MercurySays Blog

I Quit To Find My Fit

At 17, I got to the point when I hated high school, Truly despised it. I was one year away from graduating but I could not bring myself to walk through those double doors ever again. So, I didn’t.

I quit.

My parents were horrified. They told me straight up that I would fall badly behind and would suffer through my entire life for making such a foolish decision.

Curiously, I took no notice of their dire predictions even though most people would describe me as nervous and hesitant (those were the politest words people used).

So, what to do? I immediately set up my own (very) small business. I ran a guitar school for high school kids. I was a reasonable guitarist, but I learned the trick of being one week ahead of my students.

Of course, I wasn’t going to give up on my education, I just couldn’t deal for one more day with the complacent, second-rate educational institution that had held me in its grasp for the previous five years. Completing that one last year would have sent me to the brink of madness.

My little guitar school flourished, and, after a year, I enrolled in a special educational establishment that condensed the last two years of high school into one.

When I graduated, I applied to and was accepted into almost every university that suited my interests.

Little did I know that I was learning about myself, about my interests, about my determination, and about how institutions and the people embedded in them can get things so terribly wrong.

I never looked back.

Do you have a story about striking out alone and making it work?

Making Meetings Matter

Some organizations hold far too many meetings. Some hold meetings that are mostly a waste of time. Some of the worst troubles with meetings are caused by the person who plays the role of the chair. Usually, that’s the boss.

There are lots of technical titles for gatherings at work, but they usually stretch from musters to meetings. A muster is a gathering where people turn up mainly to be told things. There is little interaction by participants other than to listen and to acknowledge what they have been told.

At the other extreme, a formal meeting usually has a set of rules that participants must follow and a chair who ensures that they do. If conducted appropriately, this type of meeting allows each participant to speak so that they can explain, question, propose and, in the end, vote.

Many workplace meetings fall somewhere between these extremes, and they suffer as a result.

If the meeting chair operates without rules, the inevitable happens. Dominant people continue to dominate. Quiet people continue to remain quiet. The meeting takes the same pattern every time, with inevitably similar results.

In these circumstances, I usually recommend five rules be applied.

  1. A meeting agenda should be circulated beforehand.
  2. During the meeting, only one person may speak at a time.
  3. No-one should repeat what someone else has already said.
  4. Everyone gets to vote on a decision.
  5. The chair will oversee these rules.

There is something else that the chair of a meeting should recognize. What is the purpose of each item on the agenda? Here are the main choices:

  • To impart information
  • To draw conclusions
  • To assess knowledge or values
  • To express emotions, or
  • To make a decision or take action.

Once the chair makes their choice they can focus on a participant most likely to achieve that purpose. For example, they could ask someone who is good at gathering the latest information to prepare for an informational item and ask another participant to consider the conclusions that could be drawn from those facts. They could ask a participant who is action oriented to speak about what to do next.

Having basic rules in place allows for faster, more efficient meetings in which all voices can be heard. Having the chair focus on a participant who is best suited to achieve the purpose of an item will allow that person to shine while the issue at hand will be guided toward the chair’s preferred outcome.

Many workplace meetings are a shocking waste of time. Much of the information shared is irrelevant to most participants. Little is achieved.

Can we do meetings better?

Dealing with a Lazy, Incompetent Coworker

There are two types of lazy and incompetent work colleagues: those who hide their sins and those who don’t care.

It’s hard to know which one is worse.

It can take a while to realize that someone is hiding their ineptitude or their lethargy, but it eventually becomes clear. The openly lazy staff member is more difficult to deal with. They are daring you to expose them and, if you do, they may retaliate. Clearly, they have few ethical constraints.

When I say, “work colleagues,” I mean my peers, but also my boss or even an executive.

Here are some examples of people who fit this category.

  1. A senior manager whose office I entered at 4:30 PM was sitting in semi-darkness, knitting a scarf.
  2. A man whose office reeked of alcohol and who, after lunch, was always in loud, party mode.
  3. A colleague who consistently avoided some of his main tasks and regularly pleaded with others to complete what he had failed to finish.
  4. A staff member who often left work early claiming she had to care for a sick relative in a distant part of town when they were seen shopping at their local nearby mall.
  5. A co-worker who always blamed either his tools (in this case, the CRM system) or people outside the organization for anything that didn’t go well.
  6. A manager who controlled the flow of all information to our group, and, after we checked with other teams, it became apparent that she lied about some events and situations to cover her incompetence.

Some try to lie their way out of trouble. Others try to lure you into their lurk.

The situation can be more complicated if they are in a relationship with or they are a relative of someone higher up. That’s when you can face a real challenge.

So, how do you deal with such situations?

The Chinese appliance manufacturing firm Haier took a strong approach to this problem many years ago. First, it made staff destroy products like washing machines that were faulty. Next, they made every small part of their corporation an independent, self-governing enterprise. The staff and manager were bound to required outcomes and, if any staff member failed to do their job, the group sacked them.

