Friday, February 25, 2011

When Board Meetings Are Like Bad First Dates

Read this. It's a blog post by Dan Ariely about some research he did on how people act on first dates.

First dates are all about strategies that both parties can agree to but which won't help them learn if the date was effective. Think of a first date: We try to express ourselves and learn about the other person, but not express ourselves too much or offend by being intrusive. We default to friendly over controversial, even at the risk of sounding dull.

Sound familiar? Dan's talking about dating, but it reminds me of some association board meetings I've been in. "Default to friendly over controversial, even at the risk of sounding dull." That's practically a mission statement for some associations.

Dan calls this "bad equilibrium"--a strategy that doesn't result in a positive outcome for anyone. To change that dynamic, Dan ran an experiment, in which he limited the type of discussions people on first dates could engage in. He gave them a list of questions, and their discussion could only revolve around those issues. Questions like:
  • How many romantic partners have you had?
  • When was your last breakup?
  • Do you have any STDs?
  • Have you ever broken someone's heart?
  • How do you feel about abortion?
What he did, essentially, was rig the market. He imposed an artificial risk level that would help prevent bad equilibrium.

We believe that restricting the market in such ways can get people to gravitate toward behaviors that produce better results for everyone. (Remember, in dating, learning sooner that you're not compatible is a better result than wasting time being polite to each other.)

Does the same theory apply to association board meetings? Like Dan says, by forcing people out of their comfort zones, might we ultimately gain more than just allowing everyone to fall back on those tropes that are safe for everyone, and useful to no one?

If so, what kind of questions would you put on your board members' discussion list? And what kind of questions should your board members be putting on yours?

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Truth and Equality in the Workplace

A couple of posts ago I mention a post from HBR's Andrew McAfee about how the connected habits of Millennials are benefting organizations. Well, a week after that one, McAfee posted another, this one about what goes wrong when Millennials take their connected habits too far. It's worth a read. He identifies two problems.

The first is simple oversharing. I wrote before how narrating your work is a very smart strategy because it lets you be helpful to others, and also increases the chances that they can help you. But narrating your every opinion, emotion, lunch, happy hour, hangover, etc. on your company's emergent social software platforms is just narcissistic clutter.

We all know about this one. The jokes about all the mindless social networking of Millennials are legion (and based partly in fact). But it's McAfee's second problem that I find more interesting.

The second not-so-smart practice of a digital native is to act as if all employees are equals, and equally interested in airing the truth.

McAfee makes the case that Millennials who carelessly muscle their way forward pursuing truth and equality in the workplace invariably find themselves thwarted by an entrenched hierarchy populated by individuals of older generations who derive their power and influence from that hierarchy, and have no interest in granting equality to the younger arrivals and have a very different understanding of the truth of the organization. As I have summarized here, McAfee describes this in the language of generations, using Millennials as a kind of case study, but I think the dynamic is more universal than that. Any developed and self-perpetuating system will resist the arrival of new forces seeking to change it.

But what really fascinates me about McAfee's post is again the comments, where Millennials, Xers and Boomers duke it out, all seeking mastery for their own point of view. One early and anonymous commenter, Gen X Slacker, got 14 "likes" for this pithy reply to a Millennial seeking to defend the younger perspective:

What you say maybe true, but since you're a millennial, we don't care and find your know-it-all response lacking of experience and judgement.

Ouch. But, you know what? As I read more and more of these online debates, I find myself more and more troubled not by the idealism of the Millennials but by the cynicism of the Xers. It has passed, it seems to me, from the rebellious attitudes of our youth, where we accepted the reality of having to watch out for ourselves and adopted a grim determination for finding our own way in the world, to the cantakerous pessimism of middle age, where we've pretty much settled in to the system we thought we could change and have now decided to piss all over anyone who reminds us of what we once were.

