Ageism: The cost of the journey

Even with labour market shortages and shifting demographics, ageism is still rampant in our workplaces. The cost of ageism is both in the journey and the destination. Why can’t we work to realise everyone’s potential?

An outcome of a photo search for older on a free photo site

Ageism is deeply engrained in our organisational psyche. We obsess over made up generations. We fail to appreciate the ‘war for talent’ is because of an ageing demographic. There’s no 50 over 50. Young guns are prized. Twenty-somethings are venerated as startup CEOs. Development is for younger talent. Transition to retirement programs start as young as 45 when retirement is over 65. As our economies have shifted to services and knowledge we have failed to see the value of experience. We retain mindsets from the days when physical work broke bodies.

The Cost of the Journey

Ageism affects all workers. Everyone ages and the implications are not lost on the young. In my twenties, I observed the hair colour of those leaving the organisation and the thinning ranks of older employees. I decided I needed a second or third occupation for my fifties. I thought my career was over when I hadn’t made general manager young enough. I gave up on a goal to be CEO (even though that proved to be wrong many times over). I ended up freelancing much of my forties after a poorly timed redundancy.

As a manager, I have hired so many talented older workers and discovered the breadth of what they can contribute. I have worked with many to develop new career opportunities and new skills. Despite their success in winning and performing in the role, some have been sceptical that they could keep it. The culture of ageism is so deeply engrained that despite their obvious contributions they expected me to move them on. Unnecessary stress hangs over all work. This stress is greater when combined in intersectionality with other forms of discrimination.

No talented person young or old should live in fear of ageing at work. Nobody should view their financial and emotional security tied to a Logan’s Run process where regardless of your potential your life is over at 45. The cost of this is not just on the older workers. This deprived organisations of workers full of talent and experience, both young and old. Talented people of all ages leave when you don’t respect the older worker.

We know horoscopes are make-believe. Generations are a marketer’s confection. We need to stop believing a birthdate determines potential or performance

Hire talented people. That’s it. That’s the advice that ends this nonsense.

But right now, the seasons fermented

To fullness, so slip into something light

Like your skeleton; while these old

bones are working, my darling,

Let’s dance

Barbara Cooker, Reel

The Awkward Squad

I first came across the idea of an Awkward Squad in Sophie Henaff’s detective novel about a division of French police comprised of other teams’ rejects. The idea has a long lineage in business and the military where putting trouble together is seen as freeing others to perform. More importantly, celebrating and empowering your Awkward Squad can be a powerful step to leverage and integrate difference.

Difference Matters

Our organisations are systems of standardisation, whether we realise it or not. As a consequence, everyday processes and interactions can isolate and alienate those whose inherent approach to work is different. What drives that difference to the standard is incredibly diverse and should be irrelevant. We cannot make people into others. We must work with their strengths and their potential.

The literature that diverse teams and organisations are better performing is clear. Diversity matters, whether it is the power of diversity to better reflect stakeholders, shatter groupthink or bring extraordinary new talents to bear on work. The best performing teams that I have been lucky enough to work with were often viewed by other teams as the Awkward Squad and then showed them how to perform.

Celebrate Awkward

Remember that the designation of difference is not a choice of the individual. Difference is an outcome of systems and cultural norms in the organisation. Those norms and processes drive counterproductive standardisation in the name of efficiency, ease and an unspoken inhumanity. These processes drive out the awkward.

Robots are standardised. Humans are not. The cost of driving out the different falls on everyone’s inability to express their uniqueness.

Often the only way people and organisations begin to appreciate difference is to feel and acknowledge those moment of awkwardness. Many people don’t appreciate that their experiences, perception, thinking or approaches are different until they that feel that discomfort. Many leaders are blithely unaware of the awkwardness they create. If we hide awkward, we lost the learning experience. We hide the ability to leverage difference.

