberately adopt an aura around them that everything they do is really hard. This aura, as with many things control freaks do, is developed both by how they talk and their facial expressions.

On the facial side, they wear a pained expression at opportune moments to give the impression of a being in the midst of a serious battle. Never enough to suggest they are actually losing but always enough to suggest that loss is a real possibility and they are taking a genuine risk. The implication of this expression, and the impact they are aiming for, is that they are mightily brave and a hero for taking this on. The reaction they are after is one of awe at their bravery, sympathy for their struggle and rejoicing at their victory. In short, an epic.

After a while they get so used to adopting this expression that they do it even for mundane things like making the coffee. For special occasions they feign an affliction such as a bad leg and then show just how determined they are by pushing through.

It’s from this overuse of the hero expression that we get ridiculous reactions from underlings like congratulating the CF for climbing the stairs or thanking them profusely for doing something trivial that everyone manages to do ten times a day without comment, like making the coffee. That’s partly because they’ve conditioned people to think that everything they do is heroic and partly because people are so grateful they’ve taken the time off from being heroic to be generous and make the coffee. A win win situation really!

The first mistake you can make in this scenario is trying to understand just what it is that is so hard in what the CF is doing. There is simply no way they are going to tell you and you can majorly irritate them just by asking, especially if you miss the “keep out of my business” clues and keep up the questions.

The expected behaviour of sycophants in this scenario is to talk about the struggle but never the subject of the struggle. Worship the hero not the deed. Until it’s finished of course, which is when the deed is all that we talk about because that is now part of the mythology of the hero. And because when it’s finished, nobody can easily assess just how hard it was to do as the evidence is quickly lost, so it’s now safe to talk about.

The second mistake that you can make, and a serious one at that is offer to help with the task at hand. This implies firstly that you might understand what it is the CF is working on, which is obviously impossible, and secondly that you might actually be able to do it, which is frankly insulting. The only worse thing you could do is offer to help in front of others. That will earn you lifelong hostility.

Offering to help with something else is alway good at this time. The best way to do it is to offer to take on something trivial the CF has on their plate but make it sound like you will struggle to do it, adding to the ego boost.

And whatever you do, when you see the finished product don’t say out loud “Well what was so hard about that?”.

Categories: Organisations, People

Sustaining a culture

October 31st, 2007 No comments

The culture of an organisation does not sustain itself. Left to its own devices culture shifts in unpredictable directions as new people arrive with different backgrounds and others, who were part of it, move on.

In small places were the people don’t change then maybe it can remain fairly constant, but even then people forget things or fall prey to their own fears.

So once you have the culture you want, you must actively maintain it. The most obvious way is to get to the new starters and indoctrinate them early on. That’s why most HR departments keep starters to themselves for hours, or even days, before they let them join their team.

But after that, you have to keep up the work by restating the cultural principles at regular intervals. Doesn’t matter if most people are well aware of what you are going to say because it is those that aren’t familiar with the vision that matter. They are the ones who will subconsciously pull the culture in other directions unless they are made plainly aware of where the current culture is.

Another good move is to spot when something happens that is a powerful embodiment of the culture and highlight that so that even the least clued up person understands the message.

I’m sure there are lots of other techniques, it doesn’t matter. So long as you don’t expect the culture achieved at one time to be the same some time later, without any work. If you think like that then you’ll get a shock one day when you realise that almost everyone else now shares a different culture and you are the only one who didn’t move with them.

Categories: Organisations

What price consultants?

May 14th, 2007 1 comment

Having worked fairly low down the hierarchy in some places where there was almost an epidemic of consultants, I always believed that the managers that employed them were incompetent fools. After all, in those places, the consultants didn’t bring in any knowledge that didn’t exist within the company already. If only the managers asked the right people, whose expertise they were already paying for, then they wouldn’t need to spend exorbitant amounts on consultants. Pretty obvious, right?

