Saturday, July 21, 2012

If It's "Increasing Personal Effectiveness", Why Am I Doing It at Work?

I spent the  last two days in an Increasing Personal Effectiveness training at work.

I am generally pretty skeptical about such things, especially in the workplace.  First, they reek of “quality of work life circles” and other “team-building” activities that historically have been used to get workers to accept more work for no more money (“flexible work schedules”), cuts in benefits (Paid Time Off, rather than vacation and sick leave), less actual autonomy in the name of “team” decision-making.  Second, I try to keep a pretty sharp divide between my work life and my personal life, since pretty much nothing I do in my personal life is anything I can afford to discuss widely at work.  That doesn’t mean I never talk about my political work, writing or radio show at my job, but I’m pretty selective about whom I discuss it with and when.  Although I didn’t know exactly what the IPE training would involve, I knew that analyzing your personal style and values was going to be part of it, and that always seems like a potential minefield for me.

The other reason I am always suspicious about trainings like IPE is that my work is pretty straightforward and my coworkers and I are pretty darned good at it.  I’m the lead operator in a small (very small – four operators) word processing department at a big law firm.  I’ve worked there, more or less, for twenty years with a two-year break I spent in Palestine.  (No, they did not hold the job for me, though they’ve been generous with shorter leaves – I quit and luckily for me, when I was ready to come back, there happened to be an opening.)  When I returned after my break, the department didn’t have a good reputation.  That was probably partly deserved and partly not.  The workers were demoralized and felt embattled, though they’re all top flight operators.

I immediately saw some things that I could fix quickly.  The first day, I noticed that the scanner didn’t create a good enough image to send out.  I asked my coworker about it and he said IT had told them there was nothing they could do.  I said, “That’s ridiculous.”  I called IT.  Within half an hour, one of our genius IT guys had fixed it.  This was in 2005 and we were still using totally antiquated and labor-intensive methods (pens! paper!) for logging in and tracking jobs.  I created an Access database that eliminated hours of annoying work for all of us, having to teach myself some VBA programming in the process.  When my then-boss saw our database, she said, “I want one,” so I made one for her, which required learning a lot more programming, and I’ve since done development projects for several other people, including one that the Firm’s highly-paid Developer said couldn’t be done.

While my coworkers are not as adventurous as I am, they’re good troubleshooters.  If they’re asked to do something they don’t know how to do, they’ll try hard to learn it and usually succeed.  We now have a very good reputation in the firm.  At the IPE training, someone asked what Word Processing does, and one of the secretaries present said, “They’re miracle workers.”

So when I agreed to go to the IPE training, it was basically because one, my boss wanted me to, two, it would be more fun than sitting at my desk all day, and three, I always enjoy getting to know other people and learning about myself.

The training covered basically three things: personal work styles, communication styles and conflict resolution.  This was the second training in our office, so it was mostly paralegals, case assistants, administrative staff, secretaries and a few managers.  There were 32 of us, and most were people I didn’t know at all.  The core of it is something called “DISC” (actually, DiSC PPSI) which is a personality profiling system first developed in 1928 by a psychologist named William Marston.  It’s one of the best-selling behavioral assessment instruments on the market (second only to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) , and the trainer claimed it’s about 99.7% accurate in typing people into one of the following categories:

D = Dominant, Direct, Decisive, Driven
I = Inspirational, Innovative, Intuitive, Interactive
S = Steady, Sensitive, Supportive, Sympathetic
C = Conscientious, Clear, Cautious, Correct

This profile belongs to someone named
"Guy"but it could almost be mine
You answer 24 questions online and the computer spits out a profile.  Not surprisingly, I was a Ds – D with a fair amount of S, a little I and almost no C.  The vast majority of people in the group were C, most with a secondary “s”.  That’s pretty logical for a law firm.  And most of those C people seemed very C to me.  They were also the most suspicious of and resistant to the categorization – which is very C, because these categorizations are general rather than absolute, and Cs want everything to be crystal clear.  They were also the only ones who were worried about “Who has this data and what might be done with it?” and were unpersuaded by the assurances of the trainer and someone in HR that it was not going in anyone’s file.  I was sitting there thinking, “Why do you care?  What’s wrong with being a C, it seems very appropriate for a law firm worker, and anyway, you’re the huge majority so if you’re going to get fired for being a C, so is 80% of the firm.”  But Cs don’t think that way.  They think, “What possible repercussions will this have for me?” and they need to be absolutely sure that a move is a good move for them.  The more they argued, the more C-ish they appeared.

Most people in other groups seemed to think D was not a good thing to be, and the famous people the trainer mentioned who have that dominant persona were – well, not people I admire.  Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Meg Whitman.  (She lumped Fidel Castro in with Hussein and Hitler.)  I kept begging for people who weren’t mass murderers.  “Madeleine Albright,” she suggested.  I shook my head.  Finally she offered Martin Luther King, Jr. (Di) and Nelson Mandela (Ds).  She mentioned that when presidents are not D, their wives are – Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, Michele Obama (though something I saw says Barbara is an S).