Embrace your Awkward Squad in any way you can. Network people together so that those who think, act and are different can find the likeminded collaborators. Form special project teams to solve the most challenging issues and celebrate the creativity that results. Hunt for talented people being excluded by redundancy and performance management and give them another chance better suited to their talents. Be explicit that Awkward is ok, in fact, valued and great.

Buried in your organisation today is a team of talents that feels they don’t fit. They are planning to leave. That is not their issue. It is yours. They can’t and shouldn’t change who they are. It’s up to you to value their work and create the opportunities they need. Everyone will benefit.

Corporate Kintsugi

We fill the cracks in our work processes with golden fixes. We then fall in love with their beauty.

Their hands touched mastery; now they demand an answer.

Mariel Ruckseyer, from The Book of the Dead

I’ve written before about kintsugi. Humans aren’t perfect. There will be breaks and repairs and workarounds. Making them aesthetically pleasing and convenient is sensible.

However, in organisations, corporate kintsugi becomes its own art form. Processes are broken and we develop elaborate manual interventions. We need to fit agile into the waterfall processes of the organisation and we fall in love with our reporting, stage gates and delivery trains. An MVP was proof of our speed to market, but when we still love the pilot jerry-rigging a decade later we need to move on. Often, the gold lacquer with which we make our repairs is greater than the porcelain. Whole departments and silos exist to beautify the cracks.

Just as relying on resilience isn’t resilient. developing a competitive advantage at corporate kintsugi is undermining your performance. Stop falling in love with the fill-ins at work. Repairs are fine but the thousand little compromises that undermine and reshape the work need to go.

It will be sad to discard the clever little interventions that covered the gaps. You may need to make work less complex and less exciting as your take out these golden bridges.

Better work is the prize. Let the corporate kintsugi and its practitioners go.

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

WS Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

Dislocated

Living and Working in a Fog: Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric on Pexels.com

feeling you are in the wrong place or you are not connected to the things or people around you

from the Cambridge Dictionary definition of dislocated

Location was once a certainty. Things were only where they were and nowhere else. The global pandemic has accelerated a digital dislocation of a massive scale. We are yet to adjust.

I imagine in the quiet cottage of his brain
the sepia of this desert city,
wind, dirt, grit that scuffs your skin.
Wish him gentleness in the shade of shadows.

Loretta Diane Walker, Imagining My Neighbor

We are dislocated. Our favourite places are closed. Our work patterns are disrupted between home, work and third places. Our travel patterns have become alien. Restaurants, cafes and bars are closed and new businesses have opened in their place. Much of the world comes to us through our screens and our phones. It is all quite strange.

Familiar patterns of location, travel, commuting and entertaining are disrupted. We are dislocated by new digital options. People are losing the niceties of social interaction in a physical space. Rudeness, anger and frustration are the result. Frustration at the physical movement of people shows up in our traffic, our movement and a general sense of impatience with the physical world. Dislocation is not a comfortable place.

Once again instinct has taken him where he’s needed; where the unexpected transforms routine into celebration.

Stuart Dybek, Travelling Salesmen

Organisations are pleading for the return of their employees to the office because the social benefits of connection, learning and work are real. Informal interaction doesn’t happen in the zoom call. You can’t belong to a chat.

We are all somewhat dislocated by the disruption to friendships. We need to gather to close these gaps and tell lost tales. All my catch-ups with friends of late must begin with all the stories untold since 2019. We know the public and the shared. The private and the secrets are mysteries and disturb the surface of those public lives. We need places to share secrets. Quiet bars and deep booths work, so too the kitchen, the queue, the cafe and the cool of the porch.

To end this unnerving sense of dislocation we need to fall in love with place and with new places. We need to return to the romance of our being there. Whether work, life, love or simply being, we need to step beyond the screen and be in a place. We need to be there with others. Only then will we be able to ground ourselves again in the tangible venues of our connection to others.

The fall of romance, the hold of the tender new,
programs aloft, every nerve to shudder:
ghosting monitions of the incomplete.
Either will the aching swells, apart from bliss.

