Learning to Shut Up

I’ve never met the brilliant Canadian comic Ron James but we share a childhood memory. When we were kids, doctors did not diagnose ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. James explains that his father instead called it, “What the hell’s wrong with that boy?”

Like Mr. James, I was always flitting from one thing to another and wanting to do more, read more, and know more. While I did all right in elementary school, I recall wanting lessons to be faster and to explore not what the teacher was pointing at but whatever was around the next corner. I was the kid staring out the window or asking so many questions and offering so many comments that I was deemed a disruptive dreamer. Now, I guess, I would be drugged into submissiveness.

Through high school I applied coping mechanisms. I’d doodle and day dream and ask to go to the washroom in order to walk a bit. I’d snatch what I needed from classes and then read the rest on my own. In the fourth class of a university course I asked the professor if she would be basing the rest of her lectures on the reading packages. When told she would, I skipped the next four months, submitted the assignments, wrote the exam, and earned an A. It was my all time favourite course. Basically, I’d been taught and effectively learned to shut up.

The silence is not a solution for your problems.

I got better at it but like many people, even those without so many thoughts competing for attention and itching to volcano, I’m still learning. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far and, with mixed success, am still practicing:

  1. We need to shut up about other people. Surely the joys and challenges of our own lives are plenty without concerning ourselves with the minutia of others. Besides, it’s none of our business. Privacy is good and gossip is the devil’s radio.
  1. We need to shut up about other people’s motives. We never have all the information and there is no such thing as mind reading. Our guesses will never be more than projections of our own values, needs, or reactions.
  1. We need to shut up about things we’re unwilling to do anything about. If that dog down the street is barking again or the boss has just done something infuriating, or myriad other irritants that test our mettle, we need to either directly address the person or issue or stop complaining.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is talking. When we blurt out our guess regarding what someone is about to say we’re often wrong and always annoying.
  1. We need to shut up when someone tells a joke or story. Even if we know a better one, no one likes the one-upper who competes with a funnier anecdote or broader tale. Let the other enjoy the spotlight.
  1. We need to shut up when someone is dealing with a difficult situation and wants only to work it out by talking it out. We can feel all mushy that we’re being trusted with the unburdening but must resist the urge to offer advice or solutions.
  1. We need to shut up in meetings. Meetings are often too long because of airtime hogged to re-word points already made or to impress the boss. Meetings should be held standing up or walking and rewards bestowed for value added rather than word count.
  1. We need to shut up in the presence of dead air. A little silence is okay. Reflection and thought is okay. We should appreciate the tranquil moments, especially in a car.

Consider the value of occasionally shutting up altogether. In 2013, Imke Kirste of Duke University found that when we stop talking and enjoy silence, the hippocampus portion of the brain explodes with new cell growth. It is the seahorse shaped bit at the brain’s centre that is responsible for the categorization and storage of long-term memory.

Kirste quantified what monks have, through their example, been gently arguing for centuries. Based on monastic notions of spiritual sojourning, silent retreats now exist throughout the world. They offer idyllic settings and experiences such as hiking, yoga, or spa treatments, all linked by their sanctuaries of silence. No radio. No TVs, i-things, or music and, most importantly, no talking. People pay big money to shut up. The Esalen Institute in Big Sur California, for instance, charges $5,000 to spend a week with them in silence.

Some folks can’t do it. The toughest part, apparently, is that a week of silence demands hours alone with oneself and some find they don’t like the company. Try it. For just one day, switch everything off and shut up. Let your mind flow. Ponder why it’s so hard or marvel at your personal mystery tour as your brain rewires itself.

There’s work left for me to do. I still slip up and don’t shut up when asked my opinion of an emotionally controversial matter or when happily amid friends. Ron James learned to make a living by harnessing his bucking bronco thoughts. Speaking, writing, and even singing torrents of words have similarly enabled me to ply my trade and pursue my passions. I get the irony of saying this through a blog post shot-gunned into the universe, but I’m getting better at silence.

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Loyalty Tarnished, Tested, and True

Abraham Lincoln knew there would be a war and wanted America’s best officer to lead his army. He wanted Robert E. Lee. Lee was offered the post but demurred. He packed up his family, left his beloved Arlington, on a Virginia hillside overlooking Washington D.C., and rode south to offer himself to the newly formed Confederate States of America. He had decided that although he despised slavery, the issue that spurred the founding of the Confederacy in the first place, and that he had sworn an oath to the United States, his loyalty lay more with his state than his country. Lee’s decision should give us pause.

