The 12 Questions



I attended a teleconference today to discuss performance engagements with employees.  A reference was made to Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s book, “First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently.”  I took some notes and decided to post the twelve questions here.  Great questions to ask yourself about how you manage other people and also reflect on how you are managed.  Seems like a great concept, I ordered it on Amazon before the seminar was over.


1.     Do I know what is expected of me at work?

2.     Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?

3.     At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

4.     In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?

5.     Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

6.     Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

7.     At work, do my opinions seem to count?

8.     Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?

9.     Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?

10. Do I have a best friend at work?

11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First Break All the Rules: What the Greatest Managers Do Differently, 1999, p. 26.

When Working From Home Doesn’t Work

Ron Palinkas Ron PalinkasIn 1979, IBM was putting its stamp on the American landscape. For 20 years, it had been hiring the greats of modernism to erect buildings where scientists and salespeople could work shoulder-to-shoulder commanding the burgeoning computer industry. But that year, one of its new facilities—the Santa Teresa Laboratory, in Silicon Valley—tried an experiment. To ease a logjam at the office mainframe, it installed boxy, green-screened terminals in the homes of five employees, allowing them to work from home.  The idea of telecommuting was still a novelty. But this little solution seemed effective. By 1983, about 2,000 IBMers were working remotely. The corporation eventually realized that it could save millions by selling its signature buildings and institutionalizing distance work; the number of remote workers ballooned. In 2009, an IBM report boasted that “40 percent of IBM’s some 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all.” More than 58 million square feet of office space had been unloaded, at a gain of nearly $2 billion. IBM, moreover, wanted to help other corporations reap the same officeless efficiencies through its consulting services. Leading by example was good marketing.

Then, in March of this year, came a startling announcement: IBM wanted thousands of its workers back in actual, physical offices again.  The reaction was generally unsparing. The announcement was depicted, variously, as the desperate move of a company whose revenues had fallen 20 quarters in a row; a veiled method of shedding workers; or an attempt to imitate companies, like Apple and Google, that never embraced remote work in the first place. “If what they’re looking to do is reduce productivity, lose talent, and increase cost, maybe they’re on to something,” says Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, which measures (and champions) working from home.IBM might have seen this coming. A similarly censorious reaction greeted Yahoo when it reversed its work-from-home policy in 2013. Aetna and Best Buy have taken heat for like-minded moves since. That IBM called back its employees anyway is telling, especially given its history as “a business whose business was how other businesses do business.” Perhaps Big Blue’s decision will prove to be a mere stumble in the long, inevitable march toward remote work for all. But there’s reason to regard the move as a signal, however faint, that telecommuting has reached its high-water mark—and that more is lost in working apart than was first apparent.

The communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is still the office.How could this be? According to Gallup, 43 percent of U.S. employees work remotely all or some of the time. As I look to my left, and then to my right, I see two other business-casual-clad men hammering away on their laptops beside me at a Starbucks just outside Chicago. They look productive. Studies back this impression up. Letting Chinese call-center employees work from home boosted their productivity by 13 percent, a Stanford study reported. And, again according to Gallup, remote workers log significantly longer hours than their office-bound counterparts.

Another batch of studies, however, shows the exact opposite: that proximity boosts productivity. (Don’t send call-center workers home, one such study argues—encourage them to spend more time together in the break room, where they can swap tricks of the trade.) Trying to determine which set of studies to trust is—trust me—a futile exercise. The data tend to talk past each other. But the research starts to make a little more sense if you ask what type of productivity we are talking about.  If it’s personal productivity—how many sales you close or customer complaints you handle—then the research, on balance, suggests that it’s probably better to let people work where and when they want. For jobs that mainly require interactions with clients (consultant, insurance salesman) or don’t require much interaction at all (columnist), the office has little to offer besides interruption.

But other types of work hinge on what might be called “collaborative efficiency”—the speed at which a group successfully solves a problem. And distance seems to drag collaborative efficiency down. Why? The short answer is that collaboration requires communication. And the communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and the highest-bandwidth connection is—for the moment, anyway—still the office.  Consider the extremely tiny office that is the cockpit of a Boeing 727. Three crew members are stuffed in there, wrapped in instrument panels. Comfort-wise, it’s not a great setup. But the forced proximity benefits crew communication, as researchers from UC San Diego and UC Irvine demonstrated in an analysis of one simulated flight—specifically the moments after one crew member diagnoses a fuel leak.

