Author Archives: Iain

Empathy is Strength

Empathy is Strength

A recent article in the business press, a light after-lunch essay, poked justifiable fun at Facebook’s new discovery that its customers (no longer “users”) are people with feelings, and the establishment of a Facebook “empathy team” to, well, empathise.  This will make it harder to treat your customers as lab rats, Facebook.

Like the author, I don’t want empathy from Facebook — indeed I would like it to mind its own business a bit more.

But the article went on to dismiss empathy as weakness, and propound the old “only the ruthless prosper” lie.  Empathy is not weakness.  Empathy is knowledge, and letting knowledge in, and letting ourselves feel.

There are hard things to be done, in business as in other fields.  If we can’t find within ourselves the courage to do them, that’s weakness, not empathy.  Let’s talk about dismissing people from jobs, because that’s what the article talked about.  It’s a horrible thing to have to do.  If we so harden and blind ourselves that we don’t see the hardship and hurt, we merely diminish ourselves.  We merely cut off some of our humanity.  That will probably lead us to cause even more hurt than we must.  Perhaps we will outsource the sacking, or do it by SMS, or find silly and dishonest euphemisms.  And the sword of Damocles still hangs over our own head, anyhow.

If we do it with empathy, we find the honesty to say: I hate doing this, but it has to be done.  Empathy is not paralysis.  Empathy is honesty.

Sacking is an easy example to come up with.  Let’s think of putting a company into liquidation, which hurts not only employees, but customers, creditors and investors.  The business world, the market, can’t work without failure.  Business models and products must be tried, and some won’t succeed.  Our system has a fairly clean method of limiting the damage and moving on.

We gain nothing by suppressing empathy as we do this necessary job: by pretending not to notice that this is the end of hopes, dreams, employment prospects, perhaps someone’s nest egg.  Allowing ourselves to see these things might also allow us to be as fair as possible, and at least to be honest with the people we have to hurt.  We can grow in courage and insight instead of starving ourselves of these.

Empathy is strength, not weakness.

That’s what I think.  You?

The Singularity

What’s the Singularity?

Our most complex and broadly useful artifacts, computers, have been getting rapidly more and more powerful, and more ubiquitous.

There has been a lot of talk recently, and not for the first time, of the possibility that they will soon surpass us in brainpower.  When they do that, it is said, they will design and build even better computers and robots of their own, which in turn…  And so will begin an unstoppable explosion of trans-human, maybe post-human, “intelligence”, completely out of our hands.  That moment has been called the Singularity, a term borrowed from cosmology.

The natural, but perhaps not the most important, question is: What would that mean for us?

Some fantasise that we will be able to live like pampered pets, fed and watered and medicated without drudgery.  Others assert that the “artificial intelligence(s)” (AIs is the usual shorthand) will  have no reason to pamper us, and we would become slaves, raw materials, or simply irrelevant.

You know the tropes.  This stuff has been in films and Sci Fi novels forever.  For some, there’s a new urgency as computers out-perform humans on such sensitive home turf as TV quiz shows.  And it’s true, tasks that once made up a job or even a career are being automated.  Even so learned and eminent a person as Stephen Hawking has likened this coming event to a large asteroid strike, in its implications for us; he urges that we prepare.

Prepare for what, exactly, and how, exactly?

You’ve guessed from my tone that I’m sceptical about this Singularity.  Not because I don’t get it: I’ve studied computer science at graduate level, been a professional programmer, worked on AI projects, and studied the techniques and algorithms of AI in some depth.

I’m sceptical that “artificial intelligence” will become human-like mindpower any time soon, if ever.  That our invaluable computer assistants will shove us aside and take over.  That we will be saved from our human imperfection by some technology.  Most of all I’m sceptical about the implied claim that this is, or will be, out of our hands — that a computer apocalypse will decisively end the imperfect (“fallen”) human order, either by annihilation or by redemption.

There’s a magnet here for millennialist, apocalyptic thinking.  I’ve been told that computer technology will alter the curve of human history.  Well, so did writing, and before that agriculture, and before that toolmaking.  Or better, there is no “curve of human history” to be altered.  This is not a highway or a railway we’re on, it’s a series of unfolding events, some astounding and some mundane, and they are at once unpredictable and the effects of prior causes.

But why should AI not come to rival and then surpass human brainpower?  Because it’s not headed that way.  Of course computers are doing some things better than us — they always have, that’s why we built them.  “Computers” were originally people who had the job of working large paper “spread sheets” and mechanical adders to do complex calculations for banks, insurers, tax offices and so on.  There’s one job that’s gone for good.

