Where Evil Lives

Conflict sells.

Papers polarize issues to sell papers. Television and movies sell us villains and heros. Pure good and evil is so pervasive in our pop culture, yet it rarely exists.

For every Russell Williams there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians that could never be labelled ‘evil’ or even ‘bad’. So it is unfortunate that conflict sells, because its popularity hyper-sensitizes us to label the people and organizations we see in our daily lives as good or bad, and I’m as guilty as the next guy.

But experience has taught me that, whenever I start to think of a coworker, group or organization as an bad or as an adversary, I’m usually wrong. I now force myself to stop and think: Is the individual behaving badly because they are bad, or because they are being put in a bad situation? In my experience, there has been almost no case where bad behaviour could not be explained by a bad situation. As a result, I inevitably see bad systems, not bad people.

But I’m not saying that this is an easy thing to do, it isn’t!

If every time you interact with a person they seem to get angry at you for ‘doing your job’, something called ‘cognitive dissonance‘ kicks in. This is the uncomfortable feeling that you get when things don’t jive. You think “This person is treating me like I am an unreasonable or incompetent person,” and this very likely conflicts with your view of yourself. In an effort to deal with this dissonance, it is much easier to say to yourself, “well this person must be a jerkface”, than to cool your anger and think “this is the product of a pretty standard human in bad system or situation”. In fact, a more likely course of action is that you try and find other people who also think that this person is a jerkface, share your experience, and feel better that your observation has be corroborated by others (helping satisfying the dissonance). You also become more perceptive of the other actions confirming that this person is bad (confirmation bias).

It is human nature, but it just isn’t very productive.

Since it so hard to react in a positive way when you feel like you are being attacked, prepare yourself ahead of time:

Dog-ear a page in your notebook and write a few things down to prompt you the next time you are dealing with a confrontation. Some suggestions:

  • If you’re too angry to think straight, disengage!
  • He/she probably isn’t angry with you, it’s their situation
  • Say “I see that this is causing you concern, what can I do to help?”
  • I can tear a strip out of this guy/gal, but would it really help my cause?

Remember, the best place to find a villain, is in the movies.


LWD 2010WK34 – Improve Productivity, Cut Out Politics


About ‘Leadership Weekly Digest’ (LWD): The goal of this weekly newsletter is to highlight quality articles from the past week –in a condensed format– that discuss leadership, with a focus on employee engagement. Much of the content comes from those we follow on Twitter, and members of the Employee Engagement Network.

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How to Minimize Politics in Your Company by Ben Horowitz

Is there really a systematic approach to reducing politics in the office? I always associated the amount of politics in an organization as being a function of its size, but this statement stopped me in my tracks: “It’s often the least political CEOs who run the most ferociously political organizations”, huh? Apparently, apolitical top executives actually have a stronger tendency to accidentally foster intense political behaviour (maybe because they spend less time thinking about it?).

He suggests the following approach to mitigate political behaviour – which he defines as ‘people advancing their careers or agendas by means other than merit and contribution’– based on his experience as a top executive:

  1. Hire people with the right kind of ambition –  “The right kind of ambition is ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own success only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory. The wrong kind of ambition is ambition for the executive’s personal success regardless of the company’s outcome.”
  2. Build strict processes for potentially political issues and do not deviate–Certain activities attract political behavior. These activities include: performance evaluation and compensation, organizational design and territory, and promotions; these activities need that strict process to be defined.
  3. Be careful with “he said, she said” – The first caution is to “be very careful about how you listen and the message that it sends. Simply by hearing them out without defending the employee in question, you will send the message that you agree.” Depending on whether a complaint is about an executives behaviour or their capability (and whether the latter is news or not), Mr. Horowitz suggests 3 paths:
    • For behaviour-related complaints, the accuser, and the target of the accusation, have to be brought together to resolve the conflict. Attempting to resolve the conflict without both people in the room will just lead to opportunities for politicking.
    • For performance-based complaints that are old news to the leader, others have started to lose faith in that leader, and the leader in question has to go. “While I’ve seen executives improve their performance and skill sets, I’ve never seen one lose the support of the organization then regain it.”
    • For performance-based complaints that are a surprise, the first step is damage control. Make sure that you vehemently disagree with the assessment (otherwise it will trigger a self fulfilling prophesy), and then you have to get busy assessing the employee for yourself. [Boy, this sounds like a tricky situation. -ed.]

If these suggestions piqued your interest, I highly recommend reading the full article, as there is a lot of great depth and breadth that this format didn’t allow.

Sources of Creativity by John Cleese

I wonder if it was this talk that caused John Cleese to ring up a £3800 taxi bill? Well, one thing is sure, Cleese’s comedy is often lost on the Belgians, or perhaps they are still sore about this.

I have to give a tip to the hat to 37 Signals for putting me on to this video, thanks!

In this video John Cleese discusses his personal experiences with the non-linear relationship between work, creativity, the role of the subconscious, and why he needs his ‘me time’.

Chip Conley’s Employee Pyramid by Kermit Pattison

Inevitably when the topic of employee (or customer) engagement is discussed, Maslow’s pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs will appear. In Mr. Pattison’s interview, Mr. Conley discusses how business & personal success can be found by focusing more time on climbing the Maslow pyramid, than the corporate ladder.

With his hotel chain in crisis, Conley discovered the work of Abraham Maslow, and adapted it into a 3 tier pyramid with security at the bottom, ‘succeed’ in the middle, and ‘transform’ at the top. Housekeeping –employees not typically accustomed to participating in such activities– were given group off sites and asked to participate in a thought experiment: explaining their jobs to visiting aliens. This helped them define their role in terms of the top levels of the Maslow hierarchy (‘esteem’ and ‘self-actualization’). For example, housecleaning could see that their role was not just cleaning rooms, but taking care of people.

He also helped institute a culture of recognition by ending every meeting with his senior managers on a high note, with each participant contributing examples of people that should be recognized. As this practice continued, Conley could see it spreading throughout the organization, reinforced by focused hiring and evaluation of managers:

If you hire the right people, it’s a lot easier. We actually evaluate our managers on a combination of both results and relationships. Relationships are an intangible that sometimes get lost in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of a manager. You look at manager say, “Hey great P&L or great cash flow statement,” but if the way they got that was to fire half their staff, piss off customers, or charge them so much, that’s not a sustainable business strategy. Generally speaking, sometimes being able to measure relationships with customers, employees, or vendors is better way to get a sense of the long term sustainability of the effectiveness of a manager or leader.

Worry Isn’t Work by Dan Pallotta

I spend a lot of time worrying, and I wish I didn’t. I found Dan Pallotta’s Jedi Mind Trick a helpful way to look at this wasted energy (in brief):

Worry isn’t work. Being stressed out isn’t work. Anxiety isn’t work. Entertaining a sense of impending doom isn’t work. Incessant internal verbal punishment isn’t work. Indulging the great unknown fear in your own mind isn’t work. Hating yourself isn’t work.

Work is the manifestation of value, and anyone who tells you that a person whose mind is 50% occupied with anxiety is more likely to manifest value is a person who isn’t manifesting much.

Start thinking of being hard on yourself as being irresponsible. Start thinking of wasting half of your brain power on fantasies about your own destruction as self-indulgent. Conflate self-negativity with laziness. Start thinking of time for yourself as being responsible. Start thinking of a healthy mid-day meal as essential to your productivity, time away from your desk as productive.

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