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February 24, 2010

Would It Be Better If the Boss Were a Cartoon?

My favorite part of online learning is the possibility with immersive simulations of exploring a world in which the boss could be a cat or dog, or any cartoonish incarnation you can think of. Thanks to avatars, your boss won’t necessarily look like your boss in a Second Life-like learning simulation. I also think I’d prefer my co-workers if they were tigers or rabbits (depending on personality type) instead of their usual boring selves.

The future of online learning is perfect for the innovation movement because it has the potential to force employees to think of their work environment, and the world at large, in much broader terms. Sure, everyone knows the “Lioness” is really the Sally the Boss, but it’s liberating to interact with the avatar representation of herself rather than the staid, predictable person called “Sally” who shows up at roughly the same time every weekday (9:30ish, usually) to slouch in her chair in her cluttered office.

Adding avatars to online learning in an immersive environment also, and maybe more importantly, allows participants to step out of their own shoes, and try on the persona they wish could inhabit in the “real-world” office, but are too repressed to try. Would Sally the Boss or The Lioness interact more boldly with subordinates and colleagues?  Would she put forth ideas she wouldn’t communicate in person as herself, and collaborate with people she ordinarily wouldn’t dare to due to “real world” personality conflicts?

One of the more interesting questions about immersive online learning that makes use of avatars is how it affects interaction between co-workers, and whether it impacts emotional intelligence. Could a person who’s not emotionally intelligent offline suddenly find themselves at ease with other people in a world of avatars, and therefore, able to charm them more easily, and more easily understand the social cues they’re sending? Conversely would those adept at real world, or “first life” interactions, suddenly find themselves uncomfortable in social settings (if online interaction between avatars can rightly be called “social)?

When I visited an innovation laboratory last fall, I was told the ideal space for innovation is one that’s as plain as possible, so, presumably, the potential innovators feel they have a blank palette to fill up with their ideas. Could an avatar be that “blank palette” in a self-representative form?  The avatar, like the empty room, can be outfitted anyway your the learner likes, and as enthused above, can even take on non-human forms. Instead of filling up a room with scribbles and physical models of plans, the innovator with an online avatar can fill up a representation of him or herself with the plans, maybe even morphing him or herself into whatever the innovation is hoped to be. For instance, let’s say the innovator is planning a new hotel with a novel design or a new software product with an improved interface. What if their avatar became the hotel or improved interface, so as the innovator interacted with collaborators their “face” would be the face of the work in progress?  It would be the avatar version of the old “medium is the message” approach.

Another article I recently wrote about the impact of physical space on the learning process also makes me think avatar-populated immersive learning spaces are ideal for innovation and worker happiness. My interviews for the article uncovered that a learning environment in whichworkers sit in one place for the span of an hour often is much less effective than one that’s dynamic, in which employees are asked to stay on their feet for at least part of the time, completing tasks that keep them in motion, such as following the literal “steps” of a physical learning map. I also discovered work spaces impact how much learners absorb in on-the-job training. Some companies feel so strongly about allowing workers to customize their work stations they invest in cubicle gardens in which workers are able (and encouraged) to grow vegetation in their cubicle walls.

The problem with creating personalized work stations in the “real world” is it’s costly. In an immersive environment, your work station is whatever and however you design it. I’ve always thought it would be fun to work on the edge of a swimming pool diving board. That way when I get tired of my assignments, I can jump in for a swim. I may not be able to float away the hours in between business calls but my avatar, the sophisticated me as a Labrador Retriever, can. I don’t know if my business colleagues will take me seriously as a Labrador Retriever, but that really shows there’s a problem with them, doesn’t it?

What does the future of e-learning at your company look like?  Will avatars in an immersive learning environment set free the innovative spirits of your employees?

February 17, 2010

What Good Dog Parents Know that Corporate Leaders Don’t

Blog cartoon 2-17-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

The thing about “leaders” is they often say “no” when they should say “yes,” and vice versa. Take the issue of exclusion—deciding which new hires align with corporate culture and which don’t. I used to think if you wore a dark, “sober” suit and didn’t say anything frightening in job interviews, you’d nail it. But decision-makers in organizations are much touchier than I thought.

