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Knocking the exuberance out of employees

Robotemployees


In an earlier post I said, "If you asked the head of a company which employee they'd prefer: the perfect team player who doesn't rock the boat or the one who is brave enough to stand up and fight for something rather than accept the watered-down group think that maintains the status quo (or makes things worse), who would they SAY they'd choose? Who would they REALLY choose?

In his book Re-imagine", Tom Peters says, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

So yes, I'm thinking Mr. CEO of Very Large Company would say that their company should take the upstart whatever-it-takes person over the ever-compromising team player. "If that person shakes us up, gets us to rethink, creates a little tension, well that's a Good Thing", the CEO says. riiiiiiiiiight. While I believe most CEOs do think this way, wow, that attitude reverses itself quite dramatically the futher you reach down the org chart. There's a canyon-sized gap between what company heads say they want (brave, bold, innovative) and what their own middle management seems to prefer (yes-men, worker bees, team players). "

I'm not done with my horse-training-as-universal-metaphor phase, so here's another thing I learned from the Parelli Natural Horsemanship conference:

"Too many people fall into the my robot is better than your robot trap... and knock the exuberance out of their horse. What you're left with is a well-trained robot, not a curious, playful, mentally and emotionally balanced living creature."

"Hmmmm", I thought, "that sounds an awful lot like some of the companies I've worked for." Not that you'd ever in a million years get them to admit that. Possibly not even to themselves. But the proof is in their practices. Of course some argue that exuberance on the job is not necessarily a good thing. That too much passion leads to problems. I say BS on that one. Real passion means you love the profession, the craft, the domain you're in. And that may or may not happen to coincide with a passion for your current employer. When some folks talk about too much passion for a job, they're usually referring to something a little less healthy... the thing that lets your employer take advantage of you, having you work round the clock because of their bad scheduling, or because they refuse to say "no" to clients, or because you have a manager that wants to look good to his manager... and you're the lucky one chosen to be the "hero."

If you knock out exuberance, you knock out curiosity, and curiosity is the single most important attribute in a world that requires continuous learning and unlearning just to keep up. If we knock out their exuberance, we've also killed their desire to learn, grow, adapt, innovate, and care. So why do we do it?


Why Robots Are the Best Employees

1) They don't challenge the status quo

2) They don't ask those uncomfortable questions

3) They're 100% obedient

4) They don't need "personal" days.

5)... because they don't have a personal life

6) They never make the boss look bad (e.g. stupid, incompetent, clueless, etc.)

7) They dress and talk the way you want them to

8) They have no strongly-held opinions

9) They have no passion, so they have nothing to "fight" for

10) They are always willing to do whatever it takes (insane hours, etc.)

11) They are the ultimate team players

12) They don't complain when you micromanage (tip: micromanaging is in fact one of the best ways to create a robot)

13) They don't care what their workspace is like, and don't complain if they don't have the equipment they need

14) They'll never threaten your job

15) They make perfect scapegoats

16) They get on well with zombies
Zombiefunction_2

And while I'm here... parents do this as well. Admit it. We have all wished that our children (for whom we worked so hard to instill a fierce independence) would be strong-willed, exuberant, questioning--everywhere but at home. I've never really wanted Skyler to be a robot, but oh how I've wished for a robot mode... ; )

Posted by Kathy on October 6, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

As hilarious as it is true. Sadly, if you don't walk the company line in most places, you'll soon be walking the employment plank.

Great article.

Posted by: P.J. Onori | Oct 6, 2006 4:35:03 PM

This is by far the most frustrating aspect of looking for a job, at least for me.

Upper management claims that talent is everything, but the job listings are simply run-of-the-mill templates. Even management positions are typically just cookie-cutter bullet lists that require extra years of experience.

So what does upper management do when they notice this? They hire consultants or buy start ups.

If you really are determined to disrupt the status quo, you can help them improve from the inside-out (be a consultant) or attempt to beat them by not only bending the rules, but coming up with different rules entirely (start a company).

Both are pretty sexy jobs, if you're good.

Posted by: Ben | Oct 6, 2006 5:05:55 PM

Unless you own the joint you have little freedom to think and act. They call employees 'resources' these days, as in 'human resources'. Sounds more like some office furniture or a robot than a person.