But one thing we now know, as we program computers to out-perform us in tasks like chess and technical share trading, is that they don’t do it anything like our way.  Chess algorithms are nothing like the thinking of a chess grandmaster.  Computers “understand” speech or pictures by lightning-fast analysis of minutiae against massive databases.  Our brains can’t work that fast, but we get speech and pictures; and we do so with depths that computers show no sign of matching.

If anything, computer and human capabilities are diverging, not converging.  This isn’t a matter of computer processing power growing to equal and then surpass brain processing power.  That can, presumably will, happen, maybe soon; but that won’t make them similar to us.

It’s easy, by the way, to program them to seem deceptively similar to us in a defined field.  The “Turing test”, by which that great man proposed to assess artificial intelligence, was passed easily by a pretty simple program called Eliza in the 1970s.  Even people who knew the trick wanted to “confide” in Eliza.  That tells us a lot about human neediness, but not much about any Singularity.

Our computers simply don’t have the most important, the most human of our qualities, like subjective experience, agency, empathy, curiosity, creativity, intuition or insight.  They don’t wonder, speculate, envy, make mistakes, or love.  And they are not heading towards developing those qualities, even if we program them to display a glib facsimile.  We have much more to fear from “AIs” in malign human hands than from AIs acting autonomously.

Indeed, the Singularity hypothesis, both the doomsday and salvation versions, embodies a very narrow, very circumscribed view of what it is to be human.  As though we were just the sum of our neuronal processing power.  As though what a human person does is reducible to what a CPU does, plus some quirks that we can simplify out.

Here’s my suggestion: let’s get over the fantasising, and use these wonderful tools to help us address the real and pressing crises of the 21st Century.  Let’s grow up and take responsibility for our societies, our civilisations, our one and only planet.  Computers can help.  As our technologies advance, we could even take the opportunity to become more fully human.  We have that choice; the question is, will we rise to the challenge?

That’s what I think.  You?

The Shadow of Success

We believe in meritocracy now, don’t we?  We believe very much that people who apply their skills and strengths with persistent energy should, and do, succeed in the world.  We don’t believe that social class, gender or race should hold anyone back from fulfilling their own special destiny.  Do we?  Of course not.

As a corollary, we often allow ourselves to believe that the losers, the failures, have somehow brought it on themselves.  They skipped the class about getting out of their personal rut, or planning for life success, or self-discipline, or whatever it was.  Maybe they didn’t listen, or didn’t apply themselves, or “got in their own way”.

Well (and you saw this coming), there are some problems here.  We really ought to think it through a bit more clearly.  In logic, sure enough, if Effort implies Success, then non-Success implies non-Effort: you failed because you didn’t try hard enough.  (That’s modus tollens in formal logic).  But of course life is not logic.  No single factor implies (inevitably leads to) success, in the manner of this false argument .  You may read and apply all the self-help, positive thinking books, run all the right podcasts while exercising or commuting, and still miss your mark.  Stuff happens.

The Shadow of Oedipus

Think of Oedipus, in the powerful mythology of ancient Greece.  Young, strong, out to take on the world.  The old injury, revealed in his nickname (“Swollen-Foot”), doesn’t hold him back one bit, not him.  The right mindset can overcome that sort of thing.  Meets a rather obstructive older man up in the hills, where three roads come together.  Unfortunately the older man is killed in the altercation, but he really was being very negative.  Oedipus goes on into the troubled city, defeats the curse (the Sphinx) in a battle of wits, restores order and prosperity, marries the very attractive queen, settles down to enjoy being a good king and a good father.  Not bad for an orphan and a self-made man, hey?

Uh-oh.  You know, I know, and Teiresias the seer knows why the crops have failed and the earth turned sullen.  Oedipus’ success, so richly deserved, is an abomination.  The unpleasant older man was his father, the attractive queen is his mother, their children are his half-siblings.

This story resonates and recurs with us, as it did with the ancient Greeks, not just because it’s a tale of terror (it is), but because we all know at some level that stuff happens.  We could call it a vindictive god, or we could call it a curse, but something can take a successful man’s success and turn it into his destruction.  What is going on?  They didn’t teach us this in kindergarten, did they?

Carl Jung, the psychologist and pioneer explorer of the human mind, might have a clue for us here.  To all of our success and strength and prosperity, at the deep psychological level where these stories operate, there is a shadow side.  The more we try to suppress the shadow, the stronger it gets.  The Greeks were as hooked on success as we are, maybe even more.  This Oedipus story of theirs, so often re-told, is perhaps, if we listen, telling them and us that there is a shadow.   Deny the shadow, and it will sabotage your moment of triumph.

