Have you ever worked with or, worse still, worked for someone who could not or would not ever admit they made a mistake? They might downplay or cover up their mistakes. Or maybe they’re the type who deflects blame by falsely pointing fingers at others. Those folks are all nightmares in their own ways, but there is an even worse kind: people who are philosophically or fundamentally incapable of admitting a mistake as though they never make them. Too many bosses fall into this category, perhaps fearing to show any vulnerability. Let’s rush in and explore that logic.
The poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) wrote that “To err is human.” Given the fact that humanity could be described as a species marred by imperfections while imperfectly pretending otherwise, it is axiomatic that humans make mistakes. Besides, who has the temerity to pick a fight with Alexander Pope?
It is also true, albeit difficult to acknowledge, that despite the general societal consensus to the contrary, bosses are people too. Sure, it can be hard to discern, but beneath that super-stern exterior, beyond that supercilious air, and in spite of all that supernaturally radiant malevolence persists a flesh-and-blood creature not all that different from the rest of the human species. And, as a former longtime boss, I can report that they put their socks on their hooves the same way people put them on their feet, so there’s that.
Now, if erring is human, and bosses are somewhat human, we can conclude that bosses err. If you are a boss and are shocked to learn this truth or insist it is incorrect, feel free to contact me for a consult.
Consider this fact: Not admitting an obvious truth is a fundamental error. It is just plain wrong to deny the undeniable. If you are standing on a railroad track and can see a freight train rushing toward you, closing your eyes tight and plugging your ears will not protect you from the coming impact. If you doubt me, try it out. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Well, since that bozo isn’t coming back, let’s just plunge ahead.
We already have established that we all make mistakes—an irrefutable fact—so one who pretends to never make mistakes is committing a fundamental error, that is, making a really big mistake. Simply put, to paraphrase Mr. Pope, we all muff it. Not admitting that reality both is itself an error and compounds the error.
Since we have also established that bosses are at least reasonable simulacra of humans, bosses who don’t admit they err must be committing a fundamental error.
If someone regularly commits obvious and avoidable mistakes in the workplace, we regard them as inept, bumbling, incapable, incompetent. So, the chronic commission of fundamental errors, the same massive errors over and over, is a marker of galactic incompetence.
We already know from Syllogism Two that bosses who don’t admit they err thereby commit a fundamental error.
Therefore, ergo, thus, hence such bosses are ipso facto, de facto, and in fact incompetent, indeed.
No one is perfect. We all mess up all the time, and failure—large and small—is just a part of our everyday experience. Some of us have a hard time admitting that fact. I know I do. When I was a boss, I came to the eventual conclusion that the more I tried to disown my failures, the worse they became and the less I learned from them. As part of my efforts to maximize transparency in the workplace, I began owning my mistakes freely in front of others. Sometimes doing so came across as true confession time, which was itself a mistake, so I had to constantly adjust to better calibrate my avowals. They needed to be relevant and illuminating—less “I locked my keys in my office again” or "I wore different colored shoes again" and more “I am struggling to get my point across to everyone and can use some help.” In doing so, I sought to learn from my own errors, inviting my employees and peers along for the journey. I wanted my mistakes to be collaborative training experiences. It’s a tough way to operate, and I never perfected it. (See what I did there?)
Yes, we all mess up, and we need to admit and embrace that irksome yet unavoidable fact. It’s okay. Bosses, like normal human beings, screw up, and they only amplify their errors when they don’t admit as much and don’t appreciate that it’s entirely natural that their employees also screw up. Bosses need to own their mistakes openly while simultaneously creating a space for their employees to safely acknowledge their own faults. The trust engendered by doing so will result in a spirit of support and betterment as boss and employee alike seek to learn from each other’s failures as they hasten to the next one.
By way of concluding, here is the complete line from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism:
(Gotta love Pope’s caesurae!)
Whether you are a boss or not, you will screw up. Accept that fact and forgive yourself so that you can learn from it. Others will screw up. Accept that fact and forgive them so that you can help them learn from it. You can even learn from others’ errors. We are all wrong a whole lot, and that is fine. It’s what we do with that reality that matters. To ignore, deny, or distort error is to magnify it. Instead, try this: err, admit, fix, repeat.
As Bob Dylan has sung,
Now another couplet from Pope’s Essay on Criticism will nicely round out this little essay:
Oh, those caesurae!
PS: I am sensitive to the fact that women are often under undo scrutiny, particularly as bosses, so that acknowledging mistakes or apologizing can be fraught. The error denial I am referring to here, though, is not a survival strategy for a sexist world but is more in reference to the near-pathological inability to admit the truth by both men and women, which is often accompanied by blaming and bullying.
I taught college composition for decades and long preached that clarity trumps everything—grammar, mechanics, style, everything. If you strive first to be understood, you need to spit out your gum and embrace clarity. Once you do that, all the other elements of communication tend to fall in line in support of the goal of making yourself understood.
