Derek Sivers

Management of the Absurd - by Richard Farson

Management of the Absurd - by Richard Farson

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Counter-intuitive lessons about management. Highly recommended for managers and leaders, but also teachers and parents.

my notes

If you were asked to predict the group in our society that is most likely to mount a liberation effort to end its oppression, would you have a greater chance of success picking the group for which you feel the most sorry, or the one for which you feel the least sorry? (Least sorry is correct.) Liberation movements usually arise from groups thought at the time to be perfectly content.

From where is the leadership of those liberation movements most likely to come? From those most oppressed by the conditions, or those least oppressed? (Least.) The leaders come from outside or from the margins of these groups. Seldom from the most oppressed segments.

The opposite of a profound truth is also true.

Granting authority is not like handing out a piece of pie, wherein you lose what you give away. It is more like what happens when you give information to someone. Although he or she may now know more, you do not know any less.

One exec I know is a classic example of a man who wants to succeed but at the same time seems to want to fail. Everything he does carries both messages. From the very moment he enthusiastically volunteers to head a project, he operates in such a way as to cripple it - refusing to delegate, undermining the work of committees, failing to meet deadlines, and stalling on crucial decisions.

Predictions rely heavily on knowledge of present conditions, but present conditions are largely invisible.

What parents do makes little difference. What they are really matters. Most children adopt the characteristics that define their parents, whether their parents want them to or not.

Any technique loses its power when it becomes evident that it is a technique.

Meet each situation armed not with a battery of techniques but with openness. Transcend technique.

Ultimately, people discover who we are and come to regard us as we regard them. If we genuinely respect our colleagues and employees, those feelings will be communicated without the need for artifice or technique. And they will be reciprocated.

Effective leaders and managers do not regard control as the main concern. Instead, they approach situations sometimes as learners, sometimes as teachers, sometimes as both. They turn confusion into understanding. They see a bigger picture. They trust the wisdom of the group. Their strength is not in control alone, but in other qualities: passion, tenacity, patience, courage, firmness, enthusiasm, wonder.

Our most important human affairs - marriage, parenting, education, leadership - do best when there's an occasional loss of control and an increase in personal vulnerability - times when we do not know what to do.

Think of the difference between seduction and romance. Technique is required for the former, but is useless in the latter. If you know how to have a romance, it isn't a romance, but a seduction. Not knowing how to do it makes it a romance.

Most arguments and conflicts are unconsciously designed to get us to reveal that the other has had an impact on us.

When we begin to understand how something works, we think immediately that we will be able to make it work. That may be true in the physical world, but it is far from true in the world of human relations.

Technology creates the opposite of its intended purpose. Has the introduction of A/V technology into schools led to better-educated students? Has computer-aided design improved architecture.

Face-to-face communication often introduces more "noise" in the system and imposes more limitations on personal expression. The very technology that threatens to depersonalize our society offers a way to connect people, to restore a sense of community in our lives, to deepen our relationships.

When participants could talk not only to the persons next to them but to all other members of the group, then the problem-solving ability of the group diminished markedly, and it became virtually paralyzed.

Many supposed communication problems are actually balance-of-power problems. That's why it's probably unwise to introduce completely open communication into a situation where there is a large disparity in power.

The metamessage is more powerful than the message itself.

It can be tiring for managers to focus entirely on what the other person means and how he or she sees the world. Ordinarily, humans need more psychological space in which to move in their communication. Listening denies the listener that space.

The best kind of listening comes not from technique but from being genuinely interested in what really matters to the other person.

There is something graceless and manipulative in analyzing those special moments when we are enriched and exhilarated by someone's listening to us, or being honest with us, or praising us, and teaching them as human relations or management skills. It's like learning memory tricks so you can call someone you barely know by name.

Giving praise establishes the fact that you are in a position to sit in judgement.

When the work of a high-status person is praised by a low-status person, it is often seen as presumptuous or even insulting. As if an ordinary person told Picasso, "You're a very good painter." Compare with a way that respects the status difference, "I love your painting."

What really does release creativity and promote achivement is when a manager takes the time to get involved in the employee's work - learning what direction the work is taking, the problems and possibilities it presents, the way the employee is dealing with the task. But involvement is demanding and time-consuming, which explains why many managers resort to praise as the substitute, hoping it will accomplish the same result.

Giving praise is easy to do. It makes for effortless conversation and demands far less imagination than do witty retorts, penetrating criticism, or brilliant insights.

We have civil rights - not only to protect us from bad people, but to protect us from good people as well, from people who think they know what's good for us. Tyrants have always acted in the best interest of their people, or so they thought.

