Because most of the problems we call knowledge work are too big for a single individual to address alone, knowledge work entails frequent interaction with others. And many of those interactions consist of commenting on the work of others. When those comments stray from factual observations about the content of the work into subjective observations about the worth of the worker, it becomes clear to all that Trouble has arrived. But often, Trouble arrived long before Trouble's arrival became clear to all. There is a preliminary stage, when commentary is still focused on the work, but when commentary is expressed with gratuitous harshness. That is an indicator that Trouble has arrived.
An example can provide clarity.
Jaime has just reported a discovery he made about why the system failed to recognize plastic shopping bags being blown across the vehicle's travel path. Hector, his supervisor, comments, "Yes, we all knew that. Glad you're catching up finally."
One can question The choice to tolerate gratuitous harshness
in a group's culture is an expensive one indeedthe value of Hector's offering that Jaime's information was already known. But that isn't the real problem with Hector's comment. Whether or not "we all knew" what Jaime just reported, Hector was needlessly condescending. The condescension is needless because it doesn't help the team achieve its objective; rather, it's a hindrance.
The choice to tolerate gratuitous harshness in a group's culture is an expensive one indeed. What follows is a survey of processes that contribute to the high cost of gratuitous harshness.
- Gratuitous harshness reduces initiative
- If offering something novel and valuable entails a risk of being subjected to gratuitously harsh commentary, many naturally concern themselves with managing that risk. Perhaps the most obvious approach is to limit one's contributions. Such limitation reduces the risk of experiencing the abuse, but the cost to the organization is high. The cost to the contributor is also high, but if the abuse has been severe enough the calculation many people make favors avoiding the risk of abuse.
- Other forms of risk management are also common. For example, offering one's contributions privately to the abuser might seem to mitigate the risk of public humiliation. But the abuser always has the option of subsequently describing the contribution in a public setting and commenting abusively about it there. Another popular ploy: the target might partner with someone who seems protected from abuse. But in response the abuser can publicly praise the partner while omitting all mention of the target.
- Talented people tend to have good ideas
- Reducing the likelihood of contributions is expensive. Targets still have ideas and still generate contributions, but they're less likely to express them in ways that draw the attention of the abuser. Some targets adopt "guerilla" tactics — offering contributions in secret or private channels, hoping to escape becoming targets. Others just withhold. The overall flow is constricted.
- The net result is a reduction in the rate of improvement, which creates a gap between what's possible and what actually occurs. That gap has a computable monetary value, which is almost certainly negative.
- Word of mouth can be both damaging and helpful
- The negative effects of gratuitous harshness can affect more people than just the immediate target whether news of the event propagates in the organization by word of mouth or by cyber rumor. If the tale matches previous tales, or if it matches the image of the abuser, the tale will spread, however inaccurate may be that tale or that image.
- Trying to halt its spread to limit the tale's consequences is a fool's errand. Instead of limiting the spread of deleterious tales, abusers would do well to avoid engaging in any further abuse. Instead, they should concentrate on creating tales that enhance initiative, creativity, and innovation.
- Witnesses are like surcharges
- Delivering gratuitously harsh comments in the presence of witnesses raises the cost to the organization, for two reasons. First, witnesses can experience the effects of the harsh comments, to some extent, as if they were themselves the target. Second, the witnesses can (and do) confirm accounts of what actually happened. Targets do sometimes convey tales of what occurred, but the people they talk to tend to discount the truth of the tales because they see tales told by the target as self-serving. Because confirmation by witnesses reduces the discount dramatically, witnesses are like surcharges.
- Witnesses need not be present for the event if the gratuitous harshness is delivered by email or text message. In that case the target can pass the message around, thereby creating witnesses. And of course there can be e-witnesses if anyone other than the target received the offending message.
Most important, expressing your thoughts in a gratuitously harsh manner can be thrilling, because it's a way of demonstrating your situational or organizational power. Because that thrill can be addictive, gratuitous harshness can become a habit. If that happens, your career is at risk. And if you suspect that someone in your work is using gratuitous harshness habitually, you will eventually be targeted, if you haven't yet been. Fix it if you can — or move on. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
- Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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