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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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.
A number of years ago I left a university where I had served for 15 years to take a position as the chief academic officer at a different school. Not long after I had started at this new place, some faculty and others darkly wisecracked about the “bags o' money” that resided under my desk. I heard this quip frequently enough that I have to admit that I did take a peek once. Nothing there but three paperclips, an old pencil, and a multigenerational family of fluffy dust bunnies.
I called maintenance.
Despite my disappointment, I have to admit that one of the nice things about this particular school was its solid endowment, and the fact that I did indeed have a decent sum of funds to distribute to students and faculty to meet relevant expenses. Virtually all of the funds were restricted, though, meaning their usage was predetermined by the donor for such purposes as student study abroad trips or professional development for faculty.
The burning question, then, was how to disperse these funds equitably while assuring that they would be put to their best use. Some faculty committees existed for just this objective, but they had been given control of only specific funds. A few gifts were controlled by school deans, who reported to me. The bulk came under no one’s jurisdiction in particular and therefore defaulted to my authority.
You may be thinking, “Well golly, Jim, that sounds like a good problem to have, big bags o' money under the desk,” but I found the situation most uncomfortable and not just because I value legroom. I did not want to be in the position of playing Solomon with gift funds—deciding who would receive them and who would go wanting, having to divvy up moneys, split the occasional baby, and undoubtedly tick everyone off. As unlikely as it seems, I just did not want moneybags under my desk, howsoever metaphorically.
The whole moneybags rumor stemmed from one of my predecessors who was known to dispense funds directly without going through the committees. To be clear, I am not implying that there was something illegal or even untoward about his practices. Both he and I were well within our rights to dole out the funds as we saw fit so long as we adhered to any restrictions the donors had imposed. Still, I did not like the potential inequity of such a practice, nor did I enjoy the responsibility of making such calls.
My predecessor, though, reportedly had few such compunctions. I am sure he had the best intentions, but what necessarily resulted was a perception of arbitrariness among the faculty that gave me the willies. Some faculty complained that only a select few had ever benefited from my predecessor’s largess. Whatever the reality, the mere perception of a specific in-group necessitates the conjuring of a corresponding out-group and fosters the growth of resentment. Moneybags, as it turns out, make a great fertilizer for sprouting suspicion and dissent.
The fact was that a few people were simply not shy about requesting funds, not that there is anything wrong with that. Others, though, were more reluctant to do so or not aware that funds were accessible upon request. I also learned that some of this second group habitually covered work expenses out-of-pocket, which was absolutely unacceptable.
I chose instead to avoid the appearance of inequity and aspired to see to it that the committees that already existed to distribute money fairly had access to most of the gift and endowed funds available to faculty and students. The moneybags under my desk were officially empty.
The problem with this scheme, though, was that it introduced a threat of equal but opposite potential, the unwelcome boogyman of bureaucratic decision-making. Instead of informally pitching requests to the chief academic officer, all faculty and students would now have to formally apply to the committees. They would have to fill out forms, mind deadlines, and earn approval. Plus, even after navigating all this seeming red tape, they still might not receive funds. The natural result: those who had previously had ready access to the erstwhile bags o' money were displeased by my decision while everyone else was chary of the new process.
Worse still, these funding committees had a fabled history of being too tight with the money, perhaps to counterbalance my predecessor’s relatively loose approach. They had demanded detailed applications and enforced deadlines without compromise, which did not always reflect the reality of student and faculty needs. They also had a reputation for rejecting requests on fairly flimsy grounds and with a hint of personal bias. One thing was clear. The prevailing mindset on the committees assumed that their charge was to “save money” by finding reasons not to approve applications.
I worked with the committees to assure that the application process was not onerous. My attitude, one I probably shared with my predecessor, Dr. Moneybags, was that the funds were donated for a reason, and it was our job to see that they were spent wisely and to great effect in support of the university’s mission. I made sure the committee members knew that spending the money unwisely or not spending it at all were two outcomes to be avoided. Donors donate because they want to see their money do good, not because they want to have it simply roll over to the next year. For additional clarity on this point, read the Parable of the Talents, a basic primer on philanthropic expectations.
