Think differently about your performance appraisal with your boss…

The reactions of people who’ve just had a performance appraisal with their boss varies enormously and also highlights how different we are as individuals. Personal reactions, of course, cover a wide spectrum. The Badger’s experience, however, is that while a person’s demeanour and body language says a lot about their reaction, most people share little more than the odd comment about their appraisal with others. There are always, of course, people who think they’ve been treated poorly and say so to anyone who will listen. In the Badger’s experience, such individuals tend to be self-centred, averagely talented, poor listeners, and they normally have egotistic or narcistic personalities.  These individuals, and those at the other end of the spectrum who are just downright lazy, unproductive, and permanently negative,  tend to share their displeasure widely and keep HR functions busy with claims of unfair treatment.

A youngster in their first job since leaving University 15 months ago whined to the Badger this week that their appraisal had been a shock and unfair. The youngster, hungry for rapid career and salary progression, unfortunately failed to recognise that they haven’t adjusted to working life as well as their peers. The Badger explained this, and in the course of doing so remembered some wisdom from a training course he attended many years ago. On that course, a behaviour expert, building on the sport coaching work of Tim Gallway, emphasised that we should think about individual performance using the simple equation ‘Performance = Talent – Interferences’. If someone has 100% Talent, then their Performance is never 100% because there are always Interferences from personal and/or organisational factors. Personal interferences come, for example, from lifestyle, health, family and/or caring responsibilities. Organisational interferences come, for example, from skill set mismatches with work role, adequacy of role definition, relationships with leaders and work colleagues, organisational bureaucracy, and factors like organisational dynamism and workforce stagnation if business growth is poor.

The behaviour expert’s key message was that everyone has Interferences, so no one can ever perform at 100%! Interestingly, they used the same equation to describe the performance of a company. In this case, Talent represents a company’s portfolio of  products and services, and Interferences are largely the policies, processes, and  controls that influence the delivery of the portfolio to clients. Bigger companies tend to have more Interferences than smaller ones, and no company ever performs at 100%, although clever accounting and expectation management often masks this!

So, think about your performance appraisal in the terms above. Your Talent is constant, so your Performance dips when Interferences rise. Eventually Interferences will reach a level that makes you feel like doing something different with your life. It’s very empowering when this happens, because it definitively changes the way you approach your appraisal with your boss.  

There’s more to getting a smart education than ever-smarter technology…

With a bleak Winter on the horizon, Pink Floyd’s ‘We don’t need no education…’ grumbling from the radio, and Remembrance Day a few days away, thoughts about the grip that tech has on our lives have been a trifle melancholic. Remembrance Day is always poignant for the Badger. His grandfathers, who he never knew, served in the Army during WW1, and his father rarely spoke of his childhood, his life during WW2, or his post-war Army service. The poignancy is heightened this year because the horrors and hardships they endured are evident today in a Ukrainian family currently being hosted by a family member. Sadly, the tech-dominated ‘progress’ of the 21st century has done little to change the propensity for humans to inflict harm on other humans.  

Research has expanded the Badger’s knowledge of his forefathers’ lives, producing enormous pride, and admiration for their resilience in the face of adversity. One grandfather won two Military Medals for bravery in WW1. The other was invalided out of the Army after being gassed in the trenches, a primary factor in his death in early middle-age. The Badger’s father was a child evacuee from London when WW2 started in 1939. He was orphaned in 1942 and joined the Army in 1946 serving in a decimated post-war Germany, and then in Egypt. When pressed, he would only say that these experiences were ‘character-building’ and had influenced his three favourite sayings, namely ‘There’s no such thing as can’t, try’, ‘If you’ve got a problem, don’t bleat about it, deal with it’, and ‘Every day is a day for learning’. When the Badger was growing up, these were part of the parental soundtrack of life and became embedded attitudes. It was his father’s way of passing on lessons learned from difficult life experiences. 1

The Pink Floyd rendition here reminds the Badger that education has not only changed dramatically over the decades, but also that today’s Tech makes it easier, in some respects, to adopt an ‘Every day is a day for learning’ attitude. The days of blackboard and chalk, and throwing chalk at a pupil not paying attention, are gone! The smartest of educations, however, comes from complementing learning delivered by ever-smarter technology with face to face, non-virtual, cross-generational discussions with people sharing their experiences and life lessons. Part of the Badger’s melancholic tinge is due to a feeling that ever-smarter technology is progressively diluting this kind of learning. Another part is a feeling that whilst today’s world is different to that of his forefathers, it isn’t really any better. The melancholic tinge will no doubt fade in a few days. On Remembrance Day, the Badger will be paying tribute to his forefathers, and their values, with great pride. ‘Every day is a day for learning’ is very much part of their legacy. Make it part of yours too.