Ron Palinkas Work from Home ron palinkas work from homeA transcript of the cockpit audio doesn’t reveal much communication at all. The flight engineer reports a “funny situation.” The pilot says “Hmmm.” The co-pilot says “Ohhhh.”Match the audio with a video of the cockpit exchange and it’s clear that the pilots don’t need to say much to reach a shared understanding of the problem.   That it’s a critical situation is underscored by body language: The flight engineer turns his body to face the others. That the fuel is very low is conveyed by jabbing his index finger at the fuel gauge. And a narrative of the steps he has already taken—no, the needle on the gauge isn’t stuck, and yes, he has already diverted fuel from engine one to no avail—is enacted through a quick series of gestures at the instrument panel and punctuated by a few short utterances.  It is a model of collaborative efficiency, taking just 24 seconds. In the email world, the same exchange could easily involve several dozen messages—which, given the rapidly emptying fuel tank, is not ideal.

This brings us to a point about electronic communications technologies. Notionally, they are cheap and instantaneous, but in terms of person-hours spent using them, they are actually expensive and slow. Email, where everything must literally be spelled out, is probably the worst. The telephone is better. Videoconferencing, which gives you not just inflection but the expression, is better still. More-recent tools like the workplace-communication app Slack integrate social cues into written exchanges, leveraging the immediacy of instant messaging and the informality of emoji, plus the ability to create a channel to bond over last night’s #gameofthrones.

Yet all of these technologies have a weakness, which is that we have to choose to use them. And this is where human nature throws a wrench into things. Back in 1977, the MIT professor Thomas J. Allen looked at communication patterns among scientists and engineers and found that the farther apart their desks were, the less likely they were to communicate. At the 30-meter mark, the likelihood of regular communication approached zero.  The expectation was that information technology would flatten the so-called Allen Curve. But Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at MIT, recently found that it hasn’t. The communications tools that were supposed to erase distance, it turns out, are used largely among people who see one another face-to-face. In one study of software developers, Waber, working alongside researchers from IBM, found that workers in the same office traded an average of 38 communications about each potential trouble spot they confronted, versus roughly eight communications between workers in different locations.

The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.  Whatever the mechanisms at play, they were successfully distilled into what Judith Olson, a distance-work expert at UC Irvine, calls “radical collocation.” In the late 1990s, Ford Motor let Olson put six teams of six to eight employees into experimental war rooms arranged to maximize team members’ peripheral awareness of what the others were up to. The results were striking: The teams completed their software-development projects in about a third of the time it usually took Ford engineers to complete similar projects. That extreme model is hard to replicate, Olson cautions. It requires everyone to be working on a single project at the same time, which organizational life rarely allows.

ron palinkas working from home ron palinkas working from homeBut IBM has clearly absorbed some of these lessons in planning its new workspaces, which many of its approximately 5,000 no-longer-remote workers will inhabit. “It used to be we’d create a shared understanding by sending documents back and forth. It takes forever. They could be hundreds of pages long,” says Rob Purdie, who trains fellow IBMers in Agile, an approach to software development that the company has adopted and is applying to other business functions, like marketing. “Now we ask: ‘How do we use our physical space to get on and stay on the same page?’ ”The answer, of course, depends on the nature of the project at hand. But it usually involves a central table, a team of no more than nine people, an outer rim of whiteboards, and an insistence on lightweight forms of communication. If something must be written down, a Post‑it Note is ideal. It can be stuck on a whiteboard and arranged to form a “BVC”—big, visual chart—that lets everyone see the team’s present situation, much like the 727’s instrument panels. Communication is both minimized and maximized.

Talking with Purdie, I began to wonder whether the company was calling its employees back to an old way of working or to a new one—one that didn’t exist in 1979, when business moved at a more stately pace. In those days, IBM could decide what to build, plan how to build it, and count on its customers to accept what it finally built at the end of a months-long process. Today, in the age of the never-ending software update, business is more like a series of emergencies that need to be approached like an airplane’s fuel leak. You diagnose a problem, deliver a quick-and-dirty solution, get feedback, course-correct, and repeat, always with an eye on the changing weather outside.  I asked Purdie whether IBM’s new approach could be accomplished at a distance, using all the new collaborative technology out there. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it can. But the research says those teams won’t be as productive. You won’t fly.”


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U of I Logo Change

ron palinkas ron palinkas ron palinkasThe University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus says it will only use the block letter “I” logo from now on.

School officials made the announcement Monday , saying the campus is retiring use of the more ornate column letter “I” logo that nonathletic units have used since 1997. Instead, school officials said colleges and administrative units will begin moving toward using the block letter “I” logo immediately. The transition is expected to last several months. Units will be told to use up current printed materials and then transition to the new, single logo.