Fiona Hile, Forget the Stars

100 Years of Magical Realism in Management

‘Off with their heads’ Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

It seemed as if some penetrating lucidity permitted her to see the reality of things beyond any formalism.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

For over a century, years management theory has asked us to believe our daily diet of six impossible things (Fayol’s five plus measurement). We take these six things to be the art of management so for granted that we rarely stop to consider their role in the design of every action we do at work. Like the characters of a magical realist novel, our management lives have their own unique logic divorced from the exacting demands of reality. We ignore the warning signals of this world because it does not fit with the narrative.

Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
   Weary with my discontent.

Alice Cary, To Solitude

The Bad Cipher

Fayol’s list and his logic reflects his context. Fayol was documenting management science at its inception in the late 19th century. A contemporary of Frederick Winslow Taylor, both he and Taylor were providing managers with ‘scientific’ tools to bring order to the rapid expansion of industrial capacity and transformation of industry to reflect new tools of communication like the telegraph and later the telephone and transportation, through the railways and the automobile. Fayol and Taylor were describing processes to bring order to chaos in industrial and mining contexts with often unskilled workforces. Often workforces for whom they had little respect.

 I can say, without the slightest hesitation, that the science of handing pig-iron is so great that the man who is fit to handle pig-iron as his daily work cannot possibly understand the science; the man who is physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron; and this in ability of the man who is fit to do the work to understand the science of doing his work becomes more and more evident as the work becomes more complicated, all the way up the scale. I assert, without the slightest hesitation, that the high-class mechanic has a far smaller chance of ever thoroughly understanding the science of his work than the pig-iron handler has of understanding the science of his work

Frederick Winslow Taylor

It is our loss that we are still applying similar logic as the essence of management a century later in a global economy when the communication technologies are digital networks and real-time global logistics underpin our transportation. The logic of superior control and direction hardly applies at all to the modern networked knowledge economy and particularly the focus on services that now shapes an increasing amount of our economic activity. We cannot begin to assume that somewhere there is smarter management scientist better able to shape the work.

Fayol’s fourteen principles of management, being longer and less memorable, lack the same traction. They include principles of fair remuneration, equity, stability of tenure and initiative for employees. The value of these latter principles have been lost in the relentless focus of management on command and control. The allure of power and its wealth and now global reach means that some of the local community characteristics of early management were lost in the wash. As we now deal with labour shortages and disgruntled workforces it is intriguing to see this community orientation returning to employee engagement.

Fayol’s five functions of management are born of a desire to simplify work down to a convenient and carefully constructed fable. Complex dynamics are lost in simple, predicatable and mechanical myths of performance. As we plan, organise, command, co-ordinate and control, we follow a linear authorial path towards a predetermined outcome with magical regularity. Uncertainty is swept aside by the superior powers and perceptions of the managerial class. Like an all-knowing narrator, the manager sees the sweep of history and can shape the tale to their liking and their entertainment.

I have thrown in measurement because it is rare that a discussion of management does not devolve into the science of measurement and its ability to shape influence on people. Measures poorly constructed and blindly applied have done far more damage to performance than individual worker shortcomings. We are entrapped in the farcical reality of magic realist systems of measurement, prone to illusions and magical manipulation. Most important of all management turns its attention from all that cannot be measured with sufficient certainty, regularity, or confidence.

The linearity of this view of management relieves the complex systems of most modern work from inspection. We can blame our people, our planning or our managers but we do not review the design of the work or its fitness for the challenges faced by the organisation. We can eject people as unfit and ignore their past and future successes as inconvenient to our story. Reality of complicated and complex systems, changing circumstances or the need to respond to forces beyond our control are swept away by a magical narrative of power and expertise.

Loss of Direction

Lost in the solitude of his immense power, he began to lose direction.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

So many people are shocked to discover that CEOs, the epitome of power in the exercise of Fayol’s five management functions, often see themselves as powerless. From the pinnacle of their organisations, they see not command and control, but forces working against their direction – markets, stakeholders, competitors, fellow managers and the vagaries of the organisation system that they did not design and often barely perceive.

