The Questions Not Asked (and other observations about life at work)

A collection of issues of Point Lookout from 2009 and 2010

by Richard Brenner

The Questions Not Asked (and other observations about life at work) is a collection of short articles that give tips, insights and new perspectives on life in the modern workplace.

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found yourself sitting in a meeting, listening for the third time to drivel you just couldn't believe people would actually say out loud, and wondering how much longer this would go on until they finally agreed to what anyone with half a brain knew they'd have to do anyway? And then groaned to yourself when you realized that your next meeting would be more of the same?

Or have you ever had the kind of "forehead-slapping moment" when you suddenly realized why the group didn't go for your last suggestion, and then wondered how you could possibly have been so naïve as to have proposed it in the first place?

The Questions Not Asked (and other observations about life at work)The Questions Not Asked is filled with the insights you need to make sense of it all. It helps you avoid the traps and pitfalls that await you at work, and it guides you into new choices that can make life at work more enjoyable and rewarding.

The Questions Not Asked is a collection of articles from the 2009 and 2010 issues of Point Lookout, my weekly email newsletter of tips, insights and perspectives that help people in dynamic problem-solving organizations find better ways to work with each other. It gives concrete, nuts-and-bolts methods for dealing with real-life situations. It's a massive collection — 226 pages (57,000 words) in all.

That's about 4.6 times the size of Who Moved My Cheese?.

The Questions Not Asked makes a wonderful and unique gift for a friend, a colleague, or a spouse who faces any of the ordinary — and many of the not-so-ordinary — challenges of working today.

What readers say

The complete contents of The Questions Not Asked are included in another ebook, The Collected Issues of Point Lookout. Collected Issues includes not only the years 2009 and 2010, but all of 2001-2 (Geese Don't Land on Twigs), 2003-4 (Why Dogs Wag), 2005-6 (Loopy Things We Do), and 2007-8 (Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True). And they're all in a single searchable file with cross references spanning the whole ten years, for just , a substantial savings over purchasing the five volumes separately — and you also get the issues for 2011 and 2012. Why not get the whole set? Order Now!

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This book has an ISBN of 978-1-938932-25-0.

What's in this book

Here's a chapter-by-chapter summary of what you'll find in this book.

