Adapt or Alienate

When I tried making it as a fiction author, I joined a writing group. The members of the group were nice, and the evenings of review were well organized. But my writing drew blank stares.

I was a poor fit because I was a speculative fiction writer (science fiction, horror, and fantasy), and the rest of the group wrote sports, inspirational, and religious pieces. My vehicle for evoking a response (which any good story should do) was a poor fit for the audience.

Leaders often struggle with this when addressing morale, burn out, or change. If the needs, concerns, and hurdles being faced by the front-line employees aren’t taken into account, then leaders often employ motivators which are meaningless and ineffective. The vehicle for evoking a response needs to meet people where they are. You cannot strong-arm people into conforming to your way of doing thing. (Try it, and watch how many people begin to dig in, go around you, or just leave.) You need to be persuasive.

Take time to understand your people and craft your message so it touches on their values.

Once I understood the disconnect between the writing group and my writing, I had a choice, I could adapt, I could move on, or I could stay someplace where I was neither adding nor receiving value.

As a leader, if your people aren’t motivated the same way that you are, you can learn what motivates them and adapt, you can find a new team, or you can tell your people to get in line and ride out the ensuing mediocrity.

Leadership is difficult, but it is in your power to find success, or to fail your people and your objectives.

The same choice exists if you are an employee. You can meet your leaders where they are, you can find something new, or you can do your time and collect your paycheck for doing unsatisfying work.

We all win with a bit of effort at understanding, compromising, and learning to communicate in a way that our audience is best able to receive our message.

Intentional Connections

I like to tell people that I don’t like people. This is simultaneously the truth and a lie.

I am my best self when I have space for introspection, but I value connection. I’ve benefited from this because the greater portion of my connections are meaningful – even in my interactions with acquaintances and strangers are intentional.

Being intentional has helped me better understand:

  • People want to be seen, and they want to be valued.
  • You can’t be friends with everyone.

Obvious, right? But these things need to result in action.

Both of them.

Taking action on the connections with people you can’t be friends with is obviously the more difficult one, and I’ve gotten it wrong plenty of times. The key is learning when you get it wrong, and getting it wrong in new and meaningful ways each time. The biggest aid in making better mistakes (or, hopefully, getting it right) is to remember the first point – even those you can’t befriend still need to be valued.

The Take-Away:

You aren’t obligated to be everyone’s friend, but you can still have meaningful connections with people who can’t be your friend.

Make your connections intentional.

Mean Beane

The movie Moneyball recently reminded me of a situation I was in with a previous leader, and it raised the question –

Was there really a Billy Bean in my situation?

The movie is about Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s, breaking away from conventional ways of building a professional baseball team. He hires Peter Brand, an fictional economics major from Yale, to identify the players they need to get to the championships.

They don’t look for individual star players. They looking for a pool of players where the aggregate will carry them to the top.

Billy argues with Grady Fuson, the scout who calls him out for disregarding the expertise and experience of the men working to identify valuable prospects to fill out the team.

Billy also argues with Arte Howe, the manager who refuses to play the team Billy built in the way Billy and Peter intend for it to be used. Art knows his craft and makes choices he believes he could defend if questioned. They are not what Billy wants him to do.

Ultimately, the team sees success as a result of Billy’s revolutionary way of approaching team management.

Billy represents the revolutionary thinker who breaks from tradition and achieves success (mostly) – this kind of character is a popular literary trope, drawing on the American rhetoric of the entrepreneurs who “defy the odds”, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, or go “from rags to riches”.

Grady and Art represent the establishment – “The way we’ve always done things.”

But there is one other important role – the hesitant follower who braves the unknown, trusting the unconventional leader, and does great things for the team – Scott Hatteberg, a former catcher who’s recovery from a ruptured nerve in his elbow, causing difficulties with his throw which resulted in the Billy Beane telling him he needed to learn to play first base.

This combination of roles – the revolutionary, the establishment, and the open minded – can be found in countless books and movies. It is so popular in our fiction that we seek it out in real life.

We all want to be the “game changer.” None of us wants to be “old fashioned”, “outdated”, or the “stumbling block”. Within an organization, the employees who get the greatest praise are the ones who “embrace change” and follow the leader who is “forging a new path”.

The cliches are nearly endless.

But in the oversimplification which comes from storytelling (yes, even a complex, well crafted story – or one based on real life – is a simplification of real life) it’s easy to mistake what role we are playing.

My previous leader, whom we’ll call Carol, stepped into an organization which had lost a number of key players during a time of transition. A lot of the tools and processes were outdated and inefficient. There was legacy staff who’d grown comfortable doing things a certain way. Sound familiar? Every organization faces this unless they are ones which somehow manage to live up to the ideal of constantly evolving.

The organization needed change, badly. I won’t deny that – I had, in fact, said as much to leaders before Carol joined us.

But Carol didn’t know the business. Didn’t know what work was required to get things done. Didn’t know the needs of the people in the organization. And the role was a stretch for Carol. We’ve all been in this situation, and how you handle it is critical.

Where Carol and I didn’t align was the use of information to inform how changes should be made, and how change should be managed.

Carol saw herself as the innovator, bringing a totally new way of supporting our customer, and she was not going to be constrained by things simply because that’s the way we’d done them. Very Billy Beane.

I, on the other hand, wanted us to use the data we had to inform our decisions, and expected leadership to engage people who were both passionate about the business, but skilled in the data analysis, and then to trust their input – basically to find themselves a Peter Brand and trust them the way Billy Beane did.

But that’s where things started falling apart. Carol loved numbers, but didn’t trust anyone to be Peter Brand. Furthermore, Billy Beane knew the game, and Carol did not. The people who opposed Carol generally were not pushing for doing things the way we’d always done them. They were people who were concerned that Carol was misinterpreting the data, and forcing change with an unclear picture of where things led.

Carol, on the other hand, used her considerable Excel skills to generate totals and averages and display them in colorful bar charts and line graphs to tell a compelling story to her superiors and her peers.

Carol was determined.

In the end, I don’t think any of us were either Billy Beane or Art Howe.

Carol got things done, but did it at great cost. Morale was down, customers were dissatisfied, processes relied on subject matter experts to fill gaps, but subject matter experts had been so badly disenfranchised that too many of them were looking for opportunities elsewhere.

In our real-life story, everyone wanted to be the data-driven savior who ushered the business into the future, but none of us were.

Take time to get perspective. And some of that perspective needs to be trying to understand how the other person sees things. Understand that you are living real life, not the story you’d like to tell yourself. We may like to see the world in terms of heroes and villains, but most of us are somewhere in between. Be humble. Be considerate.

We’re all in this together, even when it feels like we’re at odds with each other.

Life Inside the Cubicle