"I favor general use of the psychic-prison metaphor to free people from the traps of favored ways of thinking and to unleash their power and creativity."
--Gareth Morgan
"We cannot just remodel the prison. No, we've got to get out of it."
--W. Edwards Deming

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Yearning for Learning

"I've come to believe that teaching is impossible: one can only try to make someone want to learn. Often, it seems, what is most important is not the answers you try to provide, but the questions you raise."
John Burton

Since, as Deming and others point out, learning is an innate desire we are all born with, the task changes a bit from that of "making" to one of "restoring" that desire. As Deming says, "we must restore the individual...release the power of human resource contained in intrinsic motivation that people are born with". Deming sees the damage done by extrinsic motivation:

"Extrinsic motivation in extreme replaces intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity. One is born with intrinsic motivation, self esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, a yearning for learning. These attributes are high at the beginning of life, but are gradually crushed out, diminished, year by year, throughout life. Crushed out by the forces of destruction along the top. The forces of destruction build up these undesirable qualities, characteristics, listed here [I can't see the slide in the video], and crush out what one is born with, intrinsic motivation, self esteem, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, yearning for learning. Why crush them out, why not nuture them? Mere change will not do it. We cannot just remodel the prison. No, we've got to get out of it." --W.E. Deming

W. Edwards Deming on the Future of Capitalism

Sunday, August 12, 2007

No Name-Calling Rule

Business professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton from Stanford have written extensively on business issues, in some cases as a team. I really should familiarize myself with more of their work before I comment here, but I wanted to state some preliminary concerns. Perhaps others can inform and clarify my thinking in this regard.

Sutton has written a new book ,"The No Asshole Rule", and he promotes the book on his Workplace Matters blog.

Pfeffer wrote a recent article in Business 2.0 magazine where he praises the elimination of physicians from Kaiser Permanente.

An underlying theme I see shaping up here is the labeling and elimination of individuals deemed to be a "cancer" on the organization. I think when equating a person to a "malignant tumor" or "festering boil" on the organization, it’s invoking the kind of coarse imagery from the biological realm that longstanding epithets such as "asshole", "shit", and "turd" have come from.

The way it’s looking to me right now is that, though I see much to praise about both Pfeffer’s and Sutton’s desire to make workplaces nicer and more humane, I think the solutions involving selection and elimination of scapegoats--even where the scapegoat may not be entirely innocent--and the associated name-calling do not appear to reflect particularly progressive thinking.

Pfeffer's article praised the efforts of administrators who, he writes, "using a new evaluation process, began removing 10 to 20 doctors a year, about 2 percent of the total. [One administrator] argued that the toxic behavior of some doctors--those who ducked responsibility or lacked anger management skills--infected the organization. Attitudes and not technical skills, she discovered, were the biggest determinant of performance..."

So, what is a better solution? I’m thinking de-fang rather than eliminate. To minimize the negative psychological impact that others may have on us it helps to remember that there are such situations that lead people to behave in ways that they otherwise might not. When someone is grieving over the loss of an important relationship such as a after a death in the family, resultant appearance may involve the person in being incorrectly labeled as having a "negative attitude." It’s not hard to see how that misinterpretation can compound an already tragic situation. This compounding leading to loss of a job was first mentioned on an public radio program I only caught part of a couple years ago, and that I’m now looking for again. If anyone can help me identify that program in NPR’s archives, it would be much appreciated.

In addition, there are conditions that manifest themselves as what some call "disorders of empathy", as in an autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome, believed to be widely prevalent to some degree (shading into normal) in technological as well as artistic fields. According to a story in Time magazine: "There is no question that many successful people--not just scientists and engineers but writers and lawyers as well--possess a suite of traits that seem to be, for lack of a better word, Aspergery." But, as the article suggests, had we gotten rid of these people because they were different it may very likely have caused us all to be living more impoverished lives for the lack of their important contributions. Being aware of these kinds of factors and others may go a long way to instilling a greater sense of non-reaction built on patience, tolerance for diversity, and giving people the benefit of the doubt.

So before calling people names consider whether you’re on some level doing it in a mean-spirited, vengeful manner. And remember, anyone who would readily destroy another’s career as punishment for some relatively minor perceived transgression--well, one might say that’s being a real asshole.

