Best Practice
May 7, 2012

The eight signs of idiocy

Help! I’m Surrounded by Idiots

Tom E. Jones

WorxPublishing, 131 pages, $22.95

 

Tell the truth. Deep down, do you sometimes – or often – believe your workplace is populated by idiots?

No doubt you consider yourself an exception. But the reality is that others might see you as just another workplace idiot they have to contend with.

“The problem is simple. Those who make the decisions and those who carry them out often think independently of each other instead of acting collaboratively. Thus, there are no internal checks and balances,” Tom E. Jones, a consultant to government agencies and business, writes in his book, Help! I’m Surrounded By Idiots.

He tells the story of one company – might well have been a government department – where management and employees were feuding, each thinking the other were idiots. There was no teamwork. The leaders and followers in the organization did not see themselves as working partners with common goals. “Most of their interactions centered on personality clashes or affixing blame rather than dealing with the task at hand,” he notes.

He argues there are eight common conditions that promote idiot-like behaviours in the workplace. You therefore want to weed them out of your organizational garden.

1.Unstable Relationships: Relationships in dysfunctional workplaces are based on how well people get along with each other. This may seem logical, but it’s more important that those relationships be built on the unique skills and experiences each person brings to a job assignment. Idiot-like behaviour is stoked when no appreciation exists for the need to create common goals that pull people together. He believes the key is to build “task-oriented” relationships when people are brought together to accomplish a specific assignment in which they focus on the details of the task and not each other. That approach has been called “keeping your eye on the job.”

It starts by recognizing that you can accomplish more by working together than you can by working alone. That’s not just a general philosophical approach. You need to consider the specific task at hand and recognize that collaboration is vital for its success. You must respect and value what the other people bring to the relationship. You must also clarify, at the start, what you expect of others (and vice-versa). When faced with a disagreement, avoid taking a position until you know the whole story.

2.Dispirited Workers: Your co-workers are acting inappropriately and could do the job better. But Jones says these folks are not wilfully stupid, nor do they screw up intentionally. They screw up because of lack of awareness: they don’t know what they don’t know and nobody is filling them in on what’s required.

It’s your responsibility to motivate them. That begins by asking a series of questions. Are my people good at what they do? Is what they do what they’re supposed to do? Is what they do good enough to keep your department firing on all cylinders? Do they recognize the need to improve?

“Learning something new can be a motivating experience if learners are fully aware of their shortcomings before the lessons begin. They also must be motivated by the prospect of applying their newly acquired skills to the job,” he notes.

3.Information Hoarding: Fearful of raising concerns, followers gather privately to complain about their jobs and the idiots who run the place. It’s all very comfortable: they get to tell their story to a sympathetic audience. But it doesn’t improve the workplace one whit.

When the rumour mill is spinning, he advises you not to wait until you have all the details. Get the truth, as you understand it, out there quickly. “Unless you are bound by some legal restriction, when you get wind of a rumour tell your people everything you know about the facts of the matter. If some of what you say turns out to be inaccurate, then retell it the right way as soon as you get a chance. You may have to do this several times before a rumour dies,” he advises.

In addition, pick out those who are trustworthy and talk to them personally, indicating you want them to know the truth. Keep your feelings about the situation to yourself, listening to others openly and thoughtfully.

4.Minimal Expectations: Nobody seems to care about getting things right. Problems that easily could be fixed are left to float to the top or sink to the bottom – que sera, sera. Nobody is motivated to care if a job is done right or the client is satisfied. Then, suddenly, an urgent meeting is called, management cracks the whip, the idiots upstairs, as Jones puts it, deciding the folks downstairs are a bunch of incompetent fools. Sometimes the followers, in turn, overreact to management’s intention to fix what seems like a simple problem and rebel against the effort. Both groups are caught in a dance of minimal expectations.

Jones outlines six levels of initiative in a workplace: wait for direction; ask for direction; suggest a direction; act and report immediately; act and report periodically; act unless otherwise directed. You need to clarify in your own mind, and in others, what you actually mean when you tell people to show some initiative. It will differ in various situations, and confusion will only create more idiot-like behaviour. At the same time, you must use constructive feedback to raise the bar on performance.

5.Unresponsive Cliques: The workforce rejects teamwork, employees preferring instead to join cliques. Jones substitutes task-mapping, in which you bring people together to work on tasks, choosing carefully who has the right skills. The principles everyone must accept are that they can accomplish more by working together than by working alone; they should work on the same thing at the same time; they should respect and value what the other people bring to the relationships; and they should clarify intention and actions everyone is expected to take. When conflict occurs, don’t rush to judgment; get the facts first.

6.Unreliable Communications: Mistakes and misunderstandings occur because of the general inability to figure out what information is needed, and in particular where and how to transmit bad news to executives. When people leap to action, it is too often on poor information. It’s important to learn how to be tactful and non-judgmental when communicating negative information. Jones urges you to avoid judgmental phrases. “Your purpose in communicating honestly is to get people to take remedial action to fix what’s wrong, not to fix blame or make people feel guilty. But none of this will happen if you don’t say what you mean. Dancing around the truth may avoid hurt feelings, but it doesn’t change behaviour,” he stresses.

7.Change Resistance: People fear change not so much because they don’t see the need for it or agree with the proposed initiative but because they are left in the dark until the change is made. Jones proposes you bring them onside with the “Silver Bullet Challenge”: guaranteed access to someone higher up in the chain of command whenever they want to draw attention to a problem or a negative outcome from change. Issue everyone a facsimile of a silver bullet, and let them know all they have to do is say they want to use their silver bullet and a senior executive’s door will open to them. “Most people never use their bullet. Just having it at the ready gives them a sense of personal power. O

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