Fairness, Silos & The Proximity Problem

Fairness, Silos & The Proximity Problem

There’s a type of discrimination that we don’t talk about enough.

The Proximity Problem is the term I use to describe a very human problem that dogs the efficiency and productivity of organisations. I’d love to see research on it, because to the best of my knowledge, it’s a guilty secret. It’s the thing that leaders see elsewhere – but would never admit to themselves. It’s a genuine ethical challenge, but rarely framed as such.

The problem at hand is that, for all the talk of breaking down organisational silos and flattening structures, leaders still tend to protect those closest to them. Or, to put it more bluntly, leaders discount the emotional cost and impact of their decisions – action and inaction – on people who aren’t in their immediate sphere. As an equation it looks a bit like this

(contact time with senior team + amount they know about your family) x closeness in reporting line = level of undue favour

Or, if you are lower in the org it might look like this

Number of levels between you and senior team x number of times your peers have been mentioned positively in a meeting at a senior level = chance of redundancy or poor bonus or missing out on advancement

The Proximity Problem is a contributory reason, in my experience, to why it’s easier to fail and remain in certain parts of an organisation than others. For instance – we all know it tends to be better to be a direct report to a senior leader when it comes to bonus time.

Now, some of you may be thinking ‘Congratulations Sherlock, of course senior people get more money, that’s not news’, but the point I’m trying to make is that it is much harder for them to get less money. Because if they are allocated less bonus/a lower performance rating that

i) necessitates a conversation with them to tell them that news. And that person delivering the news knows their family and possibly has spent time bonding with them

ii) necessitates the senior leader confronting the issue of either poor hiring or poor performance management of the individual

So taking 1 percent off the bonuses of a group of people that you don’t know the names of and only pass in the corridor beats taking 2 percent off the person you are trapped in a room with twice a week.

When it comes to organisational changes the Proximity Problem comes to the fore again. You’ve had a raft of complaints about a team member – but you tend to believe the team member over people you don’t know as well. Why? Well, you don’t want your team member to fail and if they were to fail that would be a host of tough conversations. So you’d rather discount the views and emotions of people you haven’t met. It’s very human and it’s very costly for those not in your team. It’s why any significant clash between departments tends to end up with managers saying ‘there is fault on both sides’ – but then not dealing with the fault that sits on theirs.

It’s part and parcel of some really narrow messaging that has been given around leadership through the years:

“Have the people in your team’s backs”
“Fight their corner”
“Put your people first”

They seem like the things leaders should do, but leading is about the organisation, not just your team. And that is where we fail.

What does the failure look like? It looks like cynicism about pay processes, it looks like people feeling that failure is tolerated for some and not for others and it looks like a fundamentally undermined culture lacking in trust and lacking in proportionate action and fairness.

And yet that happens almost everywhere you look. So if you are leading people then give them a role model who considers no member of the organisation more easily disposable than others, who anyone in the organisation can look to for a fair hearing and who would never be accused of playing favourites. Give them a great human being.

If you work in HR and care about culture they are some of the hardest conversations to have. With senior stakeholders and directly questioning their decisions.

But they are also some of the conversations most required to make organisations fair and productive.

Understanding why your directors excuse behaviour or performance from their immediate team that they wouldn’t tolerate from elsewhere cuts to the heart of one of the core, unpleasant yet understandable, biases of leadership.

The Proximity Problem.

Please note: the author is less guilty of this than most over the course of his career (and his teams will testify to that), but by no means innocent either. I am, at least, aware of it. Also I’ve just seen this by Mark Eltringham over at Workplace Insight. Very much worth a read.

The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

I regularly talk and write about the need for a more evidence based approach to creating work that works better for more people. Less guff. There is too much faddishness and too many poorly thought out and poorly joined up initiatives. I’m therefore naturally grumpy when people attempt to sell solutions packaged with overclaims or rubbish evidence to back it up (‘Our product has used neuroscience to improve 107% of orgs we worked with’). I’m the one that says ‘prove it’ because not enough time is spent really reflecting on what is most likely to work. We rush to action.