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Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for changing your frame of mind to help reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
In troubled economic times, layoffs loom almost everywhere. Here are some tips for reconfiguring your relationships with others at work and at home to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
These are troubled economic times. Layoffs are becoming increasingly common. Here are some tips for positioning yourself in the organization to reduce the chances that you will be laid off.
When layoffs are necessary, the problems they are meant to address are sometimes exacerbated by mismanagement of the layoff itself. Here is a discussion of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
Rhetorical fallacies are errors of reasoning that introduce flaws in the logic of arguments. Used either intentionally or by accident, they often lead us to mistaken conclusions. The Fallacy of Composition is one of the more subtle fallacies, which makes it especially dangerous.
Sometimes what we say to each other isn't what we really mean. We mask the messages, or we form them into what are usually positive structures, to make them appear to be something less malicious than they are. Here are some examples of masked messages.
Everybody has pet peeves about work. Here's a collection drawn from my own life, the lives of others, and my vivid imagination.
Your company has just done another round of layoffs, and you survived yet again. This time was the most difficult, because your best pal was laid off, and you're even more fearful for your own job security. How can you cope with survival?
Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
Outsourcing internal processes modifies the usual risk configuration of those processes, but it also creates a special class of risks that are peculiar to the outsourcing relationship. What are some of those risks and what can we do about them?
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some communications tactics framers use.
Group decision-making usually entails discussion. When contributions to that discussion include vivid examples, illustrations, or stories, the group can be at risk of making a mistaken decision.
In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
Much of the conventional wisdom about teams is in the form of over-generalized rules of thumb, or myths. Here we examine two myths about forming teams.
For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question. Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
In virtual or global teams, conversations are sources of risk to the collaboration. Because the closed-loop response time for exchanges can be a day or more, long-loop conversations generate misunderstanding, toxic conflict, errors, delays, and rework. One strategy for controlling these phenomena is anticipation.
If you're out of work and discouraged — or getting there — you're in great company. Better than ever before. Getting back to work starts with getting to work on finding work. Here's a collection of strategies for the job of finding work.
Finding work in tough times goes a lot more easily if you have at least a minimum of equipment and space to do the job. Here are some thoughts about getting that infrastructure and managing it.
We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
Finding work in tough times entails presenting yourself to many people. You'll be conversing, interviewing, writing, presenting, and when you're finally successful, negotiating.
The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace, but that trouble is often avoidable.
Recent research has uncovered a human tendency — possibly universal — to believe that we know others better than others know them, and that we know ourselves better than others know themselves. These beliefs, rarely acknowledged and often wrong, are at the root of many a toxic conflict of long standing.
Effective meetings have agendas. But even if a meeting has an agenda, the hidden agendas of participants can cause trouble. Another source of trouble, less frequently recognized, is the blind agenda.
Often, the path to forward progress is open and waiting, but we don't recognize it, or we convince ourselves it isn't there. Learning to see what we believe isn't there is difficult. Here are some reasons why.
In much of the world, the handshake is a customary business greeting. It seems so simple, but its nuances can send signals we don't intend. Here are some of the details of handshakes in the USA.
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
Discussions in meetings and in written media can get long and complex. When a chain of reasoning gets long enough, we sometimes make fundamental errors of logic, especially when we're under time pressure. Here are just a few.
Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times, it's especially important to distinguish between true opportunities and high-risk adventures. Here are some of the attributes of desirable political opportunities.
Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
Much has been written about how to conduct meetings effectively. Here are some reliable techniques for doing something else altogether.
When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
In some teams, members feel so overloaded that they try to avoid any additional tasks. Here are some of the most popular patterns of action item avoidance.
Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean, what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
Taking responsibility and a willingness to be held accountable are the hallmarks of either a rising star in a high-performance organization, or a naïve fool in a low-performance organization. Either way, you must know the more popular techniques for avoiding responsibility.
Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations, the decision to let go involves debate.
Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
The workplace bully is a tragically familiar figure to many. Bullying is costly to organizations, and painful to everyone within them — especially targets. But the situation is worse than many realize, because much bullying is covert. Here are some of the methods of covert bullies.
When working issues jointly with others, especially with one other, we sometimes hear, "What do you need to make this work?" Your answers can doom your effort — or make it a smashing success.
We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
When a bully targets you, you have three options: accept the abuse; avoid the bully or escape; and confront or fight back. Confrontation is a better choice than many believe — if you know what you're doing.
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked, and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
When targets of bullies decide to stand up to their bullies, to end the harassment, they frequently act before they're really ready. Here's a metaphor that explains the value of waiting for the right time to act.
Project plans are useful — to a point. Every plan I've ever seen eventually has problems when it contacts reality. At that point, we replan or improvise. But improvisation is an art form. Here's a set of tips for mastering project improvisation.
People write to me occasionally that their bosses undermine them, but I know there are bosses who want to do more undermining than they are already doing. So here are some tips for bosses aspiring to sink even lower.
Group problem solving is a common purpose of meetings. Although much group problem solving is constructive, some patterns are useless or worse. Here are some of the more popular ways to engage in problem not-solving.
Some of us have roles at work that expose us to unwanted hugs from people we don't know. After a while, this experience can be far worse than merely annoying. How can we deal with unwanted hugs from strangers?
Political Praise is any public statement, praising (most often) an individual, and including a characterization of the individual or the individual's deeds, and which spins or distorts in such a way that it advances the praiser's own political agenda, possibly at the expense of the one praised.
Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges do they face, and what can we do about them?
The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking, and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
You have a job. Even though you liked it once, those days are long past, and a return is improbable. If you could, you'd hop to another job immediately, but economic conditions in your field make that unlikely. How can you deal with this misery?
Ever since I wrote "How to Undermine Your Subordinates," I've received scads of requests for "How to Undermine Your Boss." Must be a lot of unhappy subordinates out there. Well, this one's for you.
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. We do tend to over-generalize them, though, and when we do, trouble follows. Here are a few of the more dangerous ones.
When we want people to believe us, and they don't, it just might be a result of our own actions or demeanor. How does this happen?
When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.
Nobody else seems to be concerned about what's going on. You are. Should you raise the issue? What are the risks? What are the risks of not raising the issue?
Many of us let others set our learning agendas — peers, employers, or the mass media. But you can gain much both personally and professionally by setting your own learning agenda.
When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
Management debt, like technical debt, arises when we choose paths — usually the lowest-cost paths — that lead to recurring costs that are typically higher than alternatives. Why do we take on management debt? How can we pay it down?
The nastiest part about solving complex problems isn't their complexity. It's the feeling of being overwhelmed when we realize we haven't a clue about how to get from where we are to where we need to be. Here's one way to get a clue.
Most of us have some experience of being overloaded and overworked. Many of us have forgotten what it is not to be overloaded. Here's a contemplation of the state of overload.
Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand. Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
Has your job become frustrating because the organization has lost its way? Is circumventing the craziness making you crazy too? How can you recover your perspective despite the situation?
Most of us have had way too much to do for so long that "too much to do" has become the new normal. We've forgotten what "enough to do" feels like. Here are some reminders.
When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
Fads in business come and go, like fads anywhere. In business, though, their effects can be so expensive that they threaten the enterprise. Still, the ideas and methods that become fads can have intrinsic value. Where does that value come from? Where does it go?

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