http://www.newgovoffice.com A guide for running a 21st century office in government or the private sector Thu, 13 Nov 2014 13:56:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.6.7 42011291 Transverse selection in the military http://www.newgovoffice.com/transverse-selection-in-the-military/ Thu, 13 Nov 2014 13:50:50 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=265 transverse-selectionThe consequences of transverse selection are now being exposed in the US military, with one Air Force colonel complaining that the Service’s physical fitness standards select against too many airmen who excel at their actual job requirements.

Of course, physical readiness is certainly important to military readiness, but it is no longer the cornerstone of most military occupations, particularly in the Navy and Air Force.

Like those archaic pike and musket formations that still guide our social construction of what military discipline is all about, the over-emphasis of physical over mental readiness is a lingering trope that desperately needs reform.

In the Information Age, “fit for service” means much more than body fat percentage and push-ups per minute, and clinging to out-dated social ideals of the perfect warrior drives a bad selection process that costs us good Service members, which costs lives, and could one day cost us a war.

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Phaticized work : Gladhanding http://www.newgovoffice.com/phaticized-work-gladhanding/ Thu, 30 Oct 2014 20:54:28 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=214 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhaticized work is defined as a covert and often unconscious form of corruption in which organizational resources are diverted to personal ends by way of social instincts.

Phatic is a term borrowed from linguistics, where it refers to speech that serves a social function rather than conveying information. For our purposes, phatic refers to any workplace activity that perhaps appears to serve the organization’s mission, but actually serves a social function that either does not genuinely support the mission or undermines it.

Today’s example of phaticized work is gladhanding.

Gladhanding (as we’re using it) consists of spending undue workplace time building one’s own social network, particularly among seniors and well-connected peers. Gladhanders are often perceived as positive go-getters, but what they primarily go and get are promotions, raises, and perks for themselves.

Because they spend so much time maintaining their “face-time” with people who can protect and promote their career, any actual projects they’re assigned tend to be either delegated away or performed in a very casual manner. A successful gladhander is essentially being paid to get raises while other people do the real work.

Watching out for gladhanders is the responsibility of the gladhanded. A peer or subordinate who seems to make opportunities for face-time every day, is eager to chat every time you pass in the hallway, or even sets up a regular meeting that seems to have little genuine work function may be a gladhander.

Remember, gladhanding is not innocent workplace socializing or valuable networking. Such pro-social behavior has been shown to drive productivity out of an organization. And, by exploiting social instincts and personal ties to gain access to organizational resources, it constitutes an on-the-books form of embezzlement.

The best way to confirm gladhanding is to have a phatic-pragmatic ratio assessment done on their work by a third party reviewer and the person’s co-workers and subordinates. This sort of serious workplace discipline is the only way to eliminate phatic corruption.

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More proof of the corruptive effects of phatic elements in the workplace http://www.newgovoffice.com/more-proof-of-the-corruptive-effects-of-phatic-elements-in-the-workplace/ http://www.newgovoffice.com/more-proof-of-the-corruptive-effects-of-phatic-elements-in-the-workplace/#comments Tue, 28 Oct 2014 13:33:34 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=243 transverse-selectionUniversity of Pennsylvania social network researcher Lynn Wu recently discovered a perfect example of transverse selection.

After analyzing several years of anonymized electronic communications from 8000+ employees of a tech firm, she found that while instrumental communications about practical matters drove productivity, social communications about sports and primate food-sharing rituals—like lunches and coffee breaks—drove retention during lay-offs.

More importantly, she found that these two types of communication were substitutes for each other, meaning that they can’t occupy the same network space at the same time.

In simpler terms: practical thinkers did the mission, but social thinkers kept their jobs when push came to shove.

The study’s abstract, contrasting the information diversity of practical communication and the social value of expressive communication, reads:

I consider two intermediate mechanisms by which an information-rich network is theorized to improve work performance — information diversity and social communication — and quantify their effects on productivity and job security. Analysis shows that productivity, as measured by billable revenue, is more associated with information diversity than with social communication. However, the opposite is true for job security. Social communication is more correlated with reduced layoff risks than is information diversity. This, in turn, suggests that information-rich networks enabled through the use of social media can drive both work performance and job security, but that there is a tradeoff between engaging in social communication and gathering diverse information.