Chancellor Robert J. Jones says having multiple versions of the campus logo creates needless confusion. Jones said the consolidation is “the first step in our effort to harness the power of the Illinois brand.” He said it will benefit fundraising, recruitment and the school’s reputation.

Organizational Equity

ron palinkas ron palinkas national field service managerSeveral years ago, at a medium-sized manufacturing firm, a young electronics engineer named Frederick was assigned to lead a team to develop and launch a new piece of high-tech equipment. Idealistic and thoughtful, Frederick saw his assignment as an opportunity to set an example for the whole company. Most projects came in after the deadline and over budget, in a manic, round-the-clock final stretch accompanied by browbeating from senior management and desperate pleading from customers. This time, they would use state-of-the-art “team management” methods to change all that. Team members would “own” their project, organizing their own work processes, setting and tracking their goals and targets collaboratively. Frederick’s bosses agreed, and the young team leader went to work.

A few months after the project began, Frederick took a week’s vacation. While he was gone, his boss stepped in and tinkered with the process, changing the schedule and undoing a deal the team had made with a supplier. When Frederick returned, he felt his legitimacy had been eroded. What was the point of team management if a higher authority could override it at any moment? Discouraged, Frederick quit his management role and became an engineer again. Within a year, he dropped out of the company entirely, leaving his profession to become a sculptor.

“I wasn’t treated like a person,” he said. “They treated me like a commodity.”

People like Frederick are everywhere, of course, in large organizations — in both good times and bad. They always seem to follow the same type of story. Smart and committed, they know a better way to operate. And then, smash! They come up against the organization’s internal defense system. They go from being the organization’s best hope for making positive changes to being seen as a kind of alien invader. And they never seem to recover from the experience.

But when we look more closely at this story, we see it’s not really about change or resistance. It’s about the hidden factors behind job satisfaction: the reason some people thrive in an organization and others seethe with resentment and ultimately leave. The critical factor (as most managers know) is not the money or other tangible matters, but whether people feel they are treated as a person with a unique contribution to offer and not as an easily replaced commodity.

Think about your own aspirations in that context: What do you want out of your job, your organization, and your career? Maybe you have plans to leave your company. Or maybe you have no plan at all, and you’re coasting along, waiting to see what happens. Whatever your circumstances, you’ve probably come to realize the limits of the organization’s concern for you. Where, then, does that leave you? And what choices can you make if you are dissatisfied? Frederick solved his problem by quitting his job and profession. I’m convinced there’s another solution. It all depends on the kind of equity you build up — that is, the value you create not just for your company but also for yourself.

ron palinkas national service managerCore Group Envy
It’s not the bosses at the top of the hierarchy, per se, who penalize people like Frederick. After all, the “tinkering” boss who drove Frederick out was a well-intentioned middle manager, who sincerely regretted that Frederick left (and didn’t really understand his own role in Frederick’s decision to quit the company).

The real force that kept Frederick “invisible” as a person was the organizational culture. Organizations tend to classify their members into two groups of people. First is the Core Group — those executives (and others) who come first because they are seen as central to the enterprise. Their needs and priorities, even if unarticulated, define the mission of the enterprise. They usually include the people at the top of the hierarchy, but they can also include gatekeepers (for instance, the head of a critical production plant or union), or people whose personality or integrity has catapulted them to a position of influence throughout the organization. The organization acts first and foremost to meet the needs of the Core Group. (See “Core Group Therapy,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Second Quarter 2002.)

The second group, generally 95 percent or more of the organization, consists of “transactional” employees — people who are contracting, in good faith, to provide a service for the organization. They feel they’re being treated as commodities because they are, in effect, commodities. They may not be replaceable, but the organization feels that they are. This sounds like a harsh assessment of organizations, but it’s not as bad as it sounds; you can have a tremendous, highly fulfilling career as a transactional employee, as long as you don’t get confused about your status. (There’s nothing as debilitating as “Core Group envy.”)

The Core Group in most organizations defines the status quo. Even when the Core Group members tell people to be innovative and proactive, the rest of the organization will hear a different intent: Keep things steady and comfortable. The big challenge for non–Core Group members like Frederick is not to protest against the Core Group’s existence, but to become more constructively conscious of its influence and its values. Had Frederick been more conscious of the Core Group when his new team approach was approved, he would have realized that he didn’t have the support he needed to make it work. All around him, people were assuming that, when push came to shove, the Core Group would reject it. Believing that, his supervisor naturally felt compelled to alter Frederick’s plans, if only to save Frederick from an even ruder awakening in the future.

