“What are they working on?”

Busy Saturday afternoon in Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch

One of my favorite places in Boston is the Central Library of the Boston Public Library (BPL). It is a beautiful, historic place that happens to be a great spot to work and study and to discover and explore books. It also has adapted to the times and offers lovely places to enjoy coffee and a bite to eat.

On Saturday I had some work to do, so I hopped on the subway to the library and found a seat in the sumptuous Bates Hall reading room. I snapped the photo above during a break. Whenever I work in Bates Hall, I like to gaze around at fellow library patrons and silently ask myself, What are they working on? 

On days like Saturday, college students clearly make up the largest category of BPL users, with textbooks and laptops visible on the tables. But you also see folks who are working on stuff that appears to have nothing to do with school. For example, sitting across from me today was a man who was carefully writing out pages in longhand; unlike most people, he didn’t have a computer or tablet with him. I wonder if people like him are working on something we may read or hear about someday, or whether it’s just their own little private projects.

The main reason for my visit was far more mundane. I was there to read and send feedback on student paper outlines and drafts. I could’ve stayed home or gone into the office to do that work, but sometimes the change of scenery makes me more productive and focussed. On Saturday, it worked, with an assist from the library’s public wifi so slowed down by the number of users in the building that it discouraged Internet surfing.

At times I will truly show my geek colors by picking a weekend afternoon to visit the BPL simply to hang out and read. I still subscribe to a lot of print magazines and periodicals, and on these occasions I will stuff a bunch of unread issues and maybe a book or two into my backpack and head off to the library for a reading mini-marathon. I’m not sure what it says about me that I take such pleasure in these visits, but I’m thankful for a place like this to host them.

The Central Library’s Italianate courtyard, during a visit earlier this winter

Working while distracted (and wired)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (image of Commodore 64 computer courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (Commodore 64 computer, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Raise your hand if the daily torrent of news coming out of Washington D.C. continues to serve as an unwanted distraction, perhaps intrusion, at work.

If you follow the news at all and have access to the Internet or a news media source during work time, my guess is that you’re raising your hand with me. In fact, I cannot recall another sustained period of ongoing news developments that has so commanded our attention. Dramatic, sometimes disorienting developments seem to occur on a daily basis, and the practically instantaneous nature about the way news is reported in the digital era has created news cycles within news cycles.

To be sure, the political news developments today are attention-grabbing. But let’s not forget the role of technology in making them so of-the-moment. Imagine, for example, how completely distracting major events of the Second World War would’ve been had modern communications technologies been available to cover and report them. (Picture embedded reporters covering, say, carrier launches of aircraft during the Battle of Midway!)

Another more bottom-line impact is organizational productivity. How is this ongoing drama affecting the aggregate outputs of workplaces in both qualitative and quantitative terms? I strongly suspect the answer is not a positive one.

How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

“Post-truths” at work and management messaging

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Alison Flood reports for The Guardian newspaper that “Oxford Dictionaries has declared ‘post-truth’ to be its international word of the year.” She continues:

Defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, editors said that use of the term “post-truth” had increased by around 2,000% in 2016 compared to last year. The spike in usage, it said, is “in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States”.

I couldn’t help but think of popular “post-truths” circulated by some employers to their rank-and-file workers:

  • “We’re all in this together.”
  • “Each and every employee matters to us.”
  • “We’d hate for a union to come in and interfere with the direct communications we enjoy with our valued employees.”
  • “We’re absolutely committed to equal opportunity.”
  • “Don’t worry, you can trust the HR office with all of your concerns.”
  • “Think of us as one big family here.”

I’m sure that readers can add their own post-truths to this list.

Of course, at some workplaces, many of these statements actually apply. But in too many places of employment, the more you hear them, the less truth they happen to carry. 

Harvard Business Review on working with toxic colleagues

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On Point, a periodic collection of themed articles drawn from the archives of the Harvard Business Review, devotes its fall 2016 issue to “How to Work with Toxic Colleagues.” Here’s a summary of the table of contents:

This issue of Harvard Business Review OnPoint identifies common scenarios and personality types that are difficult to work with and offers psychological, managerial, and tactical insights on how to combat, and even reverse, the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. Articles include “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo; “Coaching the Toxic Leader,” by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries; “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” by Michael Maccoby; “Is Silence Killing Your Company?” by Leslie Perlow and Stephanie Williams; “HBR Case Study: What a Star-What a Jerk,” by Sarah Cliffe; and “Make Your Enemies Your Allies,” by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap. You’ll also find selected content from our website, such as “How to Deal with a Mean Colleague,” by Amy Gallo, and “Defusing an Emotionally Charged Conversation with a Colleague,” by Ron Friedman.

