Since I wrote a post about modern management techniques, a friend of mine has been giving me some really good feedback. Part of the discussion I had with him recently was about the concept of providing more positive feedback to higher performers while spending lesser time working with and providing constructive feedback to the lower performers. The final goal is as always to get the most out of your employees without burning them out and making sure that they enjoy a decent work-life balance.
I had read about a theory by a researcher named Losada about a specific numerical figure that determines the ratio between positive and negative feedback for high performing teams. I had mentioned it in my past blog post and have also referred to it in conversations with friends and co-workers. My friend wanted to know more about this and I set about researching it last night. Well, it turns out that the numerical method of calculation was debunked last year (2014) in a scathing paper denouncing the practices. The original article appeared in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 and was called “The Ideal Praise-to-Criticism Ratio.” Since the work is under question, there is no point in discussing it here. Much has been said about it already. My only addition would be to say how disappointed I was in learning that studies such as this, ones that have been referred to in so many good publications and courses, are in fact low on fact and high on lies. False data and bogus conclusions really hurt Science. This has such a negative impact on the credibility of Science as a field that I feel a more pronounced reaction is necessary to prevent other scientists from wanting to falsify data.
That being said, I surmise that the basic premise is still true.
- Leaders should provide more positive feedback than negative feedback.
- A leader focussing his or her attention on a high performer, in both the positive and constructive veins, will get better value for their time spent than if they were to focus on a low performer.
- Dealing with low performers is tedious at best and quite difficult at worst. Reducing time spent on them is much harder than it would seem at first.
- Flexible managers are the most effective at their job.
Managers are critical by nature. Their ability to be detail oriented and get results is what got them the job in the first place. So it should not come as a surprise that we tend to be hard on the people that work for us. Even in the most effective and efficient team, a manager will always be able to find things not done according to their own plan. How they deal with this is up to them and their management style. Depending on the makeup of the team, they might find it beneficial to let small irritations pass without pointing them out. They might let the team figure out their issues organically and encourage the team to hold each other accountable for their actions. They might even be afraid of their team and ignore problems to avoid being the bad guy.
I have been managing small teams for some time and in almost every team I have found problems that needed addressing. In dealing with issues, I force myself to have an inner monologue as a manager. I only do a few things that bears mentioning here in addition to the obvious. I tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I do not mix positive and negative feedback. I keep negative feedback factual, succinct and directed at outcomes. I also record all the significant negative feedback that I have provided in a text file. I also try not make social friends out of the people that report to me.
When I run into chronic performance problems at work, I tend to fall back to my training. I write down my planned interactions for trouble employees. I like to keep these meetings short, to the point and have the goal of walking out of each with a plan of action for the employee. The employee and I agree on one or two simple metrics for me to track until the next meeting and we go back to work. The goal for me is to not turn low performers into high performers at that time. I simple plan on stopping loss. Once performance stabilizes for the employee, I start treating them with positive feedback for anything they do above and beyond the minimum detailed in the metrics. If there are other issues to be solved, I try to get them all to a state of stability before attempting the positive feedback technique so as not to confuse them. They quickly learn that withholding of positive feedback is actually unsatisfying to them, unsatisfying enough that they want do more than quid pro quo. Does this work every time? No. Does it work often enough to make me want to try this method every time? Yes.
Some of the wind in my sails about this method and the quantitative research that supported it has been shed as of yesterday and for that I am quite disappointed. My experience says that this works primarily in cases of mild to medium performance issues and does nothing for employees who are militant or downright malicious. I have sought HR help in every one of those cases and tried to follow their advice to the tee.
Do you have any advice for me and my readers?
Avoiding trouble at all costs – Indians like to avoid trouble if at all possible. Like most generalizations, it is only true for general provocations and simple conflicts. When provoked enough, an Indian can also become a mean son of a bitch, much more than would be expected by a Westerner. But that is another story. A story from my life comes to mind. At one time in my life, I had a very difficult boss. He was not very good at hiding his annoyances and appeared to be peeved all the time. I never knew what to expect from him. Much to my dismay, I worked directly for him and could not avoid working with him every day. However, I could not stand up to him. I would rather feel like crap twice a day, potentially for many years to come, than confront him and create a scene. Many Americans are surprised by what they perceived as my cowardice and have called me out on it. Conflict avoidance is part of our culture. If you consider this a weakness and push an Indian too far, you might have a mess on your hands you in the future that you did not expect.