If you find a way to make some kind of a difference, odds are that they can and will kick your legs out from under you. That's why most people have way more enthusiasm for non-work activities.

Posted by: Duncan | Oct 6, 2006 5:08:48 PM

Some days I feel like you've been reading my mail. At least the mail between my lawyer and me.

Brilliant as usual, KS. How could we get on without you?

Posted by: Bill Kinnon | Oct 6, 2006 6:15:54 PM

As a owner of what I like to believe is a very creative company I could not agree more with your post. Creativity when given precedence over productivity gives returns far greater. Productivity says that we already have the systems and goals we need where creativity says that we can set new goals and create new systems to go farther than we ever believed.

Posted by: Levi | Oct 6, 2006 6:21:57 PM

Kathy, great post!

I think the answer to your question as to why companies knock the exhuberance out employees lies with the managers, much more than in in any aspect of robot employees.

When I worked in recruiting years ago, people talked about the "Russian doll" theory of hiring. (You know, the wooden dolls stacked inside each other.) Confident, grounded, actualized people -- the ones who rank high on Maslow's hierarchy -- hire "big dolls," but insecure, frightened people tend to hire dolls who are smaller than they are (the employees who start out as, or are easy to transform into, robot employees).

So the trick for Mr or Ms BigCEO becomes making sure that the line managers with departmental hiring authority have both the natural inclination and the organizational support (i.e., nature *and* nurture) to keep hiring big dolls instead of small ones.

. . .

I also agree with your observation that this all applies to parenting. I've seen fascinating people go out of their way to raise deadly boring, placid, convenient children -- it is tragic.

(On the other hand, I'm also forwarding this post to my mother, in the hopes of comforting her that her childrearing adventures with me were all to good purpose.)

Posted by: Shaula Evans | Oct 6, 2006 7:24:10 PM

Great article.
But isn't "10) They are always willing to do whatever it takes (insane hours, etc.)" - a grey area?
I think there's a difference between working insane hours on the busywork handed down by your evil robot-creating middle manager and working the hours to put both the love into something you believe in, and to get it out there so others can love it too.

Posted by: simon | Oct 7, 2006 12:02:44 AM

Spot on and brilliantly depressing, this. I think the key is to be honest when you are recruiting - there isn't anything necessarily wrong in looking for people who are cautious, methodical, capable, obedient, and willing to follow the status quo - we need horses for courses, don't we? Except that this kind of honesty sounds kinda boring for both the recruiter and the recruited, so the deception persists. May be some day honesty will be recognized as a good recruitment strategy (and indeed business strategy).

Posted by: Geetha Krishnan | Oct 7, 2006 12:42:34 AM

This sounds like a bit of a grass is always greener post to me. Sure it's no fun to feel like a corporate drone, but go in the opposite direction and you end up in academia which clearly isn't suited to all types of development. While you certainly would like for everyone to contribute as much as possible, there are plenty of times when there are multiple valid solutions to a problem. In those times, exuberance needs to take a back seat to the one person saying, "We'll do it this way."

Posted by: Anthony Cowley | Oct 7, 2006 1:23:42 AM

You graphic says "The more you use your reins the less they use their brains." Do you think the inverse, "The less they use their brains, the more you must have used your reins," is true?

Posted by: Chris Booth | Oct 7, 2006 1:29:02 AM

Can't agree more. I've unfortunately worked for companies that have tried to knock the exuberance out of me and co-workers. Strangely these companies have ended up suffering financally from lawsuits from both customers and employees, failure to win new orders and high staff turnover.

Posted by: anontechwoman | Oct 7, 2006 3:37:55 AM

It's not a battle between teamwork and individualism. The best team player isn't one who tows the line - it's the one that can forge the team and take them in a new direction. I don't want someone who blindly follows, but nor do I want someone who goes off on their own and abandons the team. If it's a good idea in a team of good people, convincing them is simple.

As the manager of a team one of the most important things I can do is make sure that my team takes decisions (rather than just arbitrary taking decisions myself.) After all, they're the ones working on the codebase. I like to think I've got a team full of passionate developers and at times I've seen them each come up with plans and convince the rest of the team that that's the direction they should follow. I've even see them come up with ideas that radically change the direction we're taking a product, and convince senior management to adopt those changes.