So what of the shadow side to our very modern meritocracy?  The thoughtful writer Alain de Botton thinks we need a bit more tragedy, not to make us miserable (that’s not tragedy), but to remind us that sometimes the losers don’t deserve to lose.  Sometimes there’s a shadow, a curse, that brings us undone.  We’re doing great, and then something in ourselves, or in our stars, cuts us down.

That reflection might in turn make us a bit more compassionate.  If the link from Effort to Success isn’t as strong as logic, maybe it’s harder to despise those who didn’t quite make it.  Maybe we would be wise to have a safety net after all.  And then, having seen that, maybe we might see life a bit more steadily and a bit more whole, like Sophocles.

That’s what I think.  You?

The Unexamined Life

I know (oh, I know) that the thinking I share in this blog is anathema to some.  “Too complicated”, “too academic”, “too intellectual”.  “Business is simple”, “analysis paralysis”, “let’s just do it”, “we haven’t got time for all this”.  Even: “we don’t want to be better people, we just want to make more money.”

I also know that I’m not alone in finding that reflection on how I (and we) live, how we spend this precious life, really matters.  Of course this reflection is not a substitute for action, or a way of delaying it.  It’s all about taking action — deliberately.  And of course this is not just an amusing pastime — it’s as real as it gets.

Socrates put it with Classical clarity: “The unexamined life is not fit for a human to live.”  He was on trial for his life.  I think we can understand him to be pointing out that we, alone, have this capacity to enquire into and understand the wellsprings of our actions, our beliefs, our dilemmas, our life choices.  To fail to use this capacity would be like a gifted athlete or musician failing to develop and use their talent.  It would be against our own best nature.  In that sense, the unexamined life is sub-human.  Not in a rude sense, but because if we ignore our human capacity for self-reflection, we fail to aspire to the best we can be.

But more than that: how we act, individually and collectively, adds up to who we are.  Our institutions, especially companies, have enormous capacity for good or harm.  The difference lies in how we behave in them, around them and towards them.  Stopping to think about our own lives matters to us individually, and to those nearest to us.  Stopping to think about our collective life matters to all of us, collectively.  It’s how we define our life as a community, a nation, a civilisation.  To do this heedlessly, by default settings, would be to fall short of our potential as a human community.

So I and others make no apology for taking time to examine our lives, in Socrates’ sense.  Not because we are navel-gazers, but because this really matters, out there, where the rubber hits the road. Thoughtful action just works better than thoughtless action.

That’s what I think.  You?


Micromanagement is an Ethical Issue

Micromanagement is not just a waste and an annoyance.  It is ethically wrong.

It is wrong because it causes harm across an asymmetric power relationship.  The managee receives the message: “I don’t trust you to take charge even of your own job.  You are only fit to be handed tasks one at a time.  I will decide what you do, when, and how.”  The manager is acting out of fear, ignorance, or the pleasure of manipulating somebody.  The last is deliberate wrongdoing.  The first two are inadvertent wrongdoing.

I know these are strong words.  I have come to them from so often seeing the harm done, and seeing the pervasive tolerance of so destructive a habit.

But back to basics for a moment.  Stephen Covey (the Seven Habits man) long ago distinguished between “gopher delegation” and “stewardship delegation”.  Gopher delegation is handing out tasks: “Go for this, go for that.”  It is infantilising and disempowering.  It is the way we would treat a machine, or a slave.  That’s why it’s ethically wrong to treat humans that way.  Stewardship delegation by contrast says, “This is the patch of stuff you are responsible for.  These are the outcomes we need in this area.  These are the resources you have.  You are in charge of achieving the outcomes, and I am here to help you and give you feedback.”  It is, in Covey’s terms, a totally different paradigm.

We are not talking training.  Training may well include step-by-step instruction.  We all know the difference between training and delegation.  Appropriate skill and knowledge are among the resources we must have in order to accept stewardship. Training always carries the implied promise: when you’ve got it, you can do it on your own.

I said there are three sources of the micromanagement habit.  Fear, because some people can’t let go enough to allow another person stewardship of anything, however small.  Such people will limit their teams to their own smallness.  Laziness, because you have to think to define an area of stewardship and the results needed from it, and you have to communicate carefully to delegate stewardship.  The fear and the laziness are bad habits that we can learn our way out of, if we choose.  But a few people (I’ve met some) like the sense of personal authority or indispensability that comes from micromanagement.  And that is a moral choice about conduct to other humans.  It is wrong.

