Categories
Empathy Foundational Values

Oh No, Not Again!

As a leader, there is no doubt you’ve been saturated with writing and lessons in empathy. Since empathy was at the center of my life studies, there was a time when I was going to write a book about it. As some folks might say: “But Amazon.

Given all that, what could I offer you in regard to empathy that you might not have already read?

You and I likely agree that, in order for you to do a world-class job at eliciting requirements in any discipline, your ability to hone your empathy skills is of utmost importance.

But one thing that I will share with you that many other writers might not is: no matter what your experience with empathy, if you are to get somewhere great, the work is very, very difficult. After all, if it were that easy, why would there be so many books to try to teach you how to make it easy? Empathy is a lot like running, biking, swimming, or weightlifting. It takes regular exercise and practice to keep you at the top of your game.

When I teach software engineers about empathy, nothing I have found illustrates how hard it is to empathize well better than the following exercise:

The next time PowerBall or MegaMillions begins to ramp up to an insane value, have everyone in your team buy a ticket. Not in the shared office sense, mind you…no, have every single person buy his or her own ticket.

(In order to really do this exercise well, it’s important for each person to have actually bought a ticket. Disclaimer: please don’t do this if you have a gambling addiction. I do care for you.)

Knowing that each person has an actual chance at winning (while simultaneously acknowledging the old adage that the lottery is a tax on people who failed math), have each person ponder:

“What will life be like if I won?”

You will find your teammates saying all sorts of interesting things. But here’s the rub: If you don’t get at least a little scared of a few things, you’re not thinking hard enough.

I’m not going to try to explain why in this post — I can follow up on that at a later time. But the point is: if you cannot empathize with a future version of yourself, how can you empathize with somebody else?

The answer: because empathizing is hard.

Almost all work is a requirements elicitation exercise. From coal mining to neuroscience, from taking orders for tacos to sending people to Mars, we all spend much of our time at work understanding other people’s problems so that we can formulate solutions.

The key to successful requirements elicitation is in understanding the people we are serving, and empathy is the key.

But it is hard. Work on it. Every. Single. Day.

More to come.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gV-kTMGUwI. And you thought it was going to be https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH_xiZZheg4.

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Categories
Empathy Trust

The Invisible Propeller

[Beanie Illustration]

When you are introduced to new businesspeople as a technologist, how do these people begin to see you?

What sorts of biases might they have about what they expect from you?

Why do you think that might be the case?

It is entirely possible that you might not suspect any biases. If that is the case, I hope you find something of interest in this chapter of our journey together.

Arguably, many of us in the field of technology are coarsely viewed as “engineers” by those we interact with and serve. While “engineer” typically connotes a high degree of assumed intellect, the label has a certain amount of baggage that is unwise to ignore. People tend to assume that engineers:

  • Will talk above the heads of people around them from time to time
  • Might view others as having an inferior degree of understanding of technical issues
  • Will want to dissect details and debate minutiae
  • Will unrelentingly challenge arguments that have holes or weaknesses
  • Are more interested in things than in people

Take a moment to reflect on your past. Have you, dear technology leader, ever offered a simple observation about a business situation in non-technical terms, only to be asked to stop being technical? If you haven’t, then perhaps you haven’t lived!

Over the decades that I have nurtured the talents of young engineers in the workplace and in the classroom, I ask that, when they walk into a room of businesspeople for the first time, they develop an awareness of a certain propeller on their heads — a propeller that they themselves cannot see, but which is possibly quite visible to those who they are newly serving.

There is a simple way to identify whether or not your propeller is visible: your audience will come to you with solutions, rather than with problems. Have you ever wondered why so many businesspeople do this? Have you ever had the privilege of being a fly on the wall in the meetings leading up to the meetings with you or your teams?

Here is an abject lesson: throughout the world, businesspeople prepare thoroughly to provide as much detail as possible about what they want done before they meet with engineers, often to the point of becoming armchair engineers themselves, all in an effort to run out of the room as quickly as possible when the day finally comes.

  • If you are a salesperson, you want to meet people and sell to them.
  • If you are a CEO, you want to meet people and cultivate relationships.
  • If you are an accountant, you want to crunch numbers and make projections.
  • Think about every other position in your business, and you will see a trend.

When the time comes to meet with the software engineers and IT people in your business, the idea is: get in, get out, and get back to what you were doing. You want the software engineers and IT people to give you what you ask them for. You know the business, and they (sadly, all too often), simply do not. As much as those engineers know their stuff, your job is to convey to them things about your customers that they do not know as well as you do, and they need to listen to what you need.

All of this is a sort of horrible setup for bad things, I hope you can see. But I am sure you have seen it all before.

Businesspeople do this because engineers have a long history of being a pain in the ass. Your option, as a person with the label (whether you asked for it or not) of “engineer,” is to not be a pain in the ass. The best way to do that is to assume that you might be, in fact, a pain in the ass. Hence, the invisible propeller.

Now, it is entirely possible that people do this simply because they want to be helpful, or that they enjoy armchair engineering. Even in these cases, it is a fair indicator that there may be a lack of awareness of the engineer’s duty to develop an understanding of the problem that is there to be solved.