So, how to deal with these lazy or incompetent people? They will, usually, try to manage information to cover their failures.

They will draw specific conclusions about the restricted information they provide (they were misinformed, they were misled, they had poor equipment or support) and they will, at worst, say that what was required was against corporate values, or even against the law.

When pushed, they may become emotional, or they will take action to cover their misdeeds.

To overcome this behavior, I try to get them to specify the results they can achieve. That usually makes them responsible for reaching their own target. If they don’t, they need to define how they can fix those things that made them fail. Do you have any more insights and suggestions?

End of the Line for Bad Bosses?

A good boss, and most of us have had them, is heaven. A bad boss is hell.

When GoodHire published its survey findings from 3,000 US workers across the biggest job sectors in 2022, some 70% of workers indicated they enjoyed working with their manager. That sounds nice but what was interesting was that over 80% believed they could do their manager’s job and that they could do their current job without having a manager.

So, for the 30% of workers who did not enjoy working with their manager, what did they dislike the most? Typically, it was the classic unpleasant personality: the overbearing micromanager who expected staff to work beyond normal working hours. One of the most devastating findings was that some 44% of workers believed their manager had no idea what motivated them, or they did not care.

If this last finding is true, many managers must be simply using a command-and-control method to get things done. “I tell you what to do; you do it.” In our current era, this approach must be becoming increasingly dangerous … for the manager and for their organization. Staff will quit or worse, the organization will begin testing the “unbossing” model that appears to be gaining strength in corporations like Bayer and Novartis.

If you haven’t heard about “unbossing”, it involves introducing an organizational structure in which the middle level bosses are sacked, and staff report directly to the executive team. The key to this approach is that staff are (more or less) left to work independently.

You can see why we developed to help managers become better at their jobs and to encourage more self-driven independent responses by staff. It helps staff to become more self-motivated and it might prove to be a lifeline for managers who may otherwise be facing a grim, limited future.

Managers, Make Your Messages Meaningful

The more intense your message and the closer it is to your target, the more chance you have of gaining their attention and inducing action.

An intense message may be unusual, surprising, or dramatic.

A proximate message may be close physically, emotionally, or socially in some way.

Imagine this …

On a wild and windy day in the dry heat of summer, there may be a high risk of wildfires in your locality. As the wind whips up, your focus on the weather increases. You continually check the fire authority’s and local government’s websites for updates.

The distant wail of a fire engine siren will come to the front of your mind because it reinforces the chance of imminent danger. Now, you can smell the smoke of burning brush. This rising plume of bad information makes you more concerned.

The proximity and intensity of the information you are receiving is now dominating your thoughts.

The sky is darkening under a screen of smoke. A fire truck, with lights flashing and siren wailing, rushes past your home. You can see a helicopter dropping fire retardant chemicals on a nature reserve close by.

Now, the intensity and proximity of the information you are receiving is so strong that it flips you into your expressive modes: emotion and action. At this moment, people can go crazy. There’s no time to think. You and your property are in imminent danger. You may cry out. You have to do something. Your attention is utterly focused.

The Manager’s Attention Grabber

Okay, if you are a manager and you want your team or an individual staff member to pay full attention, you should use intensity and proximity.

Make your message unusual, surprising, or dramatic. The more significant it is, the better. Of course, you should use this technique only on important occasions rather than every day.

To get the proximity aspect right, you have to know what is important to your team or to an individual staff member. What is motivating them? What do they want to achieve?

Is someone looking for promotion? Make it clear that their performance will be closely watched. Does someone need time off to help an ailing relative? Make it clear this will put them in the running for that.

Of course, you can’t tease or lie. You have to play straight. You have to prove that you are serious and show what you have done to ensure that your staff perceive your proximity message as legitimate.

So, keep those words in mind: intensity and proximity.

And, if you aren’t sure what defines intensity and proximity in the minds of your staff, you had better make sure you find out immediately. After all, you are their manager.

Is the Ear Fairer than the Eye?

I have noticed that I am more dispassionate and more honest when I listen to people without seeing them. It’s probably not a good characteristic. Do you share this bias?

It becomes obvious when you look at the talking heads on mainstream TV or in podcasts. The attractive ones seem to do well. Those who we could charitably say that at least their mothers love them (bless them) are often not so successful.

You can see this bias with those cheap adverts that interrupt a podcast on YouTube. (Yes, I know I can block them.) Sometimes you wonder why someone who looks so much like a cheap-suit conman could think it was a good idea to feature themselves visually in an advert trying to sell some crypto currency scam. As soon as I see them, I hit the mute button.

I suspect that what we see, we absorb as straight, simple information and we make instant judgments. We jump past cool, rational assessment as fast as possible.

But, when we listen without seeing, we hear structured information that becomes argument (in the formal sense of the word) or persuasion. We have to do a little intellectual work before we shift to making a judgment.

What do you think?