Category Archives: Psychology@Work

Day 77 thru 80: My life w car

Been flying all over the place running errands in the car–it’s just like that sometimes. And this week promises to be busy as well. A lot of travel to the eastside where it seems no buses go…

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Somewhat unrelated (at least on the surface) to the environment, yet related in a systems kind of way…I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the social organization of Europe in medieval times. Yeah, really. It’s all related to a larger thought about communication networks, the larger conversation of culture, our interconnectedness and denial, but here’s what I’ve been mulling over:

In medieval times, there were basically three channels in life: the Church, the Military, and Commerce. The Court (royal, not judicial) had all of those rolled into it and was the center of all things.

In a way, we still have this organization, though much more complex and hard to read. I’ll stop here and tell why I started on this train of thought: my partner is a therapist, and as a result, we socialize with a lot of therapists, analysts, and others in the psychological care world. People in this world have a certain disdain for people in the Commerce world, and I won’t even mention the Military–it goes without saying.

I view the therapy field as an extension of the religious channel of medieval times; that channel served a spiritual need, a community need, for guidance that is not offered in the other channels.

What my partner and I got to talking about the other day is how each of these channels views the other channels as “less than,” or somehow corrupt in ways that they themself are not. So goes the military in its view of the non-military world and its concerns; so goes commerce with its profit imperative which it believes is paramount to all others; so goes the care-giving fields which certainly claim a higher moral ground to the other channels.

And yet…in truth, none of them live very well without the others. A military that is detached from the moral and emotional imperatives of the community is simply a dictatorship and a brutish one at that; a culture of commerce that does not see itself as part of a larger system wherein the health and well being of the system upon which it is dependent is paramount is simply greed gone awry (yeah, maybe we’re there…); and those charged with giving care of one sort or another who are disconnected from the other channels will become untethered at some point and unable to add a valued voice to the larger conversation of community.

At all times in our human history, we’ve seen these channels of organization be recreated in different ways; we’ve seen them struggle for ascendancy, usually to the ultimate detriment of the the larger community. I guess I’m thinking about these things right now because it seems we are so close to having every possible form of communication available to us short of Vulcan Mind Meld, and yet we still strive to shut down communication of our shared experience.

The Church does not want to hear about the crushing effect of over-population and diminishing resources and so it retreats to a sanctimonious ground which they will call “higher ground.” Therapists do not want to associate themselves with business because their own view of themselves does not include a desire for profits (I mean, come on!), so they deny business as a valued aspect of life and therefore shut themselves off from a very needed participation in that larger conversation. The Military does not want to humanize the world since it may have to go to war with it, so it denies the human aspect of its own people, not to mention other cultures, it objectifies so it can rigidly command and control.

It is, at the end of the day, our own attachment to the outcome of our actions–our concepts about who we are and how we’re defined–that causes us the most trouble.

Well…after all that, here’s the details of my carbon-based life:

Daily Stats:
Car: Whew! about 50 miles total (approx 12 tasks, sometimes 2 people)
Bike: 5 miles
Electric-hybrid bus: 0
fexcar: 0

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Day 49 thru 53: My Life w Car

First off: Days without carbon based transportation: 4 out of 5. That’s smashing!

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But today, I want to talk about dysfunctional organizations…again. I’ve just come off a project that had as its director one of the most dysfunctional managers I’ve ever met. At first, I thought well, he’s just blustery. Just a wise guy. But then, you start noticing how people around him are leaving, putting in for transfers, how things get mixed up and there’s always someone to blame…and it’s never him.

I found myself devolving and by the end of the project, I was angry most of the time, defensive and offensive. Even now, if someone brings him up, I’m back in the swirl of my anger, and I really don’t have to work with or see him anymore.

And so I wonder: how does someone like that keep getting hired into companies? What makes him an attractive option–surely there are others to hire out there. It’s a big world.

And then I think back to this article in Change This that I read recently. If you haven’t read it, take a look–it’s worth reading. The site is worth paying attention to on a regular basis, but this latest article really got me: “The Upside of Assholes: Is There Virtue in Bad Workplace Behavior?”

