Friday, May 29, 2009

Rewarding Incompetence

(News-Herald, May 28) One great workplace mystery: why do some people get punished for good work while people who do lousy work are rewarded for their slackness?
Ordinarily, it’s smart to make the most use of your best people. If Pat can build ten types of widgets quickly and Chris can only do two kinds at a moderate tempo, then the smart response to a new complicated rush widget order is to give it to Pat.
But in this scenario, Chris is less spectacular, but still competent. It’s when a weak manager and an incompetent worker enter the picture that the backwards rewards system kicks in.
One major rule of bad management is “Avoid problems.” Bad managers don’t know how to fix problems or deal with crises, so their management style is based on ignoring, waiting, hiding, or sweeping under carpets.
When Mr. Dimbulb considers his workers, he’s not thinking “How do I get the best work out of this person?” He’s thinking, “How can I get this person to create the fewest problems for me?”
For Mr. Dimbulb, the best workers are the ones who solve their own problems, or at least won’t pass them back up to the front office. If Mr. Dimbulb needs to hand a flaming dead possum to someone, he’ll hand it to the person least likely to squirt it with kerosene and throw it back.
So the best, most responsible workers get the flaming dead possums.
Pat may get tired and frustrated. Pat may go home thinking, “Can’t Dimbulb see that I’m killing myself putting out these dead possums? Can’t he see I’m staying late and starting early and wearing myself out? Can’t he see there’s a problem?”
The answer is, no, he can’t, because those problems aren’t Mr. Dimbulb’s problems. All he knows, all he needs to know, is that there is no flaming dead possum on his desk. And as long as he can make them go away by handing them off to Pat, Pat will be the flaming dead possum specialist.
But for Mr. Dimbulb, Chris is a challenge. If Dimbulb hands Chris so much as a slightly stuporous hamster, he’ll get yelping from Chris, calls from the customer and Chris’s supervisor, and complaints from all quarters about Chris’s mishandling of the little dysfunctional rodent. Not only will he not get rid of the hamster, but Chris will manage to turn it into an angry water buffalo.
From Dimbulb’s standpoint, the best job to give Chris is an assignment along the lines of “Go sit in the shady corner and take a nap.”
So for doing good work, Pat gets dumped on, and for being incompetent, Chris gets a cushy job that demands little.
A better manager than Mr. Dimbulb would follow a simple two-step process.
Step One: Help Chris Improve and Become Competent.
Step Two: If Step One Fails, Fire Chris.
A manager can skip step one in certain extreme cases (Chris is late every single day, Chris blows up workplace, Chris shoots colleagues). But generally the first smart move is to see if Chris can be salvaged or turned into something productive. It is, after all, a manager’s job to figure out how to get the best work out of his people.
Mr. Dimbulb will not choose this option. He is pretty sure it would be hard. At the very least it would require him to take on a problem, and this is where his fundamental weakness as a manager lies. You can only solve a problem if A) you acknowledge it exists and B) acknowledge that it’s your problem. And Dimbulb’s first priority is to make sure that he doesn’t have any problems.
And since none of the problems are his, he never solves any of them. He just keeps passing them on to the employees who, as far as he knows, make the problems go away. And he gets angry at the people who keep bringing him more problems.
Under this system, competent employees face a tough decision. They can keep enabling their incompetent boss, like the alcoholic’s wife who keeps telling the kids, “Daddy missed Christmas because the space aliens got him.”
Or they can step back and let the next flaming dead possum burn the place down, thereby running the risk of either getting themselves fired or letting the workplace self-destruct. Option #3 is to send articles like this one to Mr. Dimbulb, but this never helps, because the Dimbulbs of the world will never recognize themselves in this column.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Love Your Job

