"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

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.