Sutton’s basic belief is that there is no place for assholes in organizations–that it ultimately costs more, wears moving parts out, makes life miserable for too many people. But several of his colleagues have argued that there are famous and very effective organizational assholes to keep in mind…for example Steve Jobs who is referenced again and again as, well, an asshole. And he’s very successful–so doesn’t that mean assholes are good to have around?

I would argue that for every Steve Jobs out there (and by my count, there is only one) there are about 5 billion manager assholes. So, no, I would say that maybe, if anything, Jobs is the exception that proves the rule but no, being an asshole is not legitimized by Steve Jobs, for god’s sake. By the end of Bob Sutton’s article, he hints at the same the conclusion though he does nod towards assholes having a tremendous impact on getting things done.

Now, I’m going to say something that would irritate a lot of business people, but I believe it anyway: I think it’s morally wrong to treat people disrespectfully, abusively, erratically, and/or manipulatively. Not that I haven’t done it, I have and so have we all–but most of us avoid it as much as possible. Most of us avoid the use of outright shame to motivate teams–if only because in the end it doesn’t work and will create a divisive environment. Most of us avoid being abusive–if only because it could lead to disasterous results and legal action.

Oh well, assholes abound. I’ve carried his very bad energy around with me for a couple of weeks. I think it’s time to lay it down. So here’s a nice picture instead of something completely different:

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I have to figure out how to upload some underwater photos from my recent snorkeling trip to Baja, but I haven’t yet. soon.

5 day stats:
car: 2.5 miles
bike: 8.5 miles
flexcar/bus: 0

Day 43 & 44: My Life w Car

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Holy shit, I was sitting in a car with a friend in San Salvador traffic yesterday–she was smoking, holding the cigarette out the window to not bother me–and suddenly we’re behind a bus that accelerates and good god, you should have seen the black cloud of smoke that encircled us. It was thick, like it was palpable with particulates, and with our windows open, the cloud filled the car and stayed there.

I literally felt trashed, like breathing would hurt me but I’m an oxygen dependent organism, so what am I going to do.

The swallows around here are preparing to travel up North–they’re swirling and chattering in large obvious groups. I imagine what it’s like flying here, as a small bird, and yeah, I’d be pretty excited about leaving too. Even though I like San Salvador, and love my pals here, I won’t miss the thick billowing clouds of pollution that happen all over the city. Also, I won’t miss the poverty and over-crowding, the wild population growth.

So…what am I doing down here?
I’m training the team here on Active Listening and the Art of Questioning. Specifically, how managers and direct reports go “dead” during evaluations because the manager practices the “opn-the-head-and-pour-the-info-in.” This approach works with kids up to about 8th grade, optimistically; after that, if the individual isn’t engaged on a problem solving, thoughtful level, they aren’t engaged at all. They’re merely nodding and saying, at specific points, what they believe they should be saying.

There’s a lot of that going on here with supervisors and managers. I observed a review yesterday where the agent stopped looking at the supervisor 2 minutes into the conversation, slumped in his seat and stared at the floor. The supervisor pushed on, never veering from her review form, never checking in with the agent. She even lowered her head to try and catch his eye…yet, she never veered from her performance review form. the conversation lasted 12 minutes, and 10 minutes of that time the conversation was functionally dead.

The good news, when I asked her what she thought was going on with this kid, she said she suspected he was ashamed because the review wasn’t good but his usual work is above reproach. I asked why she pushed on, knowing there was a problem–she had no answer. So, my work is trying to make this exchange alive, relational, meaningful.

Active listening means you take in the whole picture–the posture, the eyes, the words, and perhaps most important, your own feelings about how things are going. Our ability to put our own perception in the present moment aside in favor of the obligation of the task at hand is amazing to me…and a little frightening.

Daily stats:
Car: probably about 12 miles of gagging, pollution soaked travel through town
bike, bus, flexcar: zip
Walking: probably 1.5 miles

Mergers and Separations

Oh what a Happy Valentine’s Day post! But I’m talking about corporate separations–mergers that are unhappy from the get go and what it looks like when a separation–not a divorce, but a separation–happens. I’m in the middle of one right now and as the consulting entity, I have the pleasure of being no one’s friend and everyone’s potential enemy.