Well no, that was a naive view. In fact those managers were by no means stupid. In fact this action was entirely rational given their controlling nature.

The real reason that senior managers use consultants, when they know perfectly well that there are others in the organisation who are quite capable, is so that they can maintain their empire.

The problem with getting someone else in the organisation involved is that they risk losing control, which is the last thing they want. So using cold logic they decide that rather than lose any control, they will pay someone external to do the work. This has some added advantages:

  • In doing so they also increase the kudos of the project. If a manager calls in external reinforcements who are seen as experts in their field, it suggests that the task being undertaken is hugely important and far too difficult to be completed by the usual suspects.
  • The manager can always get the consultants to present their findings in the way they want it presented. If someone internal was doing the work then they are less controllable, more likely to be independent and have their own views.
  • The consultants are gone once the job is done. If someone wants to probe further into the consultants’ findings or take issue with the methodology then a clever manager will just delay the inquest until the consultants have left. But on the other hand, if the manager needs to distance themselves by ditching the consultants’ work then there is nobody around to be offended or defensive.

So, with all these built-in advantages you can see why the control freak manager, who puts empire protection at a premium, believes that consultants are really quite cheap.

Categories: Organisations, People

Bad news doesn’t flow up

March 27th, 2007 No comments

Information doesn’t flow up in a hierarchy, something no manager can have failed to notice. There are a whole host of individual reasons why people don’t like to push it up and when added together they throttle the flow.

Bad news in particular doesn’t flow up, for the good reason that people think the manager will shoot the messenger and they don’t want to get shot.

  • There’s the example where the manager has pushed for a particular project or way of working, possibly against some resistance from the team. If the team discover some real problems, when they actually get to work on the project, then they know full well that if they push the problems up the line then this will be seen as a continuation of the resistance. It may or may not be, and the people may or not be the same as those previously resisting, but that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist.
  • A follow on from this is where there is only one person who pushes the bad news up and the rest of the team don’t. Many managers take this as the rest of the team denying the problems. In fact the fear of pushing bad news up is so strong that many people will go so far as to deny it exists when asked point blank about it. So the one person who does do it has their viewpoint dismissed. They can then be labelled as a misfit, a stirrer, who is out of step with the rest of the team and marked down for behavioural adjustment or elimination. Ironic when they may in fact be the one person with their eyes wide open and saying what they see.
  • When the bad news is about a person, particularly another manager, then too often loyalty outweights rationality. This can lead to some people being viewed as ‘protected’ and bad news about them is supressed.
  • Of course, sometimes the bad news is about a mistake and owning up to a mistake brings with it a whole set of difficulties. What some managers fail to realise is that it takes a huge effort for someone to come to them and admit a mistake. If it isn’t handled sensitively, very sensitively, then future mistakes are either hidden or downplayed.
  • There are plenty of people who would willingly tell their manager every bit of bad news but they don’t because they don’t think there is any point because nothing will be done about it. In an organisation with paralysed or ineffectual managers then this effect compounds the problems as it makes the managers isolated from below.

Despite these blockages, information still tries to flow up but with the path directly above blocked it has to find another route. There are a variety of these – the sympathetic manager of a different area or the colleagues in another team. Unfortunately a different path means the content is diluted and the message is often lost.

If you want to hear the bad news then you need to build up a reputation as to how you deal with it. Some simple tips:

  • Don’t shoot the messenger, even if you are certain they are a lying, conniving manipulator.
  • Don’t dismiss the bad news, always examine it rationally, investigate if needed and make a measured judgement.
  • Either do something about it, or explain to people why you are not going to.
  • If you are facing someone owning up to a mistake then just imagine how you feel when you have to do the same thing to your manager. Everyone makes mistakes.

This way you might hear some remarkable things.

Categories: Organisations, People

Layer upon layer of control

March 16th, 2007 No comments

Not everyone gets into work on time every day. One minute early one day, five minutes late the next, people are so unpredictable really.