This concept is particularly important to grasp when attempting to communicate in the workplace, which can be a dicey affair on the best day. Therefore, it behooves the good boss to spit out the gum and to communicate as clearly as possible. And what could be clearer than transparency?
Unless your work environment demands security clearances or requires knowledge of super-secret recipes, transparency in leadership is a vital tool for building a healthy workplace. But you may be thinking, transparency sure can be mighty hard. After all, if you aren’t transparent enough, all folks see are the flecks of dirt, the smudges, and the thin film of filth that coats the surface. If you are too transparent, why then you are liable to have a bird fly right into you. What is a boss to do?
The simple fact of the matter is that every leadership action has consequences, and those consequences are felt by employees and clients even when the original action had been concealed. In other words, sooner or later, in one way or another, transparent or not, the truth will usually out. Better to be in front of it rather than constantly trailing behind.
ON BEING TRANSPARENT, NOT INVISIBLE
As counterintuitive as it may seem, transparency is the art of visibility. Transparency has to do with candor and openness, and a transparent leader will habitually seek to keep employees up-to-date and aware of circumstances and how they inform decision making. Truly transparent leaders do not distinguish between good and bad news, major or minor facts, or anything in between when sharing information. As with writing or any form of communication, the goal is to be apparent, easy to read, visible.
A transparent boss leads with forthright candor on the assumption that most professionals would prefer the freedom of knowing even bad news over blissful ignorance. Furthermore, an informed employee is an empowered employee, and the price of that empowerment is accountability, which is an easy bargain. In my experience with overseeing transparent and accountable workplaces, true professionals really do want to deliver more while being held to higher standards.
Transparent leaders stand out for their straight-forward honesty, not wanting to conceal either news or themselves from colleagues and employees. Practicing such transparency reduces the element of surprise and its disruptive potential. It also signals to employees that they are valued and trusted enough to share in news. Finally, it helps to motivate employees because an informed employee will have a better sense of workplace goals and will be able to enjoy more autonomy.
The transparent leader will face some challenges, the first being the most obvious. True transparency will make you more susceptible to criticism and attacks—it’s the cost of honesty. Some boors imagine that vulnerability in a leader is a sign of weakness, that to be vulnerable is to be meek and ineffectual, but the opposite is true. To purposely render oneself vulnerable requires courage, mettle, and resilience and and will increase inner strength. By contrast, in my experience leaders who practice opacity often act as though they have a license to bully even as they cower behind bureaucratic hierarchies and sycophantic underlings. Certainly, willful opacity is the last refuge of cowards.
Another, far thornier challenge is that the transparent leader can never be transparent enough. In other words, no matter how open and candid you attempt to be, no matter how forthrightly you hold yourself, there will always be something you hold back. Perhaps you withhold something that is not fit for general consumption, such as a sensitive personnel action. More often though, it is just something you overlooked or just plain forgot because you thought it trivial or figured it was already known. Worse still, the more transparent you attempt to be, the likelier someone will call you out for a matter you did not reveal. That said, I find that within a culture of forthright candor, explaining that certain information is sensitive or simply acknowledging an honest oversight will mollify most detractors, at least the reasonable ones, and the unreasonable ones will likely remain miserable no matter what you do.
On the other hand, if you claim to be transparent but purposely withhold non-sensitive information or cover up oversights, your employees will simply mistrust you. You would be better off choosing opacity over outright deception although the distinction tends to blur over time.
Leaders who default to forthright candor and openness will likely find their workplaces less aggrieved and more productive, particularly if they also seek to develop a culture of “yes.” In addition, they will earn political capital and increase their mettle and will find themselves better able to face challenges alongside their employees rather than in opposition to them.
So, spit out your gum and communicate clearly and openly by embracing a philosophy of forthright candor and maximum transparency as you develop a culture of “yes.” Empowering your people this way will free you from the burden of constant guardedness and will transform your workplace for the better.
You have no doubt heard the hoary story of the blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Due to their limited powers of perception, the men, touching different parts of the elephant, each reach radically different conclusions about the nature of this creature. (I cite this tale with apologies to the visually impaired, who are generally no less nor more insightful than the visually encumbered.)
The point though is that we primarily take in only what we discern and have a limited capacity to project beyond that. Plato makes a similar case in his Allegory of the Cave in which humans can see only shadows of reality but not reality itself. We primarily know only what we take in, and it can be hard to project into the unknown with any accuracy. We too often want to believe that what we see is all there is to get.
This is the stuff of science and philosophy and art. Think of all the novels and movies that focus on the limits of perception. If you have seen any of The Matrix franchise, you know what I mean. In the original movie and its sequels and spinoffs, humanity is trapped in a computer simulation that synthesizes daily existence. Only those few who have been freed can perceive this mass enslavement and experience the grit and grime of really real reality.
In the Matrix universe, if you are offered a choice of two pills, select the red one, and you will be freed.