Of course, there’s a bottom-line problem with the vice of micromanagement, in addition to the ethical issue.  Every time someone becomes habituated to receiving gopher-delegation tasks, they become less interested, literally less able to contribute and participate as a complete human being, with a head and a heart.  They have been treated as one-dimensional, and they will become so in that role.  They will leave it for the boss to notice and correct problems.  They have been relieved of responsibility, and their response is entirely natural.  Their boss is likely to complain that you can’t get staff any more with initiative, who act like they have a brain.  Guess what, boss.  You relieved them of their initiative, and you taught them to park their brain at the door.

On the other hand, stewardship delegation builds the team’s capacity to achieve and improve, because everyone is responsible for their own contribution to the group’s performance. It also builds the team’s resilience, because everyone has both the understanding and the motivation to adapt their task to new pressures or challenges.

That’s what I think.  You?

Do Organisations Mirror Their Leaders’ Pathologies?

That’s the view of a wise friend of mine, who had worked with enough of them to claim attention for his opinion.

Secretiveness, recklessness, risk-phobia — we’ve all seen an organisation mirror its leadership in such ways.  Again and again, companies become crazy under crazy CEOs, and people are caught up in the craziness almost helplessly.  Splits in the executive team can divide whole companies against themselves, even though everyone knows it’s stupid.

It isn’t automatic; there are staff who remain courteous and helpful despite the ingrained rudeness of their boss.  There are those who remain sweetly calm when their colleagues are hooked on the adrenalin hit of management by crisis.

On the positive side, some leaders are indeed able to communicate their dream, their spirit of service and their responsiveness to their people.

But I can’t help wondering what influenza of the head (or heart) afflicts apparently healthy boards when they appoint divisive, destructive, narcissistic CEOs.  If a man (usually a man) has a track record of playing with matches and then running away when the fire alarms start, why on earth would you appoint him leader of a company in a metaphorical fireworks factory?

The companies I’m thinking of tend to be large, visible, and politically exposed.  Their actions affect households and families in large numbers.  Their social licence to operate is their oxygen.  I hope, without malice, that after their walk on the wild side the directors came home a little sadder and wiser.

But does it happen at more subtle levels?  If pathological liars attract or choose other pathological liars to their team, does the rot spread?  Are there small but destructive ways in which, say, selective vision, hubris, or perfectionism infect an organisation from the carrier at the top?  Fish, they say, rot from the head.

It seems to happen, doesn’t it?  But how?  What’s the mechanism?  Mostly, the people who get their daily bread working in that organisation don’t say to themselves, “The new CEO is more of a gambler. I will be too.”  And although a good leader will deliberately try to communicate values that matter, a bad one won’t set out openly to corrupt the organisation.  With rare, and mostly criminal, exceptions.

I suspect we don’t yet know enough to understand these phenomena well.  Much has been written about communicating the vision and values of positive leadership.  Some of it is good, and some of it is informed by scholarship.  But very little seems to have been learned about how pathologies communicate themselves within an organisation.  It seems more complicated than just mirroring.

Perhaps the best we can say for now is that organisations react in complex ways to their leaders’ pathologies.

That’s what I think.  You?

Meaningful Work

Conditioning, learned reflex, runs very deep.  We show children that you have to “work” at school, which means doing boring stuff of invisible relevance rather than fun.  But of course those were the best years of our lives, and the adult world of “work”, we remember to show them, is even worse.  If we are to eat, let alone succeed, we have to sacrifice what’s playful, unorganised, creative, dreamy, enthralling, the things we can lose ourselves in.  We have to knuckle down to “work”.  We may compensate ourselves with brief immersions in sport, television, maybe gardening or books.  But “work” takes up most of the time, and it’s a drag.

Some people have the good fortune to be able to admit this.  They are free to say openly, like the bumper sticker, that “The worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.”  Or “Work is a four-letter word.”  They have jobs not careers.  If they ever dreamed of spending their working lives doing great stuff (say at age 9), they’ve long since grown out of such illusions.

For most of us, however, it’s a sin to admit this.  If you have ambitions, or even want to seem to have ambitions, it’s compulsory to say you love your work — no, better, be “passionate” about it.  Hence the heartbreaking charm of a job application I once saw, where the young person claimed to be “passionate about filing”.

Does it have to be this cruel?  It’s cruel precisely because work matters, isn’t it?  We deeply, achingly need to spend our time meaningfully, to do more than just pass the time.  Unemployment is in the end spiritually debilitating, even in countries that can and do look after the unfortunate.  One of the worst torments of prison camps is to be forced to work, day after day, on something you know will be destroyed, such as digging a hole one day and filling it in the next.   Dostoevsky put it forcefully: “If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.”