Exhorting people from the CEOs office to manage better rarely improves performance. There may be the Hawthorne effect of attention or the jolt of a short sharp shock but it will fade. Sustainable changes in performance requires adaptive leadership that will lean into the systemic and cultural change that enables people to do what they think is better, away from the myths and romantic notions of planning.

I escape to the same places and same words.
Cold breeze from the sea, the ice-dragon’s licking
              the back of my neck while the sun glares.
The moving van is burning with cool flames.

Tomas Transtomer, Alcaic

Wherever they might be they always remember that the past was a lie, that memory has no return, that every spring gone by could never be recovered, and that the wildest and most tenacious love was an ephemeral truth in the end.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Our ‘wildest and most tenacious love’ for the power of management will fade. We need to let go the certainty of linear machine metaphors of performance and in particular those that degrade or demean the contributions of those who do the work. Work cannot be done to or through people, like widgets. Adam Kahane highlighted that we need a balance of love and power in our efforts at complex change and the same logic underpins the work of management in shaping any organisation.

The greatest work is an expression of a unique group of people through their contributions, their interactions, their talents and their intelligence. When we focus on the potential of organisations to help people realise these capabilities and to respond to dynamic and changing environments we begin to create better and more sustainable systems of management beyond the romantic centuries old tales of power. When management is the art of realising the potential of people and an organisation in the reality of the world in which we live then perhaps we can move on to a more amenable and shared feast for breakfast.

And both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Ghost Gestures

When change happens, we can be left with habits that no longer have a purpose. These ghost gestures are strange legacies of a world in constant transition. Some fade quickly. Others hang around.

I recently started returning to the office and in a new building. This week as I got into the fancy new lifts it struck me that the lifts have no buttons inside. These new lifts are the modern kind where you order your lift in the foyer and are sent to the desired lift. I realised this when distracted I walked into my lift and tried to press a button. I have acquired a ghost gesture.

A ghost gesture is a habit you acquired that no longer has a purpose. Because of changes, the original purpose of the habit has been lost but you carry on doing it. The gesture is an echo of a lost time that won’t let go of this world.

Our working lives are often full of ghost gestures. Reports are prepared because someone once wanted them even though nobody still reads them. Meetings are held because the time is in everyone’s calendar and people still turn up and talk. People print papers for meetings because that was the only way once. People write role purpose statements because there is a system to put them in.

Digital systems and especially workflow can be full of these empty habits. People digitise the process as it is. Once built into the system the cost of changing the system means these ghost gestures live far beyond their usefulness. Stripping away the ghosts can improve the work and the process enormously.

These ghost gestures continue until someone asks why. That question alone is often enough to release everyone from their torment. The gestures continue because they are habitual. Focus and presence of mind frees them.

Take the time to be present and ask why things work they do. You might release yourself and others from the presence of ghosts of past changes.

The Unnecessary

A great source of productivity and happiness is choosing carefully the unnecessary in your life. Removing the painful and unnecessary leads to both happiness and success. The unnecessary is everywhere.

I wrote a post in the pandemic in an effort to strip things back to basics. The post was called the Needful. The Needful addresses both that which we need to do to succeed and that which we must prioritise to get by. The Needful had a strong ‘cut wood, carry water’ vibe.

Reflecting this week on needful, what came to mind was its antithesis – the unnecessary. Our modern lives are so full of the unnecessary:

  • The text that tells you a call is coming about the meeting to discuss the email that was sent last week
  • The third LinkedIn connection request from a growth marketing consultant who doesn’t understand how to grow their own business
  • The outrage in the political sphere about matters that don’t contribute to the betterment of the world or those in it
  • The anger that arises day to day as people expect more and give less, understand more and know less, or demand more and do less
  • The packaging that wraps the packaging that covers the packaging to protect the item
  • The bureaucratic processes that satisfy a systemic demand for bureaucratic processes and little else
  • The relentless cascade of things you should be, do or own with scant regard for what you might need to be, do or own.
  • And so on…

The Unnecessary is everywhere in our lives. You could say that a defining characteristic of late stage capitalism is the creation and commercialisation of the unnecessary.

