Do Sweat the Soft Stuff


Last year* I was at a conference focused on technology and processes for global product development. In the hallway a representative from Lucent Technologies offered me his latest revelation:

“Ya know, sitting in all these presentations, it’s really clear to me what the problem is. It’s not network security or the limitations of current collaboration software…it’s the cultural issues. Every speaker has said that’s a problem. How do you get your people to embrace such big changes? You should do a conference on those issues.”

I agreed with him 100%. But I told him we couldn’t do that conference because nobody would come, despite the fact it is the largest conundrum for most. People (you might think it’s just engineers, but it’s really everybody) don’t like to address the human-relationship side of the work we do. We avoid it like the plague. It makes us uncomfortable, frustrated, and confused. We can easily make decisions and win debates based on metrics, and economic facts and figures, but when faced with “feelings” and “emotions”, such things present inarguable situations. There is no binary path on which to fall back.

On this issue, most experts will refer to social sciences, such as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” This illustrates, once again, how our discomfort with the soft stuff leads us to convert things into scientific structures and categories to cope with them. Of course, structure is good, it’s overlay can create clarity. But nature abhors such a vacuum, and human relationships and behavior consistently break any standard set of rules we come up with, however comprehensive they may be.

To take a radically different, and more honest, look at cultural issues and how they relate to managing product development, I’ve turned to one of my favorite books that nobody has ever heard of. Please enjoy the following excerpts from “Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership” by Richard Farson, published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster.

“Contradictory impulses to both succeed and fail can be found in every project…That is why leadership is essentially the management of dilemmas, why tolerance for ambiguity – coping with contradictions – is essential for leaders, and why appreciating the coexistence of opposites is crucial to the development of a different way of thinking.” (p. 23)

 * * *

“Some managers seem to spend their lives trying to discover techniques that will produce desired behaviors in employees without the employees being aware of them. This is a high-risk approach that will likely end with the managers losing respect for – and confidence in – their employees.” (p. 36)

  * * *

“…over time, people come to share, reciprocally, similar attitudes toward each other…Eventually you will come to feel about me the way I feel about you…Ultimately, people discover who we are and come to regard us as we regard them. If we genuinely respect our colleagues and employees, those feelings will be communicated without the need for artifice or technique. And they will be reciprocated.” (p. 37)

  * * *

“Absurdly, our most important human affairs – marriage, child rearing, education, leadership – do best when there is occasional loss of control and an increase in personal vulnerability, times when we do not know what to do.” (p. 38)

  * * *

“…people need to know they are dealing with a genuine person, not someone who is ‘managing’ them” (p. 39)

  * * *

“Many of us have the idea that as managers we can use our skills to shape our employees as if we were shaping clay, molding them into what we want them to become. But that isn’t the way it really works. It’s more as if our employees are piles of clay into which we fall – leaving an impression…and that impression is distinctly us, but it may not be the impression we intended to leave.” (p. 41)

  * * *

“Many supposed communication problems are actually balance-of-power problems. That is why it probably is unwise to introduce completely open communication into a situation in which there is a large disparity in power…It is only when the balance of power is relatively equal that truly candid communication can and should take place.” (p. 55)

  * * *

“Listening can also be a disturbing experience. All of us have strong needs to see the world in certain ways, and when we really listen, so that we understand the other person’s perspective, we risk being changed ourselves. Similarly, listening to others means having to be alert to one’s own defensiveness, to one’s impulse to want to change others. That requires a level of self-awareness, even self-criticism, that is often not easy to endure.

  * * *

“Listening demands openness, trust, and respect, qualities difficult to maintain and seldom exhibited in any uniform way even by the most experienced listeners. It is more an attitude than a skill. The best kind of listening comes not from technique but from being genuinely interested in what really matters to the other person.” (p. 62)

  * * *

“…I doubt that praise, when consciously employed as a management technique, always accomplishes what we think it does…I think our beliefs about its motivational value need closer scrutiny. Consider the following…Praise may, in fact, be perceived as threatening. Watch how people respond to praise. Don’t they often react with discomfort or uneasiness?…After all, praise is an evaluation, and to be evaluated, to be judged, usually makes us uncomfortable – even if the evaluation is positive…Instead of reassuring people about their worth, praise may be a way of gaining status over them. Giving praise establishes the fact that you are in a position to sit in judgment…Praise may constrict creativity rather than free it.” (p. 64)

  * * *

“I have come to realize that every management act is a political act. By this I mean that every management act in some way redistributes or reinforces power.” (p. 71)

  * * *

“Most employees are trying to do the best they can. They prefer to do good work, to cooperate, to meet objectives. They prefer harmony over conflict, action over inaction, productivity over delays. Not everyone, and not all the time. But in general, people want to perform effectively.” (p. 130)

  * * *

“Perhaps we learn not to see. Anthropologist Margaret Mead told me once that children see events that we adults have learned not to notice. What this says is that experience is not always the best teacher. Sometimes it closes us down. We learn many things that blind us and lead us to mistakes in judgment…How are we fooled? Both in school and at home we are taught a reliance on authority, on the opinions of others.” (p. 150)

  * * *

“We tend to find what we are looking for…Evidence to support one’s beliefs is remarkably easy to find.” (p. 150)

  * * *

“Children look at things we turn away from…but better executives have this childlike quality of being able to wade into areas others avoid. Sometimes just pointing at what is going on is a valuable way to break through a barrier.” (p. 152)

  * * *

“Training, as we know, leads to the development of skills and techniques. Education, on the other hand, leads not to technique but to information and knowledge, which in the right hands can lead to understanding, even to wisdom. And wisdom leads to humility, compassion, and respect – qualities that are fundamental to effective leadership. Training makes people more alike, because everyone learns the same skills. Education, because it involves an examination of one’s personal experience in the light of an encounter with great ideas, tends to make people different from each other. So the first benefit of education is that the manager becomes unique, independent, the genuine article.” (p. 154)

  * * *

“The best leaders make their organizations places where their passion becomes the organizing force. ‘Amateur’ stems from the Latin word amator, which means ‘lover’. Amateurs do what they do out of love. That is a word that does not often arise in conversation about management development, yet love is fundamental to good leadership, because leadership is all about caring. Indeed, caring is the basis for community, and the first job of the leader is to build community, a deep feeling of unity, a fellowship…One of the great dilemmas is that the erosion of community almost always happens in the name of progress…Once the human organization gets to be large-scale, it is difficult to make it work as effectively as it did when it was smaller. That is the reason for the current move to more entrepreneurial organizations. There are those who feel that the future of organizations will be in a reversion to small units because, for one thing, only in smaller units are the bonds holding people together affectional rather than simply functional, and affection is the basis of community. For example, only prisons housing fewer than twenty inmates are likely to be rehabilitative…leadership is like being in love.” (p. 159)

* This article was originally published in The Critical Path email newsletter on May 10, 2001.  I mean, I mention a guy from Lucent Technologies, talk about dated!

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