Lessons Abound for Businesses in the Wake of Civil Unrest

With the number of major world events happening over the last 6 months, I have to believe that people are starting to take notice and ask why. In many cases perhaps there is no reason to ask why, such as the overturn of the Tunisian government, or the similar situation in Egypt. Even as we speak the unrest in Libya is building to a crescendo, with people around the globe starting to feel the impact at the gas pump and in the stock market. Not to mention there are plenty of people, myself included, that are waiting to see the outcome, and what it means for not only the Middle East and African countries, but for all peoples and countries around the world. Business should take lessons from these situations as well, not only of the impact to them, but for what it means in the country of “YourBusinessToday”.

We often look at situations in foreign countries and think that it could never happen to us, and what we certainly don’t think about are the similarities between a country and a business. Any time you have a population of people being governed by a body who has greater and greater power and control in the eyes of those people, you really walk a fine line. It is the responsibility of those in power to take a step back, listen to their people, and ensure that not only do they understand them but are working on their behalf to make things better for them. Without people to lead, and people who want to follow you, you have no authority and can and will lose much. Whether that much is a company or a country is based on your situation, but the result is generally still the same.

In tribes such as the Trobriander and others around the world they have this concept correct. There are even companies such as Gore that get it right. You have to keep groups small, allow the people to have a voice, base authority on merit, and truly have your people’s best interest at heart because your people are you and you are your people. When you create a hierarchical system, giving greater and greater authority while separating the leaders and people from each other, you often end up playing a huge game of telephone to understand what is really going on with the people. Authority and respect needs to be earned by leaders, and voluntarily given by followers. When you try to force it, or demand it, you degrade the entire structure of trust and communication. We see this when we look at world leaders who are killing their citizens to maintain control, or taking money out of their pockets in one form or another to fill their own, or even in the case of working over their people’s heads and behind their backs on “diplomatic policies” that are really about making the leaders power and money greater (sometimes at the expense of the people they serve).

Unfortunately we fail to notice, or do anything about, the actions of business leaders that are equally egregious. We as human beings tend to view it as a greater tragedy when bad things happen to a people of a country, but accept it more when it comes from a business. While business leaders may not be mowing down their employees (and who knows, perhaps some do!) there are certainly cases where they are making deals for their own benefit, and lining their own pockets because “they earned it”. I’m sure that many of the world leaders out there being overturned and ousted believed the same thing at one time or another.

The time may not have come yet, but I believe that if current events are any indication, the time will come when people around the world will begin to become infected with the pandemic virus of “we won’t take it any more”. As this day draws near businesses better take heed and make changes, because as the global economy changes, the global environment changes, and one only knows how many governments change there will certainly be the possibility of a target being painted on the front and back of every business leader. Again, we’re not there yet, but that day may not be too far in the future.

Do you see yourself?

Although I keep intending to get much more written and posted here, I admit that my time is simply at an absolute premium and committed in large part to my new job as a federal contractor and my school work.   Not to mention spending time with my wonderful family.  With that being said, I still want to do the best that I can to add new content here as much as possible.

For a project in my Cultural Anthropology class, I conducted an ethnographic research project.  I chose to conduct my research in a suburban shopping mall and found some extremely interesting patterns and behaviors.  I’ve attached my paper to this posting, and hopefully as you look at it you will find it to be as interesting as I did, and perhaps you will even see yourself  in some of the observations recorded.

As always, I appreciate any feedback and comments and hope you enjoy.  Look for more to come soon!

Ethnographic Research Project

When and where does choice end?