We can deny that work matters to us.  We can, come to that, deny pretty much anything.  It’s one of those great human capacities.  I’ve been told, vehemently to the point of rudeness, that I was just wrong to think meaningful work is important.  I guess we can redefine “work” so that it’s whatever gets in the way of enjoying life, but that doesn’t make the deep need go away.  Uninterrupted leisure is in the end unsatisfying, and most of us feel this even if we haven’t been able to test it by personal experiment.  Deep down, we know this need well enough, and that’s what makes working life so crap for so many people: it represents a denial or perversion of a deep human need.

A few people get to do work they actually love, that feeds them as well as putting bread and cheese on the table.  It has its bad days and sad days, it can be tough, but it’s worth it.  A few people get to be honest about their work being crap, and invest themselves in other life projects.  A huge number go on pretending, and maybe they really believe that the world has to be like this.

But that can’t be right, can it?  If work matters so much on so many levels, how come it’s mostly wrong?  Something’s rotten here.

That’s what I think.  You?

Wrong Metaphor?

“Fix”, “adjust”, “restructure”, “function”, “process”, “re-engineer”, “well-oiled” …

Companies are not machines. But we managers keep treating them as though they were.  It’s not often stated, or even consciously thought, but both our reflex actions and our cognitive processes respond to issues in companies very much as though they were issues in a mechanism.  Something’s broken, let’s find the problem and fix it.

The odd thing is, it goes on not working.  We “fix” here, tweak or adjust there, and something else pops up to bite us in the backside.  Maybe the metaphor is misleading us?  Of course, we’ll say on reflection, we don’t really think a company is like a machine.  But our language still says so.  Very rarely indeed do we speak of companies in terms more appropriate to an organism, an ecosystem or a central nervous system.  But they are, are they not, living systems?

The Appreciative Inquiry people have some relevant insights.  One is that human knowledge and the unfolding of our companies are deeply connected.  Knowing, and applying knowledge, are pivotal to any attempt at change.  So how we know is vital: if we know and understand our companies as living human constructs, won’t we manage them better?

They also point out that the question and the change are not really separate: “Inquiry is intervention,” they say.  In the moment of framing our question about what we will change and how, what the future will be like, we determine what we will discover and what we will do about it.  This is profound.  The question fetches the answer, and I think that holds in perhaps all our dealings with the world — not excepting science.

I’d like to come back to the Appreciative Inquiry people another time, and there’s thinking to do here about how we experience and interact with these ubiquitous organisations of ours.

For now though, I think the usual metaphor is leading us astray, and I think it’s time we examined it critically.  I think companies are more like organisms or ecosystems than mechanisms.

That’s what I think.  You?

Company Directors’ Conference 2012

Not so many years ago,the business world mostly held that the sole purpose of a company was to generate profits — within the law, of course, often quickly added.  If shareholders wanted to do good with the dividends their company paid them, that was their business.  I was once vigorously “corrected” by the CEO of an iconic Australian company for asking about the social impact of business; such questions were a waste of time, he said.

In Darwin, in May 2012, the Australian Institute of Company Directors national conference showed the tide running quite the other way.  In forum after forum, the feeling was that:

  • (a) leadership of our society was too big a matter to leave to government, and
  • (b) business has a responsibility, and would step up to it.

Many speakers noted an expectation, and most accepted it as legitimate, that business would be an agent for good in the world, beyond its basic job of creating wealth.  Companies are too important to too many people, and too powerful in their flow-on effects, to be so narrow in their aspirations.

People from Australian and multi-national companies talked about their programs for social inclusion, indigenous engagement, philanthropy, and the broader impact of their work. We discussed gender equity, “no bribes” rules and other ethical questions.  A consensus emerged, quickly and plainly, that these subjects were not only proper, but necessary to company directors.  Companies must earn a licence to operate from the societies that host them, and a risk to that licence is a risk to sustainable business success.

Over lunch one day, I talked about this change of mood with a member of the organising committee.  He told me the conference agenda was designed to explore exactly this, with other aims as well of course.  Interesting, isn’t it, that the committee had picked this change as an important one to explore?

Why does it matter to directors?  Shareholder activism, Facebook campaigns, politics, sure.  But what I heard and saw was people (actual human people) really wanting their companies to step up to this broader agenda.  Because we are social beings, because maximising return on shareholder funds doesn’t really get anyone going in the morning, because we actually need a meaning or purpose.

That’s what I think.  You?