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
Have you ever Skip to the Details: How To Orderfound 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?
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.
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?
Here's a sample of reader's comments:
- Your stuff is brilliant! And — Thank you for sharing these ideas.
- You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
- The articles are great, I enjoy getting them, and you always have something very
interesting to say, or good points to raise.
- I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate that the newsletter is a quick read
and is much more intellectually stimulating than, say, reading a Dilbert cartoon.
- You fill a need that went unmet — a sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
- I have found your articles extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day.
You have a great writing style and the lessons that you have shared with us are invaluable.
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What's in this book
Here's a chapter-by-chapter summary of what you'll find in this book.
Click the folder icons to reveal (or hide) chapter content summaries.
Reveal all chapter content summaries.
- 1 Excuses, Excuses
- 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.
- 2 When Fear Takes Hold
- 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.
- 3 Definitions of Insanity
- 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.
- 4 An Emergency Toolkit
- 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?
- 5 Astonishing Successes
- 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?
- 6 Retention
- 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?
- 7 Achieving Goals: Inspiring Passion and Action
- 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.
- 8 Changing the Subject
- 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?
- 9 How to Tell If You Work for a Nanomanager
- 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.
- 10 Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best
- 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.
- 11 Dismissive Gestures
- 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.
- 12 Troublesome Terminology
- 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.
- 13 Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure
- 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?
- 14 When Stress Strikes
- 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.
- 15 Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda
- 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.
- 16 Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- 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.
- 17 Snares at Work
- 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.
- 18 Hostile Collaborations
- 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?
- 19 Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True
- 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.
- 20 More Stuff and Nonsense
- 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.
- 21 Dealing with Negative Progress
- 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?
- 22 Ethical Influence
- 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.
- 23 Reverse Micromanagement
- 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.
- 24 My Boss Gabs Too Much
- 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?
- 25 About Workplace Hugs
- 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.
- 26 Unwelcome Workplace Hugs
- 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.
- 27 What Measurements Work Well?
- 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?
- 28 Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional
- 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.
- 29 Divisive Debates and Virulent Victories
- 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.
- 30 Using the Parking Lot
- 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.
- 31 How to Procrastinate
- 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.
- 32 The Good, the Bad, and the Complicated
- 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.
- 33 Some Limits of Root Cause Analysis
- 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?
- 34 Completism
- 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.
- 35 Worst Practices
- 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.
- 36 Illusory Incentives
- 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.
- 37 Devious Political Tactics: A Field Manual
- 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.
- 38 Healthy Practices
- Some organizational cultures are healthy; some aren't. How can you tell whether your organizational culture is healthy? Here are some indicators.
- 39 Difficult Decisions
- 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?
- 40 Social Safety Margins
- 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?
- 41 Annoyance to Asset
- 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.
- 42 What We Don't Know About Each Other
- 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.
- 43 Tactics for Asking for Volunteers
- 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.
- 44 Our Last Meeting Together
- 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.
- 45 Making Meaning
- 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.
- 46 Managing Personal Risk Management
- 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?
- 47 The True Costs of Cost-Cutting
- 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...
- 48 Communication Templates
- 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.
- 49 What, Why and How
- 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.
- 50 Responding to Threats
- 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.
- 51 TINOs: Teams in Name Only
- 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.
- 52 Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts
- 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.
- 53 Organizational Loss: Searching Behavior
- 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.
- 54 The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
- 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.
- 55 Bemused Detachment
- 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.
- 56 Ending Conversations
- 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.
- 57 Animosity Patterns
- 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.
- 58 Learning
- 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.
- 59 Managing Risk Revision
- 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.
- 60 Virtual Presentations
- 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.
- 61 Inbox Bloat Recovery
- 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.
- 62 Coping and Hard Lessons
- 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.
- 63 Unintended Consequences
- 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?
- 64 Peace's Pieces
- 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.
- 65 Approval Ploys
- 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.
- 66 How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
- 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.
- 67 Obstructionist Tactics
- 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?
- 68 Projection Errors at Work
- 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.
- 69 Conflicts of Interest in Reporting
- 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.
- 70 Stonewalling
- 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?
- 71 The Advantages of Political Attack
- 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?
- 72 Lateral Micromanagement
- 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.
- 73 How to Eliminate Meetings
- 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.
- 74 When You're the Least of the Best
- 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.
- 75 Extrasensory Deception
- 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.
- 76 On Virtual Relationships
- 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?
- 77 Accepting Reality
- 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.
- 78 Favors, Payback and Thoughtlessness
- 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?
- 79 It's a Wonderful Day!
- 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.
- 80 The Injured Teammate
- 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.
- 81 The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Content
- 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.
- 82 Making Memories to Cherish
- 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?
- 83 The Perils of Piecemeal Analysis: Group Dynamics
- 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.