Recalibrating fixed beliefs - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
March 28, 2014

Recalibrating fixed beliefs

Tipping Sacred Cows
Jake Breeden
Jossey-Bass, 215 pages, $30.95
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously.

“When leaders embrace beliefs without understanding and managing the potential side effects, the beliefs become sacred cows and get in the way. When leaders shut off their brains and blindly follow the bromides of conventional wisdom they set off a string of unintended consequences,” Jack Breeden, a teacher with Duke Corporate Education, writes in Tipping Sacred Cows.

The scared cows he points to would be viewed as virtues by most of us, things like balance, collaboration, creativity, excellence, and fairness. But he argues that we have to think more deeply about these virtues and apply them on purpose, thoughtfully, rather than out of habit. Indeed, while he says leaders grapple with demons like jealousy, selfishness and greed, he finds virtues that are secretly harmful to be much more interesting to focus on than those vices.

“Leaders need the wherewithal to ask forbidden questions: Why should I collaborate? Is passion healthy? Does everything I do need my best effort? Should I prepare less? Should I care less? Leaders need to be wise to the seductive power of unquestioned orthodoxies,” he writes.

He alerts us, in depth, to seven sacred cows. The trick is to figure out when and how those sacred cows function well, how they can backfire, and how to recalibrate them so that they help rather than hurt your workplace:

Balance: This can be a positive, as we seek to set the dial properly in various aspects of our lives between being effective workers and effective parents, short-term and long-term results, being detail-oriented and visionary, and between different employees seeking our favour. But it can backfire when it sucks you into routinely making bland compromises. “If a leader, in striving for balance, is mediocre at everything (or engenders mediocrity in her employees), then balance has backfired,” he says.

Don’t hide behind the notion of balance to avoid tough choices and unpopular decisions. Often, he observes, seeking balance is just an act of cowardice, the inability to make and commit to a choice. Leaders fall into the trap of saying “all of the above” to the multiple choice questions of the workplace. That leads to poor results. Seek instead what he calls “bold balance,” rejecting compromise as a default position, and over the broader horizon turning those bold choices into a balanced approach.

Collaboration: Collaboration is a watchword these days in workplaces. And certainly it’s vital to get people working together, complementing each other. But he points to the tumble from greatness at RIM, the makers of the BlackBerry, under two collaborative co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. While their backgrounds complemented each other and they could each tackle one aspect of the firm’s activities confident in the other handling the remaining aspects, Breeden feels they succumbed to the dark side of collaboration: absence of clarity and accountability. “We should collaborate when it’s helpful, not because it’s an unquestioned sacred cow,” he says, calling for accountable collaboration instead of automatic collaboration.

Make sure everyone knows their own and other colleagues’ responsibilities, and they aren’t afraid to point out when someone is not carrying through. And watch out for meetings, the ultimate collaborative tool in the workplace that sometimes is not as effective as working alone.

Creativity: This is the rage these days, as leaders are urged to be innovative and creative. But he forces us to pause and distinguish between narcissistic creativity and useful creativity. He cites Sony, which has failed to have anything setting the technological standard since the Trinitron TV and Walkman – hence, in the view of the media, a company lacking creativity. “In fact, Sony’s failure stems from too much creativity. Instead of listening to the market with humility, Sony’s engineers crammed their best technology into an MP3 player that was too cumbersome to use. Instead of taking care of their customer’s needs for simplicity, they took care of their own engineer’s need for complexity. Engineers inside Sony viewed the storage technology used by Apple’s iPod as boring and beneath them, so they went their own way. These innovators had brains full of ideas. Their problem wasn’t too few ideas: their problem was too much narcissism,” he writes.

It can be fun to exercise our creativity and make breakthroughs. But often, he reminds us, an old idea is fine, or combining two old ideas to produce a new initiative. Beware of always feeling you have to add your own ideas to the brew; that’s narcissistic creativity. And remember, he says, that “useful creativity delivers value, not just novelty.”

Excellence: We want high quality but have to ensure seeking it doesn’t choke progress. That often happens when you become obsessed with excellence in process rather than outcomes, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sure, you want great processes, but sometimes instead of holding your process to a high standard you can simply focus on excellence in the outcome.