My point is that if you're working as a team - really working as a team, rather than 'working under a manager' - then you have to have the ability to effect the direction of team, and ultimately the company. Management's roll isn't to quash people, it's to support them. They're responsible for taking ideas in both directions, being a representative for those above to the team, and being a representative for the team to those above.

Posted by: Mark Fowler | Oct 7, 2006 4:13:27 AM

Kathy - this is such great timing for this point. Seth Godin wrote about the dangers of layoffs versus being fired for "doing something great".

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/10/501.html

What I find interesting is how your two posts fit together. Employers try to kill their employees exuberance (drones are easier to manage) and on the other side most employees go willingly because of the fear of being fired.

The irony is that they're more likely to lose their job because of a layoff.

By killing "their desire to learn, grow, adapt, innovate, and care" a company is more likely to have a layoff! (and the "dismissed" employees are less marketable when they do). It's no win for anyone!

Posted by: ann michael | Oct 7, 2006 8:11:21 AM

I really need to echo Mark Fowler's statement. A room full of obstreperous rule-benders is likely to flame out spectacularly if it doesn't have some leaders in it who look for common ground and compromise.

And he's right to spotlight the role of the team leader in both implementing and affecting strategic goals. You'll notice the line on your graphic doesn't ever touch the zero points... even creative people need someone to help them keep focus.

Funny how many creative people I've met who've landed in bad situation after bad situation... and it's always someone else's fault.

Of course, "creative jerks" is a subset of "creative people," and a good recruiter/manager learns to tell "passionate" from "does not play well with others."

I'd also like to venture an answer to Chris Booth's question. I'll say on the macro level, yes. A team full of people who aren't creative has probably been micromanaged in the past. On the micro level, it wasn't necessarily _you_ who relied too much on the reins. Once somebody has learned, through other work or family experiences, not to take risks, it can be really hard to convince them to. I'd love to see some tips on de-zombification...

Posted by: Joe | Oct 7, 2006 10:32:28 AM

After writing on "Why do I feel like a dog", I thought I held a too negative view of corporate culture. Good to know i'm not the only one. :)

Posted by: Shang Lee | Oct 7, 2006 10:46:47 AM

Hi Kathy,
fantastic insight! I've just sent a link to my manager (even though it's not important in his case, it still can be useful knowledge to how managers treat their employees).

Thanks a lot

Posted by: Jesper Rønn-Jensen (justaddwater.dk) | Oct 7, 2006 12:43:47 PM

When I was a management consultant, the guru was Dr. W. Edwards Deming and his 14 points of Total Quality Management. It included the point made above about mid-management being the conduit of information between employees and upper management. Basically, this is done, so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

But, most of all, TQM recognizes that the little guy knows a whole lot more about how and what the company is doing than people in upper management levels. Therefore, the idea is for the little guy to be encouraged to bring information and suggestions forward and then for management to involve him or her in decisions.

Somehow today, our corporate community has lost sight of these ideas and reverted to management by autocratic decree. This simply doesn't work. And, it doesn't work even more so for creative, innovative thinkers, people who are driven by a need not only to be heard, but also to make important changes they feel are obvious.

On the other hand, once creative thinkers' ideas have been given voice and seriously considered, first by others at their level and then by higher-ups, these thinkers need to put their shoulders to the wheel and join with everyone else to make their project a success.

Not everyone understands that there is a good reason not all good ideas get implemented. But the reason is simple: Not everyone has the overview to make final decisions, particularly when it involves the expenditure of money. Spending money decisions have to be left to CEOs. (Hey, there really IS a good use for those guys!)

In a company where everyone understands the role of all involved, the chance for success is tremendous. Unfortunately today, this kind of understanding by employees and management is rare.

As a potential employee, if possible before you sign on, try to set yourself up to succeed by finding a company that will value your creative ideas. That's not easy to do; but on the other hand, it's not impossible either. And, if you are truly creative, you'll figure out how to do that and then share it on a blog (grin).

If you are a member of management, learning to listen to the little guy is essential. Otherwise, you'll get what you always got (as the saying goes).

Posted by: Jane | Oct 7, 2006 7:37:36 PM

Argh, Kathy, this is so true!!!