It is important to clearly understand that concluding sentence. Wu states that social media can drive both forms of communication, but that there is a zero-sum dynamic between the two, known as a tradeoff or “substitution” relationship.

The common excuse that “these two things aren’t mutually exclusive” does not apply here.

For strategic thinkers, these findings are troubling because they describe a dynamic in which less effective professionals accumulate during reiterated retention and hiring cycles, slowly smothering the practical network of the organization with a cancerous social network of buddy-promoters.

Although, technically, the social communications Wu measured do not themselves qualify as phaticized work, because they are openly social and not disguised as work, the retention they drive is a perfect example of a corrupt and phaticized process.

Each person thus preferentially retained by virtue of social ties represents an in-house embezzlement of every resource the organization thereafter assigns to them because, regardless of the work they do, their position and its attendant resources properly should have gone to someone else. The organization may have allocated the resources anyway, but not to the individual retained for having the right friends.

This is an illicit channeling of value that should be recognized, condemned, and corrected as the corruption it is. And, when its reiteration leads to a smothering accumulation of phatic processes, it should be diagnosed as a severe danger to the future of the organization.

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Follow-up on Ebola : Practical thinking is strategic, managing expectations is tactical http://www.newgovoffice.com/follow-up-on-ebola-practical-thinking-is-strategic-managing-expectations-is-tactical/ Tue, 21 Oct 2014 15:30:42 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=232 ebolaNot to stray too far into politics, but one of the purposes of New Gov Office is to save government from the corruption and paralysis of tactical obsession.

Recent events indicate a lot of upside-down thinking in our approach to the Ebola crisis.

Brave Heart was a good film, but…

One clear sign of tactical thinking elevated to strategy is the motivational, “Brave Heart” approach to leadership, managing emotions and perceptions rather than managing practical realities. This application of social instincts—euphemistically, people skills—is inappropriate to higher planning levels where the real key to success is properly integrating the group effort to external reality.

Brave Heart leadership, focused inward toward the psychological “people problems” of accomplishing plans and goals, is perfectly fine so long as there’s someone higher up the chain focusing outward toward objective reality, to make sure those plans are practical and the goals realistic.

Therefore, people skills represent an inherently tactical mode of leadership.

We’ve been conditioned by decades of sports films to think that having a coach deliver a rousing half-time pep talk is the most effective way to deal with real-world competitive challenges. It’s all about keeping up your spirits, never mind the discouraging facts that are in the way!

This works really well, of course, when sympathetic Hollywood writers are authoring the script.

The tactical instincts of our human evolutionary legacy expect, and often demand, this sort of people-skills leadership. But, it can be a disastrous bias. Strategic organization is too evolutionarily novel to rely on mere instinct; we haven’t been doing complicated things in large enough groups long enough for natural selection to spread genuine strategic thinking throughout the gene pool.

Among human beings, this aggressively rational, strategic thinking is the anomaly rather than the rule.

William Wallace lost his war, and we cannot afford to lose to epidemics.

As some have pointed out, government response toward the encroachment of Ebola in the US has leaned toward people-skill tactics, even at the highest strategic levels, boosting spirits with reassurances that have, at best, had a shaky relationship with the facts.

We don’t mean to imply that this is peculiar to the current administration or its political party, because all partisan cliques exhibit these same flaws. It is illustrative, however, to take a look at this most recent example. Scott Gottlieb and Tevi Troy at the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], despite a rocky beginning, now recognizes that containing Ebola presents unexpected challenges of technique and execution. The White House, for its part, apparently thinks it is a messaging problem.

Messaging, of course, equals social skills.

The Gottlieb-Troy quote brings us to another consequence of upside-down leadership, i.e., having tactical “Brave Heart” thinking at strategic levels. In response to outside criticism, CDC has now issued new guidelines for Ebola safety gear.