“We set a trap for ourselves when we expect excellence in everything,” he says. “High standards are wasted on activities of low importance because leaders can’t give themselves a break.”

Fairness: We seek fairness. It’s the Canadian way. But again it’s vital to distinguish between process and outcomes as we contemplate fairness. You want fairness in processes, so that people are treated fairly and understand that is the prevailing rule in your workplace. At the same time, you need to recognize that treating people fairly can mean inequitable outcomes, that you as a leader can act fairly with the result being apparent unfairness or inequality.

Breeden tells the story of a head nurse who declined to send her all-star performer to a training program for a second consecutive year, even though she was the best candidate, since it seemed more equitable to send someone else this time. That infuriated the top performer, who saw it as unfair, not recognizing her value, and she shifted to another unit in the hospital. The head nurse’s “fairness” may not have been fair. It certainly backfired, big time.

Passion: Passion is supposed to be a wellspring for career success these days. But he distinguishes between “harmonious passion,” which is in tune with the other parts of your life, and obsessive passion, which crowds out other aspects of your life and work as you fixate on one thing at the expense of others. “Obsessive passion leads to wild swings from huge enthusiasm at the start of a project to disappointment and regret when delays, challenges, or changes arise,” he observes. He asks you to catalogue your workplace obsessions – the chips on your shoulder, for example, or other destructive forces – and mitigate them, so you can find a more stable level of passion.

Preparation: Too often we get immersed in “backstage preparation,” trying to line up everything in order before going ahead with an idea. That only leads to delay. He suggests you concern yourself instead with “onstage preparation,” when you learn as you are doing “the exhilarating, powerful process of making yourself vulnerable to be persuaded and changed even as you’re attempting to persuade.” Also, be alert that preparation can backfire when you fall in love with the work resulting from all that preparation and defend what you should change.

You might feel that in some cases he is just splitting hairs. But that’s his point: sacred cows have value – they are sacred – as long as we understand the times when they work and the times when they trip us up. The book is valuable for alerting us to those dangers, and perhaps also for nudging us to scrutinize other sacred cows he doesn’t mention but can snare us.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
 
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...
 
We learned in grade school that one plus one equals two, but when we are faced with two choices in decision-making – and usually decisions end up framed around two possibilities — our approach might be described as one versus one equals one. We discard the lesser choice and move on with the better one....
 
Did your high school valedictorian go on to achieve greatness? High schools select their valedictorians because they show promise and exemplify the best the school has to offer. So it’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to achieve great things. Many achieve success in their future careers. But greatness tends to be rare. And...
 
Yogi Berra, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter. Five elite athletes who led championship teams. However, there’s a difference between them – a critical difference – that could be important to government executives seeking to be more effective at work. Three of those stars – Berra, Richard, and Russell –...
 
Radical candour sounds rather outré as a prescription for government executives. Careful caution is often the norm. But consultant Kim Scott believes candor is critical for relationships and internal organizational communications. And if that doesn’t convince you, her new book, Radical Candor, still has some terrific ideas to improve your weekly schedule of meetings and...
 
Innovation is prized and praised these days at work, even in government. We are supposed to relish creative change. But what if the reality is that humans instinctively reject such change? Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist at the University of San Diego who has focused on creativity, is making waves with her claim that our...
 
Leading the Unleadable By Alan Willett Your team probably includes some difficult people. You may not have chosen them – they could have been inherited – but they are your responsibility, even if at times you don’t know what to do. Should you shunt them off onto a project? Chastise them in public? Ignore the...
 
If you want to learn from mistakes in how to handle an interview, you could take a lesson from Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, and Alexander Haig. The three public figures all had celebrated careers. But each also had one moment when they badly flubbed an interview. Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy he had...
 
As understanding of social behaviour increases through intensified research, many government executives are learning about the art of nudging. Governments are establishing nudge units to encourage the citizenry to adopt desired behaviours and, less formally, ministries are trying other routes than laws and regulations to get results. Related posts: Where you sit is where you stand...
 
We curse meetings, but they are essential to today’s collaborative leadership approach. We may long to eliminate them – and no doubt some could be trimmed – but the bigger issue is to make the ones we have more effective. Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings,...
 
Government is replete with silos. Like the weather, everyone complains about them but nobody does much to change it. And if they try, they often find the silos sturdier than expected. That’s why Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect is an interesting book for government executives. Primarily about business, it still includes government, which is rare...
 