So, why do merged companies separate and what does it look like? In this instance, I think it looks a little like The Perfect Storm in that several key things have conspired to make both companies point the accusing finger at the other side and as any good psychologist knows, no marriage can survive that level of blame and resentment.

perfect storm

First, the business models don’t agree as much as originally thought; second the business climate takes a turn for the worse; third, all those little and big changes foisted on the smaller business by the larger have created sizeable internal distrust and resentment which all comes to the fore when the pressure gets turned up, as it does when business climates go south and revenues are not what they should be.

I don’t have any solution for this kind of situation except to try and keep everyone in the boat until the storm passes. Even if they aren’t speaking to each other, no on goes over until cooler minds prevail. How to accomplish this? Communication is key–don’t leave parties out of communication, even if it’s oh so tempting. Keep communication clear and to the point without editorializing. Don’t take the hook even if it seems logical–tomorrow you’ll look back and realize it was a trick.

All this is human nature and best interaction practices, of course, but incredibly difficult to maintain in the middle of high stress. It’s as if the molecules are just flying around and haven’t yet formed a cohesive whole–until such time, it’s best to avoid adding any more energy to the situation than is necessary.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Strangers to Ourselves

I’m reading Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson and trying to digest what he’s getting at with his discussion of the “adaptive unconscious.” His theories don’t sound new or ground-breaking at first–after all, notably Malcolm Gladwell has raised the discussion to a more popular level with “Blink,” but Wilson’s approach is a deeper dive with a lot of science behind it.

lobes of the brain

Wilson is interested in finding out what the vast unconscious world in our brains is up to with the 10 million bits of information it’s absorbing every second. That 10 million bits covers everything from making your fingers coordinate with the keyboard to hearing the fan in the background to considering if the scorching sun is frying the vegetable garden out back. In this last instance, it appears that when the unconscious mind has decided that the vegetable garden is indeed at risk, it will hopefully manage to get a message to the conscious mind, even if it is non-verbal and just a “have-to-go-water-the-garden” impulse, one that make me get up and go outside…sometimes before I even realize that I’m out there for this very good and time sensitive reason.

So, like Gladwell, Wilson is giving us lots of reasons to clear defensive thinking, conscious perceptions, pre-conceptions and the like out of the way so our great big unconscious can get some timely information to us on a regular basis.

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In amongst the studies he cites is this one about people who have suffered damage to left and right lobes, destroying communication between the two. The left lobe controls the right side of the body, the right controls the left. The study involved showing pictures to each eye, with the other one covered, and seeing what information could be communicated about the picture. To the right eye (left brain) they showed a picture of a chicken claw; the participants associated that picture with a chicken.

Next they showed the left eye (right brain) a picture of a snow drift and the participants associated that picture with a shovel. After this, the participants were given their associated results but since the right brain cannot communicate the association of the snow with shovel, the participants didn’t know why they had chosen a shovel.

Here’s the kicker: in the blink of an eye, the left brain (story-telling, conscious part of the brain) came up with a story for the selection of the shovel that combined it with the chicken: the chicken lives in a chicken coop which needs to be cleaned with a shovel. Is this really what happened? No. Is this now what the participant thinks happened? Yes. And that story will be the official story until such time as the individual finds out differently.
Wilson’s point again and again is that the conscious mind is way more fallable than we ever thought and that fallability can lead us as individuals and a part of the collective group to make assumptions and decisions based on information that is simply not correct. The conscious mind’s drive to create a story for what it perceives, whether or not that story is in any way true, is its raison d’etre. And doesn’t every successful marketer and lawyer out there know this instinctively!

The ability of the conscious mind to create stories without getting input from or listening to the unconscious is a bit of a design flaw, it seems to me. It inhibits us from perceiving correctly AND from getting, trusting and using information from our unconscious minds.

Strangers to Ourselves is full of good studies that cause one to consider how we get and process information. Few of us are willing to really listen to our “intuition.” It can’t be measured, it can’t be controlled, its processes are vast, random and unexpected. But when Jack Welch popularizes the notion of managing “from the gut,” whether he knows it or not, or even cares, he’s talking about getting information from the adaptive unconscious.

The more I allow myself to draw from my unconscious, the more interesting my solutions become.  The more spot-on, the more creative, the more unexpected and exciting.  Bringing intuitive solutions into a corporate setting is edgy and exciting!  And often just what’s needed. Dump the old stories.  Allow a new story to emerge!