(News-Herald, May 21) When did it become embarrassing to admit that you like your job.
I ask because it is that time of year when schoolteachers are routinely asked, “Hey, are you ready for summer” in a tone of voice that clearly means, “Hey, are you just dying to get away from your horrible students and your miserable job.”
Some days I’ll admit that I resent this no-win question just a bit. One possible answer is “No, I’m not looking forward to summer vacation.” This is both silly and ungrateful. My summer provides me with great opportunities and not appreciating it would be like refusing to appreciate my paycheck.
But it seems the only other answer is, “Yeah, I’m so looking forward to getting away from my students and my job.”
Of course, that’s what lots of people assume is the truth, when in fact, I really like my job. Honestly. And yet I feel as I type that that it’s one of the more outrageous things I’ve ever written here.
Nobody says they like their job. Nobody tosses into a conversation that they really enjoy the work they do. Nobody goes on tv and declares, “I hope I never have to retire. I’d love to do this forever.”
Well, almost nobody. One of the beautiful things about the tv show Dirty Jobs is the people who really love what they do and aren’t afraid to show it. But the fact that this show is unique tells us something about our culture. I know people who love their jobs, but most are careful not to be too vocal about it.
It’s not like I’m blind to the annoyances of the workplace (and to be clear, sometimes a “workplace” is the home). Even great jobs come with an assortment of extraneous junk that interferes with the really best parts. Bureaucracy, paperwork, support departments that don’t, leadership that doesn’t—all work is loaded with these things. No workplace is a paradise.
But very few workplaces are located on the seventh level of hell, either.
We train our children early on. While people are prodding me to declare how much I can’t wait to escape my job, they are also asking schoolchildren, “Are you getting anxious for summer vacation” or “Aren’t you just so ready to be done with school?” We encourage young people to declare how much they want to get away from school, and then we’re surprised that so many young Americans don’t get excited about education.
Imagine if every “I bet you can’t wait to get out of there” were replaced with “I bet you learned a lot this year.”
Right. A bunch of you read that last sentence and laughed. Because these days it’s the height of ridiculousness to suggest that people should be excited about what they do for a living. We are way too cool to get up in the morning looking forward to how we’ll spend the workday.
I have certainly known people who apparently had to drag themselves, whining and complaining, to work day after day. That must feel awful. Life is too short. If your job is a terrible chore, you need a different job.
I like my job; I always have. I’m not merely lucky; I spent a lot of time and effort to get here, and while that time was sometimes unpleasant, I slogged through so that I could get to do what I do today. If I won a gazillion dollars tomorrow, I would not retire (I would, however, get a much nicer car).
And yet, I know it’s far more likely that I will be teased for writing this than will some guy who complains about his crappy job and how much he wants to retire.
I have an uncle in Connecticut who is still teaching high school history. He’s 75 years old. He’s one of my teaching heroes.
I think everyone should get that for themselves—work that they enjoy and value and look forward to doing so much that they feel a little sad when it comes time to retire.
And I don’t mean to be rude, but while I am grateful for summer vacation, but I will be sorry to be done teaching for a few months, and I am already looking forward to next September and the chance to do this teaching thing all over again. And if you are another one of us, the folks who actually love their work, be brave and bold and say so to someone today.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Prom Decorating Lessons

(News-Herald, May 14) It’s May, and that means Prom season. I started working with Proms way back when I started teaching. As with any large scale undertaking, there are lessons to be learned that apply in life as well as the project at hand.
*Planning matters. The more prepared you are, the better you can cope. It pays to take an early look at those instructions for making the working model of Mt. St. Helens out of cardboard and cream cheese. Preparing to do the job and having some idea of how it’s going to work makes doing the job much easier.
*However, once you’ve made a plan, don’t get married to it. Something will go wrong that you don’t expect, and something else will be ready to go right in ways you never imagined. You must be flexible enough to deal with both of these opportunities.
*Fear water. As a decoration, water is seductive, sensuous, and beautiful. But it is also fickle and capricious; it doesn’t go where you want it to, and insists on sneaking into places where it is not welcome.
*Clothes matter. Folks of my generation sometimes like to pretend they don’t. They do. Masses of teenagers really are better behaved in tuxes and gowns than in jeans and t-shirts. If you dress them up, it really is easier to take them out.
*There is only so much you can do yourself. It is not always easy to find people that can help, and yet another step to motivate them to do so, but you can only get so far on your own. After that, the road must be traveled with companions or not at all. However:
*You cannot hand something to someone else if you will not let go of it. You do not get help with, “I would like you to do this, but I expect you to do it exactly the way I would if I were there.” Find someone you trust, and let them do the job. (If you do not trust anyone, you should not be in charge.)
There are two reasons for this.
First, the only people really worth working with are people who know how to apply their own smarts, talent, and judgment to the job. The best way to motivate people with smarts, talent, and judgment is to let them use those qualities. The best way to unmotivate them is to forbid the use of those qualities.
Second, you are not there. You may have had a very specific vision for how the top of a cream cheese volcano should look. But only people who are actually there discover that high-stacked cream cheese tends to slough off in gooey chunks. (This is where not being married to your plan becomes important.)
*Know the difference between big, important details and little, piddly ones. If the cream cheese is canted at a 45% angle instead of 47%, the volcano will still look volcano-ey. If the entire volcano crashes through the gym floor, that may be more of an issue. (If you use water and it causes a short-circuit leading to fire and explosion, that’s bad; this is why you don’t use water.)
*Despite all the planning and fretting involved, almost everything is a little piddly detail. If you have a space where everyone can get together, music they can hear well enough to dance to, and a place to dance, you’re okay. Focus on the main point. Everything else is gravy.
Note to parents: Your child does not by any stretch of the imagination “need” to be flown by private jet to Paris for a catered meal while being serenaded by Celine Dion (okay—nobody needs to be serenaded by Celine Dion) followed by a private party in a hotel room with booze. If you are dropping a few grand on this elaborate high school dance, I shudder to think what Junior’s wedding will be like.
*Clothing, decorations, planning, the little extras—it’s all to help foster a sense of Occasion, to suggest that these three hours are somehow different, more vibrant and exciting than any other three hours. As an organizer, you learn how to prompt that sense. But attendees should remember that the more you depend on external cues to get that special sense of Occasion, the fewer Occasions you will have. When you learn how to create that sense on your own, you can have an Occasion any time you choose. This may seem like one of the smallest lessons of Prom, but wait till you get married.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Specter, the GOP, and robocalling