In fact, adherents to Qanon and other such conspiracy theories refer to understanding their version of the truth as “red-pilling.” The implication, of course, is that most of us are not aware of the conspiratorial truth behind what we perceive and that the truly true truth is accessible only through viewing certain YouTube videos, participating in rightwing chat rooms, and listening to the My Pillow guy. You just have to be open to it.
(I am always struck, by the way, at the number of conspiracy theories that closely track the plots, themes, and imagery of movies. Many of these conspiracy theories surmise and depend on the existence of technologies that only exist in science fiction, such as mind-controlling microchips.)
The fact remains, though, that the truth is not fully accessible no matter how many dietary supplements you purchase from InfoWars. Sure, art and philosophy and religion and science lay claim to some knowledge of truth or of the Truth, but none of these noble pursuits has an absolute handle on what is real. And only one of them ever claims otherwise. Even in The Matrix, taking the red pill may expose the unreality of one type of perception, but it also launches you into a whole other reality with its own limits of perception (see Plato).
My point is that it is hard to grasp the truth. Part of the problem is the limitation of our brains. Truth is big, bigger than our capacity to grasp. But more significantly, we are hampered by the limits of our perception.
Think of walking down a sidewalk. Absent a camera or well-placed mirror, we cannot see around the corner of that brick building up ahead. For all we know, that turn in the sidewalk does not resolve into existence until the moment we reach it. Perhaps, solipsists may speculate, reality does not occur until the instant you perceive it. You see a tabletop, but its underside is nonexistent unless you run your hand there. I think I saw something like this on the Twilight Zone.
Silly stuff, but it is how we purport to know. If there is a tabletop, I surmise from experience that there must be an underside. I may have an image of it in my mind or a memory if I have seen it, but the current state of its current existence is perfectly irrelevant to my experience of eating my meal properly from the top side.
Our brains may not be large enough to grasp the totality of reality, but they are large enough to fill in the gaps. For instance, scientists tell us that sight is not one solid and continuous view of an image but serial images that our brain stitches together into a stable whole, and of course our eyes see everything upside down. It is our brain that compensates by flipping the image.
This one benefit is enough for me to declare that I am very pro-brain.
But what if our brain goes too far? What if, in compensating for the limits of perception, we fill in the gaps by imagining fictions? Frankly, we do this all the time. We worry about a future we cannot foresee, the future being the most unknowable unknown. We see phantoms when none exists. In dealing with others, we ascribe intention when we have no way to be sure. Speculation is useful. It can prepare us and protect us, but it can also deceive and mislead us.
This is where all those conspiracy theories come from. They overcompensate for our lack of knowing. There is something comforting in thinking that there is an order to what seems chaotic and out of control even when that order is imposed by a malevolent force. Such order gives us something to act for or against. Chaos is harder.
One of my favorite Bob Dylan quotes is not from a song but is from a long poem he wrote as album liner notes:
i accept chaos, I am not sure whether it accepts me.
By this he means, I think, that he acknowledges the general chaotic nature of the universe and our inability to perceive it, but he, as an artist, still will try to make sense of it. That is what artists do. That is what thinkers do. That is what everyone does to varying degrees and with whatever success. And that is what I am doing here.
We cannot fully understand the truth. We cannot fully grasp the chaos of the universe. We try, every moment just about, to understand, grasp, and even control it, though. Sometimes we are just plain wrong. Too often we overcompensate, missing the mark altogether because we want to believe something to be true even in the face of its inherent untruth.
All we are left with is the process. Not truth or the Truth, but the process of attempting to know and to understand. It is those very times when we are most sure we are right that it is an excellent idea to assume we are wrong. To check and double check so that we do not get sucked into some well-ordered cycle of self-replicating and self-promoting rerendering or rationalizing of the chaos.
That, there, is where madness lies, not in being caught up in chaos but in not accepting the chaos before trying to find sense in it.
After I had already drafted this essay, the excellent Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam covered some overlapping ground in an episode entitled “Useful Delusions.”
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It is not enough to do good. Let me repeat that. Doing good is not enough. Many people do some good in this world, by which I mean achieve some positive outcome, but too often we achieve that outcome by doing bad, which is not good enough.
Yes, this is a piece about how the ends almost never justify the means spiced up with a dash of the Golden Rule.
To start, I will readily concede that sometimes the ends may indeed justify the means. But rarely. If we agree that killing people is bad, we may still conclude that killing a bad person before they can harm an innocent is okay. Great. That is a pretty exotic scenario, though. More commonly, you may have experiences where you determine that being mean or loud or harsh or blunt or rude or even flagrantly dishonest will achieve your positive end, but doing so begs key questions: Is the choice to behave badly worth it? Is it the only or even the best option for achieving that good end?
And don’t rationalize. It is all too easy for us humans to rationalize doing bad when the outcome is positive even though we have made no exertion of integrity.
After all, while much good in this world has come from those who seek laudable goals such as freedom, truth, virtue, progress, and even love, how many atrocities have been committed in the pursuit of freedom, truth, virtue, progress, and even love?
