Find a cure

Horace wrote: “Feras non culpes quod vitari non potest.

“What can’t be cured must be endured.”

It’s a useful question to ask yourself about your business (and personal life too), “Can this be cured or must I endure this?”

Often the answer is, “yes, this can be cured.” If not cured, at the very least, systems can be put in place to reduce an undesirable trait/behavior/outcome to a low level.

Leadership is direct

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. Despite over two dozen witnesses who claimed to have seen or heard the attack, no one helped. Psychologists call this the bystander effect.

According to Psychology Today, the bystander effect "occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation…The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress." This happens for two reasons:

  1. There is a diffusion of responsibility
  2. Social influence

The more witnesses present, the more each person’s portion of responsibility is diffused across all witnesses. This diffusion prevents people from taking action because it is perceived that someone else in the group will take action. Social influence comes into play because each person looks to another person on how to behave.

Business Bystander Effect

Although not as fatal or gruesome as the Genovese case, there is a bystander effect in a business. We’ve all been to meetings where the leader asks a question or asks for volunteers and no one answers. We’ve all been part of a project where there seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of project participants and the number of ideas generated.

I believe that leaders accidentally create an environment that allows for the diffusion of responsibility. They do this through how they talk and write. In an effort to create a team environment, leaders overuse "we" to create a feeling of inclusion.

"We’re in this together."

"It’s all about the team."

Those things are fine to say and it creates a certain amount of esprit de corp. Where "we" goes wrong is in the assignment of tasks and delegation of responsibility. Some examples:

"We should research the impact of X on Y."

Or, "We should make the client is aware."

Who is the "we" that should be doing the work here? When used between two be people who have a supervisor and subordinate relationship, this may be very confusing. Will the supervisor do the work or will the subordinate do the work? When used between a supervisor and a group of subordinate—like in a team meeting setting—it’s even worse (we’ve all walked out of meetings not knowing who’s to do what).

Overcoming the bystander effect

In the same Psychology Today article, it suggests the following to overcome the bystander effect:

> "If you are the victim, pick out one person in the crowd and make eye contact."

I’ve also read elsewhere that once eye contact is made, you, the victim, should direct your request for help to that one person. "You, call 911."

Often leaders shy away from saying, "You should research the impact of X on Y" because it is too direct. To get buy-in or collaboration, language is weakened so that it doesn’t come off as too demanding or assertive.

I’ve fallen into the "we" trap but I’ve been working to catch myself and correct it in my speech and writing. Now I write and talk more like this:

"You do that and I will do this."

It’s still teamwork because we’re working on it together but the division of responsibility is very direct and clear. You’re handling that while I handle this. There’s no confusion.

Being inclusive is good. Creating a team environment is good. Leaders should strive to do those things but leaders also need to be clear and direct.

In-office work has problems too

Catherine Merrill, the CEO of Washingtonian magazine, wrote an opt-ed in The Washington Post about remote work. Her staff at the magazine didn’t like her opinion and went on strike. It seems understandable when your CEO writes: "So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security." That sounds like a threat.

Remote work doesn’t fit for every industry and every type of work or worker, but some of the benefits laid out by Merrill about in-person office work seem antiquated.

> "I’ve found a great sense of pride in how well our teams have done during the past year. However, we all started at a place where we and our employees knew one another, which made remote work considerably easier and more productive. We also could rely on office cultures — established practices, unspoken rules and shared values, established over years in large part by people interacting in person."

While an established in-person company culture may have influenced employee behavior in the first few months of remote work, to think it is the same company culture today as it was at the beginning of the pandemic is to not understand how company culture works.

Company culture is not static. It can potentially change for the better or worse with each new hire. It can change when a once highly esteemed employee turns cancerous and infects company culture. It can change with changing with societal attitudes regardless of what company leadership wants (see the recent drama at Basecamp when its leadership wanted to make their company apolitical.)

No doubt that employees have developed new cultural normals brought on by remote work and those cultural norms will return to the office with them and continue to evolve because culture evolves.

> "How will we persuade new employees to come aboard, and, more importantly, stay, if they don’t have leaders they can build solid in-person relationships with?"

The idea that you can’t build a relationship without being in person is ridiculous. My company has been remote since 2014. In that time I’ve only met one out-of-state employee (we’re based in California). Our company is not unique. Look at Automattic the makers of WordPress and Basecamp (even with all its current problems). There are probably more that I don’t know about.

> "The “Do you have three minutes to discuss X?” These encounters will happen. Information will be shared. Decisions will be made. Maybe if you are at home you’ll be Zoomed in, but probably not. As one CEO put it, “There is no such thing as a three-minute Zoom.”

There is no such thing as "three minutes to discuss X." These spontaneous interruptions are the plague of office work. "Serendipitous" collaboration is a euphemism for productivity killer.