How to, and how not | | DJS

How to, and how not

Challenges to authority cause problems. A very few managers are willing to receive observations that could, if the same thing were said to others, be understood to be criticism. Therefore it may be possible to couch what you feel is necessary comment in ways which are not seen as, nor taken as, criticism.

Does this connect to ability to tell it like it is, the issue of 'politeness' that causes (steroetypical southern english) to avoid confronttion in any form? is that how to approach this chapter?

Throughout these processes, attempting to cause change, there are two underlying principles: 

(i) Always refer to us, the collective. It is very difficult to direct comment at an individual without this being taken as criticism and, while in an inferior position (underneath), criticism is usually more than unwelcome, it brings forms of revenge and retribution. Always refer to 'us' and 'our problem', even if you can see that there is a particular individual making sure that a process cannot be improved. Keep any personalisation to yourself. Internally, unsaid.

(ii) criticise the system, not an individual. The individual is not at fault, the system needs improvement. Again, even if you could identify the central problem as an individual (with power, probably), no change will occur unless they recognise that there is an available improvement to the system.

The sort of situation that often applies is one in which, if you were to put forward an idea, it would be ignored for several reasons:

(i) Your idea threatens someone in a position 'above'. It doesn't matter whether this is true, it matters that this is the perception. It is dismaying how often the mere existence of a suggestion that there might be improvement available is seen as threat. This invades the secure space (Chapter N, your own space) of the obstructing person above.

(ii) Your idea has validity, but it threatens the the system, so the system itself will fight back to prevent change. This is a form of institutional inertia and, often, the solution is to move elsewhere, after you've tried whatever you can to cause the work to morph into something better. I've seen this done as a scarifical move more than once; things need to be said, changes need to be made and those changes include you, the individual who sees that the changes must occur, leaving.

(iii) a combination of these, in that the existence of a suggestion is itself a threat, irrespective of its worth.

A related situation is that there are places where a suggestion worth having is stolen, in the sense that it is presented higher up as being owned by the 'finder'. So the finder claims authorship and looks to turn this to advantage. At first this theft and the concept of this theft is very uncomfortable. However, a little more thought suggests that this is actually in your interests, that you'd like for a higher up—and perhaps a chain of higher-ups— to each take the idea as their own. Practically, you don't need the fame and difficulties that associate with having had a good idea (you'll be expected to produce them forever and to never be wrong), as much as you need for them to take possession of the idea, to own it more fully than they intended —they steal it, but it possesses them. You want the idea to work, or least be tried. So when some higher-up type comes back with a form of your idea, you can enthuse appropriately, run with the idea, show what will and will not work of their version and show loads of enthusiasm, for which your immediate boss will feel responsible and may get credit, but at the same time this all means that next time there is an idea offered at your level, the boss will be just that little bit more inclined to hear it out.

So this points to a realm of mechanisms you can seek in which you put an idea into someone's head. I have found that the most successful routes centre around making this 'their idea', so that they own it from the start. Like you steer them to reword the germ you want to plant and immediately you reflect it straight back and call it their idea; if you can, you attach their name to the idea and you do this often enough so that others use the phrase. You (and others, who'll catch on to your enthusiasm) run with the idea just enough to show the boss that this has support and a little apparent / real brain-storming, which doesn't need to be across a short time but can be, reworks the Boss's idea into the beginning of a plan, at which point either the boss can be challenged to try it, or at least to take the idea further up the chain.

This works in teaching of certain sorts. Students learn well if they 'own' a discovery, ideally by making the discovery for themselves. Or, if truth be told, thinking that this is what has occurred. In any class where the students have the confidence to put forward ideas without being shot down too roughly, there will be ideas that provide an opportunity to explore and, if the idea is labelled say Molly's Conjecture, there will be quite a bit more enthusiasm for the exploration than if it was, say, one of Euclid's postulates. As the study progresses, so one can add ownership to the class, Edward's Corollary, for example. Putting these up on a separate board while the study goes on can not only motivate this class, but other classes using the same room may seen that something really interesting (weird, even) is occurring, such as a class actually enjoying maths.