Lining up to wait – My wife and I fly to India through Dubai often. We line up at Chicago to get on the plane and the line is orderly and there is respect of personal space and dignity. Once we are in the waiting room in Dubai, all the rules are suddenly different. Even before the flight is actually announced as ready to be boarded, every Indian in the room will rush up to the front of the room, in a large, unordered mass, around the exit to the aircraft. There is pushing and shoving and mass mayhem with absolutely no regard for personal space or for deodorant use. The two of us wait for this spectacle every time we fly through Dubai. The concept of standing patiently in line, in order, simply does not exist for us. This is even demonstrated in our (in)ability to drive within lanes. I have lots of stories about my first few months of driving in the US. Ask me about them sometime.
The truth is colorful – The truth has many flavors for us Indians. For us Indians, the truth is quite colorful. Embellishments are considered to be a normal part of the truth and exaggerations are expected to be delivered with the truth. This fact that our truth is not a concrete fact but more of a moving scale is demonstrated by our need to bargain for everything (even at upscale malls!), by taking others truths with the same trepidation, being more flexible and forgiving for shifts from facts and finding it hard to stick to the facts when confronted by others. This has gotten wiped off me to some extent because I have lived with and among Americans for a while, but it rears its head once in a while.
Anger is a no show – Indians who are angry will not readily express their anger on their facial or bodily expressions. It is bad form for an Indian to show anger and anger is only expressed under very extenuating circumstances. If an Indian is openly showing anger, know that something big is brewing. This follows from the conflict avoidance concept. Most Indians will actually show a smile while seething and possibly swearing and scheming on the inside. An American on the other hand has no problem wearing his heart on his sleeve.
An American who does not immediately flare up when provoked will be considered a coward or to be cold, which is bad form in this country. Gandhi’s Ahimsa (non-violence) philosophy which is derived from Hinduism, is probably the cause for much of this behavior.
Bravado is commonplace – Indians are not short on bravado. They ooze machismo, devour and reciprocate it openly and are not fazed by others displaying the same signals. This confuses most outsiders. Since the brave face is often not followed through with confrontation or violent behavior, it is different from Westerners. When not directly confronted with trouble, an Indian might make a big show of their prowess or skill, but will often not follow through with the expected aggressive behavior once actually confronted. Even worse, Indian might just drop out of the conflict or competition at the first sign of a challenge.
Money and Family always mix – I am a worldly person. I like wealth, have spent most of my life chasing it and can safely say that accumulation of it occupies my thoughts all the time. However, I am ashamed of my desire of it. I consider my family to be much more important and know in my heart of hearts that wealth can only be measured in terms of what it can do for my family. To belabor the point, I accumulate the wealth, I run after it and pine for it but I do so ashamedly and only do it for my family. I do not know this for sure but I think this is due to our poor beginnings and our fear of going back to being poor. When I spend money, I am further afraid of spending too much or not saving enough for my family and for our future. This is somewhat different from wealth in the Western world where divorces are common and money is often seen to be separate within the family. Parents often manage separate bank accounts and only save in a common pile which is eyed tentatively by both parties. It might finally end up with one person or the other and often does not belong to everyone in the family. Kids might inherit wealth from their parents when they pass away, but it is not shared with the kids in the same way during their lifetime. Wealth is not collective family wealth. Financial independence of the participants might also have something to do with this perception in the Western world.
Love is Eternal – Most Indians fall in love once, deify their partner and are very enamored with not only the person, but also the feelings they associate with their loved one. Love has a certain pious tinge to it and deification of a loved one is the result. A partner is often completely crushed if and when their love is removed from their lives. Indians who fall in love and are unreciprocated, often end up either unmarried if given the option, or in loveless arranged marriages. Divorced partners often do not remarry. It is hard for an Indian to date multiple partners or to move from one love interest to the next. Even among Indian movie stars, partner jumping is much less popular than in the Western world. As India becomes more westernized, I can see this changing in some ways. What I see remaining the same is this religious sentiment associated with love and the strong desire to keep the same partner throughout ones life.
What are other idiosyncrasies of Indians do you know of?
I came to the United States back in 1994 as a student and have not left since, except for short vacations. I try to assimilate myself into whatever situation that I get into and this country, now my country, is no exception. I tried my best to become an American. However hard I have tried to look, sound and behave like an American, there is still of a lot of Desi in me. I was even referred to as “an International Experience” by someone very close to me at some time in my dotted past.
My wife Jennifer is painfully aware of my “Indian Standard Time” and gets more than just exasperated at me because of it. I still cannot say laboratory properly, no matter how hard I try to remember the pronunciation. I hate spelling color that way. Aluminum rubs me the wrong way whenever I see it. I refer to my boss as “sir” often and fluster him, and I can never seem to give directions well. All of these fun differences were bought to the forefront last week when I read about Yang Liu’s book on Quartz. I loved the pictures and posted the link on Facebook. I have since thought that it would be fun to post about each of these in more detail and explain the pictures that are illustrated on Quartz. I am not reproducing them here for copyright purposes. Please refer to the article above for my inspiration. Here we go.
