The Bad Boss Paradox, and an Idea for a Cure

Posted by Robert Merrill on September 10, 2014 under Office Relationships and Politics, uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

As an Upper Midwesterner born in Texas who found his way home as soon as he could, I love Garrison Keillor’s interesting, witty observations. “Norwegian bachelor farmers. They don’t reproduce. Why are there still so many of them?”

In Are You a Bad Boss? Here’s How to Know, Naomi Karten begins by saying that if reading articles about how to be a good boss were all it took, there would not be so many articles about how to survive a bad boss. Naomi goes on to cite what I have learned as the First Rule of HR; people do not quit jobs; they quit bosses.

Garrison Keillor might say, “Bad bosses. They’re easy to spot and do so much damage. Why are there still so many of them?” Call it, “The Paradox of the Bad Boss.”

Maybe it was Naomi’s article, or maybe it was just time, but tonight a penny dropped. Maybe there is a simple cure. Read more of this article »

Your “People Problems,” and How To Solve Them

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 3, 2013 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

For all its geekiness, software is an intensely “people” business.

Ask programmers to tell horror stories and they will indeed talk about irreproducible severity-1 bugs and traffic spikes that took down their website.

But more of the horror stories have to do with the insane scheduler, the requirements yo-yo, the scope creep (it’s also a noun, you know), and the User From The Nether Regions.

Unfortunately, we who are attracted to software development in the first place have “people problems” of our own. We’re quick to “flip the bozo bit.” We get into religious wars over the One True Coding Style (or text editor—are those days passing? It’s vi, just in case you’re wondering).

Once you recognize that software is a people problem (and thought leaders in our industry have been writing about it for years), you still have a problem. Advice seems to fall into two categories:

  1. “You just have to know how to talk to them.” Understanding motives, dialogue, and all that. I posted this because of an article called How To Cope With Troublesome People on I recommend Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High because it helps us all with our inner game—how to avoid dropping into lizard-brain Fight-or-Flight and triggering a destructive feedback loop when things get tense.
  2. “When the going gets tough, get tough.” These can be helpful and constructive, like Cloud & Townsend’s Boundaries (it speaks Christian-ese at times, but you don’t have to be a Christian to use the principles and techniques). Or they can be systemic, like The No-Asshole Rule; great if you’re the CEO, but among the rest of us it encourages bozo-bit-flipping because we can’t do anything about the subject. And then there are various books about winning at office politics, which remind me that, “The Winner of The Rat Race is Still a Rat.”

I believe it’s always best to start by controlling your inner game (a learnable skill) and striving for dialogue, but I’ve also encountered people who, over time, demonstrated by their actions that they weren’t the least bit interested in me or my &%@! dialogue. What to do?

Enter Alan Godwin’s How To Solve Your People Problems, with a map of the swamp.

  1. Conflict is inevitable
  2. Conflict can be either good or bad
  3. How we engage has a significant impact on whether conflict is good or bad
  4. The rules of engagement for good conflict depend on whether the other person is exhibiting reasonable behavior or unreasonable behavior.
  5. Reasonable behavior consists of humility, knowledge, awareness, responsibility, and reliability. (Dr. Godwin explains these very clearly). To the extent these are absent, you are dealing with a person who is acting unreasonably.
  6. Start with your dialogue skills, from Crucial Conversations or similar. That’s what How To Cope With Troublesome People recommends, too. If you get a measure of reasonableness back, use your skills to stay in dialogue, even if things get tense. Meet Reasonableness with Dialogue.
  7. But if you get sustained Unreasonableness back, in the form of Drama (there are four–I won’t spoil the surprise), then switch from Dialogue to Boundaries. Meet Unreasonableness & Drama with Boundaries. In extreme cases, Boundaries may have to be in the form of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Dr. Godwin’s book is also from a Christian perspective, but like Boundaries, you don’t have to be Christian to apply the principles. And don’t be too quick to flip the bozo bit.

Five Motivations to Lead By

Posted by Robert Merrill on September 15, 2013 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

I’m glad to hear someone say that different people have different motivations. In “What Motivates You,” Kip Wright identifies five:

  • Getting Ahead. Money, status, promotions.
  • Getting Secure. Finances, position, achievements (like “Getting Ahead” on the surface, but different in the heart)
  • Getting Free. From rules, bureaucracy, lack of control.
  • Getting High. Passion for the job itself and the difference they make.
  • Getting Balanced. Fitting work and family into a balanced whole.

I would take it two steps further.

First, motivations change as life circumstances change. Today’s I’m-the-job, passion-powered 20-something becomes tomorrow’s security- and balanced-minded family provider and parent. They’re still a great worker, just 9 hours a day, not 13. And they’re now informal leaders, have great relationships with peers and customers, and confident maturity. Do you want the option of being able to keep them? If so, your perspective and culture will need to allow for the change. If not, you’ll need a pipeline of passionate 20-somethings.

