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.

Leading is tough…

On January 2nd a well fed version of me plopped down at my desk full of good intentions. And before I got to answering emails and walking about wishing people New Year I took some time out to think about accountability, collaboration and trust.

Before Christmas I’d queried someone’s decison on something and I wasn’t really content with their response. It just wasn’t the one I’d want them to make… That happens a lot, but I guess I it was one of the last things I did before shutting down. Before Christmas. It wasn’t a big decison, but it’s one where I can’t see something working out… And if I’d gone back and queried again that would have sent a clear messages. As it was they probably didn’t even notice.

So here is what I’ve been thinking

i) I get paid more than most people in the organisation – and that pay should be commensurate with me taking more accountability. If something goes wrong in my area I expect to be held accountable.

ii) But I want the people in my area to feel trusted and backed to make decisions

iii) But sometimes I can see problems coming down the line and in fact, I’m more experienced that most in spotting that (as I’ve made more mistakes than most), which is part of the reason why I get paid more than most.

iv) I’m also accountable for setting standards for my area – which can arguably conflict with ii)

So I’m sitting here waiting for things to progress and either me to be proved wrong (it happens) or to see how the person reacts if I turn out to be right. What I’m not doing is using a hierarchy to ensure what I think should happen happens. But maybe I should because I’m still accountable.

So I’m probably in this instance accountable for allowing some risk to help ensure continuity of trust. And then I have to ask if that’s the right thing to do for the people the organisation serves.

I guess I’m writing this because it’s about such a tiny, tiny thing. But most days are made up of similar choices but over much bigger things.

  • How much are things decided by a group vs me being paid to apply my judgement?
  • What do I let go vs what do I make a clear statement on?
  • What do I find time for vs how do I protect time to think?
  • How much is too much oversight vs how much of not having oversight is negligence

And it’s similar for anyone who leads a group of people. But I don’t think that complexity is always reflected by the experts commentating on the roles we do. Sometimes it’s a bit like watching the football pundits that you know failed to make it in management or never even attempted that role. You can speak with easily adopted authority if you’ve never had to make the same mistakes that we face (and make) each day.

‘What the modern leader needs to do is just…‘.

‘Yeah. But I’d like to see you try…’

You don’t give someone a four/nine box model and away they go… You don’t just say ‘Embrace your autonomy’ and everything turns out fine. You wrestle with this stuff every single day. And if you are me you go home and replay each day in your head second guessing each decison you made and then still come in the next day trying to give people confidence that you know what you are doing. A constant balance of unpicking and stepping forward. Because I’m paid to be good at stuff for people and I’m accountable for that.

So this is just a mini plea to the people writing/talking about leadership. Unless you do this stuff (and I mean you lead teams now – not have a rose tinted recollection of doing it half a decade ago) if you could mix some humility and understanding in with the insight that would be awesome. Because most of us know we aren’t perfect already.

And if you read this and think it is about you, but isn’t fair, then it wasn’t about you so it’s all good here.

Final thought – since I drafted this blog it turns out that my initial instinct was correct. However I’m not stupid enough to think there are countless examples every single day where the opposite is true. But on this one… Well, if you have made the same mistake multiple times you spot it when someone else is going to make it.

A compilation of thoughts

I’ve had a relentless few days of writing  so I thought I’d pull all of the pieces into one place as some are currently just sitting on LinkedIn…so

For my reflections on the UK launch of Google Glass. Yes, I look like a….

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For a reminder that CEOs are people too

For that exclusive extended interview with Dr Maslow Pinkwell

For some thoughts on the need to be honest about motives when talking engagement

And if you don’t normally check it out you should make Christopher Demers’ best of blogs a fixture on your reading calendar. It is wonderfully curated and if you read some of his work whilst you are there you will be better off for it. Every word makes you smarter.

Dirty Rotten Bloggers and Thought Leechership

Last week I had the opportunity to go and see F.W. De Klerk speak about the end of apartheid and the importance of leadership – something that Kate Griffiths-Lambeth covers in wonderful detail here. I then went to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the weekend. 

