Wednesday, March 10, 2010


"I had the meanest boss in the world so I'd call in sick a lot. I would say I had 'female problems.' My boss didn't know I meant her."

-Wendy Liebman

One of the problems with this economy is that if you're lucky enough to have a job, you have to live with the burden of being Lucky To Have a Job. Implicit in being one of the Lucky Ones is "shut up and be grateful", which is no one's first choice in the luck lottery.

Meanwhile, managers themselves keep getting asked to give just a bit more effort, to put in a bit more time. The problem is that they've been doing a bit more, year after year, crisis after crisis for a decade or two. Let's review the math of "just a bit more": If you work 40 hours a week and you're asked to put in an extra ten percent, in ten years time you're at 104 hours (which is 15 hours a day, seven days a week). It's your investments that are supposed to compound, not your workweek. (Compounding uninterest?)

What got me thinking about the dual-stress of the modern workplace was reading the news reports about job satisfaction stats reaching a new low. So I decided it was time to update my pair of lists of boss-employees annoyances. Let's start with the list of employees' frustrations…

  • Using the word "teamwork" when you really mean "overwork without complaint or compensation."

  • Treating kindness as if it were a scary virus that might spread to others – "If I did it for you, I'd have to do it for everyone."

  • Calling to "check in."

  • Offering distant and vague rewards: "No promises, but something good is coming."

  • Complaining about the cost of repairs for your "Beemer."

  • Prattling on about being a team when your real goal is to get a big promotion and leave the team behind.

  • That face you make.

And, on the other side, let's recall what it is that managers find annoying about their employees…

  • Saying "FINALLY!" to any announcement of a positive change.

  • Mistaking a thought for an idea, an idea for a proposal and a proposal for an innovation. (An idea is to an innovation what the sex act is to raising a child.)

  • Asking for advice when what you really want is to pass off problems or responsibilities.

  • Being miserable but not having the guts to do something about it.

  • Pretending not to understand.

  • Mistaking the boss for a wealthy and gullible relative.

  • Reacting to an attempt to the company doing something nice for employees by saying, "I'd rather they just give us the money it cost."

  • That face you make.

What's needed from both sides is to assume the best about the other, even when you know better. Perhaps that's what it means to be a professional: Show up – I mean really show, all in – and force yourself to assume the best (which means you don't get to make that face).

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.



-A sign in the Springfield Library -- the Springfield that's home to Marge and Homer Simpson and family

Today we travel to an unlikely place in search of inspiration for innovation, to a library in Gilbert, Arizona. There we can find the start of a radical notion known in the library world as "The Perry Branch Rebellion."

The Rebellion began with what qualifies as one of our Great Moments in Management. One day in 2006, a boss happened to say to an employee four of the most beautiful words in organizational life: Let's do something special.

Ah, what glory lurks in that little statement! Yet, such a suggestion is spoken rarely; the more common pronouncement is just the opposite, the dreary, "It doesn't have to be anything special" The heart sinks. But a young librarian named Marshall Shore recently recounted for me how one fine day he was asked by Harry Courtright to make a library special. (Perhaps we should also make this a Great Moment in Career Management because when I asked Shore if he'd be amazed at being asked to do something unique, he replied, "I'd developed a reputation for experimentation and innovation, so when they asked me to be involved, it was asking for something new." And there's the career chicken-egg – you have to be known for being special to be asked to be special.)

What Shore did was to seek out locals who did not use the library and ask, Why not? Here again, let us stop and admire: Most people, put in charge of opening a new library branch would seek out librarians and library users – the "experts" – to ask for "input." But, as Shore put it, "I want everyone to use the library so I wanted to see what was stopping people from coming in." He mostly heard two complaints: finding a book using the library numbering system, and the fines.

Given the nature of the economy, he couldn't give up a revenue source, like fines, but he could do something about those little numbers, the Dewey Decimal System that we all learned in school… didn't we all?... yet it's still off-putting to many prospective library users. I suppose it made them think of the crusty old school librarian with the schussing – a serpent-like hissing, come to think of it, the snake in the stacks.

But many of these same non-users of the library claimed to LOVE going to bookstores – ah-ha – and that's how Shore decided to offer up the radical notion of dumping Dewey and going with the topic-grouping familiar to book shoppers.

Imagine the resistance Shore faced. Not from library customers – he knew from survey results that three out of four visitors to the library came in to browse, not to seek out a specific book – but from librarians and staffers, the people who live Dewey, die Dewey. How did Shore overcome their objections?

Get this. It was a new library branch. The Dewey-less system was decided BEFORE the staff was hired. Part of the interviewing process was asking about Dewey. Those who couldn't imagine a library without it simply were not hired.

If you have an idea you want to nurture, don't plant it in the forest of the status quo, place it in a fresh field, away from the old growth. Give it to a new group or try it in an experimental store, surrounded by people who want it there, who want it to thrive.

Which brings us to an IBP (Important Business Principle) with a lovely Zen weightless heft: It's easier to change people than to change people.

©2010 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.