Wednesday, April 29, 2009

And another thing about reviews (management is a pain 2d)

that makes them relatively impossible to fulfill their stated function is that even when they are darkly and bracingly fun in the Brechtian way I suggested earlier, they are also framed by a whole legal apparatus of documentation and cover-our-ass procedures and liability hedging that every statement and response is burdened by anxious over-interpretation.

Managers have been trained by HR to document any problem or issue they have with an employee so if they ever want to fire their ass, they have a record of the problem.

(In my experience, anyone and everyone who ever gets fired always complains about the manager’s failure to “set expectations” and I’m sure it’s true some of the time, but as more and more people who suck at their job use it, it starts to sound like the familiar complaint that your ex- broke up with you in a particularly “bad” or mean” way. Which mine certainly did, I can tell you that)

Employees of course know managers need to cover their asses too, and document all issues (or even potential issues) which can make even a minor problem get all amplified out of perspective and lead to a lot of hedging and euphemistic language on both parts to keep the anxiety below the level that incites weeping or nausea.

I’ve found myself using two or three introductory clauses—several in the subjunctive case--before I could finally spit out some minor critical suggestion about the employee in question trying to be more proactive. I’m embarrassed to recall sentences like:

“You’ve been doing such a great job, and you are really engaged in day-to-day business, but if I were to make a suggestion about how you might take your work to the next level, assuming that is your ambition (attentive pause as I anticipate and await eager head nod) then it would be great if we could work together to…”

You get the idea. Maybe I’m just a candy ass about this. Too much time teaching students at fancy schools where a B- was like a death threat, requiring approval from high-level officials.

But frankly, I don’t think one’s tone or style or approach helps you escape from what is essentially a structural problem or at least a structural fact about corporate life in America.

So long as we want and need to maintain the ideological fantasy that our office is a family (with managers who are basically parents that can fire us), these impossible exchanges in which we both speak out of the rulebook of corporate compliance are inevitable.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What are we talking about? Social media utopias and dystopias

Mike Arauz's blog post on Twitter and Digital Conversations got me thinking about another moment in history when there was a change in the power-structure of society driven, in part, by the emergence of more open conversation, what Habermas famously called the emergence of the "public sphere." Arauz does a solid job articulating some of the tensions at work, but ultimately, it left me wondering what we are talking about?

Here's my comment:

Agreed. Great, but what are we going to do with it? Habermas famously theorized that 18th century London coffee shops and the development of "public spheres" were central to helping develop liberal democracies because they helped facilitate free and open discourse among people normally divided by class, status and social boundaries According to Habermas, these public spheres connected the sphere of "authority" (gov't) with the needs of the "people." But these people wanted and needed something: civil rights, voice in the gov't, greater equality. Social media is similarly breaking down boundaries between the producer and the consumer but to what end? the role of social media as a powerful political tool is now self-evident. But as a business tool? How many conversations do we want to have with "brands"? And to what end? Better products?
The most socially progressive social media advocates might make a bigger claim. They'd say social media is going to help brands and companies change the world for the better. I certainly share those progressive values, and hope it's true, but I don't really believe it, for the simple reason that brands and companies or at least for-profit companies aren't in the business of making social policies. (And to the degree they are, it generally isn't so great for the rest of us).

But to be honest, I'm not even sure that's what the strongest advocates of social media are claiming. What are we trying to achieve here, beyond more efficient marketing? Not a bad thing, but not really a politically progressive ideal. Is more chatter between brands and consumers really a good thing? I could easily imagine a dystopian version of this scenario, one that the late great JG Ballard would be the perfect author to describe. One in which all of our social and emotional lives are more fully colonized by brands than they already.

Or to put it another way: what happens when all of our conversations are about consumer experiences?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Irony never dies, but it can get kind of soft

The other night, when I was watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the twentieth time or so (yes, I’m obsessed with Russell Brand) and it struck me that one component of successful popular culture has involved bringing new levels of sincerity to cultural forms and expressions that were previously used as to mock sincerity, or at least, tried to escape sincerity.

Here’s what I mean: a decade or so ago, it would hard to imagine a failed blow job as a scene designed to express a heartfelt confession. But Jason Segel’s explanation of his failure to get an erection-- “that you broke my heart into a million pieces and so my cock doesn't want to be around you anymore!” is exactly that. A raw cry from the heat about his limp dick. The raw discussions of sexuality in “Superbad” achieve a similar effect. Again, in my childhood (a lot longer than a decade ago), it would be hard to imagine a dialogue around “pounding vag” as an earnest expression of adolescent sexual anxiety, but with Apatow’s insight into contemporary adolescence and actor’s like Hill and Cera able to express their terror through their false bravado, you get it. I’m trying to come with a name for it: Sentimental crude? Eh, not yet.