(News-Herald, May 7) So last week I returned home from work to find a message waiting on my answering machine. It was from “Jack” (no last name) who recorded it on behalf of the Republican National Senatorial Committee.
That struck me as odd, because I am a registered Democrat. But robocaller Jack explained that he was calling to help me welcome “your newest Democrat Senator, Arlen Specter.”
Jack followed with old sound bites from George W. Bush. “Arlen Spector is the right man for the U. S. Senate… I can count on this man.” George also said, “He’s a firm ally…when it matters most.”
Jack also shared sound bites from Senator Spector on “important issues to labor and Democrat interest groups.” Spector is then quoted saying he wouldn’t be an automatic 60th vote and gives an example of a pro-labor bill he plans to oppose.
Jack invited me to a website created just for the purpose of “introducing” Spector ( It includes various quotes in which Spector says he likes Bush, Rick Santorum and Rush Limbaugh. There’s also an old quote in which he accused Anita Hill of perjury.
I can’t quite figure out what the Republicans are trying to tell me. They agree that these are all awful things and therefore everyone should vote against Specter? They assume I automatically vote for any yahoo with a D in front of his name, so they want me to think of Specter as still an R?
Just as Senate Republicans are slamming Specter for being a Republican, other Republicans are stepping up their castigation of Specter for not being Republican enough (I thought I’d google a good quote, but a search on “good riddance Arlen Specter” turned up 42,000 hits). “He’s a RINO (Republican in name only)” goes the refrain. He’s not pure enough, not on the right side of enough issues.
This emphasis on ideological purity is a new GOP initiative, borrowed from the Democrats. For decades the Dems have demanded that their candidates pass ideological litmus tests; this has been enormously effective in helping Dems lose election after election.
Had they followed their usual procedure, Dems would have nominated Senator Clinton (an outcome so completely predictable that for months the Clintons simply couldn’t believe it wasn’t happening) and Specter would be reminiscing with President McCain about their boyhood adventures back before the invention of dirt.
Instead, the Dems went off script while the GOP pulled Sarah Palin out of a hat, a woman whose only qualification was her ideological purity. After she sent voters running away in waves, the party decided that what it needed was more of that voter-alienating purity. So now Republicans are the new Democrats; they’d rather be Right than win.
Why build a big tent when you can make the old tent seem larger by throwing more people out of it.
Specter claims this is why he left the party. I suppose that’s sort of true. But if you don’t think he’s trying to save his Senate seat, you probably also believe that Barry Bonds bulked up just by lifting weights and eating twinkies.
I honestly can’t tell how Republicans want us to feel about this. Do they want him to win so the Democrats will have to put up a not-really-a-Dem on their side? Are they really seriously using their own party label as a slur? Whether D or R, I expect Spector will do whatever he wants as he always has. When you’ve beaten cancer and been in the Senate longer than the furniture, you probably get feisty that way. One of the odd features of this is that I doubt that party label will make that much difference in Spector’s vote, so in some ways this is just a flap just about the labels.
Never mind what he’s going to do—what will we label him. Will Dems overlook all the things he’s done that they hated just because he’s now wearing their team jersey? Will Reps reject his assistance to their causes because he took their jersey off? Will he now be Smilin’ Ed Rendell’s new best friend?
Political decisions aside, I have always found it sort of inspiring that a man at Specter’s stage in life would want to stay in the Senate. But this whole flap seems to reveal more of the basic hollowness at the heart of US politics.
My buddy Jack Robocall is still making regular postings about Specter on youtube. I hope he’s not too busy to keep in touch.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Rise of Wolverine and Fall of Marvel