As with any new year there are new laws going in to effect around the globe.  Today I managed to stumble across an article on CBC News that was posted through Twitter by @SocialPsych called, aptly enough, “Spain’s tough anti-smoking law takes effect.” As someone who smoked for many years, but thankfully quit about 7 years ago, I am always intrigued to see the social trends in smoking, and even more so I am interested to see how governments, especially outside of the United States, handle it.  When I was in the US Navy and had the chance to travel the world, I found that the acceptance of smoking was quite common.  Anyone and everyone, and for that matter just about anywhere, was smoking.  Of course, so was I so it was very convenient.  Now, as a non-smoker and a father of a small child, I am more aware of smoking and of course have my own dislikes revolving around it.  Like most non-smokers, I hate walking in to a building and having to walk through a cloud of smoke as the smokers congregate outside of the door to “burn one” for a minute.  I also dislike going to restaurants where smoking is still allowed; there’s just nothing enjoyable about eating my food while breathing in smoke.  Even being in a line somewhere with a person or two smoking around me can really cause me some irritation, especially when I have my wife and son with me.  But with all of that being said, I think I have a hard time agreeing with the government trying to control things in a manner such as Spain.

While I think we all agree that smoking is unhealthy, and lays an undue burden on those that are non-smokers, I’m not sure that the government, any government, stepping in and banning it makes much sense.  If it is found to be such a nuisance and health hazard, shouldn’t it just be made illegal?  If not, then I think there should be slightly better choices made for how to deal with smokers and associated problems.  As one commenter said on the aforementioned article explains, it might be a better idea to impose certain penalties for being a smoker instead of trying to outright ban it.  A reasonable penalty could include something such as higher insurance rates, even when on a group policy; this should be considerably higher, and there should definitely be testing yearly to verify.  What about restaurants, parks, and other public facilities?  I think it should be the choice of those that own the business as to whether or not they allow smoking, and as human beings with an independent brain we should be able to make our own choice as to whether or not we are comfortable in that environment.  This is of course with one caveat: places that allow smoking should be required to post visibly and publicly that they allow smoking.  This would be either on the outside of the facility, or on the sign.  This would save those of us who don’t want to patron a place like that from even having to park and get out to determine if they allow smoking or not.  If their business suffers because of allowing smoking, then they would need to make the conscious decision whether or not to continue to allow smoking in the facility.

Obviously I don’t believe that smoking is a good decision, but nonetheless a decision it still is.  While governments have the responsibility to make sure that the financial burden falls on the correct parties, and that people follow laws, I’m just not sure that I can personally support the idea of taking away a decision from someone on something that is considered legal.  As I said before, if it is truly considered to be as dangerous as we all know it is, outlaw it completely and put it in the same category as any other drug.  Otherwise discourage it, educate on it, place warnings on packages, and penalize for it as a poor health decision, but don’t try to control it if it is still a choice.

Organizational Teams Show Parallels to Facebook

I just finished an interesting article from Twitter called Deric Bownds’ MindBlog: You’ve got to have (150) friends…, and I have to admit that I use my Facebook for personal contact and to stay in touch with people that I can’t otherwise stay in face-to-face contact with.  I can also agree that I have people that at one time I was in close relationships with, but that over time they have become a part of the outside ring of my 150+ friends.  But even further I started to think about the idea that is pointed out in the essay referenced from Robin Dunbar: people can really only have “around 150 close, meaningful relationships both online and off.”  After reading that statement I can’t help thinking to myself that even 150 would be stretching it in most cases; I’m not sure that I’m even close to that number as I sit here right now.  I might have around that on my Facebook, but out of those I really only have a close relationship with about 25 of them.

So what do I propose this has to do with organizational teams?  Let’s look for a moment at the average business unit, division, or team.  How many people belong to that group?  200?  500?  1,500?  Is there any question that with teams and groups this large that there are feelings of being ignored, detached, unheard, or separated by employees, supervisors, and managers alike?  Too often managers and supervisors, and even in many cases employees are expected to build relationships and work together in an environment that is completely counterproductive to that end.  By simply changing the size of teams, I would propose that we could easily improve the functionality and success of teams and groups by simply evaluating the effective size of those groups and teams.  In order for people to develop the sense of closeness and relationship, and even more so caring, about a common cause it must be encouraged through the proper environment.  This is why quick, irregular meetings of regional, national, or international members of teams and groups, or of the leaders of a group or organization are generally ineffective in being productive.  Without regular contact and interaction (and not just by phone and email), you simply can not effectively build relationships and the necessary fight for a shared cause.