Removing the unnecessary from your day, week and life is the greatest source of immediate happiness and productivity. Something simply vanishes and you can do more and feel better. Unchecked the unnecessary proliferates and its demands become all consuming bringing more unnecessary to remedy the last.

The only unnecessary you need is those things we do for pure moments of living, joy and beauty. We should choose the unnecessary we experience for happinesses sake or for an occasional escape from the demands of the needful.

Living life with a focus on the needful, eliminating the unnecessary as much as possible is a path to productivity and happiness. It also opens the space to enjoy a much more fun form of the unnecessary as the art of living well.

These Strange Times Bring New Rituals

We live in a time of transition. That transition makes the world feel unusual and brings forth many strange moods. We need new rituals to appease the strange gods of these times.

Photo by Ralph W. lambrecht on Pexels.com

Sonja Blignaut shared a wonderful piece she had written on one of my favourite topics; transition, boundaries and liminality. In that piece, Sonja highlights the role of rituals in marking transition and notes:

Maybe this could be a gift of our turbulent times, reconnecting to the power of ritual that ancient cultures knew so well.

Sonja Blignaut

Strange gods

We ask people all the time “how are you?” or “how are you going?”. Once the answer was always “fine” or “good”. Now the response usually involves some variant of “things are a bit strange”.

Some of this reflects that we are still grappling with the same Monsters at the Gates from early 2020 that demand our agency and our attention – climate change, race, gender equality, pandemic, changing work and more. We have recently added war and new fronts in the landscape of political and cultural conflict. A bigger issue is that our personal responses to the demands on our agency, our work and our lives has been changed by the distruption of the pandemic. Lockdowns left us with lots of time to reflect. For many, the conclusions of those reflections lead directly to change as Sonja notes in her piece – changes in relationships, work, lives and more.

In the burned house I am eating breakfast.
You understand: there is no house, there is no breakfast,
yet here I am.

Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House

Similar periods of transition at the beginning of the modern era have led to intense explosion of religious revival. The experience in the ‘burned over’ districts in New York state of a significant religious revival was broadly contemporaneous with the beginnings of modern factory production, transportation and communication and the rapid westward expansion of the United States. There was a great deal of change in society and new power structures as society transformed from an agricultural to an industrial one.

In our time, the beneficiaries of this transition are less likely to be religious leaders, but there has been a return to those capable of manipulating modern digital communications: populist political leaders, disinformation specialists, influencers and thought leaders. Our reflexive daily doomscrolling ritual plays to their expertise, provides a channel to our attention, and has enabled many to build rich livelihoods, large movements and even considerable power.

New Rituals For Strange Gods

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford, A Ritual to Read Each Other

I have found over the last two years that there are a need for new rituals to reflect the changing world. Here are some examples:

The Digital Commute: Walking from the kitchen to the study is a matter of minutes and doesn’t allow the planning or reflection time of a traditional suburban commute. I have found the need to find the time to stop and drink a coffee before the day begins. This is also my time to consider a blogpost or a new project. Gym time is another important ritual in this context.

Morning Digital Greetings: We don’t walk into the office as much and in lockdown we never left the house. We lost our morning greetings and social chats. I found myself adopting the practice of a morning greeting to a regular correspondents. Adding a tiny social interaction helps start the day in a more engaged way and often resulted in the day being underpinned with a more social vibe. Some went on so long, they became evening farewells.

Validation Checks: In a face paced digital world, it is easy to take messages at face value and equally easy to get oneself in a mess whether through misinformation, phishing or some other malicious act. I now check information more often and more widely. I ask myself why I am clicking through and what I want from the experience more often.