Loyalty is perhaps an old fashioned and certainly a tarnished concept. Consider that Liverpool soccer player Mario Balotelli was just awarded a six-figure Loyalty Bonus to remain with his team for the rest of the season. It is interesting because he is being paid £80,000 a week and is in the middle of his contract. Loyalty Bonuses are becoming increasingly common in professional sport.

Customer loyalty is big business. Ten years ago, a ground-breaking study done by Earl Sasser, of the Harvard Business School, determined that acquiring new customers cost a great deal but is worth the effort and expense if followed by strategies to keep them. Sasser concluded that if only 5% of new customers stay customers – remain loyal – then net profits can increase from 25% to an astounding 95%. His conclusions led to waves of ploys to win customer loyalty. They became more intense with the growth of e-commerce. His conclusions were proven valid when company after company reported the value of swallowing early losses for the long-term profits of loyal online customers.

Schools know Sasser. I graduated from McMaster University a long time ago and they have been sending me magazines, letters, push-page newsletters, and emails ever since. In a moment of generosity, or soft surrender, I once sent them a $100 cheque to help with a library renovation project – a piddling amount, but no matter. They upped their game and sent me mountains of appeals and even phone calls from earnest young folks who always start by encouraging me to reminisce and end with a request for money. They’ve spent way more than I gave them!

All colleges, universities, and private schools are part of the Sasser game. They all have Sasser loyalty departments flimsily disguised as alumni affairs, constituent relations, parent councils, trustee boards, or whatever other euphemisms they contrive. Good on them.

Loyalty

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My grandfather was loyal to the steel plant in which he worked for 42 years and it was loyal to him. Those days of reciprocal loyalty appear to be over. In just about any workplace, be it an office, factory, or school, Robert E. Lee’s conundrum of divided loyalty is played out every day. What happens when a decision tests a CEO’s loyalty to the Board to which she reports, those she employs, customers she serves, and shareholder’s dividends? Can she muster the ethical fortitude to take a stand on where her loyalty should rest? What happens to middle managers when a CEO’s decisions violate established policies or threaten an organization’s values, culture, and customer loyalty? Will their loyalty rest with the leader or company? Will they summon the courage to fight for right or demonstrate character and walk away?

According to the Journal of Psychology, loyalty among today’s workers no longer depends on the old motivators of money, office, or title. Workers will walk, wilt, or revolt if loyalty is not shown through the trust of genuine autonomy, professional development they design or find, and an environment in which their voices are actually heard and sincerely respected without fear of reprisal or pandering.

An organization that fails to understand and live loyalty will flounder. Loyalty dies because one-way loyalty cannot live. People will only be loyal to someone whose loyalty to them is always demonstrated and never questioned. If loyalty is sacrificed for a quick buck, quick fix, or even the best of intentions it becomes a burned bridge that is tough to rebuild, especially by those found holding the matches.

Perhaps loyalty is old fashioned. It is certainly tarnished and it is tested every day. Maybe things have become so bad that loyalty is now a commodity that can be bought, wheedled, or ignored. I hope not. Maybe we would be well served to pause and consider where our loyalties truly lay. The exercise might reveal that loyalty is not so hard or old fashioned after all.

My loyalty rests with leaders who earn it, ideas that stand scrutiny, friends who offer compassion, companies that provide value, and institutions that live their stated values. The loyalty I feel most deeply is to loved ones who gently but constantly remind me that, in the end, they are all that truly matters.

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Recency Illusion, Leadership, and the Ladder from Cute to Scary

My favourite teacher of all time is a seven year old. I am absolutely gobsmacked when she adopts her serious, slightly condescending tone to tell me the proper way to toboggan, dive, catch a ball, or to inform me of the stars, animals, or myriad other things. She is so cute because of her assumption that because she has just learned something then it must be brand new. In 2005, linguist Arnold Zwicky developed a term for this assumption: Recency Illusion. He was talking about words but it can be applied more broadly.

While recency illusion is fun in children, it ascends the ladder to frustrating in teenagers. After all, those in their teens right now are the first to ever sneak a drink, skip class, have sex, experience heartbreak, love loud music, and write bad poetry expressing inescapable angst. Right?

Recency illusion escalates to interesting when dealing with things that don’t matter. We might think, for instance, that we have invented words. Consider the word “high”. It comes not from your son’s party last weekend or even 1967’s Summer of Love. It’s been traced to author Thomas May who wrote in 1627, “He’s high with wine”.