Second, some motivations are healthier for the person they inhabit than others. Motivations flame out, and take people with them. If your organization allows a person to stop counting on work for things that work can probably never provide, that makes you awesome in my book (for whatever that’s worth). And it probably lets you keep a good employee and spare a good person from a problem they never saw coming.

Give and Take and Two Mistakes

Posted by Robert Merrill on June 5, 2013 under 100 Words, uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

A couple of days ago, I learned about Adam Grant’s book, “Give and Take,” through LinkedIn or Twitter or some other digital fire hose that I’ve turned on myself. Being very interested in the role of altrusim, collaboration, and chains of trust in business, I followed the link, read about the book, and saw that authors I like were endorsing it. I was impressed, and was planning to order a copy.

Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for lists and surveys, so I took the survey at The questions were interesting, although it was sometimes frustrating because the answer I would have given wasn’t one of the choices. That happens. Good surveys are incredibly difficult to write; I’m sure Adam Grant (Ph.D. in Org Psych) knows that. Read more of this article »

Sorry, College Grads, I Probably Won’t Hire You (and my knee-jerk reaction)

Posted by Robert Merrill on May 13, 2013 under 100 Words, Concepts, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

I just read a WSJ article with the provocative title, “Sorry, College Grads, I Probably Won’t Hire You,” by Kirk McDonald, an accomplished Manhattan (not Kansas) digital media executive.

McDonald says that college grads lack “the ability to know enough about how these information systems work [to] be useful discussing them with others.” As an example, he throws out a client question about how long a project will take. As a remedy, he suggests spending the summer learning a little bit about one or two programming languages.

I wish I was being trolled, but I’m afraid I’m not. So here comes some advice of my own. Read more of this article »

I Shouldn’t Be Necessary

Posted by Robert Merrill on January 22, 2013 under Software & Integrator Selection, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

I was keeping up with technology by reading Information Week Reports “Guide to Practical Database Monitoring” (registration required) when I came across this statement:

There is a shell game—a sleight of hand, if you will—that goes on during the proof-of-concept portion of the sales process. Vendors carefully orchestrate the process, showing you key advantages while masking problems and dropping subtle land mines for their competitors. A scripted evaluation process bears little resemblance to your day-to-day requirements, so make sure you actually test in your environment against the more difficult databases and requirements.

It’s easy to curse the darkness, but the darkness doesn’t seem to care, especially if it’s nearly always dark out. Read more of this article »

Focused Perspective

Posted by Robert Merrill on January 21, 2013 under 100 Words, uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

Thanks to digital cameras with zoom lenses, even casual picture-takers now know about “wide-angle” and “telephoto.” It’s easy. You move the little lever until the scene looks right and push the button.

Many difficult jobs are difficult because they also require switching back and forth between “wide-angle” and “telephoto.” But it’s not so easy to switch, and it’s much harder to tell what you’re missing by not switching.

Smiley face made up of dots, with a magnifying glass showing that the dots are frowning faces.Working with software is like that. On the wide-angle end, it’s about improving a business process or opening a new sales channel. On the telephoto end, it’s about getting two pieces of third-party software to play nice, and writing bug-free code, often on deadline. It takes Perspective to see how software will change the work done by people in multiple departments. And it takes Focus to find out why the tax still isn’t being calculated correctly.

Common sense tells us to start with the big picture—Perspective—and proceed to details—Focus. But experience tells us—at least those of us who’ve been around software very long—that it’s not a one-way trip. Quite often the first dive into the details reveals some things which would change our perspective, and that’s not easy to do. But it is essential to avoid a lot of stress and wasted money, and that’s why I’ve called out “Focused Perspective” as one of my professional values. Read more of this article »

Principled Pragmatism

Posted by Robert Merrill on January 14, 2013 under 100 Words, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

Pragmatism is about getting the best results I can, with what I have to work with.

Principles are what I stick by even when no one’s looking, and even when they cost me. Read more of this article »

Weaponized Facts, Brutal Facts, & Change

Posted by Robert Merrill on January 7, 2013 under Change Leadership, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

“How do you speak to this level of ignorance?” It was a social media friend reacting to a political statement.

The phrase came to me in a flash.

“Well, firing weaponized facts isn’t working so well.”

The air is thick with weaponized facts. Some of them might even be true. But no one seems to be changing their mind about anything. That’s scary, because the brutal facts (Jim Collins, “Good to Great”) tell me we need some pretty big changes.

I aspire to come alongside people and help them face their brutal facts, at their own speed, and make good choices.