A Handy Three-Part Test
To help us along, here is a three-part test for determining just when the ends justify the means. All three standards must be met in order to pass the test.
First, is the outcome truly good?
Second, does the good of the outcome completely offset the bad of the means, including foreseeable repercussions?
Third, if the outcome both is truly good and absolutely offsets any bad associated with the means, can you be sure that there was no other reasonable way of achieving your purpose?
Failing to meet any one of these three admittedly lofty bars is enough to sink the integrity of the whole project and you must conclude that the ends do not justify the means.
These sorts of dilemmas come up all the time for mission-driven organizations. Assuming that your mission is truly good (the first test), what negative or harmful means are allowable for you to achieve that good? Hopefully none, but for some reason that conclusion seems perpetually out of reach for so many decision-makers and organizations.
As I have mentioned numerous times, I spent decades in higher education as a faculty member and as an academic administrator. Every institution of higher education, no matter its type or size, is exceedingly complex and has a tremendous impact on its students, its staff, their families, and the community. Therefore, the brand of moral dilemma I sketched comes up all the time. In my experience, though, rarely is that three-part test applied in any rigorous or honest way. I certainly failed to apply it many times myself in decisions both large and small. To make matters worse, the complexity of many scenarios sometimes can obscure the ramifications.
From that experience I learned that it is all too easy to convince oneself that because the overall mission of the institution is good, the actions of the institution in pursuit of that mission must also be good. Sadly, that is infrequently the case. I have seen administrators and faculty rationalize away all sorts of egregious behavior by assuming that since the first test is met (that the outcome is truly good), the other two tests may be waived.
Some Handy Rules of Thumb
Here is a rule of thumb for visionary, beneficent, and mission-driven organizations to apply to help avoid such pitfalls:
Not following this rule is tantamount to instant and de facto failure.
If your mission is to educate students to be successful in life while upholding ethical and professional standards (a common intention in university mission statements), then do so throughout the institution. Treat students, faculty, and staff they way you expect your graduates to treat others. This is golden-rule-level stuff here as well as plain good educational modeling.
The same is true for any mission-driven organization. Consider your mission. Ask yourself, what does it mean? What does it really mean? What are its implications? What assumptions does it make about ethics and behavior? Does your organization live up to those standards every day and in everything? Do you?
Of course not. We all screw up. But do you habitually correct course when you are astray and then learn from your errors, or do you just thinkingly or unthinkingly rationalize flaws away, thus compounding or repeating them?
If your organization strives to achieve some standard of human decency for your clients or society, a broad goal of many nonprofits whatever the specifics, do you apply that same standard to how you treat your workforce? Do you tolerate and rationalize low pay or a stringent work culture because you think the good you do for clients offsets it (test 2)? Is there another way (test 3)? And, please, never assume the answer is no because of past practice, culture, or (shudder) tradition.
I offer another rule of thumb:
None of what I have written here is simply to apply.
The ends do not justify the means except when they do, which is not very often yet does happen although so infrequently that you probably should doubt yourself when it does but not every time, so it is best to just not look for it.
As a public service, I offer here an algorithmic take on my three-part test:
1. Is the end truly good?
2. Does the good of the end offset or overmatch the harm of the means?
3. Is there any other way to minimize harm while still achieving the end?
Applying this test to every decision that involves a moral or ethical dimension (and don’t they all?) sounds like a lot, but it quickly can become a habit. Two more rules of thumb may help:
It is great to do good. Please, keep doing good, but be very sure you are doing good the right way. Otherwise, what is the point?
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In my last post, I described an alternative conception of US higher education that supplants the current thinking of the student-as-customer and the problems it engenders. I proposed that we should abandon that model for one that promotes the individual student as a consumer with society as a whole being the customer. This new paradigm merges the best of the traditional view of higher education as a meritocracy to improve society and the trending view of higher education as merely a private benefit for student careers. It also identifies the college mission as the product each institution must deliver to society.
I further suggested that this new paradigm can offer insights into most mission-driven organizational systems.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your MISSION Is Your PRODUCT
This one should be pretty apparent. Your mission is a purpose as viewed through the lens of your organization’s values. It is what you are trying to produce or to deliver on. It keeps you centered and on track and, deployed wisely, it can be a strong incentive for both staff and leadership.
If you were a carmaker, your product would presumably be cars. But in that for-profit world, where the main value is to make money by making cars, if the same company could make money by doing something else, such as floating car loans or manufacturing buggy whips, then those would be viable options for production and profit too.
If “product” is too concrete, think of your mission then as a process or service. Whatever the analogy, your mission is both the purpose and the overarching desired outcome of your organization.
In the mission-driven and nonprofit world, the focus should largely be on the mission. If your mission is to support developmentally disabled kids, then that is what you do. You cannot get sidetracked by a sudden impulse to start a food bank no matter how altruistic and beneficial doing so may be—at least not without considerably altering the scope of your mission and your organizational structure.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your CLIENTS Are Your CONSUMERS
Just as students are a college’s principal consumers, your clients, the people and organizations you directly provide services to and/or support, are your consumers, not your customers.