Unfortunately, when the supervisor intervened, however innocent or deliberate his intentions, he ended up not just stirring Frederick to leave the company, but also crippling the project. It ultimately came in extremely late, way over budget, and enmeshed in a lawsuit with a supplier, to boot. Had Frederick stayed on the scene, he might have prevented all that.

ron palinkas national service manager

Many Equities
Imagine that you are someone in Frederick’s position, someone who sees a new way of operating or a new strategy and yearns to make it work in your company. You recognize that the organization, simply by its nature, cares more about the perceived priorities of the Core Group than it does about committed, creative people like you. At first glance, the circumstances might seem to call for cynicism; in the working world, you might think, idealists “like me” will always come to nothing.

How, then, can you gain any leverage at all? There is a way, which can be highly liberating. It allows people at every level of an organization to act with integrity and intelligence to pursue what they most want and what they believe is best for the organization. You must build your organizational equity — a kind of equity that you can create yourself, that increases your influence in your organization, and that helps you fulfill your own dreams.

You may ordinarily think of equity as the assets, transformed into stock, that shareholders own. This is, of course, a valuable form of equity for employees — whether purchased through options, awarded in grants, or bought through 401(k)-style investments. Paradoxically, this asset’s greatest value comes before it’s cashed in: as a visible sign of your commitment to the performance of the whole. It aligns your fate and the company’s fate in a tangible way. But if it’s the only form of equity you own, as many employee–shareholders have seen in the past two years, it makes you all too vulnerable.

In the end, the conventional definition of equity is far too narrow. It’s better defined as any share of accumulated wealth, including such intangible forms of “social capital” as relationships and reputation. There are dozens of types of equity that an individual can accumulate, including these:

ron palinkas ron palinkas national service manager• Fungible Financial Equity.  Can you accumulate, through savings or other means, enough money to be able to walk away from an organization if you can’t live with the Core Group? Can you accumulate enough money to invest in your own development, even if your employer doesn’t? Having this amount actually makes it easier to live with the organization, which will sense that you are staying with it through genuine interest, not financial dependence.

• Rainmaking Equity. The ability to raise money or drum up business is another form of capital. It depends, in part, on your contacts in the outside world, and even more on your ability to approach them. If you are not in the Core Group, you can still command enormous respect for this skill.

• Credential Equity. Once you have held a position or acquired a credential, it remains with you for a lifetime. Those who have been presidents of companies can become presidents of companies again. Those with degrees in a field, from engineering to education, are qualified for life for employment in those fields.

• Reputation Equity. People who live by their wits, like lawyers, consultants, and writers, have always known the value of this equity. “If Marconi says something about ultra-short waves,” Ezra Pound wrote, “it means something.” You build your reputation less through the accomplishments you stack up (what you do) than through the way you operate in life (who you are). Sooner or later, you can attract opportunities — such as speaking, teaching, appearing on television, or writing — that further enhance your reputation. At that point, your reputation has become a form of self-generating equity. I know several innovative managers who have protected their right to innovate by continually writing for outside publications and speaking at outside conferences, thereby demonstrating that someone, at least, honors their ideas.

• Relationship Equity. Some people never have a problem widening their personal network or making trusted friends. People seek them out. And relationships breed more relationships. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little Brown & Company, 2000), Paul Revere was able to roust the farmers of Middlesex because he was a natural convivialist, a frequenter of bars and a member of social groups, including the budding groups of revolutionaries then emerging. In corporate America, such relationship equity (particularly the ability to know the Core Group) can save people from losing their jobs even when they challenge the top.

• Capability Equity. Perhaps the equity that does the most for you is your ability to gain new capabilities and skills, because these accelerate your accumulation of all the other forms of equity. Most organizational learning literature and emotional intelligence literature (all types of how-to literature) is about building capabilities.

Some forms of organizational equity are measurable, and others are not; but whatever form it takes, it has two key features. First, it gives you leverage in an organization. Second, it accrues exponentially; emotional dynamics grow in the same way that a savings account increases through compounded interest.

When you first consider building a nest egg (say, in your 20s), it seems impossible that your small contributions will ever add up to anything significant. But suppose you stick with it. You even pick up the pace of savings as your income increases, eventually crossing a threshold of confidence: the recognition of your own ability to acquire a significant stake. In other words, you’ve demonstrated your ability to save. Sometime in your 40s or 50s, your account crosses another threshold — the threshold of sustainability. It is large enough to generate a significant income just from the interest. You have created what economists call capital: A resource that replenishes itself.