Before I go much further, I must acknowledge something important, lest I be an invisibleist. Developing a sense for this might be quite difficult for the fair chunk of technologists who are on the spectrum — not an insignificant portion of our population. I have an anecdotal belief that the history of engineering culture owes at least some part of its reputation to this, which is why I am happy to see companies like Auticon, Aspiritech, and even Microsoft address this with programs that cultivate these talents with special attention.

How do you transition from being a pain in the ass — a propellerhead — to a trusted human colleague? There is a small minefield that technologists must get through. The journey begins with steering the conversation to focus on the problem your customer is facing. To demonstrate this, I like to offer an exercise.

Imagine that you are having chest pains, and you run to your doctor, telling him: “Hey! Doc! I’m having a heart attack!”

What do you think the doctor is going to do?

I’ve asked this question in job interviews and classrooms for the better part of two decades, and the answers I have gotten run a wide gamut. In a future column, I hope to share an analysis of the answers I have collected from students over several years of guest lecturing at RIT and other schools.

But back to you: what do you think the doctor is going to do?

Is she going to apply a defibrillator? Is he going to give you aspirin? Is she going to rush you to the hospital? Is he going to ask you how you would know that, given that you are not a doctor? Or is the doctor going to ask you, “Tell me more about your symptoms?”

As the patient, do you go to the doctor with your own pre-determined diagnosis, wishing for the doctor to implement your solution to your problem? Or do you want the doctor to listen to your problems, and determine the solution that he or she thinks is best for you?

We should expect the same in our engineering relationships. However, customers expect something from engineers, and an empathic discussion is often not one of them. As a matter of fact, for engineers to thoroughly walk to the empathic, they sometimes have to risk making their customers feel like they got into more than they bargained for.

Imagine an empathic software engineer being asked to add a new field on a screen of an application. Rather than responding with “OK” (which is tantamount to our doctor applying a defibrillator without asking about symptoms), let’s suppose the engineer replies with:

“Interesting! Help me understand what your business process is.”

What do you expect could go wrong? Our customer’s reaction very well might be:

“What? I don’t have time for this – not something I expected to have to discuss with you.”

That feeling itself is valid; it’s a result of years of avoiding bad conversations with bad engineers.

A truly thoughtful engineer — one who sees the invisible propeller — has to be prepared for that sort of response.

Let’s go back to the doctor scenario. What’s one thing you hope the doctor won’t do? You hope he won’t be, well, a pain in the ass.

“How would you know that you are having a heart attack? You are not a doctor! I will be the one to tell you that you are having a heart attack!”

Yet, how often have you heard an engineer say something like that?

“What makes you think you need that field? If I add that, it could cause all sorts of problems!”

A thoughtful engineer who can envision her invisible propeller will bring a fundamental empathy to the table, and will respond with something that honors the underlying anxiety:

“Yeah, I get that. And I know your time is very valuable! I want to make sure I take a moment to truly understand your underlying problem so that I can ensure that, together, we achieve the results you expect. I will work hard not to take too much time when I do this, and my experience tells me that you’ll be happier. If now isn’t a good time, do you want to schedule something?”

Notice how the word “but” — or words like it — doesn’t appear in her response. It takes a great deal of finesse to honor the validity of your customer’s feelings, and not diminish them. There are a variety of other perfectly good approaches as well.

The goal here is to develop a relationship with your customer — a relationship where your customer begins to trust that the time spent with you is worthwhile. Through the results that you produce, your work will get easier, because your propeller will eventually, and truly, disappear.

The journey from propellerhead to trusted advisor starts with accepting the unfortunate legacy that years of engineers created before you. Those who are able to make this journey will find their careers immeasurably rewarding when compared to those who do not. As Lisa Hermsen (the Caroline Werner Gannett Professor of Humanities at RIT) once shared with me,

“The difference between an engineer who can communicate and one who cannot…is a room with a view.”

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5vZovv8cPk.

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Categories
Compassion Current Events: 2020 Empathy

Guess Who’s Coming to Phish?

By now, I’m sure you have all read about what Tribune Publishing did to its employees.

Does your organization perform internal phishing tests?

If so, do you feel you do it “better” than Tribune Publishing did?

In what way?

Is it necessary to perform phishing tests?

Why do you think so?

If you know me by now, you might have an idea where I’m going. I think it’s a good idea for your organization to consider reasons why it’s not good to do these sorts of tests at all.

Phishing, by its very nature, will get evermore convincing. That is its entire point.

You do not need to test people to discover this.

What you will discover when you test is that a select group of individuals will fall victim to it.

You will be surprised at some, and not at others.

You will “educate” them about what they did to fall victim.

You will do it again, and you will get different results.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

If you get really “good” at administering phishing tests, you will lose satisfaction with the results. You will realize that the phishers up their games all the time, and that you need to, too. And you might, in fact, wind up doing something similar to what Tribune Publishing did in order to “really show those users” how at-risk they are.

Where does that get you in the end? It puts you squarely into the “us versus them” — “IT versus users” (and I use that horrible term with purpose, here) — position that gives IT a bad name. This is the very reason why I sometimes claim that “IT is a two-letter four letter word.”

