Two anecdotes about culture

Wednesday, December 20, 2017 :: Tagged under: personal management culture essay. ⏰ 3 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

Here are two little anecdotes about companies and culture, apropos of nothing.

The "electric bananas" experiment

This is purely apocryphal and I have no idea if this is really happened:

There was an experiment where 20 monkeys were placed in a room with shock collars. In the center of the room there was a pole, and at the top of the pole were some delicious-looking bananas. They quickly learned that if any of them climbed the pole and touched the bananas, they'd all get electric shocks. Unsurprisingly, the monkeys stopped climbing the pole.

A new monkey was introduced to the cage, and one of the original monkeys was removed. The new monkey, not having context, sees some bananas at the top of the pole and goes to climb it. Anticipating a shock, the rest of the monkeys pile onto the new one and bring it down. It tries to climb again, and the other 19 bring it down again. Pretty soon, the new monkey gets the message that the bananas are off-limits to everyone and stops trying to climb.

The experimenters remove another of the original 20 monkeys, and introduce a new one. It goes for the bananas, and all the monkeys (including the first new one), bring it down. The second new monkey stops climbing.

You can turn off the collars and keep cycling monkeys, and eventually you end up with 20 monkeys that will prevent anyone from getting the bananas, though none have ever been shocked; they just collectively know that those bananas are forbidden and we'll take down anyone who goes for them.

Culture at a company is everyone's responsibility, but leadership (almost by definition of the word "leadership") has a disproportionate impact on it. Employees and middle managers will learn what their bosses permit and reward, and will enforce it on each other. Furthermore, it's durable: if you have a bad manager or leader at any point, even if you remove them (like stopping the shocks), it requires proactive effort to undo the effects of this.

Suppose bananas is an unwanted behavior: congratulations! You, as a manager, have successfully achieved leverage! Employees won't be fully conscious of why they're stopping The Bad Thing from happening, but they're still performing well.

I find this a better story to illustrate stifling culture. Suppose employees see their peers getting told No from management for many of their new ideas: eventually they'll stop offering them. But even if a few especially disillusioned folks leave, new hires will still be conditioned by those who remain to not produce ideas.

Selecting for the job vs. Performing the tasks of the job was a failure on launch that anybody thinking at the systems level could have predicted. Managing the purchase of health insurance across 50 states is a challenging launch for anyone, but problem domain excepted, the only clue you needed was to remember that the folks in charge of implementing it weren't primarily good at producing software, what they were amazing at was getting government contracts, a non-trivial procedure of its own. Writing software is a secondary skill.

Opportunities have a separate process requiring a different set of skills to acquire them than to necessarily fulfill them. Grants don't go to the best artists and researchers, they go to the best grant proposal writers. Political leadership goes to great campaigners more often than people who would be excellent elected officials. CEO-ship of early companies isn't usually given to great leaders of employees or folks who understand the business, but people who are principally great at acquiring capital and networking.

Managing ICs is usually pretty straightforward since they either deliver their work or they don't. When your organization starts gets big enough that your reports have their own reports, or manage business units, leaders must ensure that the primary professional skill of their people managers is ensuring the business gets what it needs from those they oversee, and not gaining your approval. Said another way: if you feel great about your direct reports, awesome! But make sure that's not because their primary professional skill is managing up precisely to make you feel this way; some people are excellent at avoiding accountability and fitting stereotypes of effective office workers. Taste what they're cooking.

Some of the best career advice I've seen fit in a tweet: "you're more likely to get what you ask for than what you deserve." Through a combination of Patriarchy, Dunning-Kruger, or just paying attention, a huge number of wannabe leaders can ooze confidence and competence. But performance of a trait isn't the same thing as possessing it. Trust your reports, but verify their output.

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