Now some managers, when faced with this normal variety of human behaviour find it quite difficult to deal with. After all, five minutes can become ten and then ten can become thirty and the next thing you know there is complete chaos with everyone coming in two hours late and spending their entire time talking.

To prevent this breakdown some order has to be imposed. Anyone coming in late is given an interview to discuss the reasons and a note is put on their file. Of course then the time has to be made up before they go home.

Quite often though this isn’t enough. Before you know it the people who come in late are also working slower than the others, they just don’t seem as motivated as the others. So before this turns into an epidemic action has to be taken. Targets are set for how much work is done and anyone that doesn’t meet those targets is given an interview and a note put on their file.

Just when it looks like it is all under control, it takes a turn for the worse. We begin to discover that there are some people who not only get in late and work slower, but they also have the ‘wrong’ attitude to their management and company. Now we have the most awkward of HR issues – problem staff.

Of course this could happen so differently. We could decide to ignore the timekeeping variances of the good workers, and only deal with those that take the piss. In fact we could decide to deal with people as individuals on a personal level and be flexible in our approach. This might even run the risk of motivating those people to work a bit harder. But then that is so much more work than adding a new level of control.

Categories: Organisations, People

Who’s in your team

December 19th, 2006 1 comment

Years ago I appointed a manager who was a complete disaster, but I didn’t get a clue of this during the appointment process. The problem only appeared when he started work and it turned out that he did not have a clue how to communicate or even get on with the people who worked for him. In contrast to this he was very good at dealing with his peers and me as his manager, which made it very difficult for me to understand just what his team were complaining about.

I’ve seen this again a few times since then and now I can characterise the symptoms. There are some people who think that the team they are part of only includes those who are their equal in the hierarchy and their manager. They simply don’t see themselves as part of a team with the people who work for them.

This affects all of their relationships with their team. Specifically:

  • They don’t share their ideas, concerns, hopes etc
  • They don’t really listen to their staff. In particular they don’t really appreciate the ideas that their staff have
  • They don’t acknowledge that their staff have a role to play in the difficult work the manager is responsible for, such as contributing to strategy or politics.
  • They only occasionally talk to their staff in terms of the wider picture (if at all). Normally they deal with individuals about individual details.

This is so demoralising for the team involved, since, more than anything, this is disrespectful. It also fragments the team, stops them seeing the bigger picture and thereby reduces their effectiveness. It even ends up significantly undermining the manager concerned since they are refusing all the support they could otherwise get from a loyal team.

Categories: Organisations, People

A team of individuals or extensions of yourself?

December 18th, 2006 No comments

Quite often someone gets appointed to be a manager for the first time because they are such a diligent worker.  They have their own routine and way of getting things done and all of a sudden they have the resources of other people to help them.  The natural temptation for these new managers is to use these people as though they were extensions of themselves.

That means expecting the team to do the things they want done and work the way they work.  If the team is sufficiently compliant then this is generally a successful strategy.  Quite often the team are not that compliant but after a great deal of brow beating they appear to be.  Occasionally some people make a stand to retain their individuality and it all turns nasty.

If that isn’t bad enough then it gets much worse as the manager rises up the chain of command and the person they are responsible for in turn become more senior.  The more senior the team, the more they expect to think for themselves and the more they can resist the push to homogenisation.  The result of this is a painful process to go through as they learn how to manage their team in a different way.

Unfortunately that is the path I followed and it took me some time to learn this the hard way.  My advice would be for new managers, or experienced managers who are now experiencing the pain to learn a different way now.

This better way is to recognise the team as a collection of individuals, each of whom works in a different way and each of whom needs to be treated as an individual.  Getting the best from people is no longer a matter of dominance, but one of discussion, negotiation, understanding and all the other best practices I talk about here.

The strength of a team that works as a team of individuals is far more than the team that works under a single authoritarian control.  It is hard work at first to curb the urge to be a control freak, but the rewards easily outweigh it.