The phenomenon is also interesting when dealing with culture. I recall a young person asking in the 1980s, “Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Last week I switched off the radio when a young woman with an effected vocal rasp (strike one) who seemed to anticipate question marks when approaching the end of sentences (strike two) was rhapsodizing about the history of the Civil Rights movement based on nothing more than just having seen the movie Selma. (strike three)

Recency illusion moves up the ladder from interesting to scary when demonstrated by adults with power. Marketers depend on recency illusion. Consider the phrase “new and improved”. Forget for a moment that if something is new then it cannot possibly be an improvement and only that we are saps for the word new.

Marketing guru Jamie Turner argues that the word new triggers emotions that lie in the sub-cortical and limbic parts of our brain. These parts respond not to reason but primal, instinctive impulses. We want the new product because it must be better. No matter how hard the more highly developed parts of our brain try to warn us, we are fooled anyway. Marketers know this and count on it.

Recency Illusion

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Even scarier and certainly more dangerous are leaders who believe that history begins the day they slide behind the big desk. Sometimes it is quite intentional such as the during French Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge coup when new leaders threw out the old calendar and declared it Year Zero.

Far more often, recency illusion is subtler. It’s revealed in a leader’s unconscious or unspoken Year Zero when words, behaviour, and decisions reflect a belief that every problem is brand new and unique, every flitting trend or fancy buzzword an exciting idea and essential option, and every constructive critic an enemy of progress. Consider the echoes of recency illusion in Tojo ordering the bombing of Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush being persuaded that American troops would be welcomed into Baghdad with cheers and flowers. Consider recency illusion on parade with last week’s no-brainer business decision that morphed into this week’s unintended consequences.

Leaders suffering from recency illusion are bereft of a sense of history and so are like amnesiacs acting as tour guides – constantly surprised, easily duped, and blind to sycophants. They are deaf to advice from those without selfish agendas but rich with genuine corporate memory. Even when lost in the dark woods of their own making, those imbued with recency illusion’s arrogance often refuse to learn because lessons come only to those with the humility to admit that, as George Harrison once sang, life goes on within you and without you. As always, it is the led and not the leader who pay recency illusion’s dearest price.

Seven year olds will always be cute, teenagers infuriating, marketers manipulative, and “experts” will always use new words to sell old ideas. That’s fine. But maybe all those in leadership positions should pause and wonder whether their actions reflect recency illusion.

Plus, as both Canada and the United States swirl toward choosing new leaders, perhaps our democracies would be well served if we were aware and wary of candidates using recency illusion to sell themselves and their ideas. Maybe that awareness will invite us to more carefully consider the past as prelude, test an offered premise, ask the next question, and ultimately, to make a better choice. And wouldn’t that benefit us all?

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Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

Kindergarten teachers have children plant beans in little cups. The exercise is simple but the lesson profound: everything is born, everything constantly changes, and everything dies. One of the smartest people I’ve known once reminded me of that lesson.

Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

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For 42 years, my grandfather worked in a Hamilton, Ontario steel plant called Dofasco. Years after his retirement, he read of a new round of layoffs that were shrinking the place to a skeleton of what it had once been. He shared nostalgic stories of the post-war years when Dofasco thrived. He spoke of how the company president, whom he always respectfully called Mr. Sherman, would often mingle on plant floors speaking with the workers, asking opinions, slapping backs, and shaking hands.

The Dofasco golf, bowling, hockey, and baseball leagues for workers and their families contributed to the sense of community and created a feeling of family. At the huge annual Christmas party, Santa had a gift for every child. When union organizers came to Dofasco every few years they were run out of the place because the trust that existed between management and labour rendered unionization unnecessary.

My grandfather retired in 1975. The OPEC oil shock had just happened. The western world’s industrial revolution that, for a century, had built manufacturing plants like Dofasco was ending. A right wing movement that would alter government’s role in protecting workers and regulating corporations was beginning. The beanstalk in the little cup was wilting.

Dofasco’s big shrink began in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, whole departments were shuttered, equipment was sold or scrapped, and buildings were torn down. My grandfather called one day and invited me to a Dofasco open house. It was great. There were old guys who remembered him and I was proud of the reception he received. He marvelled at the computers in a control room that had once been manually operated. He was shocked by the cleanliness of the pickle line and by how few people were making it all work.

More than the technical changes, however, on the drive home he spoke of his old buddies confirming what he had already surmised. With the new challenges and changes had come new managers and management systems. Mr. Sherman, and all he had represented, was gone. Globalization and domestic economic and political changes were not the fault of the current CEO but when old ways began to die he was none the less accused of murder and his middle managers deemed accomplices. First trust, then loyalty, and finally community disappeared. There was talk of union.

But my grandfather was smart. He said, “Johnny, nothing ever stays the same forever.” The Dofasco he had known was gone and would never be back. Its tag line remained Our Product is Steel Our Strength is People, but no one believed it any more; it had become a cynical punchline. He spoke of how young people working there now would never understand how the place used to be and even less of how it felt. A few years later there was another open house. He didn’t want to go. There was nothing for him to visit. The bean in the cup had died.