Is that what you want?

What would it look like if you were to suggest to your IT leadership and teams that the time for phishing tests is over? What do you think they would say?

“The only way for people to really know how vulnerable they are is to do an objective empirical test that allows us to show them!”

“Those phishers are a moving target, and we need people to see how vulnerable they really are to the newest techniques!”

I am going to get vulnerable with you, in two ways.

First off, several years ago, I, too, thought these tests were novel and useful. In particular, I was interested in creating a dialog with senior leaders about their own vulnerability to phishing. It is a fairly commonly-accepted fact that senior executives are the most successfully-targeted people for phishing initiatives, because phishers have the most to gain, and executives are generally under greater-than-average pressure to quickly plow through their emails.

But I also know that, over the years, I have come very, very close to falling for some very sophisticated phishing myself — to the point where I once performed an action that I had doubts about, and had to quickly employ technical processes to mitigate what I had done. I was very lucky.

If I were a betting man, I would bet that your IT teams feel that they would not fall for phishing as easily as the rest of your organization.

And therein lies the inflection point for your cultural conversation with your IT teams.

Let’s assume that your IT team could educate your workforce to be as “good” at avoiding phishing as they feel they are. Ask your IT teams, “Are you 100% immune to phishing?”

If they tell you, “yes,” then I think you know the work you have to do with them.

If they tell you, “no,” then ask them, what are the best ways to protect you from that fact? Should the executive team do a phishing test on you?

If someone says, “Yeah, that would be kind of cool!” then I suggest that you warn them it would have to be pretty compelling in order to have the desired impact. Show them what happened at Tribune Publishing. Ask them how they would feel if you did that to them.

I suspect that you and I both know where that conversation will lead.


Language of the following sort nauseates me:

“We have to educate the users so that they learn to protect themselves.”

(There it is again…isn’t the term “users” disgusting?)

Do organizations perform phishing tests to primarily benefit their employees, or to primarily benefit the organization? If a victimized employee came to you after being phished, do you suppose that their initial response would be: “Gee, I wish you had tested me so that this wouldn’t have happened!”

It is our very industry that has created the holes that attackers use to take advantage of people. With more thought, our industry could have created operating systems and protocols that presaged human nature and mitigated the need for humans to worry so much when engaging with our creations. Back in the 1970s, some significant work was done to anticipate the need for more secure operating systems that might have fundamentally changed the direction of personal computing, but these ideas never took off once the computer wars of the 1980s ensued.

Given that it is our industry that created the mess that we are in, is it fair to so effortlessly thrust the results of our laziness on our customers?

Now, I am certainly not the first person to write this sort of opinion piece about phishing tests. But I am fairly confident that I am the first person who will frame this topic in the following manner:

Did you ever watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s a powerful movie that portrays the emotions of an interracial couple — and the reactions of their parents about their desire to marry — during the Civil Rights Era. In a particularly powerful scene, the son, played by Sidney Poitier, reacts to his father’s assertion that he has to do what his father asks (not marry a white woman), simply because his father brought him into this world. Take a few minutes to watch this powerful scene:

Think of our industry as the father, and think of our customer as the son. We owe our customer everything. Why can’t we do a little more — no, a lot more — to pick up the slack?

In fact, there are proven tools to help us mitigate many types of phishing. The single most valuable tool is a well-implemented security risk assessment, wherein you identify the things that you think are vulnerable to phishing, and create practices that harden those areas.

What was the Tribune trying to do with its phishing exercise? From all appearances, they wanted to see if they could lead employees to share credentials for ostensibly nefarious use. But if those systems were hardened with multi-factor authentication, what would a phishing test achieve?

IT teams can spend money to embarrass people. But wouldn’t it be better to spend the same money protecting people? If it costs more to protect people than to embarrass people, then might it be worth discussing whether or not you want a culture like they have at Tribune Publishing?

I encourage all IT professionals to remember that we are like the father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. We represent an industry that made imperfect choices. Giving our customers technical responsibilities that make our lives easier is distasteful and disrespectful.

To paraphrase Sidney Poitier: We owe them everything.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh5_NSemt0Q.

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Categories
Compassion Empathy Invisibleism Love

What Makes the World Go ’Round?

When you sit down with people at work and ask them about the problems that they are having — the problems that you are there to solve — How often do you think about the following?

  • Is the person recently married?
  • Is he going through a divorce?
  • Is she having a child?
  • Is he having an affair?
  • Is her mother ill?
  • Is his father dying?
  • Does her son have cancer?
  • Is his daughter going through a divorce?
  • Was her best friend hurt by her boyfriend?
  • Is he spending enough time with his children and wife for them all to be fulfilled?
  • Is her husband fighting in a war overseas?
  • If you are speaking with a man, what role does his gender play in how he considers his relationship with you?
  • If you are speaking with a woman, what role does her gender play in how she considers her relationship with you?
  • What about your own gender? What about your sexuality? Do these have an impact on the way that you work with others?

Are any of these things less important than the work at hand?