Innovation, USPs, and the herd instinct…

Have you ever listened to leaders talking in person, or via video or teleconference, about innovation, unique selling points (USPs) that make the company stand out from the crowd, and slogans to be used to grab the attention of potential customers? The answer is  ‘probably’, a word used to great effect in Carlsberg advertising campaigns  that trace their roots back to 1973. The Badger’s sat through many such talks over the years, but one more than twenty-five years ago generated a memorable insight that’s still relevant today.

At a senior staff gathering in a London hotel conference centre, the Group Chief Executive gave a lengthy presentation that announced and justified the company’s move beyond its software, systems development, and systems  integration roots into outsourcing and offshoring services. The presentation not only boasted about this being innovation, but also it conveyed new USPs. Many present were, like the Badger, experienced, delivery-centric people who felt the assertion that this was innovation was highly dubious, and that the new USPs were aspirational and not underpinned by any reality. The audience understood the IT market was changing, but they reacted badly to the claim this move was innovation because competitors were already way-ahead, and it felt like the company was just following the herd rather than playing to its true strengths.

In the hotel bar afterwards, a subsidiary executive provided some wise words of insight when tackled informally about the presentation. They pointed out that although the business world worships innovation as necessary for survival and growth, the reality is that true innovation is rare and it’s imitation that is the endemic driver. They used examples of the new products and approaches emerging across the IT industry at the time to illustrate that these were born out of imitation and not innovation. The executive also highlighted that since the herd mentality is a feature of human behaviour, no one should ever be surprised that companies follow the herd and assert USPs that are primarily just slogans to differentiate in business conversations with potential clients. The bigger a company, the executive asserted, the more the slogan is influenced by spin and market trends, and the more tenuous the link with raw capability. This has coloured the Badger’s calibration of company sales and marketing messaging ever since, and the executive’s innovation, USP and herd mentality insight still resonates in today’s world in which we are bombarded with information relentlessly, and organisations do everything they can to grab, keep, and capitalise on our attention. So, just remember that if something claims to be an innovation today, then be sceptical because imitation is endemic and true innovation is scarce. Similarly, always explore any asserted USP to see if it passes the ‘unique’ test amongst industry peers, because it’s the herd instinct rather than uniqueness that dominates the world of business.

Speaking truth to power in a commercial organisation…

The Badger was reminded of the dangers of speaking truth to those in power while talking to a friend at a social event recently. While sharing stories of the ying and yang of company life, his friend mentioned that they had been quietly tapped on the shoulder to say that they were at risk of redundancy. The Badger’s friend, with many years of loyal service, explained that their relationship with their boss had deteriorated, and that their boss was manipulating their exit because they had been consistently and relentlessly telling them the truth about project difficulties and necessary corrective actions. The boss, apparently, didn’t want to accept the truth, the difficulties were getting worse, and the Badger’s friend’s level of frustration suggested that both individuals had come to the end of their tethers!

Speaking truth to power is fraught with danger and to minimise its risks requires not only having an objective understanding of the personality and priorities of the person holding the power, but also good awareness of organisational politics, culture, and other factors. Without this, someone speaking truth to power might not foresee or prepare for the personal consequences of possible retaliation. These points were made to the Badger by his own boss many years ago during a coaching session. Their advice has influenced the way the Badger has spoken truth to power ever since.

One crucial piece of advice was that when speaking your truth, you must fully understand that you are either challenging something the person with power is responsible for, or their view or opinion of a situation or circumstance. It is thus essential to focus on the issue rather than on criticising the person or others. It is also essential, before you speak, to think through not only the possible retaliations and negative consequences for yourself, but also your gameplan should these materialise. If you don’t embrace these points then you may be ignored, your frustration will fester,  and you will be both flummoxed and unprepared should someone, for example from HR, tap you on the shoulder because you’re ‘a problem’. The Badger’s boss commented that anyone speaking truth to power must themselves partake in the gamesmanship that is inherent in the functioning of any sizeable commercial organisation.