This is "special" to the blog, i.e. my newspaper audience wouldn't be that interested, but I feel like the exercise. If you don't enjoy comics, you'll probably want to skip this one.

I haven't gone to see Wolverine and undoubtedly won't-- I barely tolerated the first X-men flick and barely made it through the second and wouldn't even rent the third one from Netflix.

For me, the ascent of Wolverine as Marvels leading character parallels Marvel's loss of most of what made it an important comics company.

Stan Lee's genius back in the 60's was to re-imagine comic book stories as metaphors. The DC universe was moribund, populated with characters so unimaginably perfect that teen sidekicks were introduced in hopes that young readers could see some character to identify with. What Lee figured out was that it wasn't simply age that made a character identifiable.

His first launch, the Fantastic Four, doesn't really count. It was a genius move of its own, a grafting of monster movie conventions into comics pages (Reed Richards did in fact make his first appearance in one of Lee's monster books). The scientist--man of action--damsel triad was augmented with the teen hot-rodder (think Steven McQueen in The Blob) to create a perfect team to fight the monster of the month. It was smart, but it wasn't what made Marvel great.

That was best personified by Spider-man. For Peter Parker, super powers became a metaphor for everything that sucked about growing up-- new responsibilities and a secret self that made it harder and harder to connect with the people around you. It became the Marvel formula to present a hero who struggled against personal issues (Jules Feiffer once smartly observed that Clark Kent was just Superman without his cape, but Spider-man was just Peter Parker in a costume).

Peter Parker was an unpopular skinny geek. Tony Stark had heart problems. Matt Murdock was blind. Bruce Banner, worst of the lot, had an uncontrollable, destructive secret self. All of them harbored love for a mostly-unattainable woman. All of them found that what made them special separated them from the people around them, made it harder to live a normal life. There wasn't a teenager who didn't get it. Clark Kent may have been the man we wanted to be, but Peter Parker was the guy we were pretty sure, sadly, that we actually were.

The X-men took that concept of the alienation of power and ramped it up. In their first incarnation, they didn't do well. For some reason (perhaps Lee didn't quite yet have a handle on scripting a large group) they had a rep as the talkiest book in the stable. Even some genius work by Neal Adams and Roy Smith didn't save them.

But the 1970's group, created by Len Wein and written thereafter by Chris Claremont, refined the Marvel formula to perfection. These were heroes whose abilities made them outcasts of the society they were sworn to protect.

The centerpiece character was Cyclops, Scott Summers-- quiet, sensitive, and certain that his unique self made it impossible for him to live among "normal" folks, he dedicated his life to his work. Like every other Marvel lead, he had a frustrated love for a woman he thought he could never have because of his nature, and their love story was the cornerstone of the book for decades.

But by the nineties, something was happening in Marvel.

Peter Parker, once a shy skinny geek struggling to get by was a hunky successful photographer with a smokin' hot model girlfriend/fiance/wife. Newer characters, like the Punisher, were simply acting out revenge fantasies-- people who crossed them got shot, a lot.

Marvel heroes had once been metaphors for the search for self and growth and a place in the world, but with a heavy twist-- "With great power comes great responsibility." Somewhere along the way the subtext became "With great power comes the chance to do whatever-the-hell you want to."

No long-standing characters showed this better than the X-men and Wolverine. In his earliest form he was a rough and insensitive bully, a thug who needed to learn to play nice. His crush on Jean Grey came early, and a scene showed him arriving at her hospital room with flowers, sure that he would score big points; instead he is surprised to find her room filled with many other people because it had not occurred to him that she had friends, and this is what friends do.

