Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (and other observations about life at work)

A collection of issues of Point Lookout from 2007 and 2008

by Richard Brenner

Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (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?

Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True

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?

Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True 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.

Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True is a collection of articles from the 2007 and 2008 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 — 207 pages (57,000 words) in all.

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

Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True 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 Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True are included in another ebook, The Collected Issues of Point Lookout. Collected Issues includes not only the years 2007 and 2008, but all of 2001-2 (Geese Don't Land on Twigs), 2003-4 (Why Dogs Wag), 2005-6 (Loopy Things We Do), and 2009-10 (The Questions Not Asked). 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 978-1-938932-26-7.

What's in this book

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

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When a goal remains unaccomplished, we sometimes tell ourselves that we understand why. And sometimes we do. But at other times, we're just fooling ourselves.
Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
When we have successes that surprise us, we do feel good, but beyond that, our reactions are sometimes self-defeating. What happens when we experience unanticipated success, and how can we handle it better?
When the job market eases for job seekers, we often see increases in job shifting, as people who've been biding their time make the jump. Typically, they're the people we most want to keep. How can we reduce this source of turnover?
Achieving your goals requires both passion and action. Knowing when to emphasize passion and when to emphasize action are the keys to managing yourself, or others, toward achievement.
Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary, devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope with them?
By now, we've all heard of micromanagers, and some have experienced micromanagement firsthand. Some of us have even micromanaged others. But there's a breed of micromanagers whose behavior is so outlandish that they need a category of their own.
You've probably heard the slogan, "Do it right the first time." It makes sense for some kinds of work, but not for all. For more and more of the work done in modern organizations, doing it right the first time — or even trying to — might be the wrong way to go.
Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
The terms we use at work to talk about practices, policies, and procedures are serviceable, for the most part. But some of them carry connotations and hidden messages that undermine our larger purposes.
One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?
Most of what we know about person-to-person communication applies when levels of stress are low. But when stress is high, as it is in emergencies, we're more likely to make mistakes. Knowing those mistakes in advance can be helpful in avoiding them.
In the modern organization, it's common to have meetings in which some people have never met — and some never will. For these meetings, which are often telemeetings, an agenda isn't enough. You need a program.
When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
Stuck in uncomfortable situations, we tend to think of ourselves as trapped. But sometimes it is our own actions that keep us stuck. Understanding how these traps work is the first step to learning how to deal with them.
Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness, and that can render the entire effort worthless -- or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations, and how can we do them well?
Maxims and rules make life simpler by eliminating decisions. And they have a price: they sometimes foreclose options that would have worked better than anything else. Here are some things we believe in maybe a little too much.
Some of what we believe is true about work comes not from the culture at work, but from the larger culture. These beliefs are much more difficult to root out, but sometimes just a little consideration does help. Here are some examples.
Many project emergencies are actually the result of setbacks — negative progress. Sometimes these mishaps are unavoidable, but often they're the result of patterns of organizational culture. How can we reduce the incidence of setbacks?
Influencing others can be difficult. Even more difficult is defining a set of approaches to influencing that almost all of us consider ethical. Here's a framework that makes a good starting point.
Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
Your boss has popped into your office for another morning gab session. Normally, it's irritating, but today you have a tight deadline, so you're royally ticked. What can you do?
In the past twenty years in the United States, we've changed from a relatively hug-free workplace culture to one that, in some quarters, seems to be experiencing a hugging tsunami. Knowing how to deal with hugging is now a valuable skill.
Some of us are uncomfortable about workplace hugs, and some want to be selective. Sometimes hugs are simply inappropriate. Here are some tips for dealing with unwelcome workplace hugs.
To manage well, we need to know where we are, where we would like to be, and what we need to do to get there. Measurement can help us achieve our goals, by telling us where we are and how much progress we're making. But some things aren't measurable, and some measurement methods yield misleading results. How can we use measurement effectively?
Scope creep is the tendency of some projects to expand their goals. Usually, we think of scope creep as an unintended consequence of a series of well-intentioned choices. But sometimes, it's much more than that.
When groups decide divisive issues, harmful effects can linger for weeks, months, or forever. Although those who prevail might be ready to "move on," others might feel so alienated that they experience even daily routine as fresh insult and disparagement. How a group handles divisive issues can determine its success.
In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more effective.
You probably know many techniques for procrastinating, and use them regularly, but vociferously deny doing so. That's what makes this such a delicate subject that I've been delaying writing this article. Well, those days are over.
In fiction and movies, the world is often simple. There's a protagonist, a goal, and a series of obstacles. The protagonists and goals are good, and the obstacles are bad. Real life is more complicated.
Root Cause Analysis uses powerful tools for finding the sources of process problems. The approach has been so successful that it has become a way of thinking about organizational patterns. Yet, resolving organizational problems this way sometimes works — and sometimes fails. Why?
Completism is the desire to create or acquire a complete set of something. In our personal lives, it drives collectors to pay high prices for rare items that "complete the set." In business it drives us to squander our resources in surprising ways.
