June 23, 2009
- Relativistic comparisons: “How people feel about their situation is highly dependent on comparison to others. Thus, in order to achieve good staff (team) morale, it is important to consider how to minimize negative comparisons now *and* in the future.” (Relativistic Comparisons, blog topic from last week).
- Loss aversion: “Our aversion to loss is a strong emotion…one that sometimes causes us to make bad decisions.“ (Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Ch. 7, pg.134, see his YouTube video explaining the difference between gain and loss perspectives)
These traits lead to key long view leadership principles:
- Learn the strengths of the individuals of your team and leverage individual strengths to achieve team goals. Be fair from the perspective of your team. Be clear on expectations, reward excellence, and avoid marginalization.
- Strike a fair balance between competing goals and demands of multiple masters. Be fair from the perspective of your customer (whoever pays for the service is the customer). Be clear on deliverables, achieve excellence in customer service, and respect tiered pricing.
- Have a plan that considers likely contingencies to ensure balance. (Do not assume that you can achieve balance under fire.)
This past weekend, I found myself observing these leadership principles in a very different domain than technology development. I felt them as a soccer mom.
The goals of a U14 (under fourteen) Class 1 (highly competitive league) are twofold: win games and develop players. A soccer team fields 11 players at a time, but carries a roster between 14 – 17 kids to allow for substitution (rest and injury). The coach’s leadership job on game day requires allocation of playing time to effectively win games and develop players. Players sitting on the bench do not develop (get better), but playing the strongest players improves the odds of winning games. This creates the inherent tension between the two goals (win games vs. develop players) with “playing time” being the valued (and measureable) scarce resource.
My son’s coach is an excellent well-trained soccer player with outstanding credentials. During training, he provides excellence in drills, discipline, and development feedback. At game time, although he is well-intentioned to achieve balance between the competing goals, he can become loss averse with respect to winning – can’t we all?! Given the much stronger aversion to loss, it is no surprise that long-term needs for gaining player development become subverted for short-term loss aversion during games. Without discipline and planning, the long view suffers…
Although my son is an excellent soccer player, combining speed, agility, and accurate ball placement, he is small of stature and is considered less aggressive than some of the other boys. He follows the expectations set by the coach and works hard to receive as much playing time as possible. He is loss averse to playing time both because he recognizes the vicious cycle of dis-improvement and because he feels “unfairness” (relativistic comparison) when the other boys receive substantially more playing time. With each successive “loss” of playing time he is further marginalized, thereby jeopardizing his love and passion for the game – a serious long view consequence of many small seemingly insignificant slights.
This past weekend resulted in an acute amplification of the phenomena…
My son’s soccer team traveled over a hundred miles from home to play a several day soccer tournament. Since not all team members could attend the tournament, extra players were recruited to “guest” at the tournament for the team. The team had 16-18 total players available for the tournament games. My son averaged 12.5 minutes of playing time per game (25% of 50 mins/game) with ZERO in the semi-final. Guest players each received substantial playing time (>75%) in all games including the semi-final.
It was a very unpleasant 2-hour ride home after the loss in the semi-final. Although I am confident that my perspective differs from those who received adequate playing time because they did not suffer marginalization – they have the perspective of “gain” whereas I have the long perspective of “loss,” a line was crossed that prompted me to write this blog post.
From my perspective, there was an omission of long view leadership principles when substantial playing time for the guest players led to permanent team members playing ZERO in the semi-final (scarce resource allocation):
- Marginalization was allowed. Receipt of ZERO playing time in a semi-final is a vote of “no confidence” and is severely marginalizing in the context of the guest players receiving substantial playing time (relativistic comparison of scarce resource allocation).
- Tiered pricing was not respected. Although everyone incurred (equivalent) travel expenses, the guest players, who received “free” coaching and tournament entry (those fees were paid by the team) were treated the same as paying players. It would be reasonable (to me) to defer to those players who bear the costs of the salary, expenses, and tournament entry to ensure principle #1.
- Planning was insufficient. If principles #1 and #2 are compromised, then #3 is insufficient. Planning is the big differentiator for long view leadership success – if you plan for contingencies you can and will overcome instinctual tendencies.
I don’t want my son to lose his love for this game, which leaves me with the question on how to move forward and regain the positive when I do not have any real influence. Although I it would be helpful if the coach could:
- Acknowledge error to my son and commit to move forward positively.