Words, words, words. Blah, blah, blah. Our days – our work lives – are punctuated by a sea of words. We use words to communicate. We use words to not communicate. We use words to share our ideas, to propel our innovation. Think of a recent meeting and you’ll likely think of blah, blah, blah....
 
Government executives are writers. Maybe not like Margaret Atwood or Joseph Boyden, but they pound out words every day themselves on their keyboard, in emails, memos, and other missives. Unfortunately, a lot of what they write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid...
 
Gladwell made Anders Ericsson famous—or, at least, his research work. A professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson conducted the study of violinists that the best-selling journalist glamourized in his book Outliers, imprinting on our consciousness that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at whatever task you devote such attention to....
 
Every evening, Marshall Goldsmith pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions about his behaviour that day. As a high-profile executive coach, he knows how difficult it is for top leaders to cleanse themselves of destructive behaviours. He makes his clients accountable to the people around them in order to heighten the...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some popcorn. Specifically, an experiment some psychologists dreamed up in which they handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn to everyone arriving at a suburban Chicago movie theatre in 2000 to catch a Mel Gibson flick. It may sound like a good...
 
David Dingwall is familiar to many government executives for his role in the Chrétien government where he held several cabinet posts, from public works to health. He later became a government executive himself, presiding over the Royal Canadian Mint, improving operations to the point the organization secured its first surplus in a number of years....
 
Are you an undermanager? We’ve all been warned not to overmanage – become a hen-pecking, micro-manager, obsessing about details, instead of delegating wisely. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes the opposite, under-management, is epidemic. Indeed, he insists it’s hiding in plain sight, but we don’t notice. “It is so often what’s going wrong in so many...
 
A leader’s job is to illuminate the path ahead. It’s vital to keep employees engaged and aligned with end goals on every project you undertake. And that challenge might be made easier–illuminated for you–by presentations specialist Nancy Duarte, who developed former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s powerful climate change slide show, and colleague Patti Sanchez in...
 
Ottawa’s Chris Bailey turned down a number of attractive job offers after university graduation in favour of something even more attractive: Figure out how to be productive. It was a personal Odyssey, as he tested the ideas peddled by productivity gurus to see what worked and what didn’t, and added his own twists. The result...
 
At the height of World War Two, a clever scheme was developed to disrupt the Nazi regime behind enemy lines in occupied territory without being detected. It involved a variety of obvious tactics such as slashing tires and draining fuel tanks but also included some unusual ideas to sabotage internal workplace processes. Those might seem...
 
Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99 If you think that much of what you read and hear from leadership gurus is BS, you have a supporter in Jeffrey Pfeffer. At first glance he’s an unlikely backer since he’s a leadership guru himself. But he’s a professor of organizational behaviour at the...
 
If you want to improve your management procedures, search Google. No, don’t put those words in the search engine’s magical white slot. Instead read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. The head of Google’s people function shares insights gleaned from the company’s rapid growth and its many experiments with different procedures, to see what works best. Of...
 
Mentoring can be one of the most critical – as well as challenging and rewarding – tasks we undertake in the workplace. Sometimes it’s formal. Sometimes it’s informal. But always, when effective, it’s important. Related posts: How to cultivate a sponsor Coach or mentor: Which one do you need? How Changemakers Get Things Done in Government: Intrapreneurship in Action...
 
In recent years, it has been customary for government – and government executives – to be looked down upon, while business has been exalted. Somebody who hasn’t succumbed is management guru Henry Mintzberg. Related posts: Communicating in 140 characters On the Road: Open Government Part 4 Report calls for Inuit involvement in managing Arctic shipping traffic...
 
Many studies have shown that women are socialized to fit in, not stand out. But fitting in can leave you a follower, forever. To advance at work, you need to be noticed. You need to stand out....
 
In 1994 psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait” to describe a common problem he saw emerging in the workplace: The tendency to hop from task to task in a rush, without proper focus on what people were doing or should be doing....
 
Leaders motivate. They nudge and cajole staff into inspired work, wielding monetary incentives when required, at least in the private sector. Without motivation, employees might wither and certainly wouldn’t shine. That’s a basic premise of leadership and managerial thinking. And it’s dead wrong…...
 
