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Office Dynamics

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool. --Richard Feynman

See each other as human

IMHO, the human predilection for tribalism, and its accompanying drag on collaboration, rate-limits our efficiency when working in groups. Becoming aware of how we manipulate each other helps us to develop win-win strategies, improving effectiveness over the long haul. These notes describe an in-house seminar I offer which introduces these concepts and sets the stage for weekly practice sessions where we perform exercises aimed at increasing our self-awareness and our awareness of others. Additionally, I describe key elements of effective IT culture.

Professional Maturity

These authors shape my view of how to behave in the office.

Neal Whitten

Here are the nuggets I extracted from the last Whitten seminar I attended:

  • Focus on your top three, not your bottom dozen
  • Work with passion, boldness, and focus
  • Be able to write your job description at a moment's notice
  • Single-task (don't multitask)
  • Employ mentors
  • Escalate issues within two working days
  • Finish 70% of the work by the point at which you've spent 50% of the time

And my favorite Whitten book, for studying professional maturity:

  • No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects

Richard Conniff

Conniff uses primate behavior and evolutionary biology to develop an understanding for human behavior in the workplace. For me, the best book bar none for grasping how and why I and my associates in the office behave as we do.

  • The Ape in the Corner Office

Marcus Buckingham and Curtis Coffman

These business consultants, with a research background from Gallup, attempt to distill survey results into doable steps for performing more effectively. Frankly, I have trouble with these sorts of books -- they tend to be heavy on ideology and light on rigor. I include this book, and these authors, because they made an effort, through their use of Gallup, to ground their claims in reality. How successful were they? I don't know -- they don't include their analysis, much less their data. That being said, here is a tidbit which has stuck with me, and which I find helpful when managing myself at work.

People don't change that much.
Don't waste time trying to put in what was left out.
Try to draw out what was left in.
That is hard enough.

As I interpret it, this is a variation on the adage play to your strengths. The authors' claim is that we all possess talents -- reoccuring patterns of thought and behavior -- which allow us to be particularly effective in certain arenas: four lane highways which, through a combination of nature and nurture, run through our brains. And we all possess weaknesses: dirt tracks which meander through our brains. Popular wisdom claims that, with sufficient application of sweat and dilgence, we can all convert those dirt tracks into four lane highways. These authors disagree. They claim the opposite and recommend that we look for roles where our talents will make us effective (accurate casting), build support systems around us to compensate for our weaknesses, build partnerships with colleagues who have highways where we have dirt tracks. But don't waste your time trying to replace those dirt tracks with highways.

Persistence is useful if you are trying to learn a new skill or to acquire particular knowledge. Persistence can even be appropriate if you are trying to cut a thin path through some of your mental wastelands, so that, for example, your nontalent for empathy doesn't permanently undermine your talents in other areas. But persistence directed primarily toward your nontalents is self-destructive -- no amount of determination or good intentions will ever enable you to carve out a brand-new set of four-lane mental highways. You will reprimand yourself, berate yourself, and put yourself through all manner of contortions in an attempt to achieve the impossible.

...great managers ... believe that casting is everything. They manage by exception. And they spend the most time with their best people.

...They want her to write down her goals, her successes, and her discoveries. This record is not designed to be evaluated or critiqued by her manager. Rather, its purpose is to help each employee take responsibility for her performance. It serves as her mirror. It is a way to step outside herself. Using this record, she can see how she plans to affect the world. She can weigh the effectiveness of those plans. She can be accountable to herself.

These four characteristics -- simplicity, frequent interaction, focus on the future, and self-tracking -- are the foundation for a successful "performance management" routine.

Jeffrey Miller

I see anxiety as part of being human: after all, we were prey for most of our history, and evolution hasn't had time to catch up with the current state of affairs. However, anxiety interferes with many cognitive and interpersonal skills. Miller starts from a broad base, including primatology, endocrinology, and family-of-origin therapy, and builds from there a prescription for reducing anxiety in organizational settings.

  • The Anxious Organization

Tim Harford

A financial writer, Tim Harford uses evolutionary theory to understand how humans learn, or don't learn, from failure to proceduce success.

  • Adapt: why Success Always Starts with Failure

Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

I remain unconvinced that the model of cognitive dissonance maps to anything measurable in the functioning of the brain. And I am wary of what I see as overstatements which seem popular when I read about this subject. However, I am convinced that humans have trouble recognizing, admitting, and correcting our mistakes and that we invite suffering upon ourselves and others as a result -- these authors offer strategies for mitigating this effect.