There’s a phrase you’ll sometimes hear at work: “Leave your personal life at the door.” Good leaders will do their best to do that, but not everyone can be expected to be so skilled. If you expect everyone to be able to let go of the most important things in life when they walk into the office, you are fooling yourself. Remember, as universal and important as work is in our culture — and while it provides a wage that allows us to live in our commercial world — you can, in fact, live well enough without work, as many people on this planet do, and have done, for eons. You cannot, however, live well without love.

When you are in the business of solving problems — which is, in fact, what people in software engineering and information technology get paid to do — you will not succeed without taking people’s psychological state into account. Love — whether romantic, familial, or otherwise — is arguably the most primal component of our psychological well-being.

Not too long ago, I was asked to speak to two groups of project managers for a professional development conference. At the top of each presentation, I asked the audience to identify the top three and bottom three skills for project managers. The list contained six skills. Five of these skills were uniformly found in ten different lists of top ten skills for project managers that I found online. These five skills were:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Negotiation
  • Risk Management
  • Scheduling

Keep in mind that ten different people or organizations agreed that these five skills were of utmost important to project managers. None of them could actually be considered unimportant in any way, shape, or form. This was a trick question!

The sixth skill, which I selected for inclusion in this little survey, was not on a single top ten list that I could find. That skill?

  • Psychology

The survey was administered to two groups of 32 project managers. There were strikingly similar results in each group:

Group 1 results
Group 2 results

Both groups of project managers uniformly picked Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation as the top three skills for project managers.

But the bottom three skills? Psychology, Risk Management, and Scheduling.

Remember, Risk Management and Scheduling can be routinely found in many top ten lists of skills for project managers. Credit is due the respondents for including Psychology in the middle of the pack, even though it merely made the top of the bottom three skills. I could be a cynic and interpret these results as implying that Psychology is the number one unimportant skill, but a fair number of each group put Psychology in the number three position, implying otherwise.

Nonetheless, there was agreement among the bulk of these respondents that Communication, Leadership, and Negotiation were more important than Psychology.

Is that a surprise?

For any of you out there who don’t think that Psychology is the most important skill that a project manager — or, frankly, most anybody in a role to solve other people’s problems — can have, please take a moment to ask yourself:

  • How can you communicate if you don’t understand what your audience is going through?
  • How can you lead if you don’t understand the people you are leading?
  • How can you negotiate effectively if you don’t understand the unique perspectives and current mindsets of the involved parties?
  • How can you manage risks if you don’t understand the mindset of the people who can bring about change?
  • How can you schedule with great effectiveness if you don’t understand what your resources are going through?

As I pointed out in my third post here, there has been almost too much written about empathy. If you have gone through good leadership training, you have, no doubt, been taught of its importance. But as we apply empathy, do we always go as deeply as we should to consider the psychological — or, the love — condition of the humans we serve?

If you yourself know that love is the most important thing in your life, why might it be so easy for you to carve that out of your view of others? I suggest that this is a frequent sign of invisibleism. Reflect on the cell phone scenario of our August 27, 2020 post for a moment. Doesn’t that have everything to do with love?

The problem is that love is such a deeply personal thing, and we are not often privy to its details outside of our own purview. On your journey, keep in mind how private you keep your own love matters. It’s safe to assume that others are doing the same. But if you assume — correctly — that love is the single biggest driving force in people’s lives, you will begin to find indicators.

  • Someone not interested in talking to you for several days?
  • Someone need to leave work unexpectedly and postpone a meeting?
  • Someone generally unhappy?
  • Someone incredibly happy and distracted from work?
  • Someone doesn’t care to learn the new software you wrote or deployed?
  • Someone refusing to take the time to read your training materials about phishing?

In situations like this, how might love be involved? You may not be entitled to details, but you are entitled to consider what’s behind these behaviors. The empathic and compassionate are more likely to be able to figure out what’s going on, and that information just might provide the insight needed to approach work situations more effectively.

If you empathize about only one aspect of people’s lives, make it love. You’ll be sure to get something valuable back for your investment.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dhkx6CAEXfU.

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Categories
Empathy Invisibleism

Introducing The Invisibleism Grids

What might happen if we could see inside someone’s head, and gain a better understanding of what makes that person tick?

We’ve all had it happen. You kick off a new project, and you’re working hard, meeting with all sorts of people to understand what’s required. You schedule a meeting with a key person. But on the day of the meeting, he’s completely disengaged. No worries! You reschedule. The new meeting day arrives, but he cancels. What could be happening?

Or, you may have a meeting with someone you’ve worked with a for a long time. But on the day you meet, she’s “off.” Everybody has a bad day, so you reschedule. When you finally meet, you notice that your dear colleague just…seems…different these days.

What do you do? Do you get visibly frustrated? Do you complain to the person, or to someone else?

Or do you sit back and think, what could I be missing?

How do we better engage the disengaged, or the people who are acting in ways we don’t quite understand?


I introduced readers to the idea of invisibleism in August of 2020. Since that time, that article has become one of the most-read blog posts on The Progressive CIO, and it is something that has sparked more than a few conversations with my own business colleagues.

The natural challenge in overcoming invisibleism is allowing yourself ample time to consider the things you don’t see in the person or people at hand.

