Norms and Productive Coordination

In my previous post I wrote about wasteful competition that occurs between animals within the same species, including us humans. To try to be impressive, we do a lot of things that are relatively wasteful. We might spend hours and hours focusing on developing a single skill, some animals will spend lots of time building an impressive dwelling, and some animals grow brightly colored plumage that puts them at risk of being seen by prey and requires energy to maintain. All of these examples are things that are done to impress others, attract a mate, and pass along our genes.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wrote about this phenomenon in The Elephant in the Brain, and they also wrote about a phenomenon that goes in the other direction, productive coordination. The authors write, “humans are different. Unlike the rest of nature, we can sometimes see ahead and coordinate to avoid unnecessary competition. This is one of our species’ super powers – that we’re occasionally able to turn wasteful competition into productive cooperation.”

 

The method that we follow to get to productive cooperation the authors call norms. We are all familiar with norms and know what they are, even if we don’t recognize most of the norms around us and can’t perfectly define what norms are. Rules are the laws, guidelines, and standards that we follow in our day to day lives. Some are written down and formalized. Some have strict and explicit penalties if violated, and some are unwritten, a bit fuzzy, and sometimes don’t include obvious consequences when violated.

 

I find norms interesting in the context of Simler and Hanson’s book because they show the ways we get to well functioning societies with fewer costly and wasteful externalities from our signaling and self-interested behaviors. Norms create a way for us to compete with each other without having to go to war with every person who might have a higher status, greater wealth, or more social and political power than we have. Many norms help all of us, as a group, function a bit better together even if they get in the way of our individual self-interest from time to time. In many ways, norms are what create the elephant in the brain.

 

The idea that our self-interest is constantly at work, hiding in plain sight and influencing our behavior while being consciously ignored comes about because of norms. We have many unwritten rules against openly bragging about ourselves and against openly disregarding others in the pursuit of our self-interest. If we did not have norms that made us feel guilty, that caused people to look down upon us, and that isolated us socially when we bulldozed our way toward the things we wanted, then we would have no reason to hide our self-interested motives and we would openly and directly compete for the things we want. Norms shape our lives by defining acceptable behaviors, and they limit our direct pursuit of our self-interest to cut out some wasteful and damaging behaviors while pushing us to be more cooperative and peaceful.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

Behaviors and Ways of Working – The Keys to Unlocking Growth

I am not currently in a leadership or management position with the company I work for, but I still took away a great deal from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. I have always had a bit of a coaching mindset and the book taught me a lot about how to be a better coach, which is helpful even though I am not currently in a coaching position. I learned a lot about how I can better support my coaches and mentors in my current role, and I believe that will translate well into future opportunities and relationships. Reading his book from the standpoint of someone being coached was helpful to see how to also position myself to set up powerful and positive coaching.

 

One of the big difference between an effective coach and someone who simply manages people and projects is that the coach is focused on the development and growth of the individuals they work with rather than just on making sure work is getting done. Focusing on growth and development means looking at individuals, their performance, and what opportunities they have to improve their work and lives. Bungay Stanier describes it like this,

 

“Here you’re looking at patterns of behavior and ways of working that you’d like to change. This area is most likely where coaching-for-development conversations will emerge. They are personal and challenging, and they provide a place where people’s self-knowledge an potential can grow and flourish. And at the moment, these conversations are not nearly common enough in organizations.”

 

Being receptive to coaching requires good self-awareness and self-knowledge. If an individual does not see themselves honestly and does not have a true vision of themselves, with both their strengths and opportunities for improvement, they will never be able to grow in a way that will reach their true potential. Coaches can help bring this out by focusing on real patterns and looking for opportunities to change and address those patterns. We all know how hard patterns and behavior can be to change, and coaches can provide the impetus for change by identifying the environmental and internal changes that can help usher in those changes. This is a process of developing greater awareness and self-knowledge with the person we are coaching and connecting that back to the larger picture of organizational success or personal growth. This ties in with ideas of management by objectives (MBO) where each goal or action that an individual takes is tied in with the larger goals of the department and company overall.

 

As an individual, I have been able to harness self-awareness to focus on the patterns and areas where I have wanted to change and build new habits or skills. Working with a manger and understanding these conversations allows me to be someone that my manager can practice these conversations with. I can help my manager better see and understand the problems and patterns that I experience as a result of the tools we use and the environment we are in, and we can discuss ways to overcome the resulting obstacles that I face. The strategies developed for me can then influence the conversations and approaches used with other people down the line. It all starts with self-awareness and honestly addressing patterns of behavior and ways of working, whether you are the coach or the one being coached, and then addressing the changes that can be made to help the individual make the adjustments that will lead to the changes that will benefit themselves and the organization.

Monotasking and Focus

A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life.  Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time.  Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus.  In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.

 

Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’.  He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,

 

“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing.  Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”

 

I think  that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports.  A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time.  What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing.  To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened.  As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.

 

The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking.  As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking  and it’s negative effects on my brain.  The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.

Working Hard in the 21st Century

In the book Act Accordingly, author Colin Wright provides his thoughts on our hyperconnected and hardworking society.  Wright comments on the pride we have in hard work, and how that has translated into praise for those who work 100 hour weeks and toil through difficult paths to reach their journey. Rather than advocate for the traditional path of ever increasing responsibility and hard work, he encourages a different path, which runs in contrast to our thoughts about always being connected and always working. I have come across the idea through multiple podcasts that I listen to with Debbie Millman in a podcast called Design Matters where she called hard work, long hours, and responding to emails at 3 a.m. “a badge of honor”.  What Wright begins to argue is that this work is not the most useful work, because it is often not the most productive.  He writes, “for some reason we treat ‘hard work’ as if it’s an end unto itself, rather than a means to an end,” showing how focused we are on the hard work we do, and not where that hard work takes us or the outcome of that hard work.  He also writes, “Is it noble to work 100 hours a week to accomplish what could be done in 40? Is it virtuous to spend 40 hours hours on a project that could be delivered in 10?”
I think that once we get into the working world and start to build our careers many of us become super focused on reaching a better position and a better salary and in the end we make sacrifices in our personal life so that our work can be the best. This is certainly not a bad thing, and making sacrifices to help grow in your professional life is important, but Wright is arguing that the sacrifices you make should be temporary. Once you adopt the idea that you must always work hard you will have prepared yourself for success, however, hard work in isolation and hard work that does not provide results is not the best use of your time. It is not worth making personal sacrifices to work hard on something that does not reward nor advance your life in a fully rounded way.  As Debbie Millman put it, having a hard work ‘badge of honor’ does not help you if it means that you are getting less sleep, becoming less productive, and losing the ability to be connected to health, family, and spirituality.
The second part of the quote from Wright shows the better alternative to our ideas of hard work. When we value quantity over quality we look at people with incredibly high work loads and praise them. We look at our colleagues who work super long hours  with praise. Unfortunately, quantity does not always correlate with success. If long hours of work diminish the overall value of the final product and if large workloads delay the final product or fill it with errors, then what did the completion of the large workload accomplish?  Wright is encouraging us to not work in a way that places a high value on the quantity of what we do. His quotes show that productivity versus activity should be our main goal, and that we should value those who are able to complete work with high quality in shorter time frames, rather than focus on dragging things out and appearing to constantly be working in a frenzy.