We don’t take our toxic waste and dump it in the river for others downstream to deal with. Neither should we do the same with people. Detoxify at the source, as that’s often the best approach in either situation. In the latter case, that detoxification begins with a change in our own perceptions.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Workplace mingi

I recall seeing a fascinating but also chilling documentary many years ago about the Hamar and Karo tribes in Africa. Recently I came across a related video clip from National Geographic, from which I transcribed the following:

Narrator: "Their survival is due to an unquestioning belief in an omen called mingi. Mingi is a sign that bad things will happen to the tribe: war, famine, failed crops. It is an omen that comes in the most innocent of forms. It is a child whose upper teeth come through before the lower teeth, or [who has] any physical defect, like a cleft palette. Twins are also seen as mingi. Or a child born out of wedlock. In each of these cases, the child will be thrown into the river or left out in the bushes to die."

Professor John Burton, who teaches anthropology at Connecticut College in New London: "Mingi provides these people of a way of understanding what's happened and what should be done. So, for example, a man may say, 'Because we didn't get rid of this child last year, and it was a mingi child, that's why we have drought right now.'"


Fortunately--the horrors of famine and war facing African tribes today notwithstanding--the system of mingi that leads to such tragic loss of life is fading into history. However, the notion of negatively labeling and then cutting an individual loose from his moorings in society or organization may be finding something of a resurgence in some circles. I will try to provide supporting references in future posts. A parallel to mingi within the culture of modern organizations might go something like this:

Corporate survival is due to an unquestioning belief in an omen called "problem employees". Having problem employees is a sign that bad things will happen to the company: ruthless competition, stock decline, failed products. It is an omen that comes in the form of an individual. It is an employee who may be seen as being somehow different, whose difference is a defect whereby he doesn't quite fit in with the others, who furthermore may have once displayed what appeared to be a negative attitude, and who, after thus being labeled a problem employee, is feared will become a cancer on the organization if collective action is not taken. The employee will then be terminated or at least isolated until he resigns.

Problem employees provide an organization with a way of understanding what's happened and what should be done. So, for example, an executive might say, "Because we didn't get rid of a certain employee last year, her negative attitude has infected her coworkers, and that's why we have poor morale now."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Unleashing creativity

The following is exemplary of unleashing creativity by way of setting aside worries over time and cost. Time stands still when you are creating, and cost becomes insignificant in relation to the eventual payoff realized.

On the 40th anniversary of the recording of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's album, Guitar World Magazine (June 2007) published a special tribute section to what it says is an album that "has been hailed repeatedly as one of the most influential albums of all time."

The main article quotes from an interview with the recording engineer about the process of creating the album:

It was a time of great experimentation.
There were no time limits,
and as far as cost--their attitude was,
'Sod the cost! We're making a masterpiece.'

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Employee termination made easy

So I keep getting these emails from Kevin Muir trying to sell me his $247.00+shipping "Employee Termination Guidebook". I thought I'd look him up on linkedin.com, but there were multiple matches--the Kevin Muir who initially looked most promising was:

Kevin Muir
Employment Coordinator

However, reading further, I see this listed under his past positions:
Regional Director - New York and New Jersey Chapter at American Foundation For Suicide Prevention

I discern I've likely got the wrong guy. Here is the text of a recent email:
Hi John,

You requested my Termination Triggers report about a month
ago. You were likely having trouble with one of your
subordinates and coworkers.

Since some time has gone by and I have not heard from you, I
just want you to know I'm still here to assist you.

Do you continue to deal with a problem employee? How much
damage in morale, results and frustration does the employee
continue to cause?

If you remain frustrated, you should read my Employee
Termination Guidebook. The techniques and methods in the
Guidebook have worked for so many others -- They will work
for you, too.

You shouldn't have to go to work every day and deal with a
non-performing and badly behaving employee. You can start
the termination process today. Read more about all this at


All the best,

Kevin Muir, Turnaround Central
Author of the 'Employee Termination Guidebook'

 [Curiously, in 2010 this same website now claims that one Dan Betts is the author of the Employee Termination Guidebook]

Going to the website, one learns that whether you want to fire someone for legal or not legal reasons, no problem, there are techniques you can utilize, including "ingenious tricks to get the employee to fire himself." You will learn to "only document when you are terminating (and disciplining) for a legitimate and legal reason. And don’t document when you are firing for an illegal reason." You will further learn to not waste your time on efforts to rehabilitate, because if "you decide to rehabilitate the problem employee, he’ll drain all the energy from you". Remember, "a bad apple remains a bad apple".

Termination Principles
[This link apparently was removed from the site sometime after the original post.]