It did not take long for the committees to get their acts together and change their mindsets. Faculty and students who needed funding for travel, study, equipment, books, and so on were able to access what was available while the committees balanced oversight and equity with minimized friction. Committee members made decisions strictly on the merits of the applications and did not penalize for petty errors. We had to have deadlines, but we also had provisions for retroactive decisions where necessary. The default position shifted so that the committees understood their charge was to distribute funds, not to horde them. In other words, I convinced them to always start with yes, one of my core principles.
The Lesson of Emptied Moneybags: The Arbitrary Is the True Enemy
In the process, I learned something about the nature of arbitrary decision-making. Lurking on the extreme edges of the old system were two enemies of equity. On one side, was my predecessor’s reputed predilection for handing out funds pretty much upon request with scant discernment. On the other was an overly bureaucratized committee system that did not allow for uncertainty.
I came to embrace a truth that has guided my building of processes and systems ever since. Higher ed, like most industries, is rife with laments about the unwarranted impositions of bureaucracy, and rightly so. Bloated bureaucracies, with their proscriptive and prescriptive unreason--the proverbial red tape--can be oppressive.
Nonetheless, I learned that the enemy of efficiency is not bureaucracy, per se. Nor is the enemy the executive officer who directs activities with few checks (even while cutting a few checks). The true enemy of efficiency is the arbitrariness that invariably accompanies extremes of overly bureaucratized or overly capricious administration. No matter the size of the organization, the governance system needs to be carefully calibrated to be both benign and helpful in order to eliminate the inequity and arbitrariness of both extreme bureaucracy and extreme capriciousness. The task of a system-builder and leader is to find that sweet spot in the middle, build upon it, and maintain it.
Having control of bags o' money may sound swell, and it really is, but relinquishing control to a rational process is even sweller.
Is it ever okay for a boss to yell at employees?
I am not talking about being stern or raising one’s voice. I mean yelling, as in flat-out screaming as an expression of anger and an attempt to exert control. Again, I am not referencing a slightly elevated volume or even harsh language. I am not speaking about stern looks or flinty expressions of disappointment or ire. This essay is about bosses who just yell.
Take this instance of what I mean. I once had a boss blast me with the insult "I hate your words!" She then ripped into me so loudly that someone across the hall closed the office door. That is what I am talking about. Nasty, malicious shouting unleashed to silence, insult, or mortify an employee. By the way, I still have no idea what I said that set her off. She was just bonkers.
Of course, with all things management, there is a nuance to unpack. Some yelling may be appropriate or even necessary, but very rarely and only in very narrow circumstances. I can imagine scenarios where an employee is acting out in public or screaming at a colleague or colleagues are screaming at each other and only the boss’s raised voice will halt the tirade. I can imagine these scenarios because I have lived them and had to, as a boss, loudly intervene myself. I had to noisily assert my authority to stop the shouting and then set about assuring that a more civil tone would prevail. Such things happen. If they happen often, they are a symptom of a larger problem. Whatever the cause, though, yelling should lurk at the very bottom of the boss's well-supplied tool chest.
A boss who yells purely in anger or animus, even if infrequently, is out of line, plain and simple. Yelling may provide the boss some degree of control but only temporarily. In the meantime, the humiliated employee and any witnesses will harbor a combination of fear and resentment that can gestate into raw contempt for the boss no matter how out-of-character the boss’s anger was. Unwarranted yelling is a sign of weakness. It is never more than an attempt to release frustration and exert raw power to overwhelm a subordinate. Because the employee is subordinate and usually has no ability to fight back, it is the crassest and most pathetic form of bullying and a mark of craven cruelty. A sincere, appropriately public, and well-timed apology may mitigate the resentment, but there will still be much goodwill to make up.
There is a special place in hell for bosses who yell.