That's where I think the anger stems from. Millennials want truth and equality in the workplace. Well, so did Xers when we were their age. We didn't get it, and the thought that Millennials might succeed where we failed is driving some of us crazy.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The GenX Bridge

In my first post of 2011 I issued a kind of challenge to GenX association professionals. Convinced that we have a unique perspective and that our approach to leadership is something that should be more widely shared and developed, I offered The Hourglass Blog as a venue for a broader community of GenX leaders to share their ideas and experiences. What follows is a guest post from the first such professional to take me up on that offer--Jennifer Alluisi, Director of Educational Programs at Custom Management Group, an accredited association management company in Charlotteville, Virginia. Please share your thoughts with Jennifer by adding your comment to her post below. And if you're interested in taking a stab at posting yourself, email me at

Some people seem to have a doom-and-gloom view of the three prevailing generations in the workforce: “Gen Y thinks Gen X is a bunch of whiners. Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled. And everyone thinks the Baby Boomers are self-absorbed workaholics” (Gelston, 2008). These are gross generalizations, but are there are seeds of truth in them?

I’ve seen these attitudes recently in one of the associations I work with. We’ve been working on reinvigorating the association’s professional development programs, which has led to some lengthy discussions about technology and social networking with the appointed task force and the Board of Directors. These leaders are concerned by an apparent lack of participation and engagement in the organization by younger professionals. They’re concerned about the future of their association and of their profession at large, and yet when it’s mentioned that the most effective way to reach most young professionals is through social media and their smartphones, there are always comments indicating that those things are somehow silly or a waste of time. I’ve found myself, a Gen X professional, caught between a leadership comprised of primarily Boomers/early Gen Xers and a potential audience of late Gen Xers and Gen Yers. I started to try and think of ways I could bridge that gap.

This association has a couple of different challenges to face. Obviously, the current leadership needs a little convincing that they need to meet the younger generations where they are if they hope to engage them in the organization. To an extent, this may just take time. The task force I’m working with may have to get grudging approval from the Board to try a handful of “radical” educational techniques that cost little or nothing and demonstrate that these techniques engage young professionals more than the old-fashioned way.

On the other hand, the organization is going to have to convince young professionals that the association cares about their needs, about the way they interact with the world, and about providing content that’s relevant to them through a system of delivery that’s also relevant to them. That may be the harder challenge, especially when the association has never done this in the past.

Regardless, I feel that I am in a unique position, somewhere smack dab in the middle of the two groups, to help them come together. I understand the confusion and frustration that more mature professionals may feel when they are told they need to start tweeting about their day (who has time? who cares? who's reading it and why?). I’ve been there; I’ve dug deep within myself to understand why people are even on Twitter – and now that I’ve pushed myself to understand it, I think I really get the primary value of social media and can explain it from the position of someone who once was also a little frustrated by it. I also, however, have experienced the aggravation and disdain for a professional society who is not providing any information or education that I can access without taking a week to travel to their national conference, which is eight months away. Really, association? You don’t have a recorded webinar or podcast or something on that topic that I can access now, when I actually need it? Because I understand that, I hope I can reach out to the younger professionals and get them involved – not just by providing professional development for them, but by getting them involved in the process of creating the professional development they want.

That’s just an example from my personal experience, but I think it’s relevant to this ongoing generation gap discussion. Somehow, we need to find a way to leverage generational differences, to play on each generation’s strengths to make a stronger organization. What if we, as Gen X, reached out to the groups on either side of us? What if we could show the Boomers that they could learn from Gen Y in our associations, and show Gen Y that there is room for their ideas and leadership? Could Gen X bridge the gaps between all three generations?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Let Them Know You're Working Long and Hard

I blog in my spare time. Like a lot of other people, my professional responsibilities keep me fairly busy, so in the course of my day, if I stumble across something that piques my interest, I often just flag it (or email it to myself) for later reading. This means my blog posts are sometimes inspired by items that hit the blogosphere months ago, and dozens of people have already had a chance to weigh in on it. But I don't view that as a bad thing. Sometimes reading what other people have to say before weighing in yourself helps keep you sane.