De Klerk spoke at some length about how the requirement of leadership is to stand for something, – not to just play back to the people what they want to hear in order to get yourself elected. It is an important distinction and a complicated one – is it arrogant to suggest that sometimes the leader will be in the best position to see what is best for the people? Is the essence of democracy enshrining of choice – or the enshrining of the choice of a leader? Since principles seem to shift over time how do you stand up for them?

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was great fun and one of the songs elaborated on what it took to be a great con man

“Give them want they want. Smooth and easy.”

So much of the content that we read is so similar to other content that it is hard to pick out

  • who is trying to make a point
  • who thinks in the same way as other people
  • who is just trying to sound ‘on message’ and give the people what they want

I’m pretty sure someone who has never worked in HR could read a few blogs/’thought leadership’ pieces and cobble them together into something that would get a good reception.

Top topics seem to be

  • Isn’t the recruitment experience a bit pants?
  • Aren’t performance reviews a bit pants?
  • Isn’t HR a bit pants?
  • Isn’t classroom training a bit pants?
  • Don’t we have too much policy?
  • Shouldn’t we have more diversity? 
  • Is x dead? (where x = engagement/thought leadership/ROI as required)
  • Shouldn’t we all use technology more?
  • Remote working is a good thing isn’t it?
  • Isn’t command and control a bit too commanding and controlling?
  • Isn’t Big Data an opportunity/a pathway to a dystopian future?

Maybe writing those is giving the people what they want? Maybe some of us are unwitting con artists and some of us are intentional con artists. Plenty of us will say we don’t write for the stats – but I bet not many of us would write if nobody read or responded. 

Maybe being unpopular is a sign of genuine leadership. Maybe the best thought leadership out there is so unpalatable or progressive that it doesn’t register, as it doesn’t fit into one of the categories above.

I’ve written posts on most of the topics above, so this is a reflection rather than a pop at other people. What would leadership in this space look like? Or is ‘social’, by its nature, more about collaboration than genuine creation? 

How can you tell someone exploring a topic from a stats hungry Dirty Rotten Blogger? How can you tell a thought leader from a thought leecher? 

Would it make any difference if you could? 

 

I don’t know who’ll want this post, but thanks to Mervyn Dinnen for the nudge

 

 

Gamification – the early years

It was my daughter’s birthday at the weekend. Two things happened which made me reflect on the nature of playing games.

The first was that Kate Griffiths-Lambeth gave my daughter a game, it was actually a Christmas present, but I wanted my daughter to open it early. The game was one that I’ve never seen before and is designed, at its core, to increase collaboration. It says that on the box. Kate said it was one of her favourites as a child.

image

I’ve worked alongside Kate for the past few months and had a chance to observe Kate in action. Collaboration, help, support, team – I smiled when I saw the game – as it was exactly the kind of thing you would have expected to see Kate play as a child.

I wonder how much impact what we play as children has on how we behave when we are older. We are now starting to appreciate the power of the systems of games as tools in the workplace.

How much of a difference does what we play in our formative years make?

Did the individuals behind the banking crisis play Monopoly with their pals and delight in everyone else going bankrupt? Maybe rig the card deck so that they always got out of jail free?

Are the top surgeons in the country the individuals who just kept on playing Operation long after everyone else had finished? When the batteries died they wouldn’t rest until they could test their steady hands again?

Are our best structural engineers the best Jenga players?

I was addicted to Trivial Pursuit as a child. All I wanted to do was test myself against the adults. If somebody wanted me on their team on Trivial Pursuit then I got to stay up late . My freakish capability at Trivial Pursuit at a young age became something for my family to show off when people came over. That stimulated me to read more and get even better. In the end we used to play all of my family against me to make it fair. If you keep doing things you keep good at them. There was nothing special about me, it wasn’t about me being smart or making claims about my ability. It was about what Matthew Syed describes as ‘purposeful practice’.

Believe you can get better, approach learning in a controlled way and test yourself. Trivial Pursuit allowed me/encouraged me to do this. I was a product of that environment.