All equity involves the same two thresholds: confidence and sustainability. Most coming-of-age stories have to do with crossing the threshold of confidence: Harry Potter learns to play quidditch (skill equity); E.B. White’s Wilbur the pig establishes a form of fame that saves his life (reputation equity) through his ability to befriend others (relationship equity); the J.D. Salinger heroine Franny Glass, in his classic book Franny and Zooey, develops a kind of emotional and spiritual depth (capability equity). The message of these stories to the reader is, “You can do it, too.”

Equity must be protected, however. Stories about sustainability are often tales of long-lived dynasties like the Rothschilds, the Kennedys, or the Rockefellers — who continually build on their holdings. But there are many cautionary tales about ne’er-do-wells or hapless types who lose their sustainable position. Just as a family fortune can be completely dissipated, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” nonfinancial equity will erode if it is not well managed. Once it is drawn down past the threshold of sustainability, it can vanish with unexpected speed.

Rhythms of Growth
Organizations should help employees accumulate a variety of equity types, not just financial equity. By doing this, organizations could cement loyalty, align people with the purpose of the enterprise, and build a stronger company. In the absence of that organizational support, we can still build equity for ourselves and lead a rich, rewarding life in the workplace, whether or not we are part of the Core Group.

The reason Frederick, the young electronics engineer, got into so much trouble was this: He didn’t have enough different kinds of equity to match the complexity of his job. It’s not just that he didn’t have stock options; those would (at his level) merely have been a symbol of future potential. They would have helped, but they wouldn’t have been sufficient.

At first glance, rainmaking equity was unnecessary for him; the budget was set and funding allocated from above. In reality, however, the ability to raise more money would have greatly increased Frederick’s options (and the team’s). Reputation equity would have helped even more. Any new team leader supervising a major development project needs a reputation for high competence and deep creativity. Frederick lacked this. At minimum, a presentation of the rationale for his approach would have made a difference. Even if people at the top didn’t attend, the presentation would have made them aware of Frederick’s contribution and foresight.

Relationship equity was one of the most important components missing from Frederick’s portfolio. He needed strategic power to maneuver through the infighting among his various bosses, to get sponsorship for his new approach, and to provide “air cover” for his team. Frederick had excellent relationships on a peer level and with suppliers. But his lack of good relationships with those up in the hierarchy was a crippling factor. There was no one he could go to for candid counsel or perspective.

In retrospect, Frederick’s project looks like one that should have been tackled only by someone with a fair amount of organizational equity. People like him often are invited to take on roles and projects that look like a one-way ticket to the top. They are told, in essence, “You are free to fail,” and, because others assume they will fail, the risks seem manageable. But without an organizational equity portfolio, barely visible roadblocks are raised; people come in and micromanage; rumors of incompetence spread. The only way to deal with this is to have accumulated enough organizational equity, of various sorts, that you can protect yourself.

Although all equity growth is compounded, different forms of equity have different rhythms for growth. Money accumulates gradually, with a smooth exponential curve of steady mathematical advancement. Skills and capabilities accumulate through a kind of punctuated equilibrium; the innovative organizational psychologist Elliot Jaques, who died in March, demonstrated that the human ability to deal with complexity crosses a cognitive threshold every 15 years. (See “Elliot Jaques Levels with You,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, First Quarter 2001.) Have you ever suddenly realized that you’re routinely doing complex tasks that flummoxed you a few years ago? That’s what it feels like to cross a cognitive threshold. Reputation’s curve seems to advance with accelerated momentum and then come to sudden stops, with no clear cue about when it will start up again. Only those who seize the moment when opportunity strikes develop rainmaking equity.

Anyone, no matter how downtrodden (or how excluded from the Core Group), can build equity. But there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for building a portfolio of organizational equity. Your choice depends on what is easy for you, and on what equity your organization and its Core Group value. Most important, your choice depends on the kind of life you are trying to create. Because you cannot tell in advance which will be most useful to you, the accrual of many forms of equity will help contribute to a well-rounded life. A reputation for being trustworthy and capable and an extensive network of competent, trustworthy friends who take your calls is a better hedge than a lot of money invested in an unbalanced portfolio of stocks. A lifelong strategy of building equity also means that you don’t have to wait for someone else to bestow something on you — whether it’s stock options, jobs, or membership in the Core Group.

So when taking on a new assignment or pushing your job to a new level, you should ask yourself: What kinds of equity does this challenge require? How much of that equity will I need ahead of time, and how much can I build on the job? And if I don’t have it, what do I do to develop it, and how long will that take?

One final bit of encouragement: Building any of these forms of equity is easier than it seems. It always starts off as a slow and agonizing process, until you cross the threshold of confidence. And by the time you cross the threshold of sustainability (if you ever get there), it’s hard to remember that you ever had a problem.


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