Example: one of a class referred to grains of rice on a chessboard. this was some reward for some salacious story in which the hero gets the girl or some such nonsense, and, having all laughed at the inappropriate setting, one wondered just how much rice that was. A week's lessons later (five lessons and the associated homework time), the class has established that the amount of rice in the last square is a very big number, and that all of the rice required made the chess board itself very large; that if we had the rice and put it on Dartmoor it might well spill into the sea and that if we put it on the Brecons we might just see it from our classroom in Plymouth. We had serious doubt that there had ever been that much rice grown and we were fairly sure that there had never been that much rice grown yet. We had become used to very large numbers and had developed ways of being sure that we had a good grasp of size, so were switching between cubic units like litres and cubic kilometres with confidence, having worked out ways of checking that our numbers, still ridiculously large, were at least consistent with previous work. We'd done work in groups and individual work; we'd chased different ideas in different groups; the class had set its own homework and returned to class with ideas. The general feeling at the end of the week was that the class understood the idea of exponential doubling pretty thoroughly and that they had a common experience with which to label this. No-one asked whether this was on the syllabus, because it so clearly was not – in some ways, it couldn't possibly be on the proper course, because this was fun. And maths is never fun. I never discussed what was learned with the class, but there were no more issues with place value in number. If I could guarantee that such a project would produce such a result, I think I could argue that every class ought to do something equivalent. Yes, this was project work, but at no time that week was such a phrase used.  The class felt that they had persuaded me off syllabus, that they were winning; it was true that I intended that they feel they were driving what was studied but at the time I was so excited that they were interested, I didn't care, short term about the plan for the year, this was goiing to pay off big time in terms of applied enthusiasm. So it proved; the usually unpalatable topics that followed were simply gobbled up.

The point to apply to other lessons and other situations is that, if you can move the possession of the idea to those of the group, more is learned, more is contributed and the return is out of all proportion to the effort applied. This leads to the idea of teacher as facilitator but, if you understand the tale more as a parable, then you see that the facilitator has to have a bigger grasp of the subject matter than is obvious during the experience.

Summing up, the strategy then is to not be at all possessive of an idea, any idea. You actually want the idea to be treated as bigger than any one individual and you want it to cause infectious enthusiasm. If there must be an identified source of the idea, make it the targeted person who should have the task of making the idea work, or even whose job it is to have such ideas at all. In turn that means that it is to everyone's apparent advantage if they are assumed to own the idea and to the advantage of the boss (boss minion, sometimes) to be given ownership if they can supplement the attraction of the idea with a load of support for the idea.

A long time ago and in uniform I was listening to someone talk about leadership. They'd been talking about the value of hearing (asking for and listening to) ideas from the soldiers. The military is broadly divided into soldiers and officers, but it is always clear that decisions 'belong' to the officers – if it goes wrong, it is quite clear who owns the decisions that helped things go wrong. So the aside that I remember ran along the lines that when you've made your (military) decision, it doesn't matter how much you're right if the soldiers will follow you enough to make it work.  redraft, so that the message is at the start and finish.

I had a boss who often canvassed opinion quite widely when a decision loomed. However, no matter how fiercely you'd argued for a position not taken, the leadership level was such that, when he had decided what we were going to do, and no matter how much the chosen policy was in conflict with your pre-decision ideas, you tried very hard to make that decision prove to be a correct one. On occasion there was explanation, generally along the lines that these (a short list followed) were the factors to be balanced and that, having done that balancing, here was the sensible course of action. With which one agreed, because among what we were being shown was that the view from higher up was quite a bit different. One consequence of the associated learning process was that when one moved on from there, one went upwards, not sideways. That is, no-one I knew who left went sideways, only upwards.

Seeing where people move on to might be a good test of an employer; see the chapter on metrics.


Expansion of this chapter; it feels too short.


Some time ago, Dale Carnegie published a book, How to make friends and influence people, often written off as a guide to and for salesmen. But Carnegie himself often quoted Henry Ford, If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.  [Keillor 2004, p. 20]. 

Theories about how we think and reason caused me to come across a diagram [from Haidt 2001, p. 815. Published by the American Psychological Association.] This takes a triggering event that sparks an inuitive response from person A, say Annabel, which is then justified in a post-hoc way by Annabel's judgement with more subsequent reasoning. There is a possibility that the reasoning would cause adjustment of the judgement and, less often that the reasoning would correct the intuitive decision. This is supported by a lot of research that shows that, especially on matters of moral judgement, we leap to an intuitive result and then subsequently justify that position. Now add in person B, Brian, who receives Annabel's position, judgement and reasoning and responds in ways that may indeed cause Annabel to adjust her position. This may be through rational argument or social persuasion and it may be that components of the arguments trigger other intuitive reactions (what feels right) so that Brian's judgement and reasoning affect Annabel's intuitive thinking. It is certainly cognition, but it is not reasoning.

 I'd like to adapt the diagram so that the circularity is iimplied, possibly even with a group decision as an exit point. I found something roughly the right shape in Science Direct here

 Several of the commentators I read called Haidt's intuitive response one of emotion, but I am unconvinced that intuition and emotion are the same. To me, emotion is the result of considering the intuition, just as the supportive reasoning occurs after the event. What I don't then understand is how the trigger event somehow prevents reasoned cognition occurring in preference to the intuitive response. Certainly the intuition is markedly quicker. Perhaps one should distinguish between a response and a considered response? Even then, that does not resolve how one might present an issue so as to somehow dodge the intuitive solution.

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