To rephrase this for greatest impact: the agency assigned the task of controlling and preventing disease, in the most powerful government in human history, had to be pressured by outside expertise before issuing more effective means of controlling and preventing the spread of a disease.

CDC should have been leading the way on this, not embarrassed into following by outsiders. We see this same intellectual lag throughout the US government, which was once a fountain of innovation and forward thinking.

After all, this interwebz thing where you’re reading this was originally a government project.

Everything in its proper place, tactically and strategically.

Particularly when it comes to human resource (HR) processes that should help government organizations avoid becoming upside-down, Federal agencies now tend to bandwagon on stale fads that indulge social instincts, like worker engagement surveys, rather than recognizing the dangers of primitive social instincts and correcting for them.

In an epic case of frying-pan-to-fire reform, the US Intelligence Community recently flirted with a radical transformation of its rewards and promotion system to focus it entirely on the widely deprecated one-on-one performance review model. Opposition to, and evidence against, this highly bias-prone practice has been growing for some time. Luckily, after significant controversy, only one agency retained the dubious plan.

These sorts of instinct-driven practices in HR block rational thinkers from positions of strategic leadership. Social comparison biases and Dunning blindness seal these disparities in an immutable, upside-down hierarchy and the organization stagnates into incompetence, losing its competitive advantage over outsiders.

Why the expertise gradient along CDC’s perimeter? Why did outsiders have to press disease control reform on an organization that should have been the leader in disease control? Expertise resides inside the mind of a human being. The obvious answer is that the wrong minds, meaning the wrong people, are in charge at CDC.

Assuming that there are still intelligent and rational people at CDC (and there clearly are or the organization would be entirely dysfunctional) the organization must have become intellectually upside-down at some point. Will the wrong people be removed and the right people moved up? We’re waiting to see.

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Some punctuation we can do without http://www.newgovoffice.com/some-punctuation-we-can-do-without/ Tue, 21 Oct 2014 14:20:22 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=236 We occasionally need to bring our organizational discussion down a notch in intensity, and talk about some rather mundane principles of communication.

Today? Punctuation.

First, the comma.

Although we are strong advocates of the serial comma (largely because it’s far simpler to have a single rule than case-by-case application of two different rules) we feel that the comma is one of the most abused and over-used examples of punctuation in official correspondence.

For this reason, we suggest the DD MONTH YYYY standard for dates.That would make today 21 October 2014 rather than October 21st, 2014.

The month, of course, can be abbreviated as needed.

And, we purposefully italicized a sentence containing a comma-framed aside to illustrate a point. Commas serve an important function in the construction of sentences. They help separate units of meaning and clarify their roles and relationships. Not only does the DD MONTH YYYY standard put all time units in order from smallest to largest, it eliminates a needless comma that might undermine the readability of one’s prose.

Likewise, we advise against the practice of inserting commas as substitutes for “of” in titles, for example “Director, National Hypothetical Agency” rather than “Director of the National Hypothetical Agency.” Comma substitution costs more in the natural flow of language than it gains in space and, when listing a series of organization heads, it can become utterly confusing.

In the middlethe dash!

Okay, so not technically the em dash we just highlighted. Let’s talk phone numbers and hyphens.

In the age of the mobile phone, the area code has become a silly affectation. Setting the area code apart in parentheses should be shelved in the museums of telephony alongside those quaint telephone exchange names memorialized in the classic song “PEnnsylvania 6-5000.”

New Gov Office suggests simply separating the segments of phone numbers (including the area code) with dashes, but spaces or periods will do.

Finally, the period.

For the friendly period, we have some bad news.

The use of periods in U.S. and other abbreviations is a stale habit that should be nixed. U.S. should become US, C.I.A. should become CIA, and so on.

But, don’t worry, period! You will always be very helpful in bring a solid finish to a declarative sentence. Period.