Over the last several years, I have groomed a collection of questions that I ask myself when I realize that I am at risk of being an invisibleist. In this post, I share with you, at long last, “The Invisibleism Grids.” (Link will open in a new tab or window.) These grids have been designed for you as a tool. Read on for more about when and how to use them.

[Screenshot of the grids.]

When to use the grids

The Invisibleism Grids are most useful when you are having an issue engaging with someone in the context of solving a business problem (which includes eliciting requirements, service and product development, process engineering, and other similar activities.) The grids are not a complete list of human conditions by any means; they are merely a reflection of my own 30+ years in the workplace, representing the spectrum of personal situations that I have experienced with others. More pertinently, these are all characteristics or conditions that, if you are armed with a little knowledge, you can accommodate or work through to achieve a business goal.

The grids are useful when you wish to develop a more meaningful relationship with anyone, whether in a business or personal setting. But that is not their primary purpose.

How to use the grids

When you have an issue engaging with someone in the context of solving a business problem, scan through the grids, which are divided into the following core categories of human conditions:

  • Psychological Considerations
  • Comparative/Positional/Relational Considerations
  • Considerations of Self
  • Situational/Environmental Considerations
  • Personality Considerations
  • Ability Considerations
  • Addiction Considerations

Think about each item and whether it might be at play. There are more than 60 things to consider in these grids, none of which I would say are uncommon.

The first grid, Psychological Issues, is special, and different from the grids that follow. It includes 38 indicators that will guide you to consider whether a psychological condition might be at play.

The 38 indicators are not an exhaustive collection of symptoms for the conditions at hand; they are merely the indicators that are easiest for a person like you or me to observe.

I am resolutely not a psychologist, and you might be in the same boat, but we are all entitled consider the implications of these conditions in the lives of people with whom we interact. The key difference between us, the mere amateurs, and those with a Ph.D or M.D. is that we can merely surmise, while the doctors can diagnose.

Have a look at the conditions, and think about the possibility that the person in question might be experiencing one or more of them. I have provided a pair of links for each overarching condition — one from an authoritative nonprofit that contributes to the understanding of the condition by the general public, and a second from an authoritative medical source like the NIH — that will help you gain a better understanding if you think you are onto something.

The Addictions grid is decidedly non-exhaustive. I’ve listed five key sorts of addictions I have managed through in my career, with a handy link from the Mayo Clinic that will help you identify personality traits that surround all manner of addictions. If you think you are dealing with a person who has an addiction, there are numerous resources at your disposal through a Google search.

The remaining grids (Comparative/Positional/Relational, Self, Situational/Environmental, Personality, and Abilities) are broken down into subcategories, with many things to consider in each. Where I have been able to find an authoritative or useful article online to help you develop a better understanding of how that human condition might relate to your work at hand, I have linked to one. Where it makes sense, I provide an illustrative spectrum of 3-4 levels of these conditions, and how those levels may be manifest.

As with the Psychological Issues and Addictions grids, there are portions of these grids that are not exhaustive. For example, the “Abilities” grid lists merely two “invisible” things; but these two things are, in my experience, most likely to have an impact on your day to day business work with someone else.

If you take the time to consider the 60+ conditions and the 38 psychological indicators, you will have considered nearly 100 different things that might be going on in a person’s life, all which are generally much more difficult to discern than race, gender, age, and (sometimes) class. As you work through the aspects of the grids, you will reduce your odds of becoming an Invisibleist in the situation at hand.

Two critical considerations

Please do not use the Invisibleism Grids without considering these two points:

  • First, never forget that your own behaviors will affect how others respond to you. To best use the grids, we would do well to exercise a great deal of situational self-awareness, to understand how our own personal traits affect others and the conversations we have with them. Think about aspects of the grids that describe you, and spend time to increase your understanding of how those things may affect your own interactions.
  • Second, there is no doubt that aspects of both your human condition and mine can be unearthed via the Invisibleism Grids. You and I are as subject to the discrimination that comes from invisibleism as anyone else. If your goal in using the Invisibleism Grids is to better discern what might be causing difficulty in your interactions, remember that personal vulnerability goes a long way. If you are comfortable enough to share the invisible aspects of your world, you will increase the odds that your interlocutors will feel comfortable making the invisible visible to you, easing your understanding, and enhancing your relationships.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfUzs4NDa64.

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Categories
Antipatterns Compassion Empathy Humility

The Most Unwitting Expression of Condescension Known to Mankind?

We lean on each other to get through the tougher parts of life. On our best days, we are eager to help one another.

We watch a friend or colleague struggle with a new task that we have practiced. We want them to know that it will become second nature to them, too, once they get through it a few times. We want to give them hope and promise. We say:

It’s easy! Let me show you.

With those six simple words, offered innocently, we introduce a heap of risk.

Have you ever struggled with a task, only to been told by someone else that “It’s easy!”?

How did that make you feel?

“It’s easy” is possibly the most commonly-tendered unwitting expression of condescension known to mankind. In the world of software deployment, in the context of The Invisible Propeller, it’s downright deadly.