So what is the difference? In the for-profit world, a customer is an individual who buys or receives a product or service; in the case of nonprofits, this would be whatever good or service fulfills the mission. With for-profits, the consumer is an individual who directly uses the product and is often one-and-the-same with the customer who makes the purchase. It is similar for nonprofits although the consumer and customer are more often separate. In many cases, the mission itself is to supply some good and/or service to clients who are not paying for that service, at least not at market value. Consequently, they consume (literally or figuratively) the goods and/or service you provide.
For instance, if the mission of your organization is to develop and provide studio space to up-and-coming artists, those artists become the consumers of whatever space and assistance you offer. This holds true even if you charge a reduced or at-cost rent. If they were clients in a purely transactional relationship in which you offer the space at an undiscounted or unsubsidized market rate, you would just be a commercial realtor. Another example: If your mission is to support a particular political cause by producing studies in line with your position, those who read and apply those studies are your consumers.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, SOCIETY Is Your CUSTOMER
At its simplest, the customer is that individual who pays you to deliver your product. For nonprofits and mission-driven organizations, this would be society itself, which, one way or another, is paying you to fulfill your mission. The payment could be through direct donations, foundation grants, government entities, or some other source. The relationship here is evidently transactional, but, just as with higher education, the idea is that your mission (product) is transformational.
Mission-driven organizations presumably serve a higher cause by adding value to society. In some cases the service to clients will directly benefit society, such as supporting economic development or promoting beautification or conserving land. In such cases, the consumer and the customer overlap or blend. Consider, if your nonprofit mission is to promote a political point of view, the very act of doing so would, in accord with your convictions, advance society. Your political opponents, though, may differ on that assumption.
More frequently, the service to society is indirect or cumulative, such as educating or feeding those in need or expanding the reach of the arts or providing religious instruction. If you are a church, your direct reach only extends as far as your congregation or the recipients of your charity, but presumably you intend the value to your individual constituents will extend through them to improve society in part or whole.
Of course, the societal improvements envisioned would be peculiar to each organization and its mission, and such improvement is in the eye of the beholder.
Transformation over Transaction?
As in my example from higher ed in Part 1, these distinctions matter. When in the past the focus of US higher ed was heavily on the mission as a transcendental aspiration and on the claim that higher ed was primarily a meritocracy that inherently benefitted society, students tended to get lost in the sauce. When the paradigm shifted to the student-as-customer model, the focus on societal benefit faded, and the student-university relationship became much too transactional. A balanced approach, with the college mission as product, society as customer, and the student as consumer, eliminates false dichotomies and recalibrates the relationship of higher ed to its product, customer, and consumer.
This healthy model can inform all mission-driven organizations albeit with two obvious caveats:
Nonetheless, considering your mission-driven organization in these terms can help you grasp its overall purpose while reconceptualizing and balancing the relations among its functions. Shifting emphasis to one area does not necessarily mean shifting focus away from another so long as their interdependence is understood. Assuring that the mission (product) is paramount does not warrant neglecting clients (consumers) or the overriding contribution of your organization to society (customer). Nor does it mean that focusing on the mission overrides organizational concerns, such as treating staff with the same dignity you seek for your clients. Doing good starts at home.
The relationship I describe deemphasizes the transactional and, when properly appreciated and calibrated, can guide your organization to be appropriately and powerfully transformational.
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A TRUE Tale with three morals
Years ago, when I was a university dean, I was given the additional job of overseeing our study abroad program. How I ended up saddled with this extra duty is fodder for another day, but my only compensation, aside from the warm-and-fuzzies gained from knowing that my efforts enhanced student learning, was the fact that I got to travel to a few cool places.
One May, we sent 36 students and faculty to South Africa for five weeks. We were very familiar with this trip and its ins outs, and I had twice traveled there myself, once with students. This time I delayed my departure to handle some business stateside, but I planned to join them mid-trip. The second day of the excursion, a phone call awakened me with the horrific news that our travelers had been highjacked at gunpoint on a bus and robbed. They were now all safe and sound, but they had been in real danger.
To compound the situation, one of the students texted home to tell mom, and mom then contacted the media for whatever reason. Since one of the faculty chaperones on the trip was the recently retired police commissioner of Baltimore, media interest was piqued, and so we were off to the races.
I won’t distract you with the details, but I convened with a group of university vice presidents to decide what was next, and we agreed it was best to bring everyone home.
None of these vice presidents had any experience with study abroad, and some of them had never been abroad themselves. In fact, I am pretty sure, one had never even been on plane. Their inexperience confounded their ability to assess and anticipate distance, geography, logistics, and the basic protocols of international travel. Study abroad professionals typically visit student destinations in advance to preempt just this sort of disorder. Since as a mere dean I was the lowest-ranked person in the room, my perspective was dismissed out of hand despite my personal knowledge of the travel conditions, the topography, the people, and the local challenges. Thus, arrogance and power, as always, proved a noxious combination and hampered our ability to reach conclusions and communicate clearly. As a result, we missed several opportunities to resolve the matter expeditiously, alleviate parent fears, and manage the media.