Good leaders and managers, of course, want open communication and to hear truths spoken by peers and subordinates. Indeed, many cultivate dispassionate, objective, and dependable trusted advisors who tell them the truth. The least effective, on the other hand, only hear what they want to hear and are dismissive of truths from others. Unfortunately, the Badger’s friend had not foreseen the dangers of speaking truth to leaders. They have, however, learned to think before speaking, to always consider the potential personal consequences beforehand, and to have a pre-prepared game plan to look after your interests if you get a tap on the shoulder. Speaking truth to power requires gamesmanship…

Setting the bar too high…

In his school days, the Badger was in the school field athletics team because he was good at javelin, long jump, and – rather surprisingly for someone of average height – the high jump. It was, according to the team coach, the Badger’s natural technique rather than any specific physicality that underpinned why he was good at these events. The coach, a resolute athlete who demanded the same dedication from others, had two favourite phrases to encourage team members to train hard and do better. The first was ‘technique is the difference between reliable success and reliable failure’. The second, used especially for the high jumpers, was ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’. Little did the schoolboy Badger know that he would regularly hear leaders and managers utter this one throughout his working life!

The Badger’s often heard executives say ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ when setting an expected, imperative outcome that is challenging, and when trying to persuade their audience that the challenge is tough, but the outcome is within reach. These last few words, however, are crucial because if an audience don’t sense that the outcome is within reach then they will nod sagely, consider argument futile, and only work half-heartedly towards the objective. If that happens then the road ahead will almost certainly be full of disappointment, blame, low morale, problems, and financial under-performance.

For many leaders and senior staff in sizeable organisations, attending an annual gathering at which executives set out the key priorities and targets for the coming year is routine. The Badger’s attended many such events over the years, and whilst fundamentally there’s nothing wrong in using ‘you don’t jump high unless you set the bar high’ to set ambitious targets, two observations crystallise from the experience. The first is that if the audience sense the challenging target is reachable then they will embrace it, fully align their support and activities, and executives will hold onto their jobs. The second is that if the audience feels the bar has been set so high that you need binoculars to see it, then they will pay lip-service to the challenge, gossip about the credibility of executives, worry about the enterprise’s viability, and speculate about whose heads will roll when outcomes are not met.

The point is simply this. If you are the leader in a company, project, programme, or service, then don’t lose touch with reality or your people. If  you set the bar way too high, then you will have an unhappy workforce, people will leave, output and quality will decline, financial forecasts will not be met, and your credibility as a leader will be damaged. The best leaders stay grounded in reality, make good judgements that balance competing soft and hard priorities, set the bar within reach, and communicate honestly and inspiringly. Those that don’t ultimately suffer the consequences.

The power of techies talking to clients…

Those who work in the technical, development, and delivery aspects of the IT industry are highly skilled, productive people often with a STEM-subject background. While some have natural ‘sales’ personalities and attributes, most prefer to focus on their project tasks rather than spend a lot of time interacting with clients. When they do, however, interact with clients, being on the alert for potential new business leads is often not high in their consciousness during their interaction. The Badger fitted this bill  early in his IT career, until a senior client visited the large software and systems integration project he was working.

The Badger’s company bosses arranged for the client and their entourage to spend a whole day with the project. The Badger grumbled because his teams were under schedule pressure but the grumbling, of course, fell on deaf ears and the visit went ahead with the client’s entourage meeting the software, systems, and test teams throughout the day. The visit ended with a client feedback session involving the Badger’s bosses and others from within the project. The senior client was rewardingly positive and asked the Badger’s bosses the following:    

‘Your techies and delivery people are impressive and  ooze knowledge, skill, and commitment. Talking to them has emphasised that your company not only has strength in depth but was also the right choice for this project. However, why do we only see people with account, business development, or sales titles when we want to discuss some of our wider business pains? If we saw and more routinely interacted with those from your engine room, then you would probably win more work from us’.

This opened the Badger’s eyes to the latent power of techies talking to clients and the under-use of the company’s engine-room community in identifying potential leads for new business. The number of staff in this community was much greater than those in formal sales, business development, and account management roles, and so it seemed obvious that more engagement between client and company technical and delivery staff  would benefit relationships and growth for the company. It also struck the Badger that talking to clients was good for the personal and career development of even the most introvert techie. The client’s words also highlighted that engine-room staff are not only the cornerstone of a company’s reputation, but also a powerful force that can influence a company’s ability to generate new business opportunities.

Ever since this feedback session the Badger has encouraged techies to recognise the power of talking with clients and to be attuned to identifying potential leads for additional business. Today wise companies encourage this dynamic routinely, because if they don’t then their competitors will be reaping the benefit of stronger relationships and better business growth.