About 10 years ago, I was in St. Petersburg, FL, (desperately) looking for a job, and was shocked at how easily prospective employers were scared away. One place I interviewed at mentioned they started at 8 (a.m.!), and when I joked about not being a morning person, I can see, looking back on the meeting, they were taken aback. I guess in their culture you’re supposed to be enthusiastic about everything. At another place I had just the opposite experience. I didn’t smile at one of the architecture firm’s partners as he strolled through the lobby, and I always wondered whether that affected my chances. I was going for a job as a public relations writer, so I guess it would make sense they were looking for someone who’s cheerful towards strangers. More than that, though, I think the firm had a “smile all the time” policy in which no matter how miserable you were you had to smile. All that smiling makes me miserable just thinking of it.

Anyway, my point is corporate culture is set by leadership, and it’s frequently more exclusionary than useful. Instead of saying “yes” to differing personality types, many leaders appear to have a specific Company XYZ person in mind. Beyond the cruelty of not embracing a wide array of personality types, the exclusionary approach to corporate culture isn’t smart because along with those “weird” personalities are talents that may be lacking at the carefully calibrated company.

In the area of unfortunate “yes’s” there is the inability some “leaders” have putting their foot down with clients or bosses asking them to do what would cause their work teams, or themselves, more distress than their paycheck will ever compensate them for. On the one hand they worry about getting fired for disagreeing too often, but on another hand, they’re just too scared to say “no.”  Their hesitancy has more to do with their fear of saying “no” than to professional concerns. Most “leaders” with an inability to say “no” also probably have the same problem in their personal life.

If they can’t say “no” to their bosses or customers asking for the unreasonable, what are the chances they’ll be able to say “no” to an unethical business strategy, or a request from the boss which the “leader” can see ultimately will hurt the company?  I’ve heard a lot about the “power of ‘no’,” but haven’t heard it discussed in the context of corporate leadership. It’s a lesson I would incorporate in every leadership development course if I were a trainer. How many of you do so already?

Some who have a problem saying “no” are what I’ve heard psychologists call “pleasers,” people who need to please others to feel like their life is in synch. When I was a little girl and my family was contemplating what kind of dog to get, my father bought a guide book on all the different dog breeds. Some dogs, like some people, were described as pleasers, while others weren’t. The traditional wisdom is you want a dog who’s a pleaser, but that’s not what we chose. What we chose was a crazy Standard Poodle with white and apricot markings. Sure, she tried biting strangers unless they were properly introduced to her, but she was super-smart and always did a great job protecting our house. Daisy had no problem saying “no,” and even would sometimes refuse to eat left over steak. I always admired her commitment to self-determination. I wish more leaders were like her.

Do your company’s leaders blindly take whatever is offered them, afraid to say they don’t care for it?
Interestingly, the lesson of Daisy also ties back to the problem of leaders who say “no” too often. What if my family had insisted on enforcing a dog culture of only accepting “pleaser” pets into our household?  We would have missed out on a dog who was perfect for us. It’s same with your employees. Why cultivate leaders who enforce a corporate culture with such strict parameters those who aren’t go along/get along types aren’t given a voice, or even a foot in the door? The dissenters frequently have the best ideas. They’re the ones who notice something isn’t right, and sometimes can offer a better way of doing things. Contrarians don’t always offer solutions, but one thing is for sure—you have to notice a problem before you can fix it.

Leadership is different than choosing and managing pet dogs, but I think in a lot of ways it’s not so different because of the ideas leaders are taught of how to get their point across to workers, and how to manage the initiatives cascaded down to them. When a dog does something he’s not supposed to, like jumping on a fancy couch or trying to bite a neighbor, a human dog parent who’s trained the pet right, and who has been trained right himself as a human dog parent, will say “no” sharply. That sharp “no,” and the strong affirmative when it’s warranted, accompanied by treats, is the kind of response to requests—whether from above, below, or outside the company—that’s required.

How good are your company’s leaders at saying “yes” and “no?”  Do they know when to go-along and when to take a stand?

February 10, 2010

Are Those Dinosaur Eggs On Your Desk?

Blog cartoon 2-10-10

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

When your manager went on maternity leave last month, were you tempted to ask her where the dinosaur eggs were stashed?  I’m lucky my current managers are pretty with-it, but that wasn’t always the case. I once, as a journalist, had a manager who couldn’t type (a managing editor who couldn’t type!). When considering how to stay evolved enough not to be wiped out by a workplace asteroid, it’s important to think about all the ways to be behind the times.

A lot of people think being up-to-date just means knowing how to use all the technological devices and systems housed in the office, but that’s the least of it. It’s far more important to understand the changing workplace culture. Stories abound of bosses who don’t feel comfortable about their employees’ productivity unless they see their scrunched up faces squinting and sweating before their eyes. Those stories, however, will have to change once the economy rebounds or the youngest, most promising workers will look elsewhere for their paycheck. Older workers like me might stick out because we’re used to not being treated well. But what I’ve heard about the youngest set is they (really strange; don’t know where they got the idea) expect to work for an evolved company that prizes their talents and the end results of their work rather than adherence to picayune rules.