I’ve browsed through this issue, and it looks like a worthy purchase for those interested in how to deal with varieties of toxic co-workers at the ground level, particularly in professional office settings. It will be less useful for those seeking advice on how to transform or fix toxic workplaces. These pieces are not openly available online, so you’ll need to buy the issue if you want to read them.

In fact, I think the closing of the editors’ intro note is telling:

Armed with insight, your own sense of self, and the right strategies, you can combat — and even reverse — the corrosive effects of trying to collaborate with toxic colleagues. You might even come out looking like a hero.

The Harvard Business Review isn’t about worker solidarity. And this collection of articles implicitly recognizes that determining how to deal with a difficult or nasty colleague or boss in today’s professional workplace is usually an individual choice, not a collective assessment. This is often the reality of things, though we don’t have to be happy about it.

Success vs. significance on the job

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Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber, in an excellent blog piece for Next Avenue, recounts a talk he attended featuring Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, a pioneering eye surgeon:

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

The good doctor’s observation caused Webber to reflect:

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Beware of avaricious success seekers

If “success is what comes to you” and “significance is what you give away to others,” then let me say: Beware of grasping, covetous success seekers.  They rationalize raw ambition to the exclusion of so many other qualities and values. They walk over and through other people; the skillful ones do it with smiles on their faces and may be appear, at least from a distance, as charming or even “friendly.” They may manipulate and bully as necessary, especially if someone is in their way. Whether due to insecurity, entitlement, or some combination of both, they believe that the brass ring should be theirs for the grabbing.

I have seen these folks in higher education, as I’m sure you’ve seen them in your vocation. There’s another odd dynamic that I’ve noticed about this type of individual in my business: They have a knack for racking up accolades relatively early in their careers, even when it’s not clear that they’ve accomplished anything of . . . well . . . significance. It’s almost as if they’re getting public brownie points for building their resumes. These honors and recognitions fuel their belief that future kudos are their birthright.

Instead…

Generically speaking, most of us want to be “successful,” however we might regard the term. Indeed, aspirations, goals, hopes, and dreams are all fine. So let’s pursue them with authenticity, guided by an inner ethical voice that says we should strive to make contributions of significance and treat others with a baseline of dignity.

High on the workplace dysfunction meter: An active, fear-based rumor mill

(image courtesy of clker.com)

(image courtesy of clker.com)

If fearful, dramatic rumors continually run through a workplace — some turning out to be true, others not — then I’m willing to bet that its organizational leadership does a poor job of communicating with its stakeholders and that the organizational culture lacks a core value of trust. If these rumors become increasingly wild, with some still proving to be correct, then the workplace dysfunction meter is stuck clearly in the red zone.

Content-wise, these rumors usually center on concerns that are important to just about anyone: Job security, compensation, benefits, leadership and ownership changes, organizational conflicts, work rules, and the like. A meeting, a cryptic memo, or even a casual conversation or e-mail can stoke the rumor mill and fuel a modern version of the “telephone” game, whereby speculation creates a narrative built upon tiny bits of fact.

The smart prognosticators are like expert military intelligence experts. They can take small pieces of information and be remarkably accurate at assessing a situation and forecasting coming events. Others may be not be so wise. As they feed the rumor mill, it starts to go bonkers. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

Responses and impacts

Individual responses to fearful rumors are often physiological. As I wrote earlier this year:

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Ultimately, from an organizational standpoint, morale, loyalty, and productivity are the major casualties.

Responsibility

It may be tempting to blame rank-and-file workers for engaging in such communications. And certainly there are workers who revel in spreading rumors of any sort. Once a rumor mill goes active, it’s hard to stop.

For the most part, however, if a rumor mill operates to the point of distraction, then poor leadership is typically a major culprit. After all, when boards and senior executives pay only lip service to communication, transparency, and honesty, then what is likely to fill the information void?

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