That said… It’s worth making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when taking this approach and I’ve seen some of that recently. In an effort to, rightfully, avoid overclaims it is easy to undermine legitimate claims in the same space. Or maybe more obvious truths just become collateral damage. I thought I’d share a couple of examples

1. Growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (the need for a belief in possible improvement being central to performance, expanded on in Bounce by Matthew Syed) has come in for criticism. Some criticism centres around falsifiability (if you say something must not have been done properly if it doesn’t work then it’s hard to prove it doesn’t work) and some applicability (a lot of the work in this area has been done with children, not in work environments). And there is absolutely validity in the criticism. The challenge however is that it would be absolutely perverse to believe that a willingness to persevere and practice isn’t strongly linked to the ability to improve. If you remove the research and just think it through it must to some extent be true. It would be theoretically possible to fundamentally disagree with research (methodology or conclusions) and still hold that practice makes perfect (or at least better) and that people who give up aren’t likely to get better at things. It’s a surprisingly obvious truth.

2. Engagement

For years we’ve been told that better levels of engagement guarantee business success. Or are inescapably linked to business success. But the academic evidence for this is weak. Rob Briner provides an excellent overview here and was commissioned by Engage For Success to do an evidence review which concluded… There isn’t a lot of credible evidence for what are some quite often incredible claims (made by a host of providers). Yet having said that… if you ignore all of overclaims and pseudoscience and reduced the engagement case from something akin to organisational magic to something more mundane then… the claim is simply that ‘People who want your organisation to succeed are more likely to contribute than people who really don’t care’. That seems relatively uncontroversial. To what extent it makes a difference might be debatable, but not that a difference exists. The packaging is the problem, not the potential mundane but important truth.

Where people are making claims we should examine them, but we should also remember that our own experiences and those of others are a type of evidence. And a valid type of evidence. A little more joined up common sense and a little less ‘studies show organisations that do one thing succeed’ might get us a long way.

If you are interested in taking a more evidence based approach then I’d recommend

Hipster HR

Hipster HR

One of my favourite stories of last year was of someone complaining of their photo (from a stock gallery) being used in an article about hipsters. The claim was that their photo being used portrayed them in a negative light. The article was on group conformity and on how, whilst trying to show they don’t conform, all hipsters end up looking alike.

The kicker was that it transpired that the person complaining proved that point by mistakenly thinking it was an image of them – when in fact it was just another hipster. You can read a thread about it here. The overall contention of the article (based on a paper here with maths I don’t pretend to understand) is that “people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same”.

It is rare to find people who don’t seek out a tribe/group identity – even if sometimes that is joining forces with other people who boldly say they don’t want to be part of a group. The kids at school who agree that everything sucks except people who agree that everything sucks – and the same people who turn up in organisations. I think we see the same in HR and it’s interesting to witness. Jane Watson has written this excellent piece on normative vs descriptive theories of HR and – over time – you can almost see multiple camps form, disband and reform.

There’s a group ‘doing the do’ – and a group saying ‘this is how the do should be done’. And they have their own languages and signifiers and champions. And it’s really, really interesting to watch. Of course the real win lies in the best of both. It lies in the desire for better being married with ways of delivering that. It lies in endeavouring for a higher standard whilst understanding the constraints that prevent things from being perfect. It lies in people bringing energy into shared ambtion, not just revelling in points of difference. Most of the goals are shared – we shouldn’t define ourselves simply by degrees of fanaticism. We should solve together.

One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in my role is the constant desire of groups to define their boundaries exclusively to then claim a space as an out group. ‘Nobody gets us, that’s all your fault’. If you take a step back and just observe it’s intriguing, it’s understandable but arguably ultimately unproductive. Don’t be the hipster not wanting to be a hipster. Or the hipster saying everyone else is wrong.

Be whatever you want to be and find others happy enough to be what they want to be too. Find your learning and challenge wherever you can. It’s too precious not to take everything available.

Please note: the author has absolutely nothing against hipsters. I just liked the story.

A Year Without Work

A Year Without Work

Early in my career I took a job in a department that was supposed to be delivering a major new product for one of our business partners. It seemed like a great opportunity. What happened next was that the deal was delayed and the delayed again. But we were already in training and so the organisation decided to leave us in this new area until we were needed. So after training was completed I was earning the most money I ever had (low bar at that point, we aren’t talking Jeff Bezos money) but had no work to do.

Technically there was some work to do, but I am an early riser and a quick worker which meant that most days I had finished my allotted work by the time I was actually supposed to start work. Leaving me a whole day of… Well, what?