Indian Standard Time – Perhaps the most obvious and the most controversial of all idiosyncrasies that I exhibit is referred to as Indian Standard Time by my wife and others. When I am expected to be somewhere at a certain time, say to meet my wife at a party at 7:00 PM, I will almost certainly be quite tardy. I leave time for myself to get ready and get to the party at 7:00 just like everyone else. However, more important things show up in the hours before the actual party or the location is farther than I have given myself time to get to or some other non-trivial event will occur that will result in me being late. I cannot explain it but it does happen. My wife has resorted to subtracting an extra hour from the real time to see if she can get me to be at the party on time.
Loud Speech – I speak loudly. I am actually less louder than other Indians and Asians. It is what we do. Our language requires loud pronunciation or something like that. Liu has a nice image to represent this. You can visit a restaurant in India, even a five star place and it will be many tens of decibels louder than an American or Western establishment. We do not like eating quietly. Now my wife says I am deaf but quiet whispers at the table, or for that matter anywhere, is just irritating to me. I like to be spoken clearly to and you should expect a clearly spoken answer.
Convoluted Explanations – Speaking of clear answers. You will never get a concise answer from an Indian. That is why I hate giving directions. I remember roads by signs and visible entities and do not remember names or keep track of directions by watching a compass. I often do not know which direction is North or East, because I do not care. When I give directions, they are by what appears on the way and thus are very convoluted and often complex for people seeking directions. My explanations for most things are the same way. I do not take anything for granted or imbibe anything mentally without first understanding it my way. When I understand it my way, I look for evidence and markers along the way of that discovery. If asked to explain it, I go back through my personal journey, explaining each of the markers as I remember and understood them. I make sense to me but take winding roads to get to the answer.
High Power Distance – Indians (and most Asians) consider their bosses, parents and older people to be at a higher level of being than themselves. This is also referred to as high power distance. An American might be really open with their boss, make fun of him or her to their face and even argue with them openly. Indians will not do that. They will take their boss’ or their parents’ word for it instead of arguing. They will not show disrespect of any kind. I have noticed that this baffles Americans and might even make them think that Indians are old world or backwards. Know for sure that this is cultural and not evolutionary.
Humble to a fault – It is considered bad manners to think too highly of oneself in India. People tend to be humble and compete with each other on their humility. So when thinking about oneself, people from the East will, in general think of themselves to be smaller or weaker or less prepared than the rest of the world. The western world is taught to be proud and sure of themselves and so the opposite view of the self is often the result. The mistake many westerners make is to assume humility to be weakness or lack of credibility.
I am running out of time. So there will be an episode 2 of these. I know I have a few more to talk about, including the last few from Liu’s book. I hope these are useful in understanding the quirks of Asian people that baffle you.
What quirk would you like to know more about?
The topic is somewhat self explanatory but it was not clear to me till a few months ago. Let me explain.
My father is a stickler for a job done right. Most of my early childhood was spent on listening to him bitch at me about doing one thing or the other correctly. I remember him telling me, in Bengali, that whatever I did, I should do it well. It was said to me so many times, and I was so remiss at my studies, that the message was lost in me ignoring my father’s advice. I will not get into his relationship with me, but will focus on his message. I also remember him telling me about Swami Vivekananda and about his treatise, Karma Yoga. He told me how he had read it when was young and it had shaped his life. Dad is an ardent Vivekanada fan to say the least. I had myself picked up a copy of it while I was in school and browsed a few pages before my eyes had glazed over. Of course I had boasted to him that I had read the book and understood what it was trying to tell me. But far from it, while I tried to do the best I could with everything that was painful to me (read: studying for school and exercising), I had no idea how to make the activity more palatable to me. I was too naive. Now I think I understand better.
What you see above is my first embellishment of a Mandala drawing. Now don’t get excited, I did not draw it myself. I simply bought an adult coloring book from Amazon (Angie’s Extreme Stress Menders Volume 1 af.) and colored it at my leisure. Now I will tell you that I like coloring and art and I knew I would enjoy doing this. It took me a long time and I just listened to my favorite arias while coloring away at the dining table. I really like how it turned out. My reason for bringing it up is that the book forces you to step away from everything else and focus on just the coloring. It forces you to look at the intricate details and if you do not pay attention, you miss the lines and create a mess. So instead of thinking about everything else in your life, you spend a few minutes completely focused on what you are doing at that moment. I think it would be harder to do for someone who is not into coloring or art because it would seem tedious.
