Friday, October 27, 2006

Creating A Happy Workplace

I was reminded recently of that old story about the man who asks two guys working in a quarry what they're doing. One man said, "I'm making rocks square." The other man, who was doing the same thing, said, "I'm building a cathedral." The moral, of course, is to be like the second man with the big vision.

True, true...

But what occurred to me is that sometimes employers don't bother to let their employees in on the big picture. It's as if the boss told the two men in the quarry nothing more than, "Make these rocks square," but gave them no idea that by doing so they were contributing to the construction of a magnificent cathedral. In this case, you don't have one man with a problem, you have two men with a problem; two men who can't see beyond the tedium of their jobs. And in this case it's not their fault at all.

Over the years I've worked at and with a number of companies, large and small, and have occasionally even written company newsletters, and I think that the morale at companies where people at the bottom of the organization understand what is going on at the top are much happier places.

Let me illustrate. Suppose you are a sports fan but the only information you are given about your team is that it won or lost its last game. You can't listen to the game in your car or watch it on TV and you certainly can't attend the game. Wouldn't that take all the spice out of the sport for you?

And while I'm exaggerating to make my point, I think that a lot of companies essentially do that. They don't tell the troops what the leadership has in mind or where the company is going, or the challenges or opportunities ahead, they just tell people what to do - without context. I believe a lot of company leaders think that "communicating" means to let people know when the company picnic will be held. In fact, I have even seen press releases sent out and published in the national media before the employees were even aware of the information. Hello?

So my advice to company presidents and CEOs is this: Tell your employees everything you can about what's going on at the company, and if there are some things you can't tell them, tell them that item is a secret. Your employees are probably on your side - at least initially - and they want the company to succeed. They want to feel they are part of a team, not just making square rocks. They want to hear that, "We're negotiating with a large Japanese electronics company - I can't tell you who just now - but it could be huge and I thought you'd like to know," or that, "We're going to be facing some really tough times. Our competitor has just unveiled a new widget that both vacuums and makes coffee, and we'll need to respond by doing A, B, and C."

If you don't do this, people will come to realize that there is a caste system at your company; those who know what's happening and those who are left in the dark. They'll understand that there have to be some secrets, but let this division become commonplace and you'll create a lot of unhappy people.

Now, I mentioned that this advice is for presidents and CEOs. Not exclusively, of course, but mainly. Why? Because it is a task your middle managers almost certainly won't do well. The reason is that middle managers are afraid they'll get in trouble for saying something they weren't supposed to say, so they'll lean toward keeping even perfectly harmless information secret. Sometimes they even know the information is harmless but keep it secret anyway because "people wouldn't really be interested in that." (Yes, I've heard that many times, even when I knew it was interesting information.)

So anyway, you need to set the example! Send your thoughts out to everybody in the company on a regular basis (I'd recommend every other week) by email or on paper, and in company meetings talk in as much detail as you can about what's happening. I think you'll create a much happier workplace.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Recruiting for the Choir

I would guess that recruiting for a church choir can be a fairly difficult task, so I was interested in something the choir director at our church did recently.

Just before the service began and before the choir was in place, he said to the congregation:

"If any of you has ever wondered what it would be like to sing in the choir, just come on up - right now - and give it a try."

At the same time he invited the regular choir members - who were not wearing their robes that Sunday - to also come up. Lots of people came forward, many of them the regulars but apparently lots of others as well. And because nobody was wearing robes you couldn't tell the regulars from the visitors, which I'm sure made it quite comfortable for those who were just trying it out.

After the service I guess he must have invited the new people to come to a practice, or to join the choir, or something, because last Sunday there were a lot more choir members.

Anyway, I was impressed that he found a clever way to give people a quick and easy way to give the choir a try, and I thought it was an idea worth passing along.

Friday, October 20, 2006

No Faith, No Science; Know Faith, Know     Science

I just saw the cover of the latest Wired magazine on the newsstand (I subscribe, but they deliver it there first. Grrr.). Anyway, the main story was about "new atheists" who reject faith and only accept science.

This is really rather laughable because all human knowledge - science included - is ultimately based on faith.

Let's visit Alvin Atheist for a minute. Alvin thinks he's faith-free, but he is seriously kidding himself. For example:

- Alvin gets out of bed believing, but with no proof, that his clock is telling the right time.
- He takes a drink from the tap on faith that the water department has kept it pure.
- He eats a bowl of cereal on faith, trusting that General Mills followed sanitary processing procedures.
- He takes a bus to work, having faith that the mechanic has kept it in good order and the bus driver knows how to drive.
- He looks through his microscope, trusting that it does what the manufacturer promises and that what he sees is valid.
- For lunch his colleagues take him to a sushi restaurant and for the first time in his life, despite his nervousness, he has raw fish, because his friends tell him it's good, and he accepts their word on faith.

