Thursday, July 30, 2015

The importance of naming relationships

There’s an interesting story about the build-up to a war that never actually resulted in one, for want of a good name for the war. In 2001 Indian forces were building up, apparently in preparation for war with Pakistan after an attack on India’s parliament.

The question was, would India launch a war? Journalist Shekhar Gupta put this question to the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Instead of answering the question, Vaypayee countered with his own: what should the war be named? If there wasn’t an answer to that question, war was ruled out.

It might seem a stupid question, but in it lay a deeper question: what was the objective of the war? Do you call it a war of liberation, a war of pulverization or a war of revenge? If you are confused about the name, you’re likely to be confused about the end-game you’re after. A name can serve as a sort of heuristic, to quickly reveal an underlying motive or truth.

In the event, the war didn’t happen.

Although the similarity to naming wars may seem tenuous, we give names to relationships all the time too, so we have some indication of what’s going on. A couple of examples are marriage and friendship.

Conversely, we can give names to relationships by watching the behaviours that are revealed in them. At work, we haven’t given a name to the most important relationship in an employee’s life - the relationship between boss and subordinate. What name should we give this relationship? The short answer: dictatorship, because that’s what boss and subordinate behaviours reveal. 

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why we should replace ‘team players’ with ‘mission players'

Are you a team player? Chances are you’re going to say ‘yes.’ Most people pride themselves on being team players. Job adverts specify team players. Job candidates plaster their resumes with ‘team player.’ HR departments send off people for ‘team playing’ training.

But let’s first see what ‘team player’ means in conventional wisdom. Typically, a team player is someone who works for the benefit of the team. Here’s a wonderful team player, as generally prescribed:

  • Communicates effectively
  • Is reliable
  • Has a positive attitude
  • Participates actively
  • Listens actively
  • Shares information willingly
  • Looks to solve problems rather than complain
  • Pitches in without being asked or told
  • Is adaptable
  • Is self-motivated and proactive
  • Makes the boss look good (unstated)

You get the drift.

In every list of desirable team-player traits, I’ve not once seen, “Willingness to openly dissent” or “Courage to tell the truth to power.”

Teams are considered to be successful if team-players nod their heads enthusiastically and nobody steps out of line, whoever defines that line (typically the boss). I googled images for ‘team player’ and predictably, all the images had happy people in groups – holding hands, exchanging high-fives, locking arms and so on. There wasn’t a single image of disagreement and someone saying, “Hey, we’re doing something seriously wrong!”

If the team is pulling in one direction and an individual disagrees and frantically pulls in another direction, the individual is not considered to be a team player. Because most of all, team players are not ‘disruptive.

Yet in reality, team players have been responsible for all kinds of problems and disasters, deaths even. This sounds ludicrous. But in many cases, team players - by their complicit silence, unwillingness to fight, or career-first pliability - have been instrumental in mission failure.

Bizarrely, truth-tellers aka whistle-blowers are ostracised for NOT being team players. This is a telling indictment of how we currently define ‘team player.’ It’s no surprise that individuals who call out wrongdoing are labelled with a term (whistle-blower) that is separate from ‘team player’. In many whistle-blower cases, team-members get away lightly and are often rewarded, while the whistle-blower suffers a ruined career.

The point is, in relation to mission success, it may be critically important to step out of line and not be a ‘team player.’ For example, in the space shuttle Challenger disaster, an engineer, the late Roger Boisjoly, went against the decision to go ahead with the launch – he repeatedly made representations that a disaster was waiting to happen. Clearly not a team player then. He was over-ruled, though he was subsequently proven right by events. Nonetheless, his career nosedived. But had his team focused on mission success rather than team ‘success,’ the disaster would not have happened.

The problem with focusing on the team’s success is that team members may have implicit short-term goals based on their individual careers. A company may have a long term mission focused on the next 10 years, whereas the teams could have quarterly goals achievable only by damaging the mission.

The worst part is, if there’s mission failure, the first thing that's checked is, “Did the teams work properly?” ‘Properly’ as defined by conventional wisdom of course. If the answer is yes, nobody seems to care that the mission itself was compromised. All the effort then shifts to shunting and hounding out any whistle-blowers, ie non-team players. This is insanity but unfortunately, it’s reality.

So what we need are mission players. We need to start using the term ‘mission players.’ We need to seek out mission players. We need to look for resumes that show proven ability to tell the truth to power. We need to advertise for people who can focus on a mission.

Of course, I am not saying that team-skills are unimportant. They are. But the ability to focus on the mission should count the most. Only then will whistle-blowers be respected and rewarded, rather than penalized.  

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What workplaces need to learn from Uber's rider rating

I've started using Uber only recently. One thing I really respect is the company's decision to allow the drivers to rate riders.

I was in an Uber car yesterday, and during our ride the driver said, "Passenger is God to me" (a variation of the "Guest is God" tradition in Indian hospitality). While it was nice to hear that, I also liked what he said next - that Uber drivers get to rate their customers too.

This 'rider rating' is terrific because it balances the power between the driver and rider. Otherwise, drivers would have to put up with bad behaviour without recourse. My driver told me that the worst offenders were drunks who treated him liked they owned him, just because he was the driver. If there was no rider rating system in place, I am sure the driver would feel powerless to do anything.

The one draw-back is that the Uber app doesn't explicitly tell you (as a customer) that the driver will rate you. Perhaps if the app did that at the point of trip booking, 1) the customer would be alerted right at the start of the ride and 2) customer behaviour would be better.

This rating system is what I'd like to see workplaces emulate. Not only should the boss rate the subordinate, but the subordinate should also rate the boss (ie, not just 360 feedback).

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