Since the press had taken an interest in the story, the VP for communications, the only VP who was not using this crisis as an opportunity to posture and preen, arranged a press conference with the four local television stations for the next day and tapped me as the university’s spokesperson, a job I neither sought nor had any training for. Even as we worked to extract our travelers, television reporters and news crews arrived on campus and lined up their equipment in a designated area.
While all this was going on, we were having trouble making arrangements for our travelers to get from Pretoria to the Johannesburg airport in part because of the VPs’ antics. Their stupidity peaked with someone’s suggestion that the Pretoria police should use their vans to transport our travelers and all their luggage to Johannesburg. “I looked it up. It’s only 30 miles,” this VP boasted, the one who had never flown. I had to counter that in my experience, the police in any country are generally not willing to commit their vehicles and officers to transport tourists unless it’s to the pokey. He, in his infinite arrogance, was not convinced.
No matter how much I explained that the trip leader was at the police station armed with only a flip phone and had no access to email, they would not relent in their anger at him. They were looking for someone to hang, and he would do nicely. (I don’t hesitate to point out that he is Black and they are all White.)
They also were furious that he had not already secured a bus to get everyone to the airport at a moment’s notice. I pointed out that even in the U.S. he would have been hard-pressed to have arranged a bus so quickly and to have it wait on-call. I also explained that, although the Tambo airport was only thirty miles away, it is a large and difficult airport to navigate, that it often had long lines, and that clearance to fly to the States included individual pat-downs of every passenger by security. All this delay would have to be factored into the timing of any departing flight.
The VPs were having none of it. One of them speculated that given the special circumstances, the airline would certainly suspend security checks! I just cannot make this stuff up. The three kept hammering away as I tried to reason with them and protect the trip leader. Our words grew heated. At one point, one of the VPs, the one who was afraid of flying, yelled, “You sound defensive!” To this day, I do not know how I refrained from yelling back, “And you are being highly offensive, you ignorant racist jackass!” Anyway, that’s what went screaming through my mind.
All the while, through the window I could see the camera crews outside adjusting their equipment. They were almost ready for me. The VP for communications came to the office door several times to get me ready, but the other VPs shooed her away. Eventually I realized that the only way for me to get out of this was to let the bully VPs take it out on the Black employee in South Africa. As we called his cell by speakerphone, I anticipated that they would rip right into him when he answered. Instead, they all looked at me. Cowards. They expected me to do their filthy work.
I greeted him and then sternly but without raising my voice, chided him for neither magically arranging for a bus to appear nor somehow commandeering all the police vans and drivers in the city of Pretoria. He and I were friends, and he knew me well enough to read my tone and put on a show of indignity to make it sound good. The VPs were satisfied, or at least that is how I read their smug expressions. That deplorable task out of the way, I was free to go talk to the media now without any preparation.
Later on, when I was done with the press, I called the trip leader to apologize for my earlier sternness. He knew the players and had grasped the situation but appreciated my call nonetheless.
I tell this story as an example of the peculiar propensity to point fingers overwhelming the need to solve problems. We had to resolve a crisis, a real crisis. “Crisis,” by the way, is a word I never use lightly because it is deployed far too readily to describe even routine challenges. With the additional strain of the press breathing down our necks, having three VPs chew me out and then compel me to chew out my colleague (from 8,000 miles away) was not a good use of our time or energy. Even if he had screwed up (and he most certainly did not) or I had screwed up (nor did I), there was no reason to indulge in this little power play cum game of gotcha. I suspect much of this nonsense was because I was chosen to be the spokesperson and not them—pathetic jealousy. Also, they were all veteran bullies and could not pass up an opportunity. The remainder of their motivation, though, seemed nakedly racial to me.
Whatever their excuses, it was unreasonable to point fingers when a problem was at hand. On rare occasions, assessing blame may be necessary to solve the problem, but, almost always, doing so is a massive distraction. Furthermore, I have often found that, after the dust has settled, the need to assign blame becomes blunted anyway.
In this case, the immediate stakes were particularly high. Not only did we have to get our travelers home, but if these arrogant VPs had been successful in rattling me, I may have flubbed the press conference and created a new mess. Perhaps that was their goal all along, to set me up for failure. If so, they blew it.
Fortunately, the press conference went fine—almost. For the broadcast, one TV station juxtaposed my statements with contrary claims from a lying secret source whose voice was electronically distorted (cannot make it up!), but I was later able to correct the record during a post-return press conference. The journalistic malpractice on display was astonishing. We eventually got everyone home safely albeit several days later than necessary due to delays spawned by finger-pointing tantrums. As for the bullying VPs who ambushed me, they just crawled back under their bridges to troll another day.
Moral 1: The more you are pointing fingers, the less you are solving problems.