In any case, in my mind, one of the surprising innovators here, was Douglas Coupland. Whatever his limitations, in Gen X, he took our emerging irony-drenched, hyper-self-conscious culture as his raw material and within this context, created emotionally moving scenes and characters. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in which the wry characters debate the question: has anyone ever gotten famous without making money of it. There is a lot droll dialogue built around the comedy of second-rate celebrity until the end-game retort-- “Anne Frank”--brings the room to a hushed and guilty silence. I was hoping he'd do more with it, but he just kept circling the same territory until the the pop culture setting became the subject, and we've already got plenty of that.

The sadly departed DFW at his best (e.g., “Little Experessionless Animals”) took this thematic to a new level of metafictional art. And I thought he’d do more with it until he got lost pursuing the big questions (more on that later.)

Like the rest of us, I remember all stupid post-9/11 claims that “irony is dead” from people who should know better. As if the entire world was doomed to sincerity for the rest of eternity. As if irony could ever die, for the simple fact it’s not a single thing, or set of terms. It’s a formal approach, a clever critique of the culture's privileged terms. It's capable of incorporating and reframing just about anything: no matter how apparently resistant to satiric treatment. Any statement, any word, always throws off alternative associations and there’s always an ironist around who uses these material to express something new, including irony’s opposite, by ironically commenting on the genre’s conventions.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Experimental office fiction: Black box I

My first assignment involved a dying start-up in the western suburbs of Chicago. I had long forgotten the name, along with everyone else. It was one of those invented words, designed by a computer, or someone trying to sound like one. Even when I was staring at the logo—big blue bubble letters supposed to evoke energy, playfulness and accessibility—I couldn’t keep the name in my head. It had lasted about 28 months which, for the record, beats the bell curve.

It had been funded with great fanfare by a number of major investors, heralded as the next generation, a new model, led by first-rate talent. It was originally a content play, "democratizing" real estate information. When that went nowhere, blocked by the existing real estate interests, it tried to evolve into an aggregator of existing data, selling the promise of efficiency. But it wasn't more efficient, it was just more data. So it tried a b2b effort, selling a new model of comp’s to brokerages and agents. They weren't interested in the new model.

It had been easy to disguise the gaps in logic a couple years ago, when money was flowing fast. But no one was confused any longer, especially Zellerman, who had poured about 50 million into it.

I arrived in mid-morning. I am used to being met with stares of anger and derision or worse, as if I had someone brought this fate upon them, rather then, as everyone well knew, they had done it themselves. I wanted, but never said, Who’s company is this ? Not mine.

But one could see right away that this as an inexperienced group. Despite the obvious doom hanging over the place, there was a giddy energy in the air, like an ill-planned party that had gotten out of hand. The faces of staff were still wide-eyed, eager, expectant, if a little confused and weary, moving through tasks with a vague sense of purpose.

This was not surprising. Much of the staff's had come on board in the company’s first incarnation, recruited from journalism, publishing and other institutions known for ‘content” and intellectual capital. T hey had worked for institutions with long histories and familiar names. Iconic names: Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Ford Foundation. Talented people with expensive educations. They probably didn’t imagine something with so much promise and funding could disappear so fast. Now they were tidying up papers in empty conference rooms, with furniture and unused phones piled in the corners.

There was no HR department to speak of so the plan was to have me mange the exit interviews with the founder. We met first met in a coffee shop around the corner to avoid too much gossip before the inevitable.

I recognized him from a previous venture in the area. We had crossed paths before but I doubt he’d remember me, and he didn’t.

“So how long does this take?” he said, as we sat down the counter.
“You haven’t done this before?”
“Not personally,” he said. “But I feel,” he paused, “ more responsible this time. The truth is,” he added, pointlessly, “I feel bad.”

His pursed his lips together in a boyish admission of guilt and concern. It was sentimental, coy, serious, both earnest and totally disingenuous. It was the expression of a man who knew he should care, and did, up to a point, but also, could put this whole event in a larger perspective. He wasn’t going to get dragged down. He held this expression until I said what we both knew I was here to say, to absolve him of guilt so he could move on and keep the machine running.

“It’s just business."

He nodded and we both remained silent for twenty or thirty seconds, letting this useful and uncontestable fact settle in. And then I asked him about his next venture.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why I hate or also maybe love reviews 2c: (the review as "epic theater")

Over the past couple posts I’ve been trying to tease out why I've found work-related reviews pointless if not counterproductive, a ceremonial experience.