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What to watch for in the Ebola post-game analysis : Avoiding the people factor http://www.newgovoffice.com/what-to-watch-for-in-the-ebola-post-game-analysis-avoiding-the-people-factor/ Fri, 17 Oct 2014 17:41:47 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=217 ebolaWhat will we see in response to revelations that Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital (THPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dropped the ball on persons infected with or at risk from the Ebola virus?

At New Gov Office, we expect to see the social factors of failure aggressively suppressed, in the all-too-typical hesitation to assign personal consequences for failed performance.

Post-9/11 people factor suppression

Perhaps the most well-publicized example of this sort of people factor cover-up was in the shallow introspection of the US Intelligence Community (IC) after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The go-to explanation for the intelligence failures leading up to the attacks was that the various intelligence disciplines, intelligence agencies, and target-based analytical communities were “stove-piped,” meaning that were stacked up and isolated and therefore couldn’t communicate with each other.

stove-pipe-mythIf analyst A and analyst B each had separate pieces of the same puzzle, there was no way for them to put these pieces together. Therefore the solution was more “collaboration.”

In the stove-pipe explanation, both the problem and the solution were identified as things, mere organizational phenomena, as if they appear from nowhere and nobody is responsible.

Or, vaguely, “everybody” is responsible. Which is just another way of saying that nobody is responsible.

The stove-pipe Explanation was the analytical equivalent of writing in the passive voice, removing the agents and leaving only  consequences with no path to accountability. Who was in charge of these allegedly isolated stacks, and therefore personally responsible for de-isolating them? Conveniently, these individuals were invisible to the stove-pipe model.

Of course, that is why the stove-pipe model is a complete myth. This is not how real-world organizations, including the US Federal Government, are set up. The truth is that every single person in an organization is already connected to every other person through a command-and-control structure.

real-world-orgThe chains-of-command for any two members of an organization meet in an individual who is responsible for coordinating their respective activities. Thus, any “collaboration” failure within a human organization is ultimately a human failure, a personal failure, not merely a structural or cultural failure.

People factor cover-ups like the stove-pipe explanation enable the avoidance of personal consequence and tempt us to pretend that we can fix problem while letting those who had been assigned to identify and fix the problem, who were compensated to identify and fix the problem, and who failed to identify and fix the problem, nevertheless retain the compensation they were receiving as problem-fixers while failing to fix problems.

The stove-pipe explanation is thus a form of phaticization, socially driven on-the-books embezzlement, because it gives the appearance of legitimately serving the mission of the organization while actually serving an illicit social purpose at the expense of the mission.

All of the rewards retained and subsequently obtained due to this sort of people factor cover-up are, from the standpoint of genuine merit principles, stolen.

Fully addressing the social factors

The people factor doesn’t stop with allowing people to retain social rewards despite their failures. It also covers up the phaticized processes that allowed the wrong people to rise into positions of trust and responsibility in the first place.

Processes, policies, and organizations are designed by people, so if there are procedural, policy, or organizational problems with how we have reacted to Ebola, that means there are people problems at the root of it.

If the wrong people were in charge—in the IC, CDC, or THPH—this raises the further question of how they got in charge. What social biases and instincts, what social corruptions, what anti-merit social advantages put them there?

If we really want to fix the problems that put Americans at risk of the deadliest epidemic of the 21st century, and if we really want to clean phatic corruptions from organizations throughout society, we’ll start identifying the real problems and applying real solutions by fully addressing the social factors of failure.

And, that begins by putting the right people in charge and asking how the wrong ones got there.

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Phaticized work – Social hijacking of workplace activities is an on-the-books form of embezzlement http://www.newgovoffice.com/phaticized-work-social-hijacking-of-workplace-activities-is-an-on-the-books-form-of-embezzlement/ http://www.newgovoffice.com/phaticized-work-social-hijacking-of-workplace-activities-is-an-on-the-books-form-of-embezzlement/#comments Fri, 10 Oct 2014 23:03:03 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=199 shaking handsThis introduces our series on phaticized work, a covert and often unconscious form of corruption in which organizational resources are diverted to personal ends by way of social instincts.