Solve problems first. Point fingers later--and then only if doing so serves some useful purpose.
Moral 2: Just because you have a big title does not make you the expert.
If you think that is the case, you are dead wrong.
Moral 3: Avoid the press if you can.
The press, like the troll, is not likely to be your friend.
My title promises that this essay will discuss when it is proper to KISS in the workplace. Apologies if you are looking forward to a thoroughgoing discussion of the accusations against New York governor Andrew Cuomo and his alleged workplace behavior.* If the native of Queens is guilty, then he must face the music, and perhaps that music will be performed by another product of Queens, the rock group KISS. Unfortunately, if you were hoping for a paean to those spandex-clad, make-up-laden hard-rockers who dominated the 1970s airwaves, I am afraid this essay will still disappoint.
No, this essay is about the virtues and value of applying a well-known but frequently overlooked heuristic. If you are still with me, a heuristic is a fancy way of saying a problem-solving method.
Some time ago I wrote a piece extolling the efficacy of Occam’s razor, a superb tool for reaching conclusions with consistency and rationality. When analyzing conundrums, Occam’s razor cuts through the nonsense by eliminating all extraneous explanations in favor of known evidence. Often, Occam's heuristic is articulated as “the simplest explanation is the best one,” a reductive but acceptable interpretation of Occam’s razor.
Have you ever excitedly purchased a product that turned out to be so daunting to operate that you just wanted to chuck it out? Of course you have. In fact, the very device you are reading this piece on may fit that description. Do you click once or twice? Do you swipe up or down? Do you command the machine, or is the machine commanding you?
Perhaps you have owned an overly elaborate coffee maker that beeps every hour on the hour no matter what you do. Why would anyone want a coffee maker that beeps the hour? What kind of diabolical design is that? Or, do you ever wonder about that weird lever behind the rear seat of your SUV? You know, the one you are afraid to pull in case it releases the seat from the floor. How will you reinstall the seat? Best to just leave it be and admonish the kiddies to “never ever pull that lever!” See. It even rhymes.
Chances are, you possess many such devices and some you've even abandoned to moulder in a dank corner of your domicile because they are, well, just too much.
Don’t you wish that the engineers and designers behind these Rube Goldberg devices had stuck to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid?
In one room, Gulliver finds “a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation." Another groundbreaking innovator uses hogs to plow and manure fields but only after he has planted acorns “at six inches distance and eight deep” to get the hogs to root.
One reformer authors an attempt to refine the art of conversation by requiring individuals to lug large sacks of objects. When they encounter another so-encumbered acquaintance, they communicate wordlessly by presenting items from their sacks “since words are only names for things.”
The most voluminous invention in Lagado is a large frame filled with words written on blocks. Three dozen boys spend six hours a day turning iron levers mounted to the frame. Each turn of the levers reveals random sets of words, and if any coherent phrases emerge, they are recorded. Later, these phrases will be assembled into sentences that will eventually form “a complete body of all arts and sciences.”
By describing all these crazy contrivances, Swift is spoofing the excesses of the Royal Society, England’s premier association for scientists and inventors, but there are lessons here for us.
Each of Lagado’s innovations takes a well-established but potentially involved task (building, plowing, speaking, and writing) and attempts to simplify it. The upshot is that the very cleverness of the new and supposedly improved processes renders them more laborious than the original processes. If the denizens of the Grand Academy of Lagado had instead applied the KISS principle, they would meet with much more success. To be fair, though, that outcome would make for a less entertaining book.
As Swift demonstrates, it is all-too tempting when trying to complete a complex task to get caught up in the procedure and lose touch with the most important elements. Decades ago, I used to build theatre sets for a living, and I could really drive my boss nuts. Sometimes when I had a difficult piece to work on, I would take time to concoct a custom tool or a jig to make my job easier, and my boss would hit the roof. Most often, he was right that my time would be better spent just getting to work on the project, but I was too enamored of my own cleverness to refrain from designing and creating these one-use tools. I was further encouraged by the fact that every now and then, a little gadget of my invention would turn out to be most advantageous.
Once, we had to build a set with eccentrically curved steps that diminished in size as they ascended. It was difficult to replicate the curve precisely for each step, so I created a device that would trace the curve of one step onto the next one no matter the size. My boss, as per usual, was seething as I crafted my novel tool, but it worked so efficiently that he eventually resorted to using it for this and other tasks. When I left that job, my curve-tracing tool hung on a pegboard next to the hammers. My boss and I never spoke of it.
I relate this saga to indicate how, regardless of the occasional success, I failed to engage in the art of KISSing. Whenever I was tempted to make another new tool, my choice should have been governed by a basic calculation balancing time spent making the tool against time saved by using the tool. Far too frequently, my self-regard overran my ability to make an honest assessment. Truth was, I just loved making those stupid tools. If I had instead applied the heuristic of Keep It Simple, Stupid, the calculation would become even clearer: Would making the tool save more time than it would waste, stupid? In most cases, the answer would have been "nope."