The ramifications of a boss’s bullying can be massive and long-lasting. A boss who regularly yells will create deep divisions among employees. Most will cower and comply while others will hunker down and hide. The smallest group will want to stand up to the abuse. None of these employees will have any real respect for the boss who relies on fear to lead, though, and the rupture and discord among them is a sure mark of a failure of leadership and an unhealthy workplace. Expect sinking morale, decreased productivity, and rampant turnover.
In fact, perhaps the special place in hell that is reserved for screaming bosses is a perverse replica of the hell they produced in their own workplace. Maybe, for some of the worst, they will end up with someone just like them or even themselves as their own boss!
In "No Exit," Sartre made the point that "Hell is other people." I posit that for the particularly pusillanimous class of hell denizens, the yelling bosses, maybe the most deserved and torturous hell is just other yelling bosses.
Bob Dylan, Train Tracks 2019--Dylan's numerous visual studies of train tracks disappearing to a vanishing point signify his intense interest in distance and perspective.
The mid-eighties production standards of Dylan’s song “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love)" muddies the recording and has limited its appeal, but the lyrics are superb. In the last verse before the final chorus, he tells us of the beating of a man in a “powder-blue wig” who is later “shot / For resisting arrest.” At the very end of the verse he states flatly,
This could strike you as a bland non sequitur or a cleverly inverted profundity since we usually perceive something at a distance, say a traffic tunnel, as far smaller than it is. (Yes, junior, our big car will fit through that little tunnel.) In truth, though, the lines are a commentary on the incidental nature of most outrages. Dylan’s trick is to reverse the chronological order of the episode by introducing the concept of distance before the “Close up” event that proceeds it.
You may quibble with Dylan here. I may quibble with him, for that matter. Perhaps an example is in order. We are all aware of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers and the fact that video of that slow-motion murder sparked or re-sparked a massive national uprising and shifted public opinion. Applying Dylan’s take demonstrates that while Floyd’s murder loomed large in the public eye, for those experiencing it at the time, perhaps even for Floyd himself, it was just a series of discrete moments and decisions that culminated in homicidal tragedy. Floyd certainly sensed he was dying, but his cries for help (including, movingly, to his late mother) suggest that he held out hope that the police would relent or that there would be an intervention. In other words, he did not accept the inevitability of his circumstances because they were not inevitable. Any number of things could have prevented his death, from the mundane to the sublime. That none of them did was unforeseeable in that present, and any inevitability we sense in such a drastic scene is only imposed in hindsight.
I cannot know for sure what the experience was like for Floyd, his murderers, or his witnesses on the scene, of course, but that is how I read the situation. To Dylan’s point, as horrible and huge as that incident--what a shockingly inadequate word--as that catastrophe must have been for those present, not one of them, not even Floyd himself, could ever know how immense it would become for our nation. His homicide, unlike the tunnel that the car (or train) approaches, as monumental as it is up close, is even larger in the distance. In the song, the man in the powder-blue wig dies, also at the hand of the police, but in that moment no one could predict how substantial the atrocity, real or imagined, would become by being enshrined in Dylan's song. In other words, the act of witnessing or participating in such an abomination cannot indicate with any precision how significant such an event might become to those who are removed in time or space from it.
To be clear, my intent is not to diminish the murder of George Floyd by comparison to the fate of a likely fictional Dylan character but to demonstrate how his death led to and became something beyond all expectation. Would Floyd have chosen to die if he could know of the movement his death would inspire? Would anyone? W.B. Yeats ponders a similar conundrum at the end of "Leda and the Swan," which describes another violent catastrophe with vast repercussions:
As I said, I have quibbles with Dylan's lyrical claim. Plenty of disasters take place in anonymity. If not for the viral video, Floyd’s murder would likely have faded from public consciousness if it ever even made it to public consciousness, and the impact of its aftermath may very well have shrunken over time and across distance as so often happens. Instead, now it is an important highlight of the historical record of our day at the very least.
