Archive for November, 2010
I used to be a ski instructor and we had a saying: If you want a happy ski client, treat kids like adults and adults like kids.
A recent blog article on Harvard Business Publishing, What Brain Science Tells Us About How to Excel by Edward M. Hallowell, takes up the argument. You almost don’t even have to read it to get the point, but only to notice that the author is a child psychiatrist and he starts by talking about a recent case of a child who was having trouble at school and ties it to adults who are not engaged in their work. So many great lessons to learn by thinking about what motivates a child! And the lessons are so simple, too. It makes you wonder how we often get it wrong.
For example adults, like children, need play, which Hallowell defines as “an imaginative engagement with the task…that allows you to develop ideas, approaches and plans.” They also need a sense of connection, in the sense of meaningful relationships, and an appropriate level of challenge. This is beginning to sound suspiciously like something I’ve written about many times before: Zappos’ philosophy of employee engagement, and the modern theories of intrinsic motivation it’s based on.
Why do so many work environments miss the mark? I think it’s because we have a concept that as we grow from children to adults, our environment and what motivates us must change. And it must change in a way that adds complexity. If things don’t become more complicated, we feel that we’re not evolving. And so the manager who says, “I don’t have time to try and make things fun around here, we’ve got a job to do and we need to buckle down and do it” is caught up in the notion that he will be viewed as simple-minded and child-like unless he can show that we’re adults who can engage in drudgery and still get it done without complaining. In other words, he just thinks we have to be serious all the time.
Another analogy that comes to mind: the disease of “corporatese” in our business writing. Readers much prefer to read simple, clear writing that uses less complex words and sentence structure. But as managers in the business world, we’re afraid to be seen as simple-minded so we complicate our writing to the point of making it painful to read. We can’t just “use” something, we must “utilize” it. Our employees are not “people” but “personnel.” And god forbid that we should “let our owners know how the company is doing”; no, we need to “produce a series of financial reporting instruments and disseminate them to the organization’s shareholders.”
We’ve all heard about the companies that get it: Southwest Airlines, Google, Nike and the like. We just haven’t managed to jettison the idea that if we took ourselves less seriously, others would too.
Last week my brother and I decided to start a crane training school. Not only that, but we hired my friend Daniel Dunn of Dunn Productions to shoot a crane signalman and rigger training video.
Do I know anything about crane operation? Do I even know anything about making a training video? No! That’s why this past week has been so much fun. I’m learning things I never thought I wanted to know.
It’s not really as “out there” as it sounds. My brother is an experienced, NCCCO-certified crane operator. And there’s a new OSHA regulation that went into effect last week requiring “qualified signalman and riggers” on crane sites, so the idea is timely. I doubt anyone who reads this blog has any interest in this topic, but just in case, you can check out our website-in-its-infancy here: www.newenglandcraneschool.com.
What I really wanted to talk about though is the exhilaration of throwing yourself into a completely foreign world; and the importance, as a learning professional, of always being willing to plunge yourself into something completely new, even when it’s uncomfortable.
I didn’t think it would be uncomfortable at first. I thought, I do instructional design, so why can’t I create any kind of training program I want as long as I have a subject matter expert? Three days later as I cowered in fear under a 170-foot crane while it hoisted a huge trailer over my head, holding my ill-fitting hard hat on my head and looking around for a safer place to stand, the word “uncomfortable” didn’t even quite describe the experience. And that night, looking at the video footage Daniel had shot and listening to my brother talk about the physics of rigging a crane load (physics being a subject that has always glazed my eyes over), I added “overwhelmed” to my current emotional state.
No matter, because this is going to be fun. New experiences are what life is all about, and during this week of Thanksgiving, I’d like to give thanks for this great learning opportunity.
I was helping a colleague teach an instructional design workshop, and the room was full of experienced instructional designers whose supervisor had felt they could use a refresher. A bunch of them were sitting back in their chairs with their arms folded. When I asked them to wear nametags they rolled their eyes at me. Uh oh.
After watching for a while, I got up and told a story. “A couple months ago, my colleagues and I were required to sit through a webinar to get certified to use a particular assessment tool,” I told them. “The trainer made us do things like introduce ourselves and say what we wanted to get out of the training, and we rolled our eyes at each other and whispered jokes about how we might sneak out of the room without the trainer knowing. And then it struck me how funny this all was, so I made a little sign and held it up for my colleagues to read; it said, ‘We make our living as trainers, but god forbid anyone should try to train us.’ My sign got a laugh out of everyone, but it also made us think about the fact that training participants always have a choice. You can make the session be a waste of your time, or you can think about how to contribute. Maybe you really won’t get anything out of it, but there are probably less experienced people in the room who could benefit from your experience.”
My story had exactly the effect I had hoped. Arms uncrossed and chairs tipped back down. There were indeed a bunch of less experienced folks in the room, including instructors, programmers and multi-media people, and the developers in the room began to think about how they could help us bridge the gap between the theory we were presenting and the reality of doing instructional design within that particular organizational culture. And for the rest of the session they contributed their insights and engaged in lively discussion.
But this isn’t really a story about the power of storytelling, because we all know about that. It’s a story about how arrogant we can be in our business sometimes. Next time you catch yourself rolling your eyes, think about how you can contribute. It’s a better choice.
I’ll bet I’m not alone in saying this: Thank god the elections are over. I’m sick to death of the negative campaign ads.
Sharon Begley penned a Newsweek feature a few weeks ago called “I’m Mad as Hell … and I’m Going to Vote! The psychology of an angry electorate.” She says that while the angry voter is nothing new, what’s surprising is that this year the angry voters are demanding angry candidates. And she speculates that this has much to do with the feeling that “no drama Obama” doesn’t show enough anger for us. The result, she says, is that we don’t much care about objective information or about being rational or logical. We just look for information that reinforces what we already believe and the anger we already feel.
That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s the old “ladder of inference,” a model for explaining how we filter the observable data that surrounds us and choose to notice what fits our mental models, ignoring or minimizing anything that doesn’t. And if our current mental model is that anger motivates people to act, then anyone who isn’t sufficiently angry must be ineffective as a politician, or somehow “morally wrong.”
I see this all the time in organizations that are not managing change well. People get angry, and anyone who keeps their cool becomes part of “them,” the big bad management team that is sticking it to us in the first place.
The problem is, the anger doesn’t really accomplish anything except to lower employee morale and erode the quality of decisions. Decisions get made according to what feels good instead of what works.
I know I’m going to get beat up for saying this, but I watched Obama’s press conference yesterday and I thought, thank god we still have “no drama Obama” because he’s the only one that’s making any sense to me. He’s the only one who is still talking about finding solutions that work, regardless of party affiliation, and the only one not speaking in ridiculous hyperbole and accusing people of ridiculous things. Whether you believe his policies are working or not, his communication style remains something we should all aspire to.
If you have the courage to be the “no drama” guy on your management team when everyone expects you to get angry and irrational, good for you. Don’t give in to the pressure.