This is too easy. I could go on all day.

But that's not fair! Alvin says.

He says he has long experience with his clock being right. It blinks '12:00' when it's not. He's had lots of drinks from the tap and lots of cereal from the box and he's ridden the bus for years, and they've all worked the way he expected, and he's used his microscope for years and it's always worked fine. And as for sushi, well, government agencies using scientific methods have determined that, handled properly, sushi is fine.

These things, he says, have been generally proven.

Not so. What (if anything) has been proven is that things have happened in a particular way in the past. But it has not been proven that things will happen the same way in the future. Alvin may be confident that when he opens his cereal box tomorrow he will find Cheerios rather than a racoon, but he has not proven this. He is exercising faith, pure and simple.

But let's take this a step deeper.

Alvin's remembrance of these things (clocks, cereal, microscopes, sushi and what not) also show that Alvin has faith in the workings of his mind. He can't prove that his memories of these things are true and not just hallucinations; he accepts it purely by faith. The thousand times he has found his clock to be right may be a false memory.

But for Alvin to come to any conclusion about anything, he has to believe that the universe is really remarkably consistent and rational, and that his mind, despite whatever little glitches it may have, is generally pretty good at remembering correctly and properly analyzing situations.

Now I don't begrudge Alvin any of this faith he has exercised (though I wonder why he calls faith illegitimate when he wallows in it daily). Like Alvin, I too believe the universe is quite rationally organized, and I too believe my mind is generally fairly good at remembering and analyzing. But there's one big difference:

I believe a rational God created a rational universe, whereas Alvin believes that some random, or irrational, or - at least - unknown, event caused a rational universe.

In short, I believe rational begat rational, and Alvin believes irrational begat rational. Hmm. I think it takes more faith to be Alvin than to be me.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Where Vultures Gather

As I was reading my Bible this morning a passage that has always baffled me suddenly became clear. As I explain it, perhaps you will say, "Well, of course! You never realized that before?"

Well, no, I never did, and because I think there may be others in my shoes, permit me to go through the passage (Matthew 24:24-28:

For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect - if that were possible.

So if anyone tells you, "There he is, out in the desert," do not go out; or, "here he is, in the inner rooms," do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

It always seemed to me that the line about vultures (which I've italicized) was pretty mysterious. I didn't see what it had to do with the rest of what Jesus was talking about.

But now, I believe I finally see it.

The carcass is a false Christ (or false prophet) and the vultures are those who gather to feed on the rotting meat he has to offer. It is a commentary on both the false Christ (one who is spiritually dead and whose message is rotten like a decaying carcass) and those who gather around him (those who enjoy his dirty message, like vultures who enjoy the taste of rotting flesh.)

To carry it just a bit further, this may also be a contrast between the true Christ and false Christs. Jesus told his disciples that he is the "bread of life" (John 6:35) and that they were to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:56). In the same sense, the followers of the false Christs eat of their master, except in their case it is not a meal of life, but of death.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

How to Get Rich

I was having lunch the other day in the patio of my company when an engineer walked up and asked if he could share my table since every other table was occupied.

Sure. No problem.

Well, we got talking of this and that and somehow the conversation led up to how he occasionally has lunch with other engineers and they discuss ideas that they think would be great products.

But, he said, the ideas are almost all rejected. Sooner or later someone will always say about the idea: "Nah, that would have to be sold."

I laughed at this illustration of engineers' stereotypical distaste for the kind of pushy social interaction involved with sales, but the thought occurred to me what a huge opportunity this could be for the sales person who would like to start his or her own company.

So here's the secret: Turn off your overbearing social charm and get to know the engineers at your company; the working ones right down at the bottom. Hang around with them; go to lunch, let them do most of the talking, listen to their ideas, and if you don't get it, ask them to explain what they mean. They're smart and generally nice people who, while they may not always suffer fools gladly and may not always express themselves tactfully, frequently enjoy explaining topics involving their expertise and are pleased when others are interested.

So, if my point isn't obvious yet, what I'm suggesting is that you and an engineer with a great idea might make an awesome team and might build a fine company that makes a great product.

By the way, did I mention that you need to turn off your overbearing social charm?