I can’t begin to say that this is something that could happen overnight, but I truly believe that this is a concept that needs to be viewed with as much urgency as sales skills and production rates.  Life within business is not so much different than the rest of it elsewhere, so let’s take these lessons and use them to be more productive, successful, and happy.  Along the way, maybe you can make some new close friends…just don’t try to add them all to your Facebook.

The “Someone Else Will Do It” Effect

I hope that everyone had a happy holiday and, for those that celebrate it, a Merry Christmas!  Just before the holidays I posted a blog entry about the “Law of the Few” and the “Stickiness Factor”.  I also mentioned that I in my next article I would be focusing on the “Power of Context”.  As I said previously, I think this topic is so profound that it really needed to be on its own.

When Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “Power of Context” he states that “epidemics are strongly influenced…by the circumstances and conditions and particulars of the environments in which they operate.”  As usual, I immediately begin to think about the implications in the business world.  It strikes me that so many times this point is missed when we set forth to affect change in the workplace.  Things move so quickly in the world today that we often forget that we really need to take the time and ensure that the time and environment are right for initiating a change; this includes launching a new product, a new learning initiative, changing culture, or other major change.  All too often I think we begin moving forward without ensuring that we have the right time and environment, and then cross our fingers and hope that whatever we are trying to accomplish is successful.  How much time and money is wasted with tactics like this?  Taking the extra time and effort initially could increase the chance for success exponentially.

As I think back to my time with a previous organization, I remember conducting interviews and focus groups trying to gain perspective on why things that we were trying to implement weren’t working.  On many occasions, there would be information coming out that would have been crucial for us and others in the organization to know about.  When asked why this information wasn’t brought forward sooner, the most common response was “everyone already knows, and nothing’s changing, so it must not matter,” or “I figured that someone else/my manager/so-and-so said/did something about it.”  Unfortunately I think this is probably a misconception among many employees in many organizations.

The example used in “The Tipping Point” to explain the “Power of Context” is that of Kitty Genovese.  For those that may have forgotten, or never previously heard of it, this is the story of a lady, Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed on two separate occasions inside of a thirty-minute period on her own street, where supposedly 38 people heard and/or saw the incident without anyone calling the police.  The details of this story are highly contested, however I believe that this event was itself the “tipping point” for further study into diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.  Essentially this says that people are less likely to help someone in trouble while in a group situation, either because they believe that someone else will better know how to help or they will be embarrassed to help in front of others.  I believe that the same premise happens in our business organizations today.  As I said before, it is my experience that the people on the “front line” of our organizations who are closest to our customers, and those who are closest to the many different issues facing our organizations today, often believe that someone else must have a better solution, or that if it really is a problem or something that should be known it is already known by the right people, or they don’t want to be embarrassed by suggesting something that has already been thought of or for being seen as over-zealous.

Creating an environment that is open and encourages suggestion and communication is important, but based on examples such as this it could be even more important than first thought.  To truly change how we create change in our organizations, we must make it possible to gain real-time, first-hand information and must find some way to encourage that information transfer.

Very close to home!

As an article came up on Twitter today from @Reuters, the title struck out at me: “Jobless Americans wary of losing their edge.”  I couldn’t resist reading it, especially since I can relate.  The article, written by Kristina Cooke, is very well written and extremely familiar.  After losing my job in February 2010, I wasn’t sure what my next steps would be.  It was something that I had really never planned for and didn’t expect.  But somehow once it happened I started to think about what to do next, where was I going, how was I going to keep myself sharp and improve myself; I also had to think about how recruiters would be seeing me going forward.

In my own situation, I was fortunate to have the financial means to take a chance at starting my own business and furthering my education (thankfully my amazing wife has stood behind me through it all!).   Also, to continue to improve my knowledge and skills, I continued to read the periodicals that I receive through my membership in the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) and American Society of Training & Development (ASTD).  I also continued to read books, and write blogs, and join in on conversations around the web.  I believe that all of these things have helped me in keeping myself up-to-date and relevant.  Needless to say, I was still unsure of how much of an impact these events would have on my marketability.