Categories: Organisations, People

The power of a technical blog

December 9th, 2006 No comments

Imagine I am holding my hands out in front of me, two feet apart and imagine that represents all the work an average technical team does. Then think about just how much your customers actually get to see. For me I think that is about the last two inches. So we have all that effort, all the brilliance, all the achievement and yet apart from those in the technical team, nobody ever gets to hear about it.

My answer to this is a strategy for exposing this wealth of hidden experience and expertise. For me this means doing the following two things, running a technical blog and getting people onto the presentation circuit. In this article I am only going to cover the former – the power of the technical blog.

First of all let me get the basics out of the way. Blog software that a whole team can use is easy to come by, we use WordPress and hosting server should be easy for a technical team, but if not then go to a cheap hosting company and it can be yours for a fiver a month. There should be no practical barrier to doing it.

The purpose of the blog is for my team to document the technical things they do that nobody would normally find out about. So that ranges from:

  • Documenting that great OS bug they found that required a special patch from the manufacturer
  • Describing the correct configuration for that obscure piece of software that they had to struggle to find out
  • Recording the results of some testing they did on a new piece of kit
  • Sharing the things the things they learnt on a technical conference
  • Promoting that great technical idea they have that manufacturers should all be adopting

and so on. I’m repeating myself, but basically anything that is technical and would otherwise not be seen, goes.

I don’t authorise the articles in advance, or even know about them until they are published. If fact, I only have two rules that I ask of people:

  1. It must be about a technical subject
  2. It must not be too rude

The next step is marketing the blog. Now, provided you are sticking to the purpose above and you don’t want to use it for product marketing, you can simply brand it as a peek into the work of the technical team. Then, link to a relevant article wherever the opportunity arises. In fact it is generally preferable not to repeat too much of an article in another context as people might not follow the link.  I tend to check the referrer stats to see just how much traffic has been generated by the placement of a link.

The trickier element is ensuring that the titles of the articles, the way they are written and the categorisation given, meet with search engine requirements to ensure that our articles appear at the top on focussed searches. But so long as people stick to the plan and write one article at a time then this should get better over time.

Once the initial internal promotion to a sceptical technical team is out of the way I find myself left with very little work to do. I have to remind people, when they are near to completing an important piece, that now is the best time to blog it. I have to check categorisation and add or change categories as needed to cope with the changing nature of the articles. I check the web stats to see what groups are reading it. Finally I avidly check it every day to see if there is something new.

The power of a technical blog is that it makes the work of the team transparent, it establishes credibility for the team, it gives them the recognition they deserve and it builds a community. It also makes great reading. Priceless.

Categories: Machines, Organisations

How many people can a manager out-vote?

November 25th, 2006 4 comments

This is a trap I often fall into and I’m always embarrassed when I do.

Sometimes someone presents a point of view to me and I listen but disagree.  Then later someone else says the same thing and I listen a bit more.  Finally a third person says it and I change my mind.  Terrible to admit it but what I’ve done in this situation is decide that I carry two votes and so it takes three people to out-vote me.  When really my decision making should have nothing to do with the number of people who tell me.

One important attribute that sets apart real leaders is their willingness to switch track when presented with the ‘right’ idea, no matter how much they have invested in the current track.  This is what makes an agile leader and in turn an agile organisation.

But for some managers, quite unknowingly, their ego is simply too big to change after a suggestion from just one person.  Or maybe they are just worried that they will be seen as flighty if they change quickly.  Whatever the reason, these are the people who need to validate the change by ensuring there is sufficient weight behind it.  There are even some managers who assign varying levels of votes to different people.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest that we should drop everything we are doing the moment someone shows us a better way.  Some things are like oil tankers and take a long time to turn around.  But what we should do is clearly acknowledge that our view has changed and, most critically, start to plan from the new viewpoint.

Hopefully I’ll learn to get better at spotting when I’m counting votes instead of listening to the arguments.

Categories: Organisations, People