I've been trying to describe how reviews make manifest an implicit conflict between two systems of value operating in any hierarchical working relationship: a financial bond (wages for labor) and a social bond (work for social approval and approbation)

Most of the time we can largely ignore or at least sublimate the fact that we work for money. In fact, most of us say “it’s not about the money” with some frequency in the course of out working lives to suggest that we are driven by less crass motivations.

But when we sit down to a review we (manager and employee) don't just have to remember but actually experience the basic hard facts of a working relationship:
1) The manager decides how much the employee gets paid and/or if he or she gets paid
2) This depends to some degree on the review, that is happening right then.

The sudden recognition of this unpleasant or at least kind of harsh fact makes everyone really uncomfortable, like suddenly noticing a sore on the lip of your blind date. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but you can’t really ignore it. It has to be acknowledged eventually but how do you talk about it without damaging the rest of the relationship and the relationship’s goals—whether that goal is a productive workplace or a fun night of sex or falling in love.

What usually happens is that we (manager and employee) take a middle road. The manager tries to be positive but critical enough around a couple key issues so the employee doesn’t get too big for his or her britches or starts to “overvalue” themselves and assume they are getting more money ("managing expectations") while the employee does their best to nod like a good listener who is open and un-defensive ("a learning experience") but all along try to mention just enough positive facts about him or herself to remind the manager about how much value they bring to the organization.

After a certain unit of time (say 40 minutes) or number of constructive criticisms were voiced and earnestly acknowledged (say 3), we can say that the ceremony has ended.

What's unpleasant is of course also paradoxically great. The very ineffectiveness of the review--it's source of profound and deep social lies on both sides--also makes it a source of great epic theater, in the Brechtian sense. The review fractures, if only for a while, the ideological and artificial fantasy we maintain about working relationships, bringing to consciousness the very facts we strive to hide from ourselves and one another.

From out the depths of the sun-dappled pond in which we frolic, we sense something rising, something large, cold and primitive, something that was beneath us all along but which we now must strain to ignore, as it brushes alongside our exposed limbs, sending ripples to the surface, until the review is over and the great leviathan turns and retreats back to the muddy bottom where he dwells and waits out of our site.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Managing is a pain; why i hate reviews 2b

Reviews make manifest a fundamental conflict between two systems of value: one value-system that depends on money and one that doesn’t, let's call it social value .

Managers want and to some degree need (and need to believe that) their bond with their staff extends beyond wages for labor. And in most of cases, this is true; we all work harder for people we like and respect and there are all kinds of concessions and non-financially motivated agreements made on both sides of the relationship in the course of any workweek, if not workday. We all say that we don’t work “for” money in and of itself. Also true. Money is necessary but, again for most of us lucky enough to have choices, not sufficient to keep us in a given job.

And yet, at the same time, the relationship is fundamentally founded on and maintained by money, It’s not like we’d care about the welfare of our staffs, or even ever met them if we hadn’t hired them. And most of the employees, many of whom we liked a whole lot, and valued as employees, pretty much disappeared from our lives after they moved onto other jobs. Not because we were all pissed off, or hated them but because, we had lots of other things to do. ( I know there are exceptions to this rule, but if you are a manager for any length of time, you end up with dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of people passing through your P&L and very few continue to be close friends after they move on.)

So most of the time this conflict between a social and financial relationship isn’t that hard to reconcile. We both know we work for money and more than money. Or in Zizek’s phrase, describing how ideological frameworks work in society, we know we work for money but act as if we don’t.

That’s partially because humans are social beings and like other people to like us. And partially because, in the office, people are mostly visible and money largely isn’t. Money is invisible in both a superficial and deep way. Superficially, we just don’t see it. I mean, it’s not like our manager goes around handing out wads of cash. For most of us, it goes right into our bank accounts. At most, we get those receipts in sealed envelopes left on our desks by administrators.

The deep way money is invisible is of course the fact most or our salaries are a secret. The vast majority of us have no idea what anyone makes, unless they work for us. This isn’t some accident or social nicety, though we like to relegate it to the category of etiquette to sanitize it further from its troubling implications.

Keeping our salaries a secret is a fundamental constitutive fact of our professional lives. It would take a whole other post to explain why and I haven’t even gotten back to reviews yet. The controversy, however, is worth further exploration. If you explore the subject online, you'll get a lot of Utopian claims for transparency from consultants.. The claims all make sense from a rationalized cost-benefit perspective and make almost no sense at all from the context of real experience involving real people, let alone real people work in an increasingly competitive capitalist society Here’s one. And then back to why I hate reviews tomorrow or the next day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sources: Stephen Toulmin