But after a few years, he was a new Wolverine, his signature line that he is "the best at what he does." He was a fantasy on steroids, able to beat anyone up, a colorful past, comfortable in any setting, man of the world, attractive to numerous babes. Fans clamored mercilessly for Jean Grey to dump that wuss Cyclops and pair up with Wolvie, and while the main continuity line stayed faithful, Marvel never passed up the chance to use alternate realities or mental planes to put the two together.

By the time the movies rolled around, Cyclops, the central character for years, the leader and linchpin and the identifiable character for a generation of readers-- well, he was reduced to minor status.

Once Marvel comics showed us who we were and who we might become. On their best days, they even showed us how we might grow into that person. Now Marvel, led by Wolverine, is simple wish-fulfillment fantasy. We don't want to know who we are-- we just want to imagine being the biggest baddest best mother on the block.

There's nothing wrong with that. Millions of comics have been sold on the promise of attractive fantasy, improbably physiology, and sheer escapism. But for me it has been a slow step backwards, and nothing personifies that regression more than the character of Wolverine, grown to become popular and successful and as perfect and alien as that amazing stranger from the Planet Krypton (it is ironic that as Marvel has become progressively less interesting, DC has become more so-- but that's a discussion for another day). The man of adamantium today is no more interesting than the man of steel used to be.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Growing a Conscience

Folks have called for a lot of things during the Economic Troubles, so much and so often that some days I think one more piece of news about economic downturn will produce a digestive upturn of my lunch.
What is scary about our economic system is that much of the power is in the hands of people who are not elected and over whom we have no control. We have no effective way of telling investment bankers, housing lenders or other ginormous financial institutions that we want them to making venal, stupid choices. It’s that impulse to get come grip on the slippery weasels that leads for calls for more laws and action from Uncle Sugar.
But what ails our system is not a lack of laws or oversight or regulation or deregulation. What we’re missing is what those elements try to make up for, but never can. What we’re missing is just old-fashioned conscience and responsibility.
A sense of responsibility and a well-developed conscience are no guarantee of behavior that everyone will approve. John D. Rockefeller was a serious churchgoer, but even as he economically crushed and manipulated the little guys in the oil region, there’s no reason to think his conscience ever bothered him a day in his life. All the good works he did (and there were plenty, from inventing modern corporate philanthropy to founding important colleges for African –Americans) were not to assuage any guilt he ever felt—they were just the actions he felt were his God-given responsibility for his God-given money.
But the other thing those earlier leaders didn’t have was a bubble. Charles Miller not only lived in Franklin within spitting distance of the men who worked for him, but in many cases he went to church with them every Sunday. And he wanted it that way.
People in power should live near the people that their decisions affect.
I’ve always said that public officials should live among the taxpayers that provide their salaries. Teachers and other school district employees should live in their district, both for of the economic impact and the accountability. If I make decisions affecting the life of your child, I shouldn’t be able to go home and hide from you. I should have to face you in church or the grocery store, and the knowledge that that meeting could occur should influence my choices. I should treat every student I work with as if I’m dealing with my neighbor’s child.
What we often call conscience is sometimes not so much the voice of little angels perched on our shoulders as it is the voice that reminds us that we might have to face the person we just hurt.
I have to believe that if this several-decade bonanza of business bozos had known from the get-go that they would have to personally take the money from individual human hands and flush it down the porcelain portal in front of that now-broken investor—well, I have to think that picture might have at least slowed them down.
It’s a sort of safety feature in humans—we can know something without really feeling the truth of it. I can sit in my corporate office and know, intellectually, that I just brought ruin and disaster on a bunch of folks. But they aren’t folks who live anywhere nearby; I’ll never meet them and I can’t even imagine how they will react.
That’s what’s so striking about moments like the AIG bonuses or the corporate jet trips to beg for taxpayer money—these are guys who have been in the bubble for so long that they have lost the ability to even imagine how people would react to their venal stupidity. They shop at a grocery store where only other fat cats shop, and they don’t know how other voices sound.
Men like General Miller made lots of decisions that were unpopular and unlikable. Certainly their proximity to other mortals did not make them perfect human beings. But there’s a reason that the mayor of a town lives in the town—every day he has to face the people, places and things affected by his decisions. He may make hard choices, but he can walk out his front door able to face people believing he did the right thing. There’s a difference between a clear conscience and an absent one.
There’s no way to give people a conscience implant. But it doesn’t always take the voice of God to fill the gap; sometimes the voice of a neighbor is enough.

From my Flickr