So often the vague, idealistic characteristics of what Senior Managers say they want in their employees is the exact opposite of what they reward, praise and promote.

One of the most common things I got called in for as a consultant was to "help the employees think outside of the box." What the managers wouldn't admit was that "the box" their employees were in was prison ... and they were the jailkeepers.

Drives me nuts, but gives me more passion to help people escape.

Posted by: Pamela Slim | Oct 8, 2006 12:13:07 AM

Never expect a career from a company that does not have institutionalized intrepreneurship.

Posted by: unknown | Oct 8, 2006 12:43:32 AM

I love this post. This very issue frustrated the crap out of me for years. The enormous gulf between what companies spout and what they do in practice never ceases to amaze me.

Just the other night I saw an Australian movie, The Rage in Placid Lake, with a similar theme. During his foray into the corporate world, the main character describes the cultural environment to a friend. It goes something like this:
"...and there seems to be latitude within the structure for a certain irreverance and disdain for the company and corporate life in general that provides an outlet, but would never threaten an actual upheavel."

Welcome to Drone Central.

Posted by: Danielle | Oct 8, 2006 4:38:41 AM

Passionate about their craft yes. But, upper management sometimes confuses being an asshole with being passionate. I had a co-worker storm out a meeting with some profane stutter when he didnt get his way. When I approached our boss about it, he made an excuse for him claiming he was "too passionate" about his work.

Passionate people on teams sometime disagree, strongly, but in the end they are passionate about making a great product that helps our end users kick ass!!

Posted by: Greg | Oct 8, 2006 8:49:02 AM

Looking for a way out. I've been sacked from two contracts this year (both with 'blue chip' FTSE 100 companies. I was expected to lie for people 'above' me and it just tore me apart.

I can't be a drone and I really don't think I have the talent to work outside of corporate IT.

It seems the choices are: do as you are told, don't ask questions, don't care about the company - especially as a contractor - or go somewhere else...

Ideas greatfully received.

Posted by: Lucy | Oct 8, 2006 11:15:49 AM

You may find Dr Angela Dumas' approach to visualising who you want to work for posted as a pdf at my June 2005 archive
http://snipurl.com/yhje

A variation that we do is to ask which of the three pictures would you like to fly with.
It struck me as a complement to your (as usual)excellent post. If I can visualise the ideal place to work then I can rapidly match the reality with the ideal and make trade-offs on the fly. Got and lost some job offers this way!

Posted by: Jim Rait | Oct 8, 2006 11:54:08 AM

Kathy,
I'm not even sure where along the chain I ended up adding this blog to the feeds I theoretically check daily, but the moment I read your headline I almost fell out of my chair in recognition. Which would NOT have been a good thing for a 4-year student of Parelli Natural Horsemanship to have been seen doing LOL!

To Chris, I would say it is true in both the horse and human world that absolutely, that our normal educational and management systems are based on the Industrial Revolution assembly-line and command-and-control systems and that's what completely knocks out of us our exuberance, natural curiosity and more than anything, the willingness to offer what we have to give.

What I find in the horse world is that "normals" are scared of the natural approach because then you have to learn to rely on communication and leadership and learn to listen...and you will likely not like what you hear at first. To run this kind of organization requires a high level of what Peter Senge called Personal Mastery.

That's why four or five years down the road you will find me on Hawaii's Big Island offering management and leadership training experiences in an equine-assisted format.
Aloha
Beth

Posted by: Beth Robinson | Oct 8, 2006 1:22:30 PM

Nah...

I think there's too much bitterness embedded in that last drawing. I mean EVERYONE wants to use all their abilities and to be given total freedom. And EVERYONE thinks that their own ideas for how to do things and how to organize things are best.

The managers job is to weigh everyone's ideas and preferences against each other, and to put down guidelines which lets everbody have at least a little bit of say...

Still, though... some people don't get it, and they begin to draw graphs like this, insinuating that things would become better if THEY were allowed to do exactly what they wanted.

I say no.

That's a false understanding of reality. Reality is that things are best when a workplace is organized so that eveyone have at least a LITTLE bit of say, and so that no-one feel totally neglected.

And............ in sum, this means that everyone have to do a bit of sacrifice.

Posted by: Dude | Oct 8, 2006 3:42:17 PM

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