- Explain to my son that the team fit is no longer correct and then offer to help place him on a team that will value him (before we pay the $1400 fee for the fall season!).
I am not sure that will happen spontaneously. I would love to be able to Teach Concepts, Explain Specifics, and Gain Acceptance (Relativistic Thinking), but I am not the one with the relationship with the coach.
Can a 13-year-old navigate this effectively? What is your perspective? Do you have advice?
June 12, 2009
Specifically, we discussed the challenges of coping with isolated HR (Human Resources) actions that benefit a single individual/group, yet create long-term unintended consequences for other staff. One example was a scenario where HR advocated offering a higher starting salary to recruit a new employee without adjusting other staff salaries for like positions. The problem is that even if current staff salaries are economically fair (from an entirely objective perspective), the salary differential will be perceived as unfair when (not if) the details become known. This is because humans are tightly bound to relativistic thinking. Watch this great YouTube video by Dan Ariely from his work, Predictably Irrational, Ch.1, to demonstrate the point.
How people feel about their situation is highly dependent on comparison to others. Thus, in order to achieve good staff morale, it is important to consider how to minimize negative comparisons now *and* in the future.
The question that my friend and I discussed is the WHY would anyone advocate for such a scenario? I think that the biggest issue is that organizational policy-makers may not believe that negatives resulting from relativistic thinking are real. Concerns are dismissed by otherwise thoughtful and well-educated policy-makers because they want to believe that we should not behave that way *and* because they don’t “feel” it themselves. They are more likely to be insulated from accumulating these negatives, because their own (more senior) staff better model ideal behavior. Thus, their mental models, based upon their current experience, allow them to apply idealized logic to the expected behavior of more junior staff when assessing positives/negatives.
Intentions are good, vis-à-vis accruing an immediate (short view) positive for the single/group (improve employment competitiveness by recruiting new employee at higher salary). However, as noted by Jeffery Pfeffer in his book What Were They Thinking? Unconventional Wisdom about Management, pg.117, “…executives [can be] hopelessly out of touch and unable to empathize with or even understand the situation faced by front-line staff…,” underscoring the reality that long view negatives can be dismissed. The situation is more acute if policy-makers believe that that actions/policies will inculcate ideal behavior – it won’t! Humans are wired relativistically.
It is much better to avoid the conflicts than to have to deal with the unintended negative consequences. Thus, what is needed is for policy-makers to understand the effects that they are not currently considering. My advice:
- Teach Concepts: show the video clip to demonstrate the global concepts – Ariely has done excellent work to unequivocally demonstrate that relative thinking is universal and unavoidable,
- Explain Specifics: describe the specific logical effects of the proposal under scrutiny, and
- Gain Acceptance: get agreement that relativistic thinking causes significant negatives before you begin to discuss a direction for solution.
Are you taking time to teach concepts, explain specifics, and gain acceptance to those who do not “feel” them directly?
February 27, 2009
Over the past many years, I have had the privilege of analyzing many significant management issues within the technology industry using Goldratt’s thinking process. Each time, I set out to discover the core conflict, I knew that the adventure would be both interesting and challenging to resolve.
What I did not expect was for all of those core conflicts to coalesce to a competition between meeting short-term organizational interests and meeting long-term organizational interests: short v. long! At first, I was surprised because the actual manifestations (what people complained about) seemed quite different each time. However, with time and more examples, I began to realize that the common thread was essentially overly optimistic thinking: a) if everything goes perfectly and we are lucky, we can meet our goals, or b) we are not sure of our priorities, so let’s just try and do everything. I found myself asking, why would any rational business behave this way?
Not long after I decoded that common thread, a friend suggested that I read “Stumbling on Happiness” (it’s funny and enlightening; if you are a close personal friend of mine, you’ll probably get a copy for your birthday!) The answer is we (humans) tend to be irrational! This idea is not new, novel, or in any way original. In fact, there is an entire scientific domain devoted to these ideas: behavioral economics.
Although it’s not like I crawled out from under a rock without an understanding of the need for discipline in all aspects of life (my family instilled the importance of taking the long view and forgoing immediate gratification just like other families have done for millennia), I am simply taking it deeper. This weblog chronicles my absorption and application of this increased knowledge and awareness to life, business, technology, and family → kissing immediacy goodbye.