“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the words we use for important ideas about work ‘diffuse’ over time, and all the problems this creates. Like a game of telephone, as an idea spreads its initial meaning gets refracted through each receiver, who stamps it with her own experience before passing it on. What starts out as a clear concept gets muddier and muddier over time.
Do you ever feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over again? Maybe it’s with your boss, a colleague, your spouse, a parent, with yourself? I know I do, and it feels like being stuck in a well.
We might use slightly different words, shift our tone or emphasis, but underneath that superficial layer we’re playing out the same interaction again and again.
A good reminder that I married the right person is that he agrees to go to a talk about catastrophic failure in complex systems for date night. This week, Anthony and I heard Andras Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield give an overview of their new book: ‘Meltdown: When Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It’.
It’s a fascinating look at how many of the systems we encounter in our day to day lives are becoming increasingly complex and tightly coupled, making them more vulnerable to surprising meltdowns.
Life is a series of trade-offs. Helpfully, life has continued to remind me of this fact (thanks life), despite it being something I should know well by now. One way to explain this concept is the Four Burners Theory. Have you heard of it?
Essentially it asks you to envision your life as a stovetop, with the four burners representing your health, work, family, friends respectively. As James Clear writes:
“The Four Burners Theory says that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”
I remember the first time a manager asked me for advice on how to train one of their employees to “manage up”. This kind of question is my favourite part of working in HR. It’s like overhearing a fascinating snippet of conversation as you pass a dinner table at a restaurant and then trying to figure out the topic under discussion*.
What the heck does ‘managing up’ mean? I mean, I know what I think it means. But more importantly, what the heck does it mean to you, the manager on the other end of the phone? What unmet need or unarticulated frustration lies behind the request to HR to suggest how you can make someone on your team understand how to manage you, their manager? Let’s backtrack to explore the winding path that led to this moment, when you are asking me for a book** I can suggest for your employee to read on ‘managing up’.
This week I read that about 70% of US managers are afraid to talk to their employees. This produced a series of conflicting thoughts:
- I sort of sympathize. I want to avoid talking to anyone about 70% of the time, so #twinsies, you know?
- It also deserves a big eye roll because REALLY? WHAT DID THEY THINK BEING A MANAGER WAS ABOUT??
- But really, so what? They’ll mostly be replaced by AI soon anyway.
- Also, I’m not really surprised since like most HR people, I’ve had an otherwise capable person physically deposit a crying employee in my office as though they were a mogwai that got fed after midnight (Google it, Millennials!)
A major challenge of talking about something as complex as culture is that we have to be reductive to be succinct. Something as layered, nuanced, and invisible would take ages to accurately convey (if we could even put it into words), but often, we try to distill it into a soundbite. A few key words or phrases that we think make our organization distinct from the average company.
“Keep learning. Explore crazy ideas”
“The Customer is Not Always Right”
“Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude” (Note: Guys, I just found out these are actually Southwest Airlines’ values and I can’t even)
Although most organizations talk about their cultures as being unique and monolithic (that is, consistent throughout the organization, which is often an unstated assumption underlying the practice of hiring for ‘culture fit’), this is rarely the case.
“Leaders are made not born”.
We must believe this, since our organizations spend a staggering amount of money every year to improve the managerial and leadership skills of their employees.
We also place a high value on leadership as individuals, treating those recognized as great leaders with a kind of cultish reverence. Inspiring quotes about leadership abound on social platforms, often in the same intense language used to describe CrossFit.
Feedback. It sounds so basic. So obvious. It’s easy to get distracted by the latest HR tech, the robots, Uber’s garbage fire. But feedback deserves our attention. Mostly because we’re terrible at it, and that is at the root of so many problems and missed opportunities in our organizations. We think we get it, but I have my doubts. You can tell because so many people talk about feedback like it’s a chore.
There’s been a string of startup scandals involving people practices in the news recently, and I’m getting really tired of reading variations on the phrase: “If only they’d had HR….” Every time I come across a headline or a quote that advances this notion, my eyelid starts twitching.