I think this article really speaks to the fear that most people would never think of while they have a job, but I’m sure that going forward those of us who have experienced this event will never forget.  The idea that what you know and your experience could become irrelevant because of the amount of time you have been out of a job, or the fact that you might lose your ability to do your job effectively because of not using your skills regularly can be deeply frightening.  Even worse, finding a way to continue to stay sharp is not always as easy as it may seem either.  As a father to an almost-two-year-old, my wife and I have found that financially it doesn’t make sense for me to “just take a job.”  Neither would it be very likely that I could take a volunteer position due to the cost of child care.  With all of these factors in play, it can really become daunting to meet the expectations of recruiters and hiring managers, and to continue to catch their eyes.

It will be interesting to see what the long-term effects will be on society and the culture of both our country and corporate America.  Is this the event that changes the job market as we know it?  Is this the thing that will open senior positions and change the way we do business?  What will be the trickle down effect?  Perhaps there will be some new studies on this and more, and I for one will be reading them to make sure to keep my skills sharp, and my knowledge relevant.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell…both sides of the coin?

The topic of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) is, needless to say, quite an emotionally charged and strongly opinionated one and has been since its inception.  As it is in the process of being repealed there are multiple articles on news channels, Twitter, and across the Blogosphere.  As someone who served, who is heterosexual (metro-sexual if you ask anyone that knows me, but that’s a whole other story), and who was close friends with plenty of other service members who were homosexual I tend to have my own perspective.

I believe that everyone has the right to believe what they choose, and to live in whatever fashion that they choose.  This includes sexual preference.  One of the things that the United States military defends is that very right, so it would seem nonsensical to expect that people that this right is there to support would not want to defend that right for themselves and others.  It should also be understood that sexual preference does not make you weak, and does not make you any less of a patriot.  Unfortunately, this is in many cases the same type of thought process that abounded when it came to females serving their country.  As we know, history repeats itself.  The biggest question is whether or not we learn from the past and continue to grow, develop, and move forward?

So what is the other side of the coin?  As I think back to my time in the military, I can take a look at the perspective of some of the hesitation, and potentially some of the thought process from an objective viewpoint.  There will always be those people, male and female, who will attempt to use their race, sex, age, religion, etc., et al. to benefit themselves, while asking for equality.  I experienced this as I saw females that voluntarily joined the US Navy and would demand equality while refusing to do the same work simply because they were female (yes, it really does happen), or who truly could not do the job because of physical limitations.  Of course, this was not the case across the board but was certainly evident in a minority of the population on the ship.  I have to believe that this is a potential setback for the thinking about DADT as well.

Another thing that could potentially cause some hesitation for acceptance could be due to the living situation.  I can’t necessarily speak for the Army, Marine Corps, or Air Force but in the Navy you live together in extremely close quarters and for many the thought of having someone of the same sex look at you in a sexual manner could be uncomfortable.  Most people consider their living space an area for decompressing, where they should be able to be (as much as possible) comfortable, especially in a place where you have very little comfortable, personal space.  This isn’t to imply that homosexual members of the service don’t look at heterosexual members now, but for many ignorance is perhaps bliss.  Unfortunately it would seem that there are those that have the misconception that because someone is homosexual they can’t control themselves, their attraction, and sexual urges and therefore will attack someone they find attractive like a wild cat on an injured baby gazelle.  As most of us know, this is no more true than the fact that the average heterosexual male can’t control his sexual attraction in the same manner.

From a purely logical stand point, the only thing that should ultimately change with the repeal of DADT is the open knowledge of sexual preference of those who are comfortable enough to share that information.  In my own experience, those that were comfortable in their sexuality would generally share that with those that they were close with, even with DADT in effect.  For those that are in the proverbial closet, I don’t believe that DADT being removed will necessarily change anything.  This act may make some heterosexual service members uncomfortable if perhaps they are uncomfortable confronting what was already unsaid but known, but if that is the case I’m not sure that DADT is the real issue.