It would take more than both hands of every software engineering and IT professional who ever lived to count the number of times that “It’s easy!” has made people pretend to know what they are doing when learning a software feature.

When “it’s easy” for you (a technology professional) and not for me (a “mere user”), why do I want to admit to you that I now feel like an idiot?

Is there a handy remedy for this? Try this on for size: instead of suggesting that something is easy, experiment with admitting that something is actually a pain in the neck, even if you no longer think it is. We all connect better with others when we come from below them, rather than from above them. In other words, keep a keen eye on lowering your status when helping others.

This doesn’t have to sound negative:

“This might be tricky the first few times you try it. Let me see how I can help you get there. Let’s try this together.”

Although this can create a strong human bond:

“Oh gosh, yes, this can be such a pain. Let me show you some tricks I’ve learned.”

These phrases are disarming. They are vastly more likely to result in open conversations that will get people to admit what they don’t know, without fear of feeling stupid. More pertinently, they are more likely to wind up helping your audience members get where they want to be.

It’s harder to do all this than it is to say “it’s easy.” But every time you try, you will gain momentum…and ultimately, you’ll become a more helpful human. That’s a nice place to be!

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnI_ko3_r_c.

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Current Events: 2021 Empathy

It’s The Great Recalibration, Charlie Brown

(It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’m sorry. One of the books that I was editing this year finally came out this past weekend. Now I can get back to life as normal. Whatever that is!)

I shared the following this past January 1st:

2021 will be a year filled with job changes. People who have lost their jobs, who have relocated to a city that they don’t care for, who need to get out of a city that isn’t what it once was, who were treated poorly during the pandemic, or who are more or less burned out, will all be eager for change. 2021 will be a year filled with an incredible number of people switching jobs.

This was easy to predict.

Wake up. Poop. Shower. Eat. Get the kids to school (or daycare). Get to work. Work. Work. Work. Get out of work. Get the kids from school (or daycare). Get the kids to soccer. Eat. Pick up the kids. Get the kids to eat. Get the kids to do their homework. Do some more work, or other work. Get the kids to bed. Go to bed.

Work itself is not the highest form of living. It’s work, after all. If it were something else, we wouldn’t be paid for doing it.

Our human form of work is a tortured affair compared to the work of our non-human brethren, who wake up, browse for food, rest, defend themselves, mate, rest, and generally have more time to ponder in the sun, rain, wind and other elements than we do.

Why do we treat pondering and resting as something reserved for the elderly? Aren’t we well-served by both things on our entire route to retirement?

The past 18 months have helped us answer those questions. Vast numbers of people want more time and space to do non-work things. To ponder. To rest. To spend time with families doing “non-productive” things. And as the world turns and we feel this so acutely, your work is probably the most challenging it has ever been. I don’t know anybody who isn’t experiencing work or life impact from global supply chain issues.

Many executives believe that traditional work lifestyles are immutable, underpinned by a natural desire to compete and win and earn money. Many want to ignore the consequences of coronavirus because of the threat to those traditions. They have lost the ability to empathize with people who work merely to get by. They judge people based upon how “productive” they are, and value those who value the same things. This is not a sustainable approach, and 2021 is helping us come to terms with that.

It is time to tend to our collective mental health. As we reinvent the world of work — which we must do — we need to find ways to provide space that allows employees to ponder, and to rest.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QO5dcW0P75M.

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Categories
Commitment Compassion Curiosity Current Events: 2021 Empathy Humility Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Fixing Today’s Workplace Requires Packing Up Our Politics

Taking a look today (December 6th, 2021) at the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction bestseller list, I see:

  1. History (THE 1619 PROJECT)
  2. Biography/Entertainment (WILL)
  3. Biography/Entertainment (THE LYRICS: 1956 TO THE PRESENT)
  4. Biography/Entertainment (THE STORYTELLER)
  5. Holiday (ALL AMERICAN CHRISTMAS)
  6. Entertainment / Food (TASTE)
  7. Personal stories (THESE PRECIOUS DAYS)
  8. Biography/Medicine (THE REAL ANTHONY FAUCI)
  9. History (THE PRESIDENT AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTER)
  10. Biography/Entertainment (THE BEATLES: GET BACK)

Compare that to two years ago at this time:

  1. Politics (A WARNING)
  2. Politics (TRIGGERED)
  3. Entertainment (ME)
  4. Politics (BECOMING)
  5. History (SAM HOUSTON AND THE ALAMO AVENGERS)
  6. Communication (TALKING TO STRANGERS)
  7. Personal stories (FINDING CHIKA)
  8. Personal stories (EDUCATED)
  9. Biology (THE BODY)
  10. Politics (WITH ALL DUE RESPECT)

Those differences are telling. Two years ago, post-election, with our cold civil war a-brewing, politics was our fascination. Today, we are weary for just about anything other than entertainment. Our brains and our souls need a rest and a reset.

Interest in work-related topics is also in an ebb cycle. People are not in the mood to read books, columns, or blogs that consist of generalized advice aimed at improving their work lives. I suspect people realize that questions about what’s truly going on right now in the workforce have no easy answers. What’s truly going on is that our cold civil war has bled into our work life.