So, what lessons is my daughter learning? Well, at the weekend she had  a birthday party. We had a game of pass the parcel and my wife and I fouled up. A real parenting low point. My daughter waited for all of the other children to receive presents and then there was nothing left for her. Her bottom lip quivered but she kept it together.

I can imagine the moment being played back as part of an interview on a chat show when she is older.

‘I’m sure my parents did love me, but one of my first memories is being the only child not to receive a present in pass the parcel – at my own party’.

Plenty of other parents came up to us to say that their child would have thrown a tantrum. We are lucky we don’t have one of those children.

Doug Shaw suggested that it was a genuine life lesson for her. He may be right, but it isn’t one that I had planned. Maybe I should have. The Marshmallow Test is a fantastic example of understanding the importance of self control and more and more work on the importance of ‘grit’ to success is being produced.

Maybe I should be planning more life lessons through games for her. Or maybe if I really want her to help others I should just dust off Operation?

Final thought.

People play games every day. We tend to view people in the office who ‘play games’ as a bad thing. It suggests engineering a result for them, using other people as pawns. It is worth remembering there are more positive results available if you play nicely with others. Same is true for Social Media, same is true for life.

(written on the train, may have multiple errors, all apologies)

Humane, Resourced – out on Kindle

I’ve just had a bizarre experience where Twitter has once again managed to beat other technology to the punch. At about 6pm someone tweeted me a picture of Humane, Resourced available in the Amazon Kindle store. It was another hour before I got an email from Amazon to say it was available in the store – and it is available here…

http://goo.gl/pi2KAm

A quick recap and then a call to arms

The recap

1. Over 50 authors contributed – if you were one then congratulations, thank you and it couldn’t have happened without you. People also checked the text, created a cover and promoted the book – thank you, it couldn’t have happened without you

2. All proceeds go to charity. The book will be available for free next week, but if you can spare a couple of pounds (or a few dollars) then please know your money is going to a good cause. And you are only paying about 4p per chapter

3. There will be some errors – I’ll correct them, if I can, in future revisions

A call to arms

  1. Share it – share it and then please share it again. On LinkedIn, Google +, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth. People have given their time and effort for free so let’s make the most of that.
  2. Share it at different times in different ways and not just this week – talk at conferences, networking events and family parties – something brilliant has happened here
  3. If you have connections that might want to review it for a publication etc then put them in contact with me – likewise if they want to talk to me about the story behind it I’ll do that
  4. Encourage people to post reviews – let’s get it properly backed on Amazon
  5. Enjoy it. There is something of real substance and ambition here and some exceptional content.

Thanks,

David

BoB cover

Humane, Resourced – almost there #bookofblogs

UPDATE! GOOD UPDATE! NEWS!

So, today I spent most of the day cutting and pasting and swearing and exporting and grumbling and drinking tea. It looks like we are one step away from publishing a book – an incredible achievement when you consider the original ‘anybody fancy doing this?’ blog post only went out in mid July

I have just sent the review copy off to People Management – that is quick.

Over 50 authors – that is big. BoB cover

Simon Heath, who designed the cover, spent a chunk of the day at my house, sipping tea and solving problems. We have one problem left which is that when I move the book from Pressbooks (where we designed it) to Kindle it opens in the middle of the index. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is far from ideal.

I hope a couple of service calls I’ve put in will resolve the issue and the next button I get to press on Amazon says ‘SAVE AND PUBLISH’. 

I’d extend thanks to lots of people – several are mentioned in the book – but Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD spent his Sunday writing me a foreword. That is a classy and supportive thing to do.

So what can you do to help if you are an author or want to support the project?

  1. Tweet and Linkedin when we launch – Google + if you can and certainly Facebook
  2. Remember it is all for charity
  3. Consider updating your LinkedIn profile with the book cover or something imaginative
  4. Talk to people – you’ve been part of an amazing community journey, share that. We have inspiring content but we also have an amazing story
  5. Enjoy it – if you weren’t before you are now a published author

I’ll let you know more when I’ve stopped breaking things.

Dave