Ex-convicts are better able to rehabilitate prison inmates than is the prison staff. Ex-addicts are more successful in getting other addicts off drugs than are psychiatrists. Students learn more from eachother than they do from their professors. People tend to be much smarter about their own situations than we give them credit for. A full grasp of any problem is only in the hands of the people who have experienced it.

Alcoholics Anonymous, Weight Watchers, Parents Without Partners, Gamblers Anonymous: each of them demonstrates the power of people who are themselves beset with problems, and yet are able to help eachother in ways that the professionals have not yet learned to do.

Participative management - involving the people who have to do the work in the decisions that will affect them - is based upon the idea that people are better than we think they are and can be counted on to make wise choices. A considerable amount of research shows that people learn faster, produce more, and are more highly motivated when participative methods are employed.

It can take an inordinate amount of time and patience to develop a group than can practice participative management.

The healthier you are psychologically, or the less you need to change, the more you can change. Psychotherapists have much more to offer such people.

What gets organizations into trouble are faulty leadership styles, poor internal relationships, and managerial blind spots.

Typically, people want someone else to change, and often for good reason. But for the consultant, the general rule is that the person who can change is the one to work with, and usually that is the person who has brought the situation to the consultant in the first place.

Individuals are almost indestructable, but organizations are very fragile.

Even the most intense, confrontational, and sometimes traumatic situations rarely damage an indivudual. Yes there is hurt, but seldom is there permanent damage. People survive the most devastating natural disasters in relatively good psychological shape. But relationships can be destroyed with one wrong word, one single act.

People suffer most in their lives from failed or failing relationships - parental rejections, marital strife, difficulties with bosses - or from the lack of relationships - isolation, alienation, erosion of community. The best way to deal with individuals may be to improve relationships.

The better things are, the worse they feel: THE THEORY OF RISING EXPECTATIONS

Revolutions start not when conditions are at their worst, but only after they have begun to improve, reforms have been instituted, leadership has developed, and the populace has come to have a new vision of what might be.

Rising expectations fuel the fire of revolution and change because it creates a discrepancy between what people have and what they now see is possible to have.

Psychotherapy works the same way. Successful therapy leads not to satisfaction but to new and different feelings of discontent. As people solve lower-order problems that brought them to therapy, instead of becoming contented they become discontented about higher-order issues.

The motivation for continuing change and growth comes from the development of higher-quality discontent, then moving on to the solution of more important problems.

Maslow called them "grumbles": Low-order grumbles are deficiency needs: "It's too hot in here." High-order grumbles are "We need better safety standards." In a very healthy organization there are "metagrumbles": complaints having to do with needs for self-actualization. "I don't feel that my talents are being fully utilized."

For managers: Improvement does not bring contentment, but its opposite. The way to judge your effectiveness is to assess the quality of discontent you engender.

The paradox of rising expectations: in countries making their way toward democratic change there are the most troublesome demands from the population. In China the Tiananmen Square protests erupted after the country's leaders had done more to open China to the world than perhaps any other rulers in the nation's history. They had doubled the wealth of China in a decade, and instututed all manner of quasi-democratic and capitalistic reforms. When they got angry, protesting, thankless students in return,they resorted to the massive repression for which their backgrounds had well-prepared them.

The paradox of rising expectations: good marriages that reflect what most people would want in a marriage are more likely to fail than bad ones.

We want for ourselves not what we are missing, but more of what we already have.

Our absorbtion with what we do well may blind us to what will enable us to do even better.

Godfather to the idea of Management of the Absurd: C. Northcote Parkinson: author of Parkinson's Law: "Work expands to fill the time available."

It may take hours to discuss hundred-dollar items, while million-dollar items fly by. Almost everybody knows something sensible to say about a small item on the budget, but few can offer wise comments about a million-dollar item.

We need to fail often. If we don't, it means we're not testing our limits. It means we're not taking the necessary risks to improve our behavior.

Learning from success happens when you are on your game, things are working out for you, anything seems possible - and you are stimulated by your achievements. When are are doing a series of things right, it gives us the strength and encouragement to continue - which leads to our greatest successes. On the other hand, a series of failures can demoralize us.

Little is more encouraging than learning about another's failure, especially if it is an expert who is failing. Humans relate better to people in their failures than in their successes.

"Whatever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." - Gore Vidal

Responding to failure seems to bring out something good in us. We know better how to empathize with the person who is suffering than we do with a person who is succeeding.

Gossip is the single most community-building and social-bonding experience we have. Sharing stories of others' troubles is what brings us together.

Most of our succcesses and failures are due to forces not within our control. Other societies, such as Japan, recognize this better than we do.

