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Dumb, Dumber, and Dunning Kruger

one-way-street-582635_1280 I’ve heard people talk about Dunning Kruger so much I thought it was a country music duo.

Actually it's a cognitive bias—"the Dunning Kruger effect"—in which individuals who are relatively unskilled at a task have an illusion of superiority at it. In the words of psychologist David Dunning: “The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

I can testify to the accuracy of the DK effect after watching US Presidential candidates huff and puff their way through complex foreign policy issues, with overweening certainty. What makes this tendency especially dangerous—whether it’s a business leader (or consultant!) always claiming to know the right strategy for a company or a political leader sounding off with a ready and simple answer to every world problem—is that people are attracted to leaders who exude complete confidence. And the less these individuals know, the more certain they are.

I saw plenty of this in my rock days. Players at the low end of the skill ladder thought their musicianship—or vocal ability or songwriting talent—was as good as that of the top acts. One redeeming aspect of this illusion is that it keeps many musicians in the game long enough to actually acquire the skills they need. (Hmm. Now I have to wonder about my own arrogance as a young musician...)


Does stress get a bad rap?

Stress Reading The Motivated Brain by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt—referenced in my previous post—I was reminded of the Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal.

I’m sure you think about this all the time, but I had to re-familiarize myself with it. According to YD, increased arousal—stress, pressure—usually helps improve performance, up to a point.

Stress, pressure, or tension from pushing ourselves mentally, physically, or emotionally gets the juices flowing to help us produce the desired result. But too much stress can be overwhelm us and diminish productivity.

In the music world I see performers play better when there’s something at stake. I can personally attest to the fact that playing in front of thousands at the Hollywood Bowl gets you going in a way that rehearsing in your garage doesn’t. (That might qualify as a “duh.”)


Where does motivation come from?

Motivation I recently gave a Skype talk on "business lessons from rock" for a group of CEOs, arranged though Trusted Peer, an online business network.

Hopefully, despite Skype disconnections that limited the length of the conversation, the audience learned a few things. I certainly did.

Hearing myself discuss the all-importance of employee enthusiasm and engagement—and the importance of loosening the reins of management to let this happen—I realized how crazy some of my ideas can sound to business leaders who have achieved major success by working in more traditional ways.

But the truth is business leaders tend to undervalue employee engagement—and the results show it. Gallup polls over the years consistently report that most workers are not emotionally engaged in their work, at a terrific cost to their employers.


Who serves whom?

I can't say I'm a big fan of Servant Leadership. The idea, in principle, sounds great: a leader or manager is a servant inasmuch as s/he "serves" the "followers." The leader or manager works for the team, the organization, etc.

I saw a lot of this in my rock & roll days as mentioned in a previous post. A band’s management works for the band not the other way around. That management is usually hired (and often fired) by the band, and needs to produce results on behalf of the band. A revolutionary governance model if practiced in mainstream business. Of course most businesses are started by owner/managers who hire others as subordinates not managers. But if those managers at least acted as if they could be fired by their subordinates, that might be useful.

So if Servant Leadership is designed to turn the organizational chart upside down, what’s not to like? SL in practice, however, is often used in subtle ways to reinforce hierarchy, with paternalistic overtones. (Some have argued, including Deborah Eicher-Catt, that the very language of Servant Leadership reinforces a model of hierarchy and patriarchy.) The notion of "Father Knows Best"—that management (usually men) knows SO much more than lowly subordinates (and deserves privileged status and ginormous benefits)—is still firmly embedded in our thinking and is largely unquestioned. This is then made palatable by asking these managers to act as if they’re actually servants of their employees (wink, wink). How noblesse oblige.


The best band you never heard

Moby GrapeHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTWe’ve talked endlessly about the importance of creating your own identity as an individual, team, organization, or business. This of course is what branding is all about. Identifying and promoting what’s unique about you—and your product/service. Otherwise, how do you stand out against the background noise?

So what happens to a small business that has off-the-charts talent yet fails to establish a distinct brand identity? Nothing. That's the problem. Here's one rock band that provides the case study in this.

Moby Grape was among the most promising groups to emerge from the San Francisco scene in the mid-sixties, when record labels were pouring buckets of money onto new rock bands like The Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin’s Big Brother & the Holding Company. Many musicians considered the Grape the most gifted—and eclectic—rock group they’d ever heard, given the band’s proficiency with blues, folk, country, and even jazz. These guys had everything going for them, according to Rolling Stone’s brilliant critic David Fricke:

    "They had the looks, the songs, the guitars (three of ‘em) and the singing (five drop-dead, blues-angel voices)—everything they needed to be America’s Beatles and Rolling Stones combined. Everything except the luck."


The Amazon experiment

pressure-65336_1280 Amazon has been on the hot seat following a scathing report in the NY Times on their Darwinian, workaholic culture. Quotes from employees:

    “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

    “I would see people practically combust.”

    “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

The article went on to describe a stressful, dog-eat-dog, "rank and yank" work environment in which: employees are encouraged to send secret feedback (often negative) on each other’s performance to each other’s bosses; the bottom 10% are always at risk for dismissal to meet quotas; and managers enjoy cutting down each other’s ideas in abrasive fashion.

My favorite quote: “Amazon is a place where high achievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

Employees are forbidden to talk to the press but previous Amazon employees—and current employees off the record—have confirmed the gist of the article. (It should be added that those Amazon leaders who were permitted to be interviewed disputed the article and gave glowing reviews of the place!)

As a long-time organizational consultant I’m shocked, shocked by this.


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