Listening, selective hearing…and hidden motives

Decent leaders and managers know that listening is important to keeping their team engaged, spotting problems, picking up on trends, and gaining the insights and information needed for success. Listening skills featured in many of the training courses the Badger attended throughout his IT career, and the maxim ‘you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that ratio because you learn more when you listen than when you talk’ has served him well over the years. The best bosses have listening as a core capability, but it cannot be assumed that every boss or person in a position of influence or power hears the key points in what they are told. Why? Because they’re human and often have ‘selective hearing’ and hidden motives.

Early in his career, the Badger’s boss asked him to covertly assess a dysfunctional, over-running project. Whatever the Badger reported back would, apparently, help the boss make difficult decisions on what next steps were in the company’s best overall interest. In the subsequent one-to-one meeting to convey the findings, the Badger summarised  the project’s status and articulated three key recommendations. The boss listened closely, seemed appreciative, and said the input would be considered overnight and factored into their decision making. They asked to meet with the Badger again the following afternoon.

This follow-up meeting proved memorable. The boss seemed to have a completely different recollection of the previous day’s meeting! They gave the Badger a hard time, and the atmosphere became very tense when the boss claimed the Badger hadn’t made any recommendations the previous day! Horrified, the Badger briefly wondered if his boss was right,  but quickly decided otherwise. The boss took a telephone call which ended the meeting prematurely. On returning to his desk, the Badger concluded that his boss either hadn’t really been listening in the first meeting or was prone to ‘selective hearing’.

Travelling home that evening, the Badger thought – uncharitably  – that his boss had lost his marbles, was not quite the full shilling, or had become one sandwich short of a picnic. The next day, however, provided an answer – the Badger’s boss announced they were leaving the company! The boss knew they were departing all along, which made the problematic project someone else’s problem. Their hidden motive in dealings with the Badger was to simply to go through the motions of  quasi-business as usual dynamics in order to heighten the surprise and impact of their imminent departure announcement.

The Badger learned an important lesson. In one-on-one meetings, the person you are talking to may have good listening skills, but always assume they will have some ‘selective hearing’ and a hidden motive. Appreciating this helps you to prepare and manage a discussion to get the outcome you want.

An independent review and temporary traffic lights…

Driving home after a meeting with the leader of a modest-sized business, the Badger joined a slow-moving traffic queue on a semi-rural road. In the distance, he could see that temporary traffic lights letting through just two or three cars at a time were the reason for the queue. As vehicles inched forward, the Badger’s thoughts wandered back to the meeting that he’d just left. The business leader, an unusual character, was struggling with delays and spiralling costs on a long running project, and with getting his project staff to change their long-standing, comfortable, ‘it’s too difficult’ ways of working. The leader wanted to find a way of overcoming this challenge without completely destroying their good personal relationship with their staff.

At the start of the meeting the leader’s demeanour was initially one of quiet desperation, but this changed to one of relief and enthusiasm as the discussion progressed. The Badger suggested getting an experienced, independent outsider to review the project and produce a report that recommended actions to be taken. This provoked some fruity language signalling that there was no desire to pay someone who’d swallowed an MBA handbook to author a report that told them what they already knew! Undeterred, the Badger persevered and pointed out that a review and report by the right independent person would provide the objective, dispassionate, and tangible ammunition in black and white to force the changes needed to reduce cost. After all, this is a common method in major businesses, public sector organisations, and government departments. The leader had a ‘light-bulb moment’. They realised that a written report would be a useful vehicle for deflecting the ‘blame’ for changes more towards the independent reviewer than themselves!

As the car reached the front of queue at the traffic lights, the Badger wondered why this supposed leader hadn’t thought about the merits of an independent review and report themselves. The Badger’s attention, however, quickly moved to the highway work being performed, namely the clearance of compacted leaves and vegetation from a 20-metre stretch of the paved footpath running alongside the carriageway. There were three panel vans, a trailer, one worker chatting on his phone in a van’s cab, one worker using a mini-bulldozer to scrape leaves from the footpath and put them further back on the verge,  and one worker using a portable petrol-powered leaf-blower to blow looser debris from the footpath onto the verge. It must be cheaper, the Badger mused, and healthier for the workers, more fossil-fuel efficient, and less impactful on the climate if this work was done by two men with one van, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, a rake, and a broom. The Badger smiled; an independent review of working practices is surely needed!