It turned out pretty quickly that the team of 8 were part of something that should have been monitored and evaluated as part of a social experiment. We all reacted in different ways.

  • One person (low level of drive…) simply kicked back and relaxed so much they could often be found asleep at their desk with earphones in. Other teams complained and he didn’t care
  • Another took to professional gambling through their phone
  • Several of us started Fantasy sport leagues with multiple teams and competed against each other there. Or played the stock markets with imaginary money
  • One person was so bored they would get everyone else cups of tea or do favours for them… if the other team members would leave extra work for them. Yes, they actually worked for work to avoid having no work
  • I read everything that I could on the area of expertise so that subsequent training courses became a bit redundant because I’d put in such intense study that nothing was new to me
  • Tempers would flare and people would shout at each other – not because of the pressure of work but because of the lack of it
  • Other colleagues in the business hated us for the lack of work and we hated them for having work

I guess it taught me very early that for some getting out of work is bliss. Yet after a short period of excitement for most people there was a hunger to do something that had a value or was valued. We wanted to be productive. We weren’t saving lives, but whatever we did was going to be better than things we knew had no worth.

So whenever someone tells me that someone is lazy I’m tempted to suggest that you give that person no work for a year. There’s nothing more strangely useful in helping us see the perverse value we place on it. It’s also worth remembering that you can place 8 people in an identical situation and get 8 completely different reactions. We are curious beasts.

Compromise and Strength

Compromise and Strength

We often see strength as somehow inextricably linked to inflexibility. We ask people what they stand for. We don’t ask what they’d bend for or maybe where they would move or shift. What ground they would give.

If I know the ground you won’t move from then I know what you represent. I know I can join you there and have some certainty. We can stand on this ground together.

The system teaches its leaders not to shift. It teaches them to show people how they will stand firm. The worst things you can be are inconsistent or inclined to change your mind.

Mistakes are held over people and revisited.

The problem comes when people raised on that notion – and rewarded on those grounds – are asked to work together.

Because if you are the one in the right and if you are the one with principles then surely the right thing is for everyone else to compromise? To understand that what you are describing is what really matters.

Because what matters are the points of difference that you’ve articulated and recognition of your rightness – not a common objective.

We’ve just finished an election in the UK and when things have calmed down a bit (or time has healed or whatever happens next) there are genuine lessons available on group dynamics, group think, flexibility and collaboration.

Possibly more profound lessons than you’ll find in your next business book – because the stakes have been higher but the behaviour all too familiar.

For now some people will be jubilant and some distraught. We need to find a bridge between those groups – and it won’t be found by everyone standing firm. It will be through people remembering that they can move towards each other.

It won’t be identifying who you can’t work with, but who you might be able to hold out a hand to.

It can feel scary to leave the solid ground that makes you feel safe. But the will and ability to move allows you to find others.

If you don’t make that choice all you can do is hope they decide to come to you. You may find that’s lonelier than you’d like. Being right in isolation can bring little benefit except self satisfaction.

Why You Won’t Get Your Own Statue

Why You Won’t Get Your Own Statue

Synopsis: why a more distributed sharing of information might make people’s contributions less enduring, but more useful.

There will never be a statue made of me*.

There’s a high chance that if you are reading this you want get one either. I’m not suggesting that you reading this is the cause of that, but rather that it’s harder to warrant a statue these days. You were born in the wrong time to get a statue.

Estimates of the population of Ancient Athens put the number of men with civil rights (as in those who could ascend to fame/fortune, apologies to everyone else) at between 30-60,000.

So when you think of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle or Herodotus then their competition for fame and recognition was actually limited. Big fish in small ancient pond. Ancient Athens had about the same population as Scarborough**. I was always amazed that Aristotle was Alexander the Great’s teacher. That just seemed a ridiculous collision of famous figures. When you realise the finite pool of educators that would have been available to school Alexander from a population that small you start thinking that maybe Aristotle only got the gig as there was nobody else available. Anyway, I digress…

The chances of rising to statue level prominence in this world is constrained by a number of factors, but it would seem reasonable to assume you needed to live in a time and place affluent enough to have the time and resource to build statues whilst also, ideally, in a period with a relatively low population. Or you could rise to the absolute top in a dictatorial state and get to build statues in your lifetime. Most people reading this are automatically ruled out of the running based on those factors (if you are a world leader reading this blog or a time traveller please drop me a note in the comments).