When you think of creativity and innovation in government, John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably don’t spring to mind. Neither worked in government and, indeed, they were anti-establishment types who you can imagine sneering at “government bureaucrats.”...
 
You can’t appear for your important presentations in a black turtleneck and jeans like Steve Jobs did. And you don’t have alluring electronic gizmos to talk about. So suggesting you might learn from the presentation approach of the hallowed Apple pitchman might seem ludicrous....
 
We know feedback is good for us. We know it can help us improve. But receiving feedback can often be difficult. We tense up, even get irked or angry. Only part of the message, or perhaps none of it, slips through, as we slide into defensive mode. Related posts: Leader as mentor: The power of experience...
 
Leaders need to know how to inspire and manage, and have a solid understanding of the policy field in which they operate. But that’s not enough....
 
As I rush-rush-rush through the day, I occasionally remember the notion of “cool time” from a book published 12 years ago by Toronto time management consultant Steve Prentice....
 
Before a presentation, uncertainty and fear can lead us to try to include all the information required to answer all the questions recipients might have. There’s also a temptation to pack in as much detail as possible, to show the extent of our research, knowledge, and hard work in preparing....
 
Much has been written about decision-making in recent years, as we learn more about how the brain works and behavioural economists devise experiments to understand how we approach choice. But much of it could lead us astray… Related posts: Deliberating over decisions...
 
Elections can bring a change of government. They certainly bring a change in the face of government, as some ministers lose their re-election bid and others are shuffled by the returning prime minister. Related posts: Brainstorming: back to the three basics Are you prepared for performance reviews? How the art of improv can transform the way we work...
 
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously....
 
Governments monitor monetary inflation, and have kept it in check in recent years. But there’s another inflation, rampant, that isn’t monitored and walloping all of us: communications inflation. Technology allows us to connect – and communicate – in a host of ways not available to us just a few years ago, let alone a couple...
 
The dramatic clandestine rescues by Navy SEALs and their daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s lair may make their work seem a world apart from that of government executives. But in their 2003 book Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs, advertising executive Jeff Cannon and his brother, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon…...
 
If you can be a better leader through healthy living, the key to success in your job may lie in three words: Eat, move, sleep. Certainly Tom Rath believes they are important. And Rath, a Gallup researcher, has offered cogent advice before to government executives, in his writings on using their strengths at work and...
 
Finding mentors has been one of the holy grails of career progression, hammered into us by innumerable career consultants and the lessons of our own career. Yet now, someone is telling us to forget them. Related posts: The art of mentorship The benefits of an executive coach Intrapreneurship in Action: An interview with Nick Frate...
 
Today, when emotional intelligence is treasured, Sherlock Holmes would seem like a poor role model for government executives. The man lived in his mind and seemed remote from humanity. He could get enmeshed in a drug stupor or sidetracked by some obscure experiment or offbeat intellectual interest. Definitely not the model for modern, progressive governance....
 
No. The word jars us. Just two letters, but it makes us decidedly uncomfortable. In the workplace, Yes is the golden word, the winning word, the expected word that garners plaudits....
 
Our days are a series of decisions, some minor, some medium, some major – and the occasional one humungous. It might seem daunting to think of your day in that fashion, since it’s obviously hard to get every decision right....
 
Presentations make the world go round, particularly in government. Unfortunately, too many of them are ineffective. Incomprehensible graphics, too much text, and garbled messages....
 
Your first instinct might be to deny it, but you are probably a salesperson. Most government executives are, even if the public service is seen as galaxies away from the grubby world of commerce and sales....
 
Getting subordinates to take responsibility in the appropriate situation can be a mind-boggling pursuit. Often we find ourselves lurching into frustrating tugs of war, where they take more responsibility than we want and then take absolutely no responsibility when we are hoping – and perhaps insisting – they do....
 
To improve your job performance and prepare for promotions, should you work on your strengths or weaknesses? What about your subordinates? In getting the best performance from them, should you prod them to enhance their strengths, or shore up or eliminate weaknesses?...
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
As the World Bank in the 1990s was preparing for a major transformation to mark its 50th anniversary, consultants Chris McGoff and Michael Doyle met to discuss the plan developed…...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...