Serious internet failure – never say never

For the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone was together recently to celebrate the Badger’s grandson’s second birthday. It was a memorable occasion. All the adults, however, felt a little chastened by the suffering of Ukrainian  families with children at the moment. As the toddler opened presents, the Badger felt not only uneasy about the world he will grow up in, but also uneasy that his life will utterly depend on the internet. At just two-years old, the toddler is already powering-on the Badger’s tablet, swiping its screen, and watching the Teletubbies on YouTube! The little one will only know of life before the internet from stories told by his parents and grandparents, books, and content from the internet itself. Well, that’s just the way it is. Progress is progress, and those born this century are already full-blown digital and internet-reliant natives.  

The toddler went off for a pre-bedtime bath towards the end of the party, and the  Badger, resting on a comfy sofa, began to muse on how the little one’s generation would cope if there was a dramatic, prolonged, serious failure of the internet in the future.   Conventional wisdom has it that the internet has no single points of failure, and is too big, too decentralised, and has too much in-built redundancy to fail. The prevalent view is that a serious interruption that impacts our lives for a prolonged period will never happen. As the Badger began to doze, he remembered what he had learned during his IT industry career, namely to ‘never say never’, to expect the unexpected, and to remain cool, rational, objective, and focused when the unexpected happens. He concluded that it’s not a question of if, but when such an internet event might occur.   

Reflections on failure of the internet pop up regularly over the years – see here, here, and here, for example. All they really do, however, is reinforce the ‘never say never’ point. In complex computer systems and networks there’s always scope for unexpected human actions and technical events to have unforeseen and dramatic consequences. The Russian threat to vital undersea cables that carry internet traffic between Europe and North America (see here, here, and here) illustrates , for example, why ‘never say never’ is a sensible position. If Mr Putin has gone ‘full tonto’ and the Russian Navy performs a coordinated attack on these cables then the internet’s resilience and fault tolerance, and our life routines, will be tested like never before.  

The Badger’s grandson, about to go to bed, climbed on the Badger’s lap and shouted, ‘wake up, grandad’. Everyone laughed. The Badger opened his eyes and made a mental note to teach his grandson some of the self-sufficiency life skills needed to function without the internet…just in case he needs them in years to come.    

The Web at 30, and getting cancelled…

There’s an interesting article entitled ‘Going global: the world the Web has wrought’ in this month’s edition of Physicsworld, the member magazine of the Institute of Physics. It covers how the Web has taken over the world in the last 30 years and the role of physicists and programmers in enabling this to happen. The article points out that the benefits of the Web have not come without tremendous economic and social dislocations, and its last sentence – ‘The world has indeed been transformed by the Web, but not entirely for the better’ – captures a truth that resonates with those whose careers spanned the Web’s progression.

The Badger made this ‘not entirely for the better’ point to a neighbour’s daughter, home from university for the weekend, and got a lecture in response! The Badger is a fuddy-duddy, apparently, whose opinions are irrelevant because his generation are responsible for everything that’s wrong and the Web has brought people nothing but good. Hmm! Resisting the urge to argue, the Badger just smiled and calmly suggested the young lady’s view might change on gaining more life experience after university. With a stare that could kill, she stormed off!

At the local supermarket later, the Badger bumped into her mother who apologetically mentioned that her daughter had ‘cancelled’ the Badger. She then said, ‘Join the club; last week she told me that I was cancelled too’. We laughed. The youngster’s mum theatrically rolled her eyes and then wryly bemoaned the amount of time her daughter spent surfing the Web. Being told you’re cancelled was a new experience, but not a bothersome one because it’s an absurdity that just illustrates the ‘not entirely for the better’ point about the transformational impact of the Web.

Many in our younger generations today seem intent on banning, reinterpreting, or cancelling anyone or anything from earlier times because it might offend. Enabling the growth of a sentiment which redefines the truth and facts of earlier eras stands out as one of the Web’s ‘not entirely for the better’ transformational impacts. Microsoft’s new ‘inclusivity checker’ in Word, see here and here,  is a simple example of the sentiment’s pervasiveness. In the Badger’s view, the words actually written by authors, songsters, and spoken by famous people in earlier times are the facts of their era and suggesting ‘inclusivity’ modifications for them just promotes the breeding of a denial and dishonesty in society that future generations will regret.

From the Badger’s experience above, it seems that all you must do to be cancelled is point out that the Web is ‘not entirely for the better’, be of an older generation, and stand up for the preservation of the language and facts of history, no matter how uncomfortable they may be in a modern setting. If that’s the case, the Web is facilitating the slide to a cultural oblivion that future generations don’t deserve.