Deaths are always hard. We all know that fundamental change in any organization effects most is what can be empirically measured least. We all know that stages of grief are suffered by those asked to leave and by those left to mourn what and who were lost. We all know that decisions made at one level always have consequences on others. We also know that losing money is seldom a job dismissal’s highest price. The theft of identity, dignity, community, and faith in what was once sincerely believed are much deeper wounds that, for some, even in those left behind, never heal. That was my grandfather. Dofasco had afforded him a living and source of pride, right up until it broke his heart.

Next September, Kindergarten teachers will have children plant beans in little cups. The kids will proudly bring them home and parents will share in the watering and excitement of growth. Then, inevitably, they will dry tears when the little sprout, once so healthy and lovingly tended, dies and never comes back.

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Three Things You Want Said at Your Professional Eulogy

Departure speeches are often painful, especially when it’s the boss. Those trying to be funny are the worst. Next are the maudlin moaners or snidely sycophants, sadly unaware that their gig is up. The best are by those who understand that it’s a funeral, professional not personal, but a funeral nonetheless. The boss is going and he’s not coming back.

A professional eulogy offers an opportunity to sum up all that was best about the person and his contributions. That being said, consider that your professional eulogy is now being composed because, let’s face it, we all have one coming whether we are eventually retired, fired, or alternatively hired.

Here are the three best things a boss could hear in his or her professional eulogy.

  1. You Made Us Feel Good.

Recall your favourite teacher. We all have one. Few were the smartest, funniest, most technically savvy or academically astute teacher in the school. It’s never the one who slavishly obeyed the educational bureaucrat’s dictates, knew the latest edu-babble, or even the one who doled out the best marks. Your favourite teacher was the one who gently guided and inspired while making you feel better about yourself, your potential, and your abilities.

Nothing changes as adults. The best boss is like the best teacher because how talented, powerful, gregarious, well informed or well connected he may be matters not one whit if he makes you and others feel unappreciated, lazy, or stupid. His job is not to make you feel good. But when he does, through respectful, transparent interactions, honesty, and modesty, his job becomes easier because his staff feels better and works better.

Empathy, humility, compassion, and caring can’t be faked. When they are genuine, they trump tough situations, mistakes, and shortcomings. When they are absent, a boss will be obeyed but not respected. Jobs will be done but without passion. Then, nobody wins.

You made us feel good.

  1. You Absorbed and Deflected.

Sometimes things go well. Sometimes, no matter how well planned and executed or how many signed off, things go horribly wrong. Consider President Kennedy’s approving the 1961 Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion. It had been planned by the previous administration and carried out by Cuban refugees. It was a disaster. Kennedy appeared on TV the next day and said, “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan.” He then personally accepted full responsibility for the entire debacle. His approval rating soared.

Kennedy’s lesson is clear. When things go well, deflect all credit. When things go badly, absorb all blame.

You absorbed and deflected.

  1. You Were a Conductor:

Some bosses lead like slave galley captains. They demand everyone row the same way at the same time and they publicly punish those who slip out of rhythm. Only the captain faces forward and shares nothing of the ship’s progress or destination with those who row not in the pursuit of a shared goal but in fear of the lash.

Some bosses lead like cowboys. They are at the back, nudging and cajoling the herd as it stumbles blindly forward with no say and little hay. The herd only ever sees the boss’s minions and then only when roped back to the shuffling wanderers after having demonstrated the temerity of forging a unique trail – the crime of independent thought.

The best bosses are conductors. They celebrate that each member of the orchestra is the master of his own instrument and plays a different portion of the score. This boss champions individual expertise and initiative, knowing that the elegance of the whole derives from trusting each member to play unique notes at unique times. The conductor understands that he chooses the music, but when in performance, his work is less important than the skill and passion brought by talented individuals. He is comfortable with the fact that only those he leads can see the audience and so can really judge reaction. He knows that without them and their dedication to excellence, he would just be a guy waving a stick.

You were a conductor.

Three Things You Want Said at Your Professional Eulogy

(Photo: abcoautomation.us)

So, if you are a boss or hope someday to be one, imagine what you would like said when, for whatever reason, you leave your position and hear your professional eulogy. Let’s bet that if these three pillars of praise can be sincerely said about you then your leaving will be pleasant. Further, if all three are really true, then not only will you be missed but when and how you leave will probably be up to you.

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The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

boyko-at-commemoration-of-death-of-sir-john-a

So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

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