Aside from being my favorite place to keep up with how the world works, Nature also publishes mentoring guides.

Understand Primate Dynamics

These authors shape how I perceive humans interacting with each other.

Frans de Waal

In pulling apart and analyzing furry primate behavior, de Waal side-steps my defense mechanisms and helps me to understand my own behavior. From his primate studies, de Waal develops a theory for the origin of human morality, competitiveness, and reconciliation.

  • The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates
  • The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society
  • Our Inner Ape
  • Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
  • Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals
  • The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist
  • Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape
  • Peacemaking Among Primates

David Berreby

Berreby pulls together his understanding of neurology, psychology, and sociology, mixes them with his own insights, and delivers his view for how humans go about clumping each other into 'good people' and 'bad people' and why these clumpings are so plastic.

  • Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

Marshall Rosenberg

If de Waal and Berreby are figuring out why we behave as we do, Rosenberg is figuring out what to do about it and developing ways to foster reconciliation and collaboration. Based in Switzerland, he works as a conflict mediator in hot spots around the world, sitting down with people who are at each other's throats, facilitating shifts in their dynamics.

Madeleine Van Hecke

A former professor of psychology, Van Hecke is interested in why we miss the obvious. Do you find yourself labeling people who don't agree with you as either stupid or dishonest? Van Hecke applies lessons from critical thinking, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience to understand why we have trouble seeing our own errors and why we have trouble realizing that other people are similar blind.

  • Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

A business consultant and a psychologist collaborate to survey current research on how and why we behave irrationally.

Alex Pentland

A professor at MIT's Media Lab, Pentland melds social psychology with computational approaches to quantify how primate dynamics influences individual and group behavior. This first step -- to move from seeing human groups as a collection of individual intelligences bound together by language to viewing them as a network intelligence bound together by ancient signaling mechanisms -- is essential. Thin slices of behavior -- thirty seconds of body language and voice tone, stripped of language content -- predicts successes and failures in pitching business plans, generating group decisions, and resolving discord between colleagues.

  • Honest Signals

The most startling point made by this research is that decision making isn't about logic or rational argument. We just don't seem to be good at this sort of reasoning, no matter how hard we try. The major sorts of problems we encounter aren't errors in logic -- those are detectable and thus fixable -- but the difficulty of accurately capturing the full complexity of the world in linguistic statements and mathematical models.

Deborah Tannen

Tannen tackles the communication challenge from a linguist's point of view, deconstructing conversations into frames and looking for the assumptions embedded in a speaker's point of view. A concept with which I'm wrestling these days is how, for some people, questioning their statements signals engagement and interest, while for others, questions signal opposition and discord.

  • That's Not What I Meant!

Robert Trivers and Huey Newton

Originally published in Science Digest, Trivers and Newton pull apart the cockpit conversation from Flight 90, which crashed into the Potomac river shortly after take-off in 1982, providing a tightly developed explanation for how and why we deceive ourselves when we are wanting to manipulate others.

  • "Self-deception in Service of Deceit" from Natural Selection and Social Theory

David Keirsey

I'm not thrilled with the type-casting world -- the science behind it seems marginal to me. However, I find the language useful, when analyzing communication confusion, and until I find something better, I continue to use the Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, Rationalist model for understanding what makes people tick.

  • Please Understand Me II

Resist Biologically and Culturally Ingrained Biases

Brains do not have enough processing power to absorb all the information our senses give them, so they prune and pick and choose what to consume and how to portray what they ultimately perceive. That life survives at all is testament to how effectively this process allows organisms to navigate the real world. However, as conscious beings, our standards of accuracy have risen past "Does this representation allow the species to survive?" to something closer to "How accurate is this?" And the answer, in general, is "Pretty darn inaccurate". Genes don't care, of course; they aren't interested in accuracy, they are interested in how effectively they replicate. But I care: I maintain that I can improve the success of my projects by aligning my understanding of technology more tightly with reality.Eight Strategies to Help Overcome Our Biases

Taken from Richards Heurer's Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.

  • Become proficient in developing alternative points of view.
  • Do not assume that another person will think or act like you do.
  • Think backward. Instead of thinking about what might happen in the future because of your actions, put yourself in the future and try to explain how a potential situation could have occurred.
  • Imagine that the belief you are currently holding is wrong; then develop a scenario to explain how that could be true.
  • Try out another personís beliefs by actually acting out their role. This helps you to see the limitations of your own beliefs.
  • Play "devilís advocate" by taking the minority point of view.
  • Brainstorm.
  • Interact with people of different background and beliefs.

Last modified: 2017-04-28