The Digital Disconnect: We need to turn off our work and our digital bombardment. Baking in time in the day that digital is off is important. More recently, I have begun to insist on a fixed time of reading books to stretch and relax the mind. Taking concentration away from the intensity of work and social media is important. I find this time powerful for engaging curiosity, imagination and escaping the drive of the algorithmic bubble.

The Spontaneous Coffee/Walk/Lunch: With less interaction in the office and busy social lives, there is more need to plan social interactions. Fighting that with a call to others for a spontaneous coffee, lunch, walk around the block or walk in the park.

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

Frank O’Hara, Having a Coke with You

Something for Yourself: A ritual of finding time for yourself is important when the digital, work, family and social pressures can be relentless.

The Creative Outlet: Engaging a different part of your life through creative work or engagement with the arts is as important as the daily grind. Finding consistent time and practice for this has become important. I have spoken about my enjoyment of poetry and have been continuing my baking in this regard.

The Evening Walk: Ending the day in the dark and the quiet with time to clear the mind and calm the nerves

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Maya Angelou, Still I Rise

What new rituals that have helped you shape the transitions?

Collaboration Rules For Toddlers

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Collaboration is a natural human practice. Yet we tie ourselves in knots on how best to train people to collaborate. If we didn’t make work complicated with concepts that interfere with natural human collaboration like hierarchy, ownership, scorecards, practices, and more, we might find the outcome easier. There’s much we can learn from the simpler world of toddlers.

Once small children move beyond parallel play and want to play together any parent will tell you that there are a few simple rules to be reinforced to help a child understand how best to play with others. Most of these rules relate to taming the nascent toddler narcissism:

  • You can’t make someone else play with you
  • Do something you both want to do
  • You need to share – If there is a scarce resource, make sure you both get a go
  • Talk about your goals, problems and frustrations – they don’t know what you know
  • Be nice to each other

A lot of collaboration problems could be solved if we just asked everyone in our organisations to put aside their fancy ideas and complicated systems and followed the collaboration rules for toddlers.

Threshold

Every day is its own threshold. We need to hold on to the hope that today will be better because we can make it so.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The ancient Romans celebrate Janus, a king of Latium for his piety and elevated him to the gatekeeper of the Gods, making him god of doorways, thresholds, beginning and endings. Janus gave his name to January, the first month of the year that we have inherited from a Roman calendar. Janus is represented as looking both forward and backward observing both sides of a boundary, understanding that each threshold is both an end and a new beginning.

The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

James Wright, Beginning

We rush through many boundaries in our daily lives without Janus’ careful reflection. Everyday, we awake to a new day and a new range of possibilities, but often we head straight back into the routines and the challenges that we have become accustomed to managing. It takes reflection to stop on a daily level and to look for what can or might need to change. The most productive people build these small moments of review into their everyday life.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

For many of us, such reflection is only an exercise that flows from a major boundary, perhaps the end of a weekend, a holiday, or the start of a new job, or a change of team, city or office. We need to treasure these times to reflect and to choose what we want the new day to be. Our agency will shape how the boundary is crossed and what becomes of the future.

These major transitions can be times where much becomes uncertain and unknown. We have the same degree of uncertainty each day as to what exactly will happen and what might change but we rarely perceive it so intently we pursue our habitual lives. However, at the bigger junctures our stomachs can fill with nerves as we pursue the might bes and the threats of all that is new across the boundary.

In these moments, we need to retain our hope. We need to take comfort in our agency and our capacity to lead the changes that are needed to whatever circumstances come our way. Fear will not help us. We need to combine a passionate optimism for our capabilities and the potential of others, with the frank certainty of pragmatism and realism. That’s the path to make each doorway a winner. That is also the path to validating our own unique potential to contribute and be productive.

You remind me of the necessity
of having more hope than fear,
and of sounding out terrible names.

Alice B Fogel, The Necessity