We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service, here are some of the best worst practices.
Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends. Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage. Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
Some organizational cultures are healthy; some aren't. How can you tell whether your organizational culture is healthy? Here are some indicators.
Some decisions are difficult because they trigger us emotionally. They involve conflicts of interest, yielding to undesirable realities, or possibly pain and suffering for the deciders or for others. How can we make these emotionally difficult decisions with greater clarity and better outcomes?
As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
Unsolicited contributions to the work of one element of a large organization, by people from another, are often annoying to the recipients. Sometimes the contributors then feel rebuffed, insulted, or frustrated. Toxic conflict can follow. We probably can't halt the flow of contributions, but we can convert it from a liability to a valuable asset.
We know a lot about our co-workers, but we don't know everything. And since we don't know what we don't know, we sometimes forget that we don't know it. And then the trouble begins.
CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
When we bias organizational decisions to manage our personal risks, we're sometimes acting ethically — and sometimes not. What can we do to limit personal risk management?
The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
Some communication patterns are so widely used that nearly everyone in a given cultural group knows them. These templates demand certain prescribed responses, and societal norms enforce them. In themselves, they're harmless, but there are risks.
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
When organizations suffer painful losses, their responses can sometimes be destructive, further harming the organization and its people. Here are some typical patterns of destructive responses to organizational loss.
The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.
Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing comity by slowing down.
At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
What have you learned today? What has enriched you, changed your understanding of the world, or given you a new view of history or the future? Learning something new every day is a worthy goal.
Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
Modern team efforts almost certainly involve teleconferences, and many teleconferences include presentations, often augmented with video or graphics. Delivering these virtual presentations effectively requires an approach tailored to the medium.
If you have more than ten days of messages in your inbox, you probably consider it to be bloated. If it's been bloated for a while, you probably want to clear it, but you've tried many times, and you can't. Here are some effective suggestions.
Ever have the feeling of "Uh-oh, I've made this mistake before"? Some of these oft-repeated mistakes happen not because of obstinacy, or stupidity, or foolishness, but because the learning required to avoid them is just plain difficult. Here are some examples of hard lessons.
Sometimes, when we solve problems, the solutions create new problems that can be worse than the problems we solve. Why does this happen? How can we limit this effect?
Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
If you approve or evaluate proposals or requests made by others, you've probably noticed patterns approval seekers use to enhance their success rates. Here are some tactics approval seekers use.
Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. What tactics do obstructors use?
Often, at work, we make interpretations of the behavior of others. Sometimes we base these interpretations not on actual facts, but on our perceptions of facts. And our perceptions are sometimes erroneous.
Reporting is the process that informs us about how things are going in the organization and its efforts. Unfortunately, the people who do the reporting often have a conflict of interest that leads to misleading and unreliable reports.
Stonewalling is a tactic of obstruction used by those who wish to stall the forward progress of some effort. Whether the effort is a rival project, an investigation, or just the work of a colleague, the stonewaller hopes to gain advantage. What can you do about stonewalling?
In workplace politics, attackers sometimes prevail even when the attacks are specious, and even when the attacker's job performance is substandard. Why are attacks so effective, and how can targets respond effectively?
Lateral micromanagement is the unwelcome intrusion by one co-worker into the responsibilities of another. Far more than run-of-the-mill bossiness, it's often a concerted attempt to gain organizational power and rank, and it is toxic to teams.
Reducing the length and frequency of meetings is the holy grail of organizational science. I've attended many meetings on this topic, most of which have come to naught. Here are some radical ideas that could change our lives.
The path to the pinnacle of many professions leads through an initiate or intern stage in which the new professional plays a role designed to facilitate learning, especially from those more experienced. For some, this role is frustrating and difficult. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Negotiation skills are increasingly essential in problem-solving workplaces. When incentives are strong, or pressure is high, deception is tempting. Here are some of the deceptions popular among negotiators.
Whether or not you work as part of a virtual team, you probably work with some people you rarely meet face-to-face. And there are some people you've never met, and probably never will. What does it take to maintain good working relationships with people you rarely meet?
Those with organizational power can sometimes forget that their power is limited to the organization. Achieving high levels of organizational and personal performance requires a clear sense of those limits.
Someone at work who isn't particularly a friend or foe has asked you for a favor. What happens if you say no? Do you grant the favor? How do you decide what to do?
Most knowledge workers are problem solvers. We work towards goals. We anticipate problems as best we can, and when problems appear, we solve them. But our focus on anticipating problems can become a problem in itself — at work and in Life.
You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
A team member proposes a solution to the latest show-stopping near-disaster. After extended discussion, the team decides whether or not to pursue the idea. It's a costly approach, because too often it leads us to reject unnecessarily some perfectly sound proposals, and to accept others we shouldn't have.
We all have cherished memories — lovely moments we can replay whenever we want to feel happy. How would you like to have a lot more of them?
When a team relies on group discussion alone to evaluate proposals for the latest show-stopping near-disaster, it exposes itself to the risk that perfectly sound proposals might be inappropriately rejected. The source of some of this risk is the nature of group discussion.

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