Organizations are simply not good at changing themselves. They change more often as a result of invasion from the outside or rebellion from the inside. Less so as a result of planning.

The situations we try hardest to avoid in our organization would actually be the most beneficial for them.

People are pretty good the way they are. (News bias makes us think otherwise.)

Better managers try to fix situations, not people, by making structural changes in their organizations. Rather than attempting to change individuals, they are much more likely to change reporting relationships, enlarge or reduce the expectations of the job, etc.

Most employees are trying to do the best they can. They prefer to do good work, to cooperate, to meet objectives. They prefer harmony over conflict, action over inaction, productivity over delays. Not everyone, and not all the time. But in general, people want to perform effectively. Managers may have trouble recognizing this because we have never bothered to study human beings at their best.

Our efforts are usually attempts to reform people rather than to educate, enlighten, and appreciate them, allowing their best to emerge.

An exercise: design an organiztion that would produce the lowest levels of trust among its employees. Answer: make sure everything is locked up, install time clocks, introduce massive manuals of operating procedures, develop rules and regulations on everything. (These are how many organizations look!)

What's a high-trust organization look like? Reverse the flow of communication. Develop a set of shared goals. Build a team rather than concentrating only on individuals. Offer rewards rather than punishment. Stay in touch with what is happening on the floor. Pay attention to the concerns, issues, and personal problems of the employees. Enlarge people's jobs.

Instead of continuing to want to change these people, all those characteristics that may have concerned us at the outset become qualities we come to appreciate as simply being part of the way these people are. Absurdly, we find that we really wouldn't want it any other way.

When we assess people, we make lists of strengths and weaknesses, but we really need a list in the middle for those strengths that are also weaknesses, and weaknesses that are also strengths.

Strengths can become weaknesses when we rely too much on them. People who are exceptionally beautiful may fail to build up other qualities.

We sometimes say someone has a positive trait "to a fault".

If strengths are also weaknesses, the reverse can be true. A weakness can be a strength. Fearfulness can serve us well, making us cautious. Perfectionists can be our best workers. The insecure lead the need to achieve. An obsessive executive can inspire others.

Better managers recognize that it's more important for them to like their employees, than for their employees to like them.

The problem is not in raising the morale of the work force: it's in raising their own morale as managers.

Leadership is distributed among members of a group, and they in turn play such vital roles as taskmaster, clown, mother figure, and so on. Relying on one person - the manager - to provide all the leadership builds expectations that cannot be met. It robs the group of its powers, leading to overdependence on the manager.

Leaders who successfully move from one organization to another are able to do this because they define their task as evoking the knowledge, skills, and creativity of those who are already with the organization. They are especially able to elicit the intelligence and participation of group members who otherwise might not join the discussions.

The best leaders are servants of their people.

People who were most successful in achieving power did not dominate the group: rather, they served it.

Humility comes natually to the best leaders. They seldom take credit themselves but instead give credit to the group with which they have worked. They characteristically make life easier for their employees. They are constantly aranging situations, engineering jobs, smoothing out the processes, removing the barriers. They think about who needs what. They define their job as finding ways of releasing the creative potential that exists within each individual employee and in each group with which they work.

Good employees anticipate what the needs are going to be, then offer solutions not problems, ideas not complaints.

Children see events that adults have learned not to notice.

Much of the job of executive development is an unlearning process: getting rid of barriers to perception and wisdom and judgement.

Leadership is not a matter of expertise. We wouldn't want "expert" friends, "expert" wifes, lovers, or parents.

With the right kind of education, managers can gain better self-understanding, learn about their own interpersonal styles, their reactions to and impact on others, prejudices and blind spots, strengths and weaknesses. A better understanding of themselves and of their feelings gives all managers added trust in their perceptions, reactions, impulses, and instincts. If any one thing can be said to be true about good leaders, it's that they trust their instincts.

Managers become like good hosts at a party, making certain that everything works smoothly, taking care of the little things that make the experience a good one. The best leaders make their organizations places where their passion becomes the organizing force.

"Amateur" comes from Latin "amator", which means "lover".

Frank Capra: "Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for." They tend to be the most important, most humane ones. They require us to live up to the best that is in us. To perfect ourselves and our world.

Whenever I have the arrogance or audacity to believe that I can reform people, I get nowhere. But when I fundamentally recognize that I cannot possibly accomplish those reforms, I can move ahead with a more humble posture and paradoxically perhaps then there is a chance that the situation can change.

Advice is cheap. It costs nothing to give. It's the simplest, quickest response to make when confronted with a problem. It addresses a situation without actually dealing with it. It is easier than understanding, listening, and analyzing.

"I already know how to be twice as good a farmer as I am."