Also in this compendium: Three unexpected (but smart) questions to ask job candidates and what to do when returning from a training course
It's assumed that you need to be smart to get ahead. André Spicer, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of London, used to believe that and expected to prove it in a research study with Swedish management theorist Mats Alvesson. But it turned out organizations seem to prefer stupidity.
"Organizations hire smart people, but then positively encourage them not to use their intelligence. Asking difficult questions or thinking in greater depth is seen as a dangerous waste. Talented employees quickly learn to use their significant intellectual gifts only in the most narrow and myopic ways," he writes on Aeon, sharing some of the findings in their book The Stupidity Paradox.
"Those who learn how to switch off their brains are rewarded. By avoiding thinking too much, they are able to focus on getting things done. Escaping the kind of uncomfortable questions that thinking brings to light also allows employees to sidestep conflict with coworkers. By toeing the corporate line, thoughtless employees get seen as 'leadership material' and promoted. Smart people quickly learn that getting ahead means switching off their brains as soon as they step into the office."
Maybe that's not exactly stupidity. But it is holding back on using full intelligence.
Are you skeptical? Let's count the ways stupidity pervades our organizations, in Mr. Spicer's estimation:
– Bureaucracy: Mindless compliance with rules and policies keep energy from being devoted to doing the actual job.
– Faith in leadership: Nobody is content to be a manager these days. They want to be a leader, extolling a vision and inspiring others.
"No matter how hard you search there is little – if any – leadership to be found. What most executives actually spend their days doing is sitting in meetings, filling in forms and communicating information. In other words, they are bureaucrats. But being a bureaucrat is not particularly exciting. It also doesn't look very good on your business card," he writes.
"To make their roles seem more important and exciting than they actually are, corporate executives become leadership addicts. They read leadership books. They give lengthy talks to yawning subordinates about leadership. But most importantly they attend many courses, seminars and meetings with 'leadership' somewhere in the title."
– Deep belief in the power of brands: He says many organizations seem to assume that just by changing signage the company can be transformed in the minds of customers. It's just wishful thinking, Mr. Spicer insists. Pressed, they will admit their faith in branding's impact is wrong or a needless distraction.
– Imitative behaviour: Many companies adopt the latest management fads, no matter how unsuitable. As Jan Wallander, the former chairman of Sweden's Handelsbanken, puts it: "Business leaders are just as fashion-conscious as teenage girls choosing jeans." Adopting best practices often has little impact.
– Company culture: Supposedly a strong corporate culture is the key to success. But Mr. Spicer argues it often imprisons employees in narrow ways of viewing the world. An example he gives: The obsession with constant change. Usually, it leads nowhere – or only to the next bandwagon promising better times.
"At the outset of our research, we suspected that organizational life would be full of stupidities. But we were genuinely surprised that otherwise smart people would go along with collective stupidity, and be rewarded for doing so," he says.
"Mindlessly following rules and regulations – even if they were completely counterproductive – meant that professionals would be left alone. Using empty leadership talk would get ambitious people promoted into positions of responsibility. Copying other well-known organisations meant a firm could be seen as 'world-class.'
"Launching branding initiatives meant that executives could focus on the easier work of manipulating surface images and avoid the much messier realities of organizational life. Following deep-seated corporate cultures often meant employees could be seen as committed organizational citizens while overlooking festering problems," he says.
2. The top three questions to ask job candidates
Most job interviews focus on previous experience, job skills, and behavioural issues such as handling conflict. What's missing is a look at how the individual deals with a heavy workload at a time when we all are inundated with to-do items.
Leslie Shreve, a workload management consultant, suggests asking three questions that will illuminate the individual's productivity approach:
– What do you use to keep track of things to do?
They may cite a task app or their online calendar but she notes there are many more sources of tasks including e-mail, voice mail, files on the desk, meeting notes and conversations. You want to check they understand that range and have a sensible way of handling it. Check to see if they know how to prioritize, can turn on a dime when necessary, and can deliver on time and on target.
– How do you think time is best managed?
A key issue is whether they are proactive or reactive. "You can bet that the more reactive a person is, the less control they believe they have of their time, and the less they will accomplish each week," she writes on her blog.
Look at how they balance meetings and getting other work done. A subsidiary question: "If you were giving advice to someone else about how to get more time, what would you tell them?"
– How many e-mails are in your inbox right now?
It should be a limited number. Find out how the person handles important attachments, other important information, and to-dos coming via e-mail.
These questions are rarely asked even though they probe an important aspect of thriving in the workplace.
3. Making your training stick
The day after a leadership development or training session most people forget what they learned as they dig into the work that has piled up while they are away. If you want the training to stick, consultant Karin Hurt recommends:
– Focus on changing one behaviour at a time rather than everything that surfaced during the training program. Integrate it into your leadership approach, asking for feedback and, once you are competent and confident in it, tackle another issue.
– find an accountability partner who you can check in with once a week and will offer you advice and support.
– Tell your team what you've chosen to work on and why.
"Invite them to notice when it's working and offer suggestions as to what you can do better. Your team already knows you're not perfect, and they'll be delighted to know you're working on becoming a more effective manager," she writes on her blog.
· Teach them what you learned. Teaching is a great way to understand the skill better.
You won't be perfect. When you mess up, apologize and try again. That's how improvements occur.
4. Quick hits
– Influence expert Robert Cialdini says the No. 1 rule for salespeople is to show customers that you genuinely like them. If the buyer feels liked, that can serve as the foundation for a lasting relationship.
– CEOs differ from average senior executives in ability to embrace risk and a bias toward acting and capitalizing on opportunities, according to recent research by two management consultancies.
– HR consultant China Gorman suggests focusing on the employee experience at work rather than employee engagement since it's specific, logical, and definable.
She points to an Employee Experience Index created by Globoforce and IBM, based on five factors: belonging (feeling part of a team), purpose (understanding one's work matters), achievement (a sense of accomplishment at work), happiness (pleasant feelings arising from work), and vigour (energy and enthusiasm at work).
– If you're asked what salary you want in a job interview, reply in a jocular vein with an implausible amount. That would seem to sink you but it actually anchors the discussion in that figure, even if a joke, and research shows it can lead to a higher eventual outcome.
– If you're annoyed by the tips that pop up automatically in Microsoft Word when you move your cursor over a certain spot on the page, you can turn them off. Display the Options box, click on the General tab, and then change the Screen Tip style to "Don't Show Screen Tips."
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter