🗣 Meetings, Part 1: Leaders and Org Worms

Thursday, February 1, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture engineering management essay. ⏰ 6 minutes.

🎵 The song for this post is Survivor, by Destiny's Child 🎵.

Let's talk about meetings! Why are there so many of them, especially since everyone hates them?

"Not by piling feature upon feature…"

One of my favorite quotes in design comes from the Scheme Steering Committee, a group in charge of the design of the Scheme programming language. For context, Scheme is designed minimally: it gives you the barest computing primitives and expects its users to fill in the rest. They introduced a very loved revision of the language with:

Programming languages should be designed not by piling feature on top of feature, but by removing the weaknesses and restrictions that make additional features appear necessary.

When people complain about meetings, they usually ask the wrong question. Organizations ask "how can we schedule fewer meetings?" but should instead ask "what is making this number of meetings feel necessary?" Well-intentioned palliatives like "no-meeting Wednesday" aren't addressing the core problems.

I'll discuss those "core problems" in Part 2; here, I'll talk about how, just as when we arrive at technical decisions, the main driver behind what Work At A Company feels like is some very human failure modes by the people who make up that company.

Why not address the core problems?

The short reason: they're cultural, changing culture is hard, and the folks most able to change it (people in leadership) are frequently incentivized to cultivate a different set of skills. Acknowledging that your culture is broken requires management to be patient, able to work on itself, self-aware, and have the trust of their peers, which is hard for anybody.

I'll substantiate "are incentivized to cultivate a different set of skills":

Large companies generally reward people more for their ability to manage up over their ability to manage down. It's not the subordinates who choose to hire the director, VP, or C-level. Reports don't choose to give their bosses a promotion. The tier above a manager or a leader is more likely to have those juicy LinkedIn contacts. I know one exec who is talked about as "the guy who went to Zuckerberg's wedding." He probably even likes that this is what people lead with.

Further, it's very possible for a manager/leader to look good to their boss even if their reports are suffering or failing, because their bosses are also managing up and not paying attention. I've seen departments where emotional abuse tactics from the director (ALLCAPS text messages in the middle of the night, name-calling, belittling, lying to laterals) were common and completely unknown to their executive, because that director smiled well in their 1:1s and the exec had "bigger things to deal with." They're now a director at another company.

Leaders have more weight in changing culture because they have so many people in the org tree beneath them, hanging on their every word. Paradoxically, many get higher up the tree by paying more attention up than down.

Many companies promote people with Blowhard Syndrome. Many of us are familiar with Imposter Syndrome, where many (usually underrepresented) people feel like they'll be "found out" for not being good enough, that they're "imposters" in their jobs, even though the reality is they have the necessary skills. I wish more of us used the phrase of its dual, Blowhard Syndrome, coined by Christina Xu:

While there are a few situations that make me feel insecure, I am, for the most part, an excellent judge of what I’m capable of. Expressing a reasonable amount of doubt and concern about a situation that is slightly outside my comfort zone is normal, responsible behavior. Understanding my limits and being willing to acknowledge them is, in fact, one of my strengths. I don’t think it should be pathologized alongside the very real problem of “impostor syndrome”.

In fact, it is the opposite behavior—the belief that you can do anything, including things you are blatantly not qualified for or straight up lying about—should be pathologized. It has many names (Dunning-Krueger, illusory superiority), but I suggest we call it blowhard syndrome as a neat parallel. Blowhard syndrome is all around us, but I have a special fondness in my heart for the example my friend Nicole has taxidermied on her Twitter profile.

It goes without saying that someone performing Blowhard Syndrome is probably not the best person to fix culture. These people are everywhere in management because many power brokers love folks who talk a big game 👆🏼

Alternatively, some leaders realize their own powerlessness, so they evade direct engagement with their reports or their work. A sizeable number of folks in leadership positions aren't Patrick Bateman, and run the risk of having just the wrong amount of awareness. They get rightfully scared that employees will realize the old socialist dictum "we don't need bosses, bosses need us!" Larry and Sergey aren't the ones swapping out failing disks in Google's datacenters. Jess Bezos isn't gonna stock millions of boxes a day.

This is why any emergency that goes sufficiently high up usually ends up with Spaceballs-inspired leadership:

To acknowledge and subsequently to fix culture means a leader has to critically engage with it, which they may avoid because it may lead to their reports seeing how little they actually understand (or sometimes, care about) the work and the problem domain the company ostensibly tackles. They're more comfortable demonstrating to their boss that they can read a spreadsheet than have to engage with the people working on the product.

Also! Reminder that #NotAllBosses. I'm looking at incentives and making note of what I've seen. I've also worked with some brilliant, inspiring bosses.

Parasites

Back to meetings (kinda): Every complex system has parasites. If there's a niche, a parasite will fill it, and white-collar company culture is no exception. This is part of what I allude to when I keep mentioning that every role has different criteria for _getting_ the role than executing the role, as well as the above points on who sometimes ends up in leadership roles.

This all ties into meetings because there are people who thrive in dysfunctional meeting cultures like fungal spores in moisture, and will (often subconsciously) perpetuate and defend it, since it keeps the spotlight on where they are strong rather than where they are clueless. Commanding a high salary while always being in Important Meetings is one of the most accepted and desirable narratives in professional life, so to many people, this is success. It shouldn't surprise that there's an unwillingness to question whether all these meeetings are the expensive illusion of success. The main thing you can do to remove meetings from your org is to remove the people who seem to need them like oxygen.

It seems harsh (and feels harsh typing it), but if you need something out of your org (meetings and the culture that produces them), you should remove the source. Building teams and processes that don't require frequent, company-halting, creativity-destroying meetings is a valuable professional skill and you should seek leaders who can do it.

Okay, great, so how do you spot them? Carefully. They usually wear markers of performing competence, and performing competence to many power brokers is functionally equivalent to performing confidence (see: blowhard syndrome). This is often some combination of being articulate, being credentialed, having good posture/teeth, being conventionally attractive and/or charming, and seeming to favor organization (everything goes into a doc or spreadsheet; neat taxonomies for everything) over discipline (actually sitting down and looking over the work of your reports).

They'll rely on tired, always-true statements like "let's take a step back here," or "how will this scale?" See a bunch of others here.

Do their proposed solutions to org troubles involve hiring?

How often do you verify their narrative on their team's performance? How do they react to that kind of audit? Do they own shortcomings, or blame circumstance or their team members?

Ask their reports directly: when [PERSON] comes to your desk, do you feel good, neutral, or bad? Do they make it easier or harder for you to perform your tasks, and how?

Just get the right people and do the damn work

Get good people, keep good people. Pay attention to who gets fired and who gets promoted. Are you accidentally rewarding the above behaviors? Measure how well leaders and managers are managing down and treat it as one of your company's most important OKRs.

Really, learn that good company culture, like having correct business accounting, is not something you can just count on happening, you must allocate resources to it and treat it as critical to the survival of your business. If you misreport your books, your business dies despite your product or your customers. Responsible business leaders don't ad-hoc their books, they hire accountants, they spend money and energy, they do audits. You must do the same with culture.

If you have 5 minutes, watch Jay Smooth talk about it on a more personal scale: nobody is "finished" being a good person, they must work on it every day. Companies are the same.

In Part 2, I'll talk a bit about what cultural problems have "creating meetings" as a symptom. But really, start with the people.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