Here's a case in point. Michael Fertik posted Managing Older Managers: A Guide for Younger Bosses on the HBR blog back in August 2010. In it, he offers such sage advice as:

Let them know that you are working long and hard. Even accomplished, self-motivated senior colleagues won't work harder than you will for very long. Send emails early and late. Invite meetings on weekends and at odd hours. Be in the office or online all the time. Dial into meetings at insane hours during overseas travel. Understand that managers older than yourself may have families that require them to live by different rhythms from yours — they may need to be offline from 6 to 8, for example. But expect them to be working long and hard, whenever it is, and make sure you are always doing more than they are. Because you have less natural authority when working with older people, reinforce your "moral right" to demand hard work by showing that you demand even more of yourself.

Honestly, my initial reaction upon reading this was that I thought it was insane. Or maybe some kind of joke. I like reading certain authors on the HBR blog in part because I'm interested in exploring the application of for-profit management models in the association environment--but this one struck me as something right out of a Terry Gilliam movie. Remember that scene in Brazil when Sam Lowry and Harvey Lime have a tug-of-war over the single desk that extends into both of their offices? Just the kind of organization you want to work for, right?

And it turns out I wasn't alone. By filing the post away and getting back to it later, I have the pleasure of reading all 54 comments the post generated, many of them taking Fertik to task for the same reasons I would. "Mike" said it first and perhaps most succinctly:

Being inconsiderate of people’s work/life balance is a surefire way of losing any employee, old or young.

Here, here. Isn't that something all the generations can agree on?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Chaos of Constant Connection?

A while back I read this article in Newsweek by George Will. In it, Will warns us against the "chaos of constant connection."

The ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games makes “the chaos of constant connection” an addictive electronic narcotic. As continuous stimulation becomes the new normal, “gaps between moments of heightened stimulation” are disappearing; amusement “has squeezed the boredom out of life.” For the hyperstimulated, “the synaptic mindscape of daily life” becomes all peaks and no valleys.

He's quoting the work of clinical psychologist Adam J. Cox, who fears that this "electronic narcotic" is creating a generation of socially-stultified people--especially among boys and young men.

“Unlike reading and listening to stories,” Cox warns, “the blitz of electronica doesn’t build deeper listening skills or a greater range of emotional expression.” Self-absorption, particularly among young males, may be the greatest danger of immersion in the bath of digital amusement: “Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being.” So “the silent, sullen boy at the mall’s game store may be next in line for an underemployed, lonely adulthood if we don’t teach him how to maintain effective social contacts with others.”

Then I read this post from Andrew McAfee about how the connected habits of Millennials are benefting organizations. When asked if the hyper-connectivity that many younger workers grew up with is something they will also grow out of, McAfee says no.

There are too many benefits to living with a certain degree of openness for Digital Natives to 'grow out of it.' Job opportunities, new personal connections, professional collaboration, learning from others' experiences, etc., are all very powerful benefits to engaging openly with others online, and this is something that Gen Y understands intuitively."

Older generations, McAfee says, don't share this intuition. They work privately, or in small groups, and only share their work when they consider it done. The younger generation, in contrast, shares information constantly, and use blogs, microblogs and social networking software to broadcast not only their finished products, but also their work in progress. They "narrate their work," sharing information about their tasks and projects, the progress they're making, the resources they're finding particularly helpful, and the questions, roadblocks and challenges that come up. This narration becomes part of the digital record of the organization, which means that it becomes searchable, findable, and reference-able.

McAfee sees two broad benefits of this connected content:

First, people who narrate their work become helpful to the rest of the organization, because the digital trail they leave makes others more efficient. Second, by airing their questions and challenges work narrators open themselves up to good ideas and helpfulness from others, and so become more efficient themselves.

So here are two views of the same phenomenon. George Will sees the glass as half empty, with the water quickly draining out of a hole in the bottom. He cautions:

We are in the midst of a sudden and vast social experiment involving myriad new means of keeping boredom at bay. And we may yet rue the day we surrendered to the insistent urge to do so.

Andrew McAfee sees the glass as half full and getting fuller, with the younger generation setting a new model that older generations should follow:

Gen Y, meanwhile, knows that narrating their work, when done right, saves time, increases productivity, and knits the organization together more tightly. We should start following their lead and stop reflexively working in private.

Which view are you going to take? There's still time to choose, isn't there?
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