We live in a time where people appear to be famous for 15 social media postings. There is perhaps even less permanence to recognition than ever before and possibly even less reason to it as well. When millions of people follow other people online for staged holiday snaps that those people use to try and get free holidays to take more staged snaps on… I’m not sure that feels statue worthy. But more people will be following those snaps than ever were exploded to the teachings of Socrates in his lifetime.

That obscene volume of shared content in the modern world leads to some interesting things in a professional space.

I’ve rated them from bad to good (in my opinion)…

  • A host of influencers that add nothing to the world’s knowledge – on some days you could read the average Linkedin feed and be stupider at the end of it. If some content is enriching there then there seems to be a lot that is impoverishing. If your problem was a lack of people telling you they are better than you because they are their ‘best self’ then that problem is now resolved for all time.
  • A bigger group of people able to share quality ideas than before. I make it onto lots of lists of influencers (of varying credibility, to be honest I’m on one for “Cloud Influencers’ and I can’t even persuade a cumulonimbus out for a drink). There is something remarkable about being on a list of 100 people in quite a niche area of expertise and technology being able to help make them all being contactable. I have no idea how differently my career might have progressed if the sharing of challenging ideas was so easy earlier in my career. We now share information and ideas around far faster and more efficiently than when one battered copy of In Search of Excellence*** was being passed around the office.
  • A community of ideas being shared. People accelerating their own development by learning with and through each other. I think this is an excellent thing. An inspiring thing. When I see students sharing their thinking and experience I think we live in a wonderful time. When I see experienced professionals doing the same I feel the same.

None of these people will get a statue. We are no longer in the time of a small collection of people bestriding a profession or area of expertise. And I think that’s a good thing.

A diversity of voices and thinking that can help shape things.

—-

* this post came about because I passed a few statues in London and read the descriptions of people and realised their modern professional equivalents wouldn’t get a statue. I don’t spend large amounts of time pondering over whether I’ll get a statue. Getting stopped everytime I pass through airport security makes me feel special enough.

** this is lazy thinking. Obviously Scarborough’s population as quoted doesn’t include just males involved in the political system, so I’ve either underplayed the population figure for Athens or overplayed it for Scarborough – just to make a cheap point.

I’m writing this on public transport and the thought of flicking between apps to work out the actual figures means I can’t be bothered to do this work properly. I’m not sure that this is how all fake news is generated, but it’s definitely how fake news about the relative populations of Ancient Athens and Scarborough is created if you are using the WordPress app. I’m very aware of this. I’m an overthinker.

*** look it up kids. We thought Wang Labs was going to rule the world

On tonight’s performance…

On tonight’s performance…

One of the strangest things that I’ve seen throughout my career is the belief that people’s task based capability is somehow fixed or tethered to the moment. I’m not talking about growth or fixed mindsets of the individual (that’s for others to opine on…) – I’m talking about the mental ticklist assigned to others about what they can and can’t do.

It manifests most when we hire individuals or talk about immediate career moves. A conversation about what X can’t do. Or how job Y needs someone who can do a very specific thing.

Small things become insurmountable. The thing that takes a couple of weeks to learn becomes a reason – perhaps a convenient reason – to hire people.

And yet this reason only comes out sometimes.

Other times people are full of potential and ‘they’ll have no problem learning that’. I can’t help but think that sometimes chemistry/fit gets people a pass that others wouldn’t. At times that’s probably straightforwardly discriminatory – as much as we’d all like to think it isn’t.

It reminds me of the X Factor or The Apprentice. A bewildering reasons of people to put people through that varies week to week.

  • I have to go with the performance in the sing off/this week’s task
  • I have to look at the whole of what people have delivered in previous weeks
  • I have to think about who could be a recording artist/my business partner
  • I can’t see that star potential/hunger
  • I have to listen to the public/Karen

The reasons seem clear and fair in isolation but mask the lack of consistency – seemingly fair in the moment, yet unjust in the round.

We talk about unfairness in hiring processes, yet people’s progress through their career is impacted by that day to day assessment of potential, performance and capability too.

People’s talent deserves better than a talent show.