As I’ve explained before on this blog, I love the idea of a staggered workforce because there’s a greater chance that way of avoiding people you don’t like. But more than that, customer service can soar in flex-time/comfortable atmosphere work environments. Allowing employees to choose a schedule that best suits their lifestyle means they will be fresher when the calls from customers, or requests to service them, come in. They also likely will be in a better mood (less resentful someone dares to call at 9 a.m.; doesn’t everyone know it isn’t polite to call until 10?).

There’s a great deal of talk these days about corporate wellness programs, and I’m even writing an article about it for our May issue. But it doesn’t seem companies yet make the connection between flexible schedules, work load, and health. It seems like companies feel guilty because they can’t stop (or aren’t willing to limit profit to top executives) the acceleration of work loads, and, so, instead are offering health screenings and fitness programs (you have to give up your lunch hour to participate in). The yoga classes and access to in-office gyms is fantastic, but doesn’t address the root cause of work related un-wellness issues—the stress itself. Instead of companies changing their behavior towards employees, they’re just giving them ways to cope with it. It’s like an abusive friend who, instead of changing her ways, decides to buy her continuously hurt companion a box of chocolates every Friday as consolation. If companies treated workers better, with more realistic work loads and fairer compensation, a company-sponsored wellness program wouldn’t be necessary.

But since most companies won’t change their ways to institute what some experts refer to as a “wellness culture,” creating an evolved workplace, with a multitude of coping options, is a good thing (the box of chocolates isn’t a solution; but better than nothing). In addition to flex-time, creating a non-dinosaur-led workplace should focus on developing observant, emotionally intelligent managers. I’ve noticed a lot of managers aren’t good at noticing bad dynamics between subordinates. I once worked with a man I disliked so much I chose to deal with it by not looking at him. I wouldn’t try to sabotage him (somebody once did that to me, so I know how awful that is, and wouldn’t do it to somebody else), but I also wouldn’t acknowledge his presence any more than I needed to. The funny part is throughout all this my boss noticed nothing. Or if she noticed something she chose not to deal with it. It’s a shame, too, because the reason he got on my nerves probably got on her nerves too, and effected the productivity of our business, but she didn’t feel comfortable dealing with it. He was a disengaged slacker, and that’s one thing I hate, and one thing any credible manager also should pick up on and resent. My boss was doing a quarter to a half of the work he should have been doing himself! 

That kind of obliviousness is the old, dinosaur way of management, something that only should have been seen in the 1950s or before. These days, and since the greater understanding of human psychology in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s no excuse for not developing emotionally aware managers who understand it’s part of their job to observe and react to the inter-dynamics of their employees.

The plight I describe also brings to the fore the problem of passive managers—another dinosaurism that should be part of the distant past. The old way of thinking (I heard Traditionalists or Matures are apt to think this way) is to work in fear of “rocking the boat.”  For the World War II generation, and those older, there was an awful fear, I heard, about not conforming, and of challenging authority. Those fears, I presume, also led to a tendency for passive management styles. With this old fashioned way of thinking in place, even those wearing the title of “manager” are afraid to take action against employees because they’re afraid of creating “a situation.”  I once heard about a manager whose employees had to be guilty of extreme absenteeism and profound on-the-job mistakes before he would get rid of them. Obvious slackerism wasn’t enough.

Do your young employees relate well enough to your managers to understand and follow-through on assignments?  If there’s a disconnect, think about speeding up the transition of Generation X employees into leadership positions. And make sure those you’re considering for new leadership roles aren’t young dinosaurs. It’s possible to be young and a dinosaur. And of course there are doubtless Traditionalists out there who were ahead of their time years ago, and now finally can flaunt the fact they weren’t born from eggs laid by the out-going CEO.

Is there anything you can do to encourage forward-thinking management?  What does your company do to evolve with the changing workforce?

February 03, 2010

The Case for the Dumb CEO

Blog cartoon 2-3-10
[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

If your CEO could be attired the way you envision him when you're being honest with yourself, what would he be wearing?  Would it be the cap and gown of a person graduating from a fancy college with honors? Would it be a court jester's costume (smart but likes to slack off), or a dunce's cap atop a high chair in the corner of the room (not smart; got there due to interpersonal or familial connections; and not really that bright)?

