Month: August 2013

I’m with Stupid

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I used to manage a bookstore for a major chain. This was back in the dark ages before you could get any book in the world delivered to your door with the click of a mouse. In those days, if you wanted a book that wasn’t in stock, the bookstore would generally have to order it for you.

We were implementing a new book-ordering system, and a large group of district managers were discussing what we should tell customers when the asked about an order in transit. Should we give them an exact arrival date? Should we say the book is on order? Should we say the book will arrive shortly? The debate went on for more than an hour. Finally, the President stood up and said, “We will tell them ‘It’s on the way’.” Debate over. Meeting adjourned.

People who work in book retail are readers. They tend to be smart. Many have advanced degrees, and although these degrees are generally impractical (Medieval Literature, for example, has been of very little use in making a living, unless you are a tenured professor) obtaining them requires the ability to use analytical and critical thinking. So it’s no surprise that something as simple as what to say to a customer who is inquiring about a book order would turn into a discussion to rival the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Even though there were a number of “right” answers to this question, and any one of them would have been just fine.

Being smart has always been seen as an asset in the workplace. Employers want employees who are going to challenge conventional wisdom, question established practices, come up with new ideas. But as with the example above,  too much time spent debating and analyzing and questioning can lead to a loss in productivity. When people ask what their biggest time waster at work is, the consensus tends to be meetings in which discussions drag on and nothing is accomplished. Sometimes, it’s better to shut up, stop talking and get to work.

That’s the hypothesis presented by two professors of organizational studies at Sweden’s Lund University. Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer propose that the attributes of smart people, such as analysis and curiosity, are a net gain, and too many smart people in an organization slow the work down.

In other words, what they call functional stupidity is an asset in the workplace. An unwillingness or inability question, to communicate your concerns, to see how the pieces fit into the big picture, can actually make you better at your job because you won’t be wasting all that time and energy thinking and discussing.

The problem with this thesis is that it assumes that productivity and efficiency are the overriding organizational goals. While they are certainly a key to success, they aren’t the end all and be all. For example, let’s look at a financial institution. It has large amounts of personal data on each of its customers. They have entrusted the financial institution with this data. It is constantly scrutinizing our systems and practices to ensure that this information is kept safe. If it followed the functionally stupid approach, people working in the financial institution would never ask the important questions necessary to respond to changing technology. It could mean disaster for its customers and the organization. In this case, it would be better to be more secure, even if it meant being less efficient.

Organizations don’t need employees that are functionally stupid. Instead, they need to promote a culture that encourages employee to be curious, but also trains them as to where, when and how to express that curiosity. Not everything should be open for discussion, and certainly not everything has to be discussed at that very moment, or discussed with every single coworker within earshot. It is up to the organization to set the ground rules, and not be left up to the employees to guess. In some cases, discussions should be limited, or not be had at all.

As for the bookstore chain president, he should have ended the “On the Way” discussion after the first few minutes. Or better yet, not brought the subject up at all.

Keeping Out the Riff-Raff

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In an episode of Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty, the rude and incompetent owner of a small hotel, decides to place an ad for new guests. After describing his hotel in exquisite, if not exaggerated, detail, the ad states – No Riff-Raff.

Hardly the way to increase business. Nor is it a good way to attract high performing job candidates. So you’d imagine my surprise when someone pointed me to the following on an employer’s Web site (and unlike the restaurant I wrote about in my post Wanted – Top Chef, this is a mid-size organization, not some ma and pa shop). It reads as follows, with only small changes to protect the name of the organization. The comments in italics are my own.

We are not like any other organization you’ve seen, been a part of or applied for in the past.
Just because you aren’t like any other organization, that doesn’t make you better than any other organization.

We are unique.
You are also redundant.

We are radically different.
OK, we get it already. You must not be sure of this if you have to keep saying it over in different ways.

It’s not for the weak. It’s not for the lazy. It’s not for the job seeker. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Damn, I listed weak and lazy as attributes on my resume. Better remove those. Also, I don’t understand the job seeker comment. If I’m not seeking a job, why am I on your Web site?

We are looking for Passion. Care. Tenacity. Creativity. A mind that is open to new ideas, different ways of doing business. Heck, even crazy stuff. And if you have all that, you better have humility, rather than a really big head.
Does crazy stuff include coming into work with all your clothes inside out? Or singing to your customers instead of talking to them like you were in some Wagnerian Opera (complete with spear and magic helmet)? If so, I’m your man.

If you stop at the first answer, or stop when you can’t figure something out, or stop when you do not have a map on the road-trip, we are not going to be a match made in heaven.
Don’t you also want people who know enough to stop and ask for help? By the way, who uses a map anymore? Haven’t you ever heard of GPS?

You need to get up and start running when you hit a bump in the road.
Didn’t you just say this in a much longer way?

You have to be determined.
It’s getting redundant to say you are being redundant.

You have to look for the solution that is not so obvious.
Okay, I get it. Stop already!

You have to have an eagerness to meet new people, understand who they are, and seek a new way to make a difference in their life.
You are a mid-sized organization that hires people for all sorts of positions. Do you want an analyst who is good at making friends, or one who knows how to crunch the numbers?

If you need a formal classroom setting for training, you will not receive it here … we are all about jumping in with hands on learning.
In other words, you aren’t going to train employees to do their jobs, and then be upset when they fail.

We want advocates not just at work … this is a way of life.
Are you also going to make us shave our heads and shake a tambourine at the airport?

Be real and honest about who you are and what you want out of a career and the organization you want to work for.
So, I’m supposed to be real and honest, yet I’m supposed to give myself up to the organization. Sorry, I can’t do both.

We are on a mission to change people’s lives and be the most trusted organization in the world.
Your products are available at a dozen other places. You aren’t feeding the poor or healing the sick or housing the homeless. You sell goods and services for money. Time to get over yourselves.

Besides this being an example of why HR should not write its own copy, the question remains, even if I had everything they wanted, why would I want to go to work for them? Everything here is about what they want (or don’t want) from me. There isn’t anything here about what they will give me in return. Not even the perfunctory and ambiguous line, “we provide competitive pay and benefits”. Recruiting is sales. To find the best possible employees, an employer needs to brand and promote itself as the premier place to work.

About the only credit I can give this organization is that they are honest. I did a little research on this organization, and while you have to be careful of what you hear about organizations (most of it comes from former, disgruntled employees), what I suspected tended to be true. They throw people into their jobs with no direction, no training, no support, and then are surprised when the new hire doesn’t succeed. They care a great deal about their customers, but don’t understand that to serve the customer well, employers need to serve their employees well.

This organization does not value of their employees as assets and certainly doesn’t care about them as people. They put nothing into training or development. They want the employees to put the organization before everything else – family, friends, community. And in return, they’ll give little more than the honor of working for them. Turnover is high. Employee satisfaction is low.

The sad truth is, this organization probably believes that their list of requirements actually attracts candidates. But if you see something like this on an organization’s Web site, click away as fast as you can, delete them from your browser history, and never return.

They’re just trying to keep out the Riff-Raff.