The Progressive CIO was borne out of my epiphanies in the wake of COVID-19 — a long and turbulent wake that we are still navigating. My writings have reflected my work and encounters along the way. In recent months, however, I’ve slowed. I have nothing to offer that I think can address our cold civil war, and writing more about the eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO seems tone-deaf at the moment. While those values are — and always will be — important, getting back to considering them will require navigating out of our current wake, which requires addressing politics.

We’re not supposed to have politics in our workplaces, though, right? As it turns out, it’s too late for that. As we attempt to return to offices, COVID has brought politics into the workplace as never before, for a simple reason: the semiotics of the face covering.

I cannot think of any symbol in the workplace — or in everyday life — that has communicated a political stance so overtly in my lifetime as the manner in which face coverings are (or are not) worn. This is not to say that wearing a face covering or not is, unto itself, a form of political expression. As with a tree falling in the forest, it’s the junction of the act and the audience where meaning takes shape.

Take a look at these four different face-covering scenarios, and reflect on what they say to you:

At least one of those will strike a nerve within you, wherever you sit on the political spectrum.

Semiotics are a part of everyday communication and everyday life. Face coverings fall into the non-language communication subset of semiotics, which are distinct from the more-commonly-encountered non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication involves a language; that is to say, a system of communication with a learned form and structure. Music is a language, for instance. Non-language communication, on the other hand, lacks any system or learned form and structure. Lines on our roads are non-verbal communication; a driver swerving around those lines is non-language communication.

Non-language communication isn’t discussed much outside of academic circles. If it were, I suppose we might have a better public dialog about face covering techniques. I suspect, however, that it wouldn’t have an impact on our current cold civil war at work. Whether we like it or not, masks have become a form of wearing one’s politics on one’s face. The bigger issue is that non-language communication, through its very nature, makes verbal analysis more challenging.

At the present, only fully-distributed workforces are in a position to avoid face covering controversies in daily work life. We know, however, that not all workforces can be fully-distributed.

Proposed vaccination and testing rules are about to increase the magnitude of the COVID-19 wake, before the current tide has finished going out. How a company reacts to and addresses these rules puts politics on a company’s face as well.

When we are in a place where we know the solution is: “Take politics out of the workplace” and those politics are now a way of life as a matter of public health, then where does that leave us?

It leaves us doing our jobs and trying not to think about them when we don’t have to. It leaves us tired of politics, even if we are energized by them. (Which leaves me to ponder: If one is energized by politics, then what does that say about that person and their priorities?) It leaves us retreating to our homes, our families, entertainment, and the things that truly matter in life. That’s not all a bad thing. But if our lives require us to work, we’re all in a pickle for the time being.

Back to those eight foundational values of The Progressive CIO: I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to reflect on them, and how they play a role in getting ourselves out of our current situation:

Vulnerability: Are we willing to be honest and open with one another about how our current world is affecting us? This will include senior leaders acknowledging that these vulnerable voices need to be heard.

Humility: Are we willing to recognize that this situation is bigger than all of us, and that it is a comedy of errors, of sorts, if not a true human tragedy? It’s difficult to laugh at, but I believe we have to if we are to collectively solve it.

Empathy: No matter your politics or attitude, will you try as hard as you can to see the validity in the other side’s point of view? This doesn’t mean that you agree that the other side is right; it merely means that you work hard enough to try to understand and not summarily dismiss.

Patience: This might be the hardest thing of all. People were tired of not getting their hair colored one month into the pandemic. Do we have the collective patience to deal with one another to move past where we are today? We don’t have a choice, because it will be a long haul. If we can acknowledge this, we stand a chance to get a clearer understanding of what the path to progress looks like.

Compassion: Do we genuinely care about each other, to the extent we are willing to go out of our way to bring comfort to others?

Curiosity: Are we willing to explore the new and unseen options that we have not yet explored to get us past where we are today?

Commitment: Are we willing to make true commitments to one another, and follow through on those commitments?

Willingness: Do we have genuine willingness to do all of the hard work above?

Given how tired we all remain, who can we expect to initiate this sort of effort on a meaningful scale?

Only those who govern us.

I’m not talking about legislation; I’m talking about leading by example, living those eight values. If that sounds like a tall order, it most certainly is. That’s because there is a chasm between politics and governance. The government I am alluding to does not exist today, and has probably not existed in our lifetimes. Until we can pack up our politics, no governing will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, no leadership will happen. Until we can pack up our politics, our workplaces will not flourish. Until we can pack up our politics, the world will not be the place we want it to be. The good news? Packing up our politics starts, apparently, with the books we buy.

Postscript

A friend shared the following response:

I loved your start – the comparison of the top books is quite telling, and I would not have thought to make that comparison. I am right there with you throughout your article until the end. Who should or will initiate these changes? For me it’s all of us, it’s the workers, it’s the everyday people in the workplace, it’s you and it’s me. I think we can be sure right now our leaders are quite absent, especially those who govern.