The Practice of Practicing is much like that. The following ideas are not completely mine but are brought over from the book The Practicing Mind. I love this book and have listened to it quite a few times and have made bookmarks all over to find the most interesting parts. The book and its premise boils down to the idea that we need to be present every moment of the day, in the moment that we are in. How do we focus when our mind wanders? We need to practice practicing. How do we do that? We train our minds to think of only what we are working with at that present moment and move all else out of our minds. When our minds start to wander, we need just remind ourselves that we are wandering and the mind is designed to refocus itself automatically. The book also states a couple of other interesting ideas. The first of which is that we need to remember that if we dream of the future or relish or despair the past, then we are not in the moment. Neither the future or the past are real and the only thing that is real is the moment we are in. As for our dreams and our aspirations, we need to set aside time to properly plan and think through those, without letting our minds wander to other things at that time. We are creatures of desire and ambition and it would suit us well to remember that beyond every promotion and every new trinket we buy for ourselves, there will always be another promotion or item waiting to be desired, There never will be an end to our desire for more and we can never be truly satisfied with our lot if all we do is run after the next big thing.
There are some wonderful examples in the book. I do them no justice here. I encourage you to read/listen to the book yourself as I am no author. I simply look to whet your appetite. Think about the time you spent commuting from work in your cars. Do you spend much of the time talking to others on the phone or listening to the radio? Even when you are listening to the radio, are you thinking about your day at work, dreaming about the weekend or planning your vacation? Try this the next time you are behind the wheel. Focus on your driving. Feel the steering wheel under your fingers and look at what the other cars are doing around you. Listen to the sound of your engine as it pitches and whines. Maybe play a game with yourself about driving. I like to see if I can make the whole commute without having to press on the brakes even once. I know that sounds absurd but it relaxes me and I have to pay very close attention to the traffic and to the car in front of me so that I can predict what it is going to do. It reminds me of the Mandala coloring book. Staying in the moment trains your mind. It also helps in making tedious or difficult tasks seem to go by quickly. Learning also takes place much quicker. To me this is very important. Practicing your golf swing or learning to play an instrument can be intimidating. Practicing a musical instrument, after the initial elation of learning something new, might become quickly tedious that you put it off until you stop learning completely. If we stay in the moment and focus on the now without worrying about the outcome of the task, the task itself gets easier to do and the outcome is reached without as much effort. When writing a program to accomplish a task, if the developer is too tied up in where the final version of their application will end up, or how far they have gotten, it will take longer to get the work done. As the Agile methodology explains, if the developer breaks the task down into smaller pieces, works on each piece with complete focus and feedback and only when complete, moves over to the next, work is completed at the most efficient speed. In my example above, if you focused on just the driving, you might find that the commute takes a lot less time in your mind and you will learn to look forward to the few minutes of special attention to pay to your driving.
The author suggests various methods to accomplish this goal of staying in the moment. If you have read about Demming’s cycle, the author suggests a simplified version in DO-OBSERVE-CORRECT. Rather than judging our outcome every step of the way, rather than looking at how much time is past or how well we did as compared to the expected final goal, we should take small steps towards the goal. We can then check back with the goal and correct our methods if we need to. An example that sticks with me is the task of throwing a basketball into a trash can from far away. If we throw the ball the first time and it is wildly off target, we might follow up each throw with growing despair at our inability to throw the ball into the basket and we may quickly tire of the goal. I am reminded of my son getting really frustrated when he is not able to make a basket in our backyard and walking away in a huff. We should instead see how far it landed from the can and without judging our ability to make it into the correctly at the first throw, make a small change to the direction/speed of the ball and throw it again. In this way we will soon get it into the basket. Rather than judging ourselves at every turn, we should keep making small corrections as we continue towards the goal and just keep a casual eye on the final goal to keep ourselves on track. DOC has become a mantra to me and I use it to re-focus myself once I stray. The author mentions various examples and methods of his own to make his point.