Simplicity, however, has its perils. It is one thing to choose as one’s first object of theoretical study the type of arguments open to analysis in the simplest terms. But it is quite another to treat this type of argument as a paradigm and to demand that arguments in other fields should conform to its standards regardless, or build up from a study of the simplest forms of argument alone a set of categories intended for application to arguments of all sorts: one must at any rate begin by inquiring carefully how far the artificial simplicity of one’s chosen modal results in these logical categories also being artificially simple. The sorts of risks one runs otherwise are obvious enough. Distinctions which all happen to cut along the same line for the simplest arguments may need to be handled quite separately in the general case; if we forget this, and our new found logical categories yield paradoxical results when applied to more complex arguments, we may be tempted to put these rules down to defects in the arguments instead of in our categories; and we may end up by thinking that, for some regrettable reason hidden deep in the nature of things, only our original, peculiarly simple arguments are capable of attaining to the ideal of validity.
--The Uses of Argument, 1958

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Managing is a pain pt 2a: I hate reviews

Giving and receiving, to borrow an expression from another category altogether.

It's not that I have any objective to evaluating per se. I actually like invidious distinctions (this beautiful formulation stolen from Veblen ) in an old-fashioned way. And I've given a lot of grades in my time in my previously foreshortened career as a teacher. A fair amount of absurdity surrounds the grading experience as well in our time (another tangent: will grade inflation fall with the market? Teachers? ), but it doesn't compare in bureaucratic caginess by a long short to the ceremonial instantiation of power relations we call the "performance review. "

The trouble starts with the struggle to invent criterion of evaluation that are both broad enough to extend across the organization and soft enough not to sting too much. After all, you do want these people to work for you, not spit in your coffee. "Navigates for success" and "Exercises good judgment" are categories I've filled out in the past with some uneasiness. It's not that I can't guess what they might mean. It's that I'm guessing in the first place. Plus who qualifies? Do I navigate for success? Kind of. Do I exercise good judgment? Hmmm.

In some ways these mushy categories of success and failure emerge in all hierarchies that don't want to admit they are hierarchical. My most dramatic experience in this regard (the challenge of creating a gradient without offending those being graded) was at a tennis club I worked at where grown men and women threw tantrums when they were rated below a level they thought they deserved. Instead of A, B and C player, we ended up with color coding. Red, Green, Yellow, etc. But of course that only lasts so long before the colors become imbued with associations of superiority and inferiority which is no good, especially when you want to do a brisk business in the pro shop.

No, the bigger problem, like all intractable social problems, is rooted the structure of the relationship itself, which I guess I'll get to tomorrow. I have to go give someone an upbeat and constructive but challenging review in which I may say some things which are "hard for them to hear."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Managing is a pain pt 1: Face time

It takes up a lot of time and feels really unproductive. I suppose if you are one of those so-called "people" people it probably feels like a great use of an morning to listen to some member of your staff lament how some other person on some other staff failed to listen to them or failed to invite them to a meeting or just plain sucked, but if you like to actually get things done, well, you can end up feeling pretty tawdry and unrealized and used by the of the day.

Management guru's will tell me that the morning I spent just listening and guiding my charges was in fact highly productive and can be tied to any number of productivity oriented metrics that expensive consultants will be happy to manage for me. And I'm sure they are right. (Though I've also found--and this is a snotty tangent--that the people who think they are good managers and listeners mainly like to hold court and give advice) But there is really only one rule to being a good manager so far as I can tell, though I'm probably the wrong person to take advice on the subject. You have to fucking pay attention. Even when it's a drag, frankly and you have hard time pulling your eyes away from your friends IM or Facebook update. You have to look people in the eye and listen to them. There's some old fashioned magic in it. People like to be paid attention to. And it's worth it finally, because you make money when your people do good work for you.

But becuase it takes a lot of time and feels really unproductive to just sit and listen to someone, people are are always trying to come up with new ways to short-circuit the process. Outsource it, or substitute some form of technology. Digital social media tools seemed help of a certain sort. Surely, all that online commingling will keep people from needing to actually talk to me so much. Well, kind of.

At least if you believe one of Breakthrough Ideas of 2009 in the HBR February issue (yeah, it's been under a pile of Legos). It's this one. How Social Networks Network Best. Lots of interesting bits but here's the part that's related to the above screed:

Delving deeper into the communication networks of several organizations illuminated the links between productivity and information fl ow even more. A recent MIT study found that in one organization the employees with the most extensive personal digital networks were 7% more productive than their colleagues – so Wikis and Web 2.0 tools may indeed improve productivity. In the same organization, however, the employees with the most cohesive face-to-face networks were 30% more productive. Electronic tools may well be suited to information discovery, but face-to-face communication, an oft-neglected part of the management process, best supports information integration...

Social media is great for discovering things, but if you want get your people to do your bidding, or even just do theirs, you probably have to tell them to their face.