One of my favorite quotes I encountered along the way of my doctoral studies comes from Ralph Stacey, “Change can only happen in many, many local interactions.” For me, this means it is in the small conversations that spark other conversations and so on that we begin to change culture, that we begin to change each other. I is in those times of making space and being vulnerable that we listen to others and that we speak our truth. In those moments one or the other or both are truly changed, and that sparks a change in the next conversation that we have. For me, it is in this process that true change happens. Not in the top down, governed-inspired or directed change.

But that’s me, and perhaps I am missing some of what you are concluding or alluding to.

I agree with this in spirit—and I had wanted to end with this sentiment. But after reviewing the how the foundational values might address this, and pondering how realistic this would be, I felt this conclusion would sound trite. There is a realist at work in my brain right now. This sort of change benefits from top-down work of unimaginable magnitude. Imagine the impact our governing bodies could have if they demonstrated these values in their everyday actions!

In the “DVD bonus feature” spirit of allowing you to choose your own ending, I encourage you to do just that with this post. I would love nothing more than for everyday people—rather than government—to achieve this change.

In the end, if this post merely encourages discussion, then it will have served a purpose.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-kA3UtBj4M.

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Categories
Commitment Compassion Empathy Humility Invisibleism Patience Vulnerability Willingness

Look Up

When you get to know someone, do you focus more on what’s wrong with them, or what’s right with them?

Is there a benefit to focusing on one or the other?

How do you feel about your own flaws? Do you admit them, or do you try to hide them or compensate for them?

Why do you think that’s the case?

When I was a young executive, my boss once shared the following pearl of wisdom with me…it’s explicit, but this is the way I learned it:

If you look up someone’s ass, you’re always going to find shit.

—H. Eliot Subin

Every one of us has something that, once discovered, will be off-putting to others. If we look hard for these things, we are certain to eventually find them.

When we find someone else’s poop — knowing that we each have our own — why does that so often surprise us, and make us think differently about them? Perhaps because most people like to like people. When we get to know a person and we like that person, it brings us joy; it makes us feel like the world is a better place. We like the honeymoon period, before we find the poop. We like the Hallmark Channel.

When we discover flaws in people, it’s all too easy to feel let down. But it’s a terrible mistake to dismiss someone else when we discover their poop. How would you feel if the shoe were on the other foot?


If you’ve been in business long enough, you’ve undoubtedly been asked about the leaders who have inspired you on your journey. For me, the most immediate answer has long been George Martin. He’s an admittedly unusual choice. I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, and while I love the Beatles’ music, I find their group dynamic even more intriguing.

The Beatles were four young men who loved music, and who had a deep appreciation for one another. But despite a few friendly and intense years in the early half of their career, they were decidedly not in love with one another. In fact, their creative peak paralleled their social nadir. They had different values in life and in their music. They worked hard to keep themselves together in the way the world expected, and George Martin’s greatest contributions were in providing musical balance to complement their competing ideas. Watching his deft, delicate, minimalist hand at work in Peter Jackson’s recent Get Back documentary series is a powerful illustration of this. As their closest colleague in the studio, he routinely mediated compromise, helping four very different people become something much greater than they were individually.

At this point, it feels appropriate to revisit the quote from Victor Hugo on The Progressive CIO’s home page, which presaged this very post two years ago:

“But who among us is perfect? Even the greatest strategists have their eclipses, and the greatest blunders, like the thickest ropes, are often compounded of a multitude of strands. Take the rope apart, separate it into the small threads that compose it, and you can break them one by one. You think, ‘That is all there was!’ But twist them all together and you have something tremendous.”

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

If you lead teams of talented and smart people, they will have differences with one another — sometimes significant ones. They will find things to dislike in each other’s philosophies, politics, lifestyles, or approaches. It is your ability to embrace, cultivate, coach through, and complement these differences that paves the road from disaster to brilliance. What does it take for you to develop a deft and delicate hand to manage this?

First: Never forget your own flaws. This requires humility.

Second: Get comfortable talking about those flaws, which will be reassuring to those who you serve and who you lead. This requires vulnerability.

Third: Develop an ability to not be surprised or disappointed when you find flaws in others. In conjunction, develop the ability to lock, arm-in-arm, in your shared humanity, This requires compassion.

Fourth: Understand that what you perceive as a flaw might not be perceived that way by others. Try to look at this perceived flaw from different perspectives, and consider invisibleism along the way. This requires empathy.

Fifth: Learn to take a breath and stay calm when others find flaws and react in unbecoming ways. This requires patience.

Sixth: When walking through these concepts with someone who is struggling with what they have found: stop, smile, and share Eliot’s quote.

Then, explore the dialogue that opens this post. This requires willingness.

Finally: Teach these lessons forward.

Of course, there are limits that, from time to time, you will confront in managing this dynamic. The Tyranny of Competence comes to mind. The best way to address this, should you need to, is through compassion, and not through anger, remembering that we all have our flaws. This will give you the best shot at addressing difficult interpersonal situations before someone simply has to go.

I think many workplaces understand the need to manage differences; what differentiates the best ones is the way they manage the flaws we discover in one another. There will be failures. There will be break-ups. Even George Martin’s work couldn’t keep the Beatles together. But a great team’s finest work comes only with significant attention to managing their reactions to one another’s flaws, however ugly they may be.

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🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5ArpRWcGe0.

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