Karma Yoga is Yoga through Karma or Practice. The more we spend time focusing on what we are doing at that present moment, doing it well, noticing every nuance and maybe not appreciating it but noticing it nonetheless, we become better at it. Rather than worrying about whether we will succeed or fail, we should focus on how we are doing it. The last point that I want to make is the most important to me. The book states that we should not judge ourselves. Though quite a simple concept and well worn, this is far reaching. If we fail to keep our minds from wandering, without admonishing ourselves for failing or despairing at our failure, we should observe why we failed and then correct our action for the next moment. If we plan on exercising every morning, if and when we fail to exercise for a few days for whatever reason, we should not think about the fact that we did not exercise. Instead we should think to ourselves that what is done is over with and make plans for the next day to exercise. This can go on ad nauseum if needed. Failure to exercise will not be repeated too many times if no sense of despair creeps in. Focusing on a present detail, such as your heart rate, instead of constant comparison of a goal with the present, such as present weight compared to the weight goal, will only make us more prone to judging ourselves. Stop checking yourself against your goal and start paying attention to the activity, however painful or unwanted. Stop worrying about where you want to be and start working on where you are. Where you be will come soon enough, without you knowing that it came.
I enjoy writing on this blog. I have my headphones on, am listening to Turnadot and have spent the last hour completely focused on remembering the details of the book, how I practice and what I would like for others to read about and gleam from the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the last hour and it flew by. If you are looking for some respite from the rat race or are looking for more than just a paycheck everyday, I suggest you pick up this book. It might just help you enjoy your life quite a bit more and help you look forward to your every day. It might just make your life less boring and tedious and more of the journey that you enjoy.
Either Corporate America is not ready for modern management techniques, or it is me and everyone that I speak with or explain modern techniques to dislike me and consider my advice unwanted.
I am an avid reader and leaner and read/listen to a lot of books. This is advice that I was given a long time ago when I first started on my management career. I like to listen to books as often as I can, during my commute, during my walks and during lunch.Many of the books that I have read have significant impact on my ideas and my design for my workplace. I have learned to manage employees that are difficult to communicate with, I have learned how to encourage the most effective work from your team, I have learned how to deal with conflict, help team members work through their own conflicts, how to build effective teams of people who are self motivated, how to find the right candidate for your team, how to let the team make decisions on their own and mostly how to be a flexible leader.
I firmly believe that the best leader is a flexible leader. There are times when a leader needs to back away and let the team make their own decisions. At other times, the leader needs to help facilitate decision making. At yet other times, a leader needs to make a decision and pass it on to their team despite negative feedback from his or her employees. All of this is part of being a leader. It is not a simple task of supervising employees.
So as part of my daily interaction at my job and elsewhere, I have had discussions and provided feedback/advice or answered questions on certain aspects of leadership. Here are what I consider to be some of the most controversial answers from my audiences’ perspective. I still consider all of them to be sound because i have thought through the outcomes of each.
I like to be a benevolent dictator. I strongly feel that a team, no matter new or inherited, need a strong rudder and a strong set of goals that they have to reach towards. I have led multiple agile (and Agile) teams successfully and have always had great success with making sure that the team has some catalyst to form and rally around. Without strong goal setting and leadership direction, the teams seem to form around prevailing norms and attitudes which are difficult habits to break once the teams are mature. I like to make sure that my team has enough information from me to know what and how I would make the most critical decisions and then let them learn how to come to those conclusions themselves by allowing them the opportunities to fail and then learn where the differences lie and make the right choice going forward. This seems to concern the leaders who are Agile focused and want the teams to have a scrum master and no reporting structure. Agile thinks that team running is an organic activity and cannot be enforced through an HR reporting structure. Agile success is dependent on storming and forming with equal voice for all on the team. I often find it hard to explain why certain decisions are not team decisions and why others are and have difference of opinion with those managers who say that almost all decisions lie with the team.
One of my most controversial opinions, one that has gotten me into (and out of) a lot of situations is that I believe a manager should focus on the highest performers and let the weak performers alone. If the team is focused on their own initiative and the support and attention of the manager is sought by the team, the better performers will produce more work than you could ever get out of the weaker ones if you focused on them. It is also my belief that if you leave the weak performers alone, one of two good things will happen. The poor performers will realize that they are not getting your attention because they are not doing a good enough job and they will try harder to get back into your good graces. The other good thing that might happen is that the poor performer realizes that they are not fit for the position within this team and move on somewhere else. This answer confounds managers and executives and they seem to get immediately concerned that I am going to make things worse. They get worries that poor performers are not going to be dealt with and performance will fall across the team as people are not held accountable for their delivery.
The other controversial opinion that I have is that you can never say enough good things about people. I believe that praise and thanks do not come naturally to us and criticism does. So we should praise as much as possible and thank as often as possible for good work and accomplishments. I believe that we criticize without knowing what we are doing and cannot avoid that in our daily work lives. So they should balance themselves out with the praises being a higher count.
I have been snubbed so often on these and others that I am worried about me. I am convinced that my opinions are not wrong and are sound from a corporate perspective. So th eonly two conclusions that I can come up with are that either middle Corporate America is not ready for modern management or there is something wrong with me.