Everyone assumes a successfully tested corporate leader has to be smart, or at least business savvy, but I'm not sure that's necessary. I wonder if maybe ignorance isn't bliss when you're a CEO.

Namely, I'm thinking about how the best person to write a manual on how to do something is somebody who doesn't know anything about it.  When selling products or services, maybe you do better making executive decisions if you know as little as your customers. Plus, isn't it social ability more than business acumen that got many CEOs their jobs, and enables them to seal deals with business partners?  To make the case on behalf of dumb CEOs, I have to note how helpful it is not to know much (won't alienate or intimate others who prefer being around dumb people) when doing business. First off, people are much less suspicious of you when you (honestly) know nothing, and second, an ignorant person likely will ask much better questions when
formulating a deal than an insider who takes it for granted he's aware of all the risks his company may encounter.

Of course the ignorant and none-too-bright also are great because they don't over-analyze things. A lot of business problems, I bet, come from missing the obvious (the place where, quite conveniently, the dumb mind lives) and making the simple unnecessarily complicated. Let's say you have a product customers don't like. A smart CEO may decide to put together focus groups and deeply study why the product isn't doing well. They may even consult with engineers and scientists on how to make it better. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand or have patience for any of that anyway (heaven knows he doesn't have the patience or depth to read anything longer than a one-page corporate memo about himself). So, what does he do?  He decides to scrap it and start over. You may say that isn't smart given the money the company has already sunk into it, but he isn't wasting time troubling himself over the "why"; he's taking action. I hate to show my personality preferences (you
can guess what I am), but in my experience, action-oriented people aren't always the most intellectual or interesting to talk to, but often they're the ones that get the job done. Not perfect, but good enough to scrape by.

Then you have to remember that people who aren't the brightest tend to be less plagued by mental illness and sadness than the smart ones. I have a feeling (based on some of my corporate experiences in the past) that there
are a lot of diabolical CEOs. "Diabolical" because they think of business as a chess game in which the figures on the board are their employees, and if those employees get shunted off the board, so be it. The dumb CEO wouldn't understand how to play chess, or have the patience for it. So, less of a chance unwitting employees will be used as long-suffering pawns. Also, "diabolical" because I think many of them may suffer from forms of mental illness that make them slightly obsessive compulsive and paranoid. I have no clinical evidence on that, but just a guess.

Plus, I like being around dumb people. They're a lot more relaxing. I think I like the vision of a dumb CEO strolling the cubicle aisles, nodding and smiling at everyone as guilelessly as a child, while distributing ice cream or Hershey bars to the suffering. I can't imagine a smart CEO feeling as psychologically free to do anything like that. There probably are a few exceptions here and there, but the smart ones probably would either shuffle down the cubicle rows with their hands jammed in their pockets, offering a stiff grimace or "firm" handshake, or maybe they would walk extra fast past the worker bees, with legs resembling scissors, barely making eye contact, eager to flee the scene of the crime.

The thing about the dumb executive is he isn¹t reflective enough to feel discomfort about the people he's (unfairly) doing financially much better than, and whom he may have to soon layoff. When you don't notice anything, you're able to interact more freely. When it comes to future tests for this CEO, he's calm and collected because he doesn't understand the ramifications of what lies ahead if he botches it (some smart ones, unfortunately, also are unfazed because though they see the ramifications they're wealthy and
insulated enough not to be affected by plans gone awry). There's nothing worse than a person wracked by neuroses in the face of a crisis. I come from a neuroses-full family, and have more than a few myself, so I know how that can be. The dumb aren't famous for having neuroses. Have you ever know a dumbbell with a hearty collection of neuroses?

But the best part of having a dumb CEO is communications. Now, while you may assume communications would suffer from the mouth and pen of a dope, but that's not so. It's like being back in kindergarten, and having a teacher talk to you as if every sentence were an enigma unto itself—everything is clearly, and all-too-concretely outlined. How many times have you heard a smart executive give a speech full of analogies and
vague language no one understands, or which thoroughly fails to resonate?

I definitely think the dumb are better in the c-suite. They say this year will be another doozey in the realm of CEO challenge, and I fear what an intelligent executive will do with another hefty set of problems. What
further Cubicle Land discomfort and horrors will the complex mind inflict? What if the man or gal dope at the top only came up with childish solutions to employee engagement like, say, Fudgsicle Fridays? You'd be surprised how many of your best employees and customers will come out to play.

How will your CEO meet the next round of challenges for your company? Is he over-thinking the solutions?