It’s an on-the-books form of embezzlement, because instead of shifting money outside the organization—requiring the books to be “cooked”—phaticized work commandeers official workplace activities for private ends that have nothing to do with the mission of the organization.

Phatic is a term borrowed from linguistics, where it refers to speech that serves a social function rather than conveying information. For our purposes, phatic refers to workplace activity that serves or is driven by social instincts rather than accomplishing real work toward the legitimate purpose of the workplace.

Phaticized work is any workplace activity that perhaps appears to serve the organization’s mission, but actually serves a social function that either does not genuinely support the mission or undermines it.

It’s a form of workplace corruption we have a hard time recognizing as such. But, it’s a recognition for which the time has come.

To understand what’s ahead, we first look behind.

One of the difficulties faced when trying to introduce a modern understanding of corruption in many developing economies is that the cultures there often condone or even encourage what elsewhere are understood to be illicit practices that undermine economic efficiency and effectiveness.

For example, in some cultures, offering bribes—to get police, government admin personnel, or even emergency room staff to do their jobs—is simply considered a courtesy, like tipping a server at a restaurant. It’s viewed as a concrete, person-to-person demonstration of mutual concern, a form of social grooming, in cultures where a more abstract sense of duty and contractual obligation does not prevail.

Absent a sophisticated and rational understanding of organized human activity, primitive social instincts become the fallback position, the default.Corruption is tolerated because it’s not recognized as corruption.

That’s the trick of bad behavior; if we realized it was bad, most of us wouldn’t do it.

This ties in to the “fundamental attribution error,” which leads humans to attribute the bad behavior of members of their in-group to circumstances (i.e., “That’s just what you have to do in that context”) while attributing the bad behavior of people outside the in-group to bad character. In-group biases like this make the hidden corruptions of one’s own culture very hard to identify, accept for what they are, and correct.

It’s easy for those of us in the First World to see how social instincts corrupt the behavior of people in developing economies. It’s not so easy to see how they corrupt our own behavior.

But, we at New Gov Office intend to lead the way here.

Phaticized work is to the First World equivalent of bribery.

The same cultural lag we recognize in developing economies applies to developed countries. Our concept of embezzlement is skewed and conveniently narrow.

The examples we intend to expose in this series share two key characteristics: they divert organizational resources to private ends and they rely on or are driven by social instincts. They phaticize the workplace, disguising personal profit (either material or social) as mission focus.

In this series, we want to examine various examples of phaticized work, and delve into how they rob organizations of resources, spread irrational thinking throughout the organization, and sabotage the merit system that sustains prosperity in the general economy.

Forward-thinking business people, stay tuned!

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Transverse Selection as a source of inefficiency and incompetence http://www.newgovoffice.com/transverse-selection-as-a-source-of-inefficiency-and-incompetence/ http://www.newgovoffice.com/transverse-selection-as-a-source-of-inefficiency-and-incompetence/#comments Wed, 01 Oct 2014 13:32:40 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=184 I once worked for a government office admin professional, one of the most powerful GS employees in his agency at the time, who boasted about rejecting a well-qualified candidate for a computer programming position because the guy had worn white socks with dress pants and dress shoes.

We see interview advice all the time targeting the interviewee, advice on grooming and speech and how to compose and format a résumé. “Five Huge Mistakes You Should Avoid During an Interview” is a web headline sure to go viral.

We don’t often see advice for interviewers and hiring officials steering them away from mistakes, however. We seem to simply assume they’ll do the right thing. They’re trained professionals, after all.

This is a dumb assumption.

When I asked the admin “pro” how the candidate he actually hired turned out, he boasted again, this time that the guy wrote a key piece of organizational software almost single-handedly. When I clarified that this was the same software that was frequently offline, universally despised, and perennial a target for replacement, he shrugged it off.

“Every program has its bugs!”

Admin processes also have their bugs, and this interviewer had stumbled upon one of them, to great cost to his organization. Since it doesn’t have a common name, we at NewGovOffice have dubbed it transverse selection.