In our everyday, we face this dilemma time and again and make the wrong choices with alarming frequency. Some people, though, are masters of the art of KISSing.
Keeping it simple is a powerful antidote to inefficiency and waste. KISS is not a call to reduce every process to its most basic elements or to ignore necessary complexity, but it is a discipline that allows us to strip away excess from projects and processes. Whenever you start a complex project (and throughout the span of designing and executing that project) you may want to remind yourself that at times there is nothing wrong with KISSing some tasks to get things done.
*Since I first wrote and posted this piece, further allegations against Governor Cuomo have emerged. My irreverence on the subject is not intended to make light of or condone such behavior.
My first administrative position at a university was as the founding dean of a School of Humanities and Social Sciences. My education and professional background is in the humanities, so I had much to learn about the social sciences and how they relate to the humanities as I stitched two disparate academic areas together.
For those whose have not been anointed as academic cognoscenti, the humanities are fields such as philosophy, religion, English, and often history. The social sciences consist of such fields as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and sometimes history. This being academia, there are many other fields I could list as well as more overlaps, underlaps, interlaps, metalaps, and burlaps, but you get the idea.
Academic fields can be surprisingly territorial and unaccountably competitive. Take, for instance, the sometimes factious relationship encapsulated in the common phrases “soft sciences” and "hard sciences." The behavioral or social sciences are designated "soft" (read: inadequate, facile, insubstantial) while the natural sciences are regarded as "hard" (read: formidable, challenging, consequential). As strange as such hierarchies may seem to nonacademics, there are more. The humanities are often dismissed as not serious (read: just plain soft without even the patina of scientific hardness, mushy). Further down the pecking order, you may find the fine and performing arts, which are cast as softer still, (read: squishy). These are just some examples of the disciplinary caste system that bedevils academia.
Despite these distinctions and hierarchies, commonalities among these fields are evident. The natural sciences and the social sciences share research methodologies and even terminology. Meanwhile, although humanistic methodologies allow for far more fluidity than do the natural and social sciences, the social sciences and humanities share a common set of questions and inferences regarding the human experience. For their part, humanists themselves sometimes look down upon the arts as not being serious or scholarly enough even as they rely on the arts for much of their subject matter and much of their way of knowing, among other things.
For those keeping score, then, the traditional and entirely unreasonable pecking order of academic disciplines in the liberal arts is
1. Natural sciences (hard)
2. Social sciences (soft)
3. Humanities (mushy)
4. Arts (squishy)
To be sure, most competent academic professionals eschew this silly disciplinary caste system, which is largely the stomping ground of the arrogant and the ignorant. Solid academic professionals readily bridge the gaps between fields, capitalize on their similarities and synergy, and exploit their differences in order to collaborate on better serving students and scholarship.
What Are Soft Skills?
I recount all this as an oblique approach to the question of softness. Just as the social sciences were dismissed by some as soft sciences, the arts, the social sciences, and the humanities are sometimes dismissed as basic training in mere soft skills. There is a pronounced pliability at play in these fields that is allegedly not so important to other fields such as the natural sciences or business.
Soft skills, though, involve a mastery of the plasticity of human nature while hard skills are needed to perform particular tasks in a specific field. For example, the ability to persuade would be a soft skill in the workplace while the ability to utilize a database would be a hard skill. Both skills can be learned, but soft skills can be quite slippery while hard skills are often (not always) more readily grasped.
Importantly, despite the negative implications of the term “soft skills,” when employers are surveyed about what abilities they most value when hiring, the response invariably focuses on these very soft skills, such as communication, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity and on and on, with the implication that hard skills can be mastered on the job. Note that all these skills are difficult to define and yet are transferable across most professional fields.
What Are Human Tools+Paradigms?
I prefer to think of soft skills as “human skills" or “human tools and paradigms,” which, by a wild coincidence, is almost the title of this very blog, where I develop and offer a kit of tools and paradigms for leaders to understand their organization’s mission, their employees, their colleagues, and their role in the whole scheme. My essays don’t simply recite and describe the skills that need to be mastered. For that, just Google "soft skills" to get lists of "The 7 Soft Skills," "The Top 10 Soft Skills," or the 120 soft skills. Each of the tools and paradigms I elucidate, being rather challenging, demand contemplation, analysis, and sometimes demystification.
On my website and blog, I use a header image of mechanic’s tools, which most immediately evokes the hard skills but suggests that the soft skills I tout, the human tools and paradigms, are at least as materially relevant as the hard skills. They also require the most training, practice, and maintenance. This differentiation is represented by the glowing lamp that lies on top.
Those who possess and have mastered the use of an array of these human tools and paradigms, a fulsome kit, set themselves apart from the herd of the merely competent. They stand out as the extraordinarily accomplished among their peers and, not for nothing, make the most successful managers and leaders.
Continued proficiency in these skills requires ongoing development, improvement, and refinement. No matter the context, these human tools and paradigms have proven to be, again and again, the hardest skills of all, the soft ones.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.