For his part, Dylan's philosophy of time and perspective remains remarkably consistent across decades. Nearly twenty years after recording "Tight Connection," Dylan closed his movie Masked and Anonymous with a voice-over monologue in which he asserts,
As with the doctrine of perspective he sketches in “Tight Connection,” this statement seems to upend our normal point of view. Isn’t it usually that the forest looks chaotic and confusing when you are in its midst but calm and orderly from a mountaintop above? No, in this monologue and in keeping with the lines from his song from the eighties, Dylan again suggests that distance can lead to greater insight, context, and understanding. By the way, this the exact reverse of the more conventional philosophy of perspective that Jonathan Swift utilizes in Gulliver's first two voyages.
The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol offers a perfect example of Dylan's philosophy at work. Several who participated later claimed that they were just swept up with the crowd and had no intention of entering the building let alone rioting. They speak of their experience as though they regarded themselves as unwelcome visitors on an unofficial tour, nothing more. They imagined that they were there as much to see the sights as to shout slogans. Like the mere tourists they feigned to be, they even took selfies with police and stayed inside the guide ropes. Step back to a distance (physical or temporal), and we can see that their mere attendance, no matter their intent, ensures that they contributed to the havoc. Their profession of unawareness does not exculpate them from the charge that they willingly joined a mob that committed acts of destruction, injury, homicide, and sedition. For these folks, though, it may very well have seemed just a particularly rowdy tour group at the time. Nonetheless, consider that one of the people who died during that attack was trampled by the mob. Anyone who was part of that unlawful crowd, whether they were in attendance in that moment or not, is culpable for her death because their presence alone contributed to the overall size of the mob and subsequently the stampede. There can be no mob to trample her if there are no people to create a mob, so every member of that mob is complicit in her death as they are in all the day's consequent deaths, injuries, and terror.
Interestingly, both of Dylan’s examples—a killing by police and “plunder and murder”—feature violence and occur at the end of the two works in which they appear. As always, there is a consistent thread in Dylan's art. In the movie monologue, the “fair garden” evokes Eden, and even the adjective “fair” seems archaic and vaguely biblical. The vicious disorder he describes evokes end times, which has long been a Dylan preoccupation. Even his 1980ish deep dive into christianity centered on a church that promotes an "inaugurated eschatology" with an apocalyptic bent. It is not surprising, then that Dylan would expand his view from a narrow focus on Eden to a wide-angle on a world of brutality and mayhem as if to suggest that we exist in a bubble or garden of false security. Prepare for a decline, all ye who bask in contentment! In fact, the sentence before this passage in the movie monologue uses the phrase “things fall apart,” from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” which itself is eschatological in theme:
I am not recommending that we stock up on bottled water, power bars, and duct tape to prepare for end times, no matter what Dylan’s view on the subject is. But there are useful lessons we can draw from Dylan’s insight into distance, perspective, and perception in these two quotes.
Down to the Brass Staples
This blog is supposed to be primarily about management and leadership, so let me roll it around to that domain. If you are a boss, or even if you are not, it is important to be aware that your day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices and actions potentially have a larger effect on the future than you may expect. It is not just the cumulative effect of such decisions, but each one, no matter how small, could itself become enormous in its implications and impact. Think about it. An overlooked staple can wreak havoc on the inner workings of an office copy machine just as an inappropriate or insensitive comment could blow up into legal action or even termination.
One may be tempted to affect an attitude of sustained hyper-vigilance to forestall unwanted consequences, but this approach is neither practical nor ultimately effective. A general awareness though that one’s small actions can loom large in the future is in order. I admit that my truism here should seem boringly obvious, and yet how often is its objective veracity still overlooked or downplayed?
The only readily workable solution to the dilemma of unintended consequences is to identify your core principles and, if they are sound, stick to them. Be decent whenever possible. There is that word again, decent. Simply assure that you consistently work with integrity, and you will be largely protected from negative ramifications or at least will be prepared to address and counter them. Stick to your principles, and at they end of the day the consequences will be yours to own honestly. And always remember, as the bard says,
What looks large from a distance
Close up ain’t never that big.
A brief photographic study of Dylan's philosophy of distance and perspective
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.