The term transverse selection has a prior meaning in physics, but in organizational theory it means making decisions, particularly in hiring and promotion, based on criteria that are not directly related to the practical needs of the job.

Transverse selection encompasses a variety of bad decision processes, from fashion show absurdities like the anecdote above to all forms of racial, sexual, and other discrimination—including practices intended to compensate for discrimination by flipping the selection bias. Less overtly, transverse selection arises from subtle problems like social comparison bias and a range of bizarre cognitive biases related to height, baldness, and clothing color, i.e. the Power Tie Syndrome.

transverse-selection

The line drawn for selection lies transverse to the gradient between competence and incompetence. Obviously, the proper way to draw that line would be up-and-down, perpendicular to transverse selection, separating competent decisions from incompetent ones without regard to social biases.

Most of the time, transverse selection is driven by socially constructed standards of etiquette or social instinct-driven cognitive errors. Since these thinking mistakes are so widespread and so deeply embedded, humans can have a hard time accepting that transverse selection is a genuine problem.

The reality, however, is that when you select for something unrelated to the practical needs of the job, the selection leads to inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and workplace incompetence.

Some will defend many of these absurd transverse judgments one of two ways. They might use the “X and Y are not mutually incompatible” argument, which is often true but still does not justify transverse selection.

For example, while it is true that people who wear the “correct” socks can also be good computer programmers, that fact itself changes nothing about the reality that this transverse selection eliminates competent candidates and thus makes less competent candidates more competitive.

The corollary argument that pleasantly socked programmers can be “equally” competent as poorly socked ones is a false start; there is still no genuinely professional reason to select for a meaningless sock standard when what you want is well-written code.

Another argument, more commonly used and more difficult to counter, is “X and Y are actually related.” For example, one might argue that the inability to wear the “correct” socks might indicate sloppy thinking that would interfere with computer programming. This argument is prevalent throughout business, government, and the military, where adherence to often arbitrary cosmetic standards is incorrectly assumed to reflect something about other skills.

It is illustrative to point out that nearly every bumbling buffoon who was ever subpoenaed to testify before Congress for some egregious act of professional incompetence sat on the Capitol hot seat wearing a perfectly pressed suit and tie. And, showing up to one’s court martial in a regulation-precise uniform should effect the ruling on one’s alleged misdeeds not in the least.

These factors are utterly transverse and should be eliminated from the consideration of any serious, rational professional. And, luckily, there has been some effort to reduce the effect of transverse elements on hiring and other business decisions.

One shining example is the implementation of “blind auditions” in orchestras, wherein the musician candidate performs behind a veil that conceals their race, gender, and other physical attributes. Only the music can be perceived, and it is on this alone that the musician is judged.

But, does it work? After the advent of blind auditions, the percentage of female performers advancing through the audition process was boosted by 50 percent. This demonstrates clearly the negative effect of transverse selection not only on candidates, who face a confusing array of ridiculous biases and irrational standards, but on organizations as well.

After all, there is no other way to interpret the sudden rise in women’s success under the blind audition process than that orchestras were hiring inferior male musicians before (those who would have advanced instead of the women who did) simply because they were male.

This is transverse selection at work, and it is a direct threat to your organization’s excellence.

– David Case, standards editor

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Let’s keep our symbols simple – The Slash http://www.newgovoffice.com/lets-keep-our-symbols-simple-the-slash/ Wed, 24 Sep 2014 12:06:30 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=172 There’s a growing trend to refer to constant business operations as 24/7 rather than 24×7. For math-savvy individuals, this is a headdesk-worthy trend.

The slash is used in arithmetic to indicate a fraction (or division), which means that 24/7 means 24 hours over seven days. In other words, over the entire workweek you’re operating 24 total hours. That’s not the intended meaning, of course.

The intended meaning, working 24 hours every day for seven days, is more accurately conveyed by 24×7 which—mathematically—equals 168, the total number of hours in a week.

