This post appeared on LinkedIn this weekend, to resounding huzzahs.
“People First; Technology Last,” this isn’t.
Ms. Carter appears to miss that her clever footer amplifies email’s worst traits: email as “The Game of Hot Potato” and email as “Look at me! Working so hard in the off hours!”
Oh, and it gives the recipient even more to read. A lose-lose.
It’s natural and even reasonable to send emails in the off-hours, but such emails should never have to be considered essential to respond to. If you are working after hours and expect an off-hours response, employ something other than email to communicate.
If your after hours email is likely to be interpreted as important enough to force an after hours response in anyone, I suggest you consider the following:
Think about what it is in your personal work relationships that would cause someone to feel compelled to respond in the off hours, and work on that aspect of your relationships. If you need to employ a footer like this, something is amiss in your work culture and/or your work relationships. It might just mean that people don’t know you well enough. Work on that.
Save the email as a draft and send it when you truly need the response.
Compose the email, and employ your email program’s scheduling tool to send it out during business hours.
Or, perhaps, don’t send the email at all. We lived for millennia without email. Schedule some time during a day to talk in person. When we speak in person, we eliminate both the “Hot Potato” and “I’m working hard, see?” aspects of email that are so abhorrent.
Filling up someone else’s inbox just so that you can empty your outbox isn’t respectful in any way, shape, or form.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.