How I Read About Management

booksUntil the internet, most of what you read about managing people at work was at least average.

Now, on average, it’s pretty terrible.   I’ve written a bit about this before.

Your best go-to resources are human beings who have relevant experience.   True yesterday, true today.

This is a mantra I’ve been chanting in emerging organizations since the 00s.

In 2014, I posted my people management “syllabus.”   (Ironically, on the internet.)

It’s a list of articles, books, and videos I’ve used with leaders as they develop their People skills.  It’s an adjunct to my #Management Intensive program.

It’s also out there for anyone to fork and use.

After posting the syllabus, when reading, I started to consider, “Should I add this to the syllabus?   Why?”

Here’s a bit more of my thinking:

  • Is it true — in my lived experience?
  • How will it be useful to someone who is learning to manage people?
  • What experience lends credibility to the author?
  • (Do I have any qualifications, caveats or disclaimers?)

Truth  Human nature will out.  Once you’ve been managing people for 10,000 hours, you’ll see patterns in how you work with people:  there are a limited number of common management “use cases.”

So you won’t find anything on my syllabus about “Working with a Psychopath.”  Those articles abound.  It’s an unlikely problem, and one you shouldn’t borrow.

Usefulness  A good resource should be evergreen:  true 20 years ago, and likely to hold true in the future.

It’s got to be practical, tactical, and harmlessly generalize-able to situations that will be encountered by most emerging managers.

I also consider whether someone could use the resource in the absence of human intervention.  So, “How to fire someone” isn’t on my syllabus.

Big stories that illuminate an idea or a concept can also be useful.   The Devil Wears Prada (film) has some fantastic management lessons.

Credibility   I like resources from experienced leaders.  People with specific technical expertise, or a wealth of topical academic research.   I also follow a couple of journalists who cover leadership/management, writers who seem to just get it.

You won’t find much from people with less than 10 years of leadership experience.  Maybe some of them are visionaries.   For now, I’m counting them as “learning in public.”

Qualification  A participant in my #Management Intensive shared a resource on conflict resolution.  Using case studies, the authors set forth a framework and suggest practical action.

One case study is pretty nuanced.   In my view, it’s better fodder for real life discussion with an experienced manager or HR exec, and not a jumping off point for an emerging manager.

It’s a wonderful book.  I’ve been wrestling with whether to include it — with this caveat.

The syllabus is a living document.   I’ll continue to refine my inclusion criteria.  Writing this blog post will send me back to take a harder look at the syllabus.

Because I’m learning in public, too.

Many thanks to Mike Useem and Ed Bernbaum, who taught me so much about learning and teaching from stories.   Gary Chou, on learning in public and whose syllabus gave me the idea to post my own.   Tressie McMillan Cottom, whose blog post How I Read “Between the World and Me” inspired me to think about how I was reading/recommending.

For something like a “guided tour” of my syllabus, sign up to receive a monthly email here.

“Actually,” It’s Not (All) Data


It’s tough to surprise me at work.

In twenty-something years leading people, I’ve learned that no matter how unique it feels at any time, at work I’m part of a universal human experience.

In the last five years, I’ve encountered a few moments of true surprise.  Notably, when smart, nice people meet anonymous feedback?  The result can be unexpected.  In a not-good way.

When we use a performance management processes to help people to grow and do a better job at work, it’s a beautiful thing.

When our process is a weed-out, people rationalization, we might create a mean-reverting machine.  It might be toxic.

Today, in some workplaces, people are asked to use an app to record little bits of real-time reaction to their peers’ “performance.”

So, imagine Brian talks over Jessica in a meeting.   Then, she zings him on the app.

Or, Jessica is late with her contribution to a project.   So Melissa and Edwin register their displeasure.  On their phones.

Then, we call their entries “data,” and abstract a measure we call performance.  This elevates our work to a science.  Right?

Show me the control.

And show me how we account for Brian having stumbled into work after he spent the night on a chair outside the NICU, where his premature baby is struggling.

Or, how we factor in the inexperience of the manager who assigned Jessica to work on a project she’s unprepared for.

And how Jessica, Melissa and Edwin’s input is vetted for accuracy.  Whether they’ve been trained to give feedback.

How the tool accounts for an entry made in anger or frustration, vs. a thoughtful gem.

It’s not data.   It’s not an experiment.  And it’s not science.

I recently saw Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s film The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Psychology professor Philip Zimbardo created a faux prison in a Stanford basement.  He randomly assigned roles to paid undergraduates:  guards or prisoners.

The “experiment” was cut off after a few days.

First, the research team (which included grad students and an ex-convict) assigned themselves roles as wardens and parole board members.  Then, they became part of a toxic power structure.

If you’re a manager of any tenure, you’ve probably been a guard at some point.   And you’ve probably also been a prisoner.

A recent NY Times story on Amazon was a brutal indictment of the company.  Front and center:  anonymous feedback and its misuses.

Of eleventy billion internet reactions to this story, two floated to the top for me.  CEO Jeff Bezos doesn’t recognize his own company.  Former Amazon employee Julia Cheiffetz does.   Her conclusion:

In the absence of meaningful public data …all we have are stories.

Amazon is a 150,000 person company.   Times reporters talked with 100 people — many, anonymously.  Commenters on the Times article claim to be firing Amazon.

Hashtag, irony.

Cheiffetz, Times reporters, Bezos…I’d bet that there’s truth in all of these stories.

Photo: Fort Monmouth Environmental Testing Laboratory, by US Army Environmental Command, via Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0 license


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