In general usage and specifically in an office setting, mathematical symbols like this tend to have a variety of mutually irreconcilable uses. For example, the slash is also used to indicate or (as in “a yes/no question”), and (as in “the CIA/NSA program”), or an abbreviation (as in “w/o objection”).

These uses should be deprecated and replaced. The slash should be reserved for combinations in which the preceding term is a part of the following term. A good example of this is how the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) refers to its leadership: the Director of NRO is D/NRO, the Deputy Director is DD/NRO, and so on.

Unfortunately, some organizations do the opposite of this. For example, the State Department refers to its internal units by placing the larger office before the smaller one. For example, State’s Office of Space and Advanced Technology (SAT), which is part of the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), is referred to as OES/SAT.

To put it bluntly, State should simply stop doing this, and so should any other organization that does this.The sub-office should come first.

Keep symbols simple. The constituent part first, then slash, then the whole.

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How “Dunning Blindness” can doom an organization http://www.newgovoffice.com/how-dunning-blindness-can-doom-an-organization/ http://www.newgovoffice.com/how-dunning-blindness-can-doom-an-organization/#comments Mon, 22 Sep 2014 18:43:16 +0000 http://www.newgovoffice.com/?p=158 Dr. David Dunning is already known for the infamous Dunning-Kruger Effect, a phenomenon that is of core importance to organizational theory: People who are incompetent in a given task tend to overestimate their ability, and tend to be resistant to evidence and feedback about their incompetence.

This inability of the less competent to assess their own ability extends to interpersonal assessments. As Dr. Dunning puts it, “To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people.”

We call this phenomenon Dunning Blindness, and would paraphrase the principle this way: The less competent are generally incapable of recognizing the more competent. Think of it in terms of color vision. If Jay can only see in black and white, he’s not going to be a very good judge of the decorating skills of Bob, who has perfect color vision.

As you can imagine, Dunning Blindness has enormous implications for hiring, placement, and promotion. In fact, it likely accounts for a significant portion of inefficiency within organizations, if not a majority of it.

The problem of Dunning Blindness is compounded by what has been called social comparison bias, the tendency of people to dislike others who are seen to compete with them on some measure. Researchers have shown that Social Comparison Bias directly undermines merit in professional decision-making. (See: “Tainted recommendations : The social comparison bias,” Garcia et al. in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 113, Issue 2, November 2010, Pages 97–101)

To summarize the larger problem: Dunning Blindness causes workplace authorities to be incapable of recognizing those who are more competent than themselves and, on occasions when Dunning Blindness is overcome somehow, social comparison bias leads those workplace authorities to suppress rather than promote those who are more competent than them.

This overall dynamic is known colloquially as Tall Poppy Syndrome or, more formally, as negative selection. We call such a business unit, where the supervisors are less competent than their subordinates, cognitively upside-down.

The only reasonable hope for a relatively competent subordinate to rise above a less competent supervisor is to have their talent recognized and poached by a talented supervisor from a different business unit, what we call diagonal promotion.

However, there is a limit to the saving graces of diagonal promotion, a limit inherent in  negative selection itself.

Lateral moves between business units can be driven not only by recognition of suppressed talent but also by social networking among a clique of mutually supportive, but relatively less competent, colleagues. Incompetent supervisors who are incapable of recognizing their more competent subordinates, or who feel threatened by them, might poach similarly incompetent friends to be assistants or deputies, or might recommend these friends as supervisory peers to their own superiors.

Incompetence can thus proliferate itself throughout an organization like a cancer. And, once an organization reaches a certain threshold of cognitive upside-downness, it does not have the personnel resources to save itself.

Most organizations have relatively little personal interaction beyond a few layers of management up or down. There is simply not enough one-on-one exposure for higher-ups to recognize the talents of workers too far below them. Once negative selection fills a layer of management with members of a mutually supportive network driven by suppression of competence, a twin barriers of Dunning Blindness and social comparison bias effectively block the talented from contributing to the health of the organization.

At this point, the brain of the organization short-circuits and—absent rigorous reform efforts by talented strategic leaders or radical intervention from the outside—the organization decays and falls apart.

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