In our “D” group, which included no mass murderers, we were all quite happy to be Ds.  We worked well together.  We were high energy but willing to listen to each other and didn’t have any trouble making group decisions.  One guy really had a slightly higher C than D, but she put him in the D group because there were so many Cs and few Ds.  He’s a very soft-spoken Asian guy; a manager and he kept mentioning that he didn’t think he was really a D, he felt more like a C, but when the trainer asked if anyone wanted to switch groups, he didn’t.  I asked about it.  He said he felt comfortable in our group, and we instinctively chose him for our spokesperson in the first exercise.  Another guy switched from S to D on the second day, because he said he told his wife about it and she said, “No, you’re a D.”  I’ve known him for years and wouldn’t have picked him for a D, but English is not his first language.  In Korean, he says he’s definitely a D.

One of the exercises was to “sell” an idea to one of the other groups.  The D group was paired with the S group: we sold to them and they to us.  Because I also have a high S quotient, I was selected to be our spokesperson.  I said, “Okay, but I’m going to speak briefly and then open it to all of you, because S-es value a team approach.  They don’t want to hear one person speaking a lot.”  When asked to give feedback on our presentation, the first thing someone said was, “I really liked that everyone on the team contributed something.”  (Our idea was casual Friday every day – I hope we can really put it to management!)

Tools like this, are of course, just that – tools.  They’re hardly be-all and end-all.  A lot of people I know have done Meyers-Briggs, which is better known and more complicated.  Some of the Cs were saying that they felt it was more accurate, and a C would of course care about that.  The trainer said part of why she uses this one is because it’s so fast to do and easy to understand.  That means that it loses some nuance, but the profile it generated for me was surprisingly accurate most of the time.  It said that I tend to be hard-working, fast-paced, get annoyed when others don’t work as fast as I do, that I’m inclined to be introverted and my more extroverted side often comes out when I’m frustrated or angry.

It said one thing that at first seemed wrong, but then I realized it’s right:  “You tend to judge the success of a project by the accomplishments, rather than by how many people were on board with getting it done.”  My first thought about that was in terms of activism, and being too results-oriented in activism is something I try to avoid.  I at least want to see myself as someone who values the process at least as much as the outcome and is inclusive rather than dominating.  I did answer the questions in terms of how I am at work and not in my personal – i.e., activist – life, and I think in activist circles, I probably show more of my “I” side.  But I also realized that while my ideal is to be part of a large or medium-sized group that works well together, when that doesn’t seem to have traction – as it often doesn’t – I’m more likely to go and do a postering project with a small group of friends than keep trying to build mass organizations that don’t show a good probability of doing something.  It’s not that I think putting up posters is going to change the world without a mass movement.  It’s just that I don’t see myself as having the skills or personality that can draw a lot of people in and keep them involved – that extreme “I”-ness of maybe a Cesar Chavez or Cheri Honkala (for the record, I don't know if either Chavez or Honkala ever took the DISC test or how they scored).  I feel like I’m better able to help a movement get where it wants to go than to get it going, and while it’s not going, I want to see some results for my efforts.  When I see a poster on the wall, a blog on the internet or hear a radio show on air, I feel like I did something, even as I know it would have been better if four or four hundred others had done it with me.

In a work context, I realized that my closest coworker is very likely a High C.  He likes everything to be clear clear clear.  He feels insecure when instructions are unclear – which they very often are – because he feels like he can’t do the job properly without knowing what the person wants, and he’s afraid he’s going to be held responsible for not doing it right.  My habit has been to point out that people rarely complain about what they get from us – it’s been at least two years since I was called in by management to respond to a complaint from a user – and that people just want to see something down on paper.

“What’s the big deal, just take your best guess and don’t agonize over it,” I’ll say.

Now I understand why that doesn’t help him to do the work more easily.  I’ve been trying to change his nature to be more like mine.  What I need to do instead – I’m not a supervisor, and I’ve always been clear that I don’t want to be, but my job is to keep the department running smoothly – is help him feel more secure about doing the job.  I’ve instinctively understood that, so sometimes I’ll offer to call the person to clarify what they want, because that’s part of my job.  At times, though, I’ve hesitated to do that because it seems disempowering; if he has a question, I should let him ask it.  Now I see that maybe that’s anxiety-producing for him because the person might judge him as not being smart enough to figure it out.  For me, who really don’t tend to worry that people don’t think I’m smart, it’s an opportunity for a pleasant interaction with someone who will appreciate being asked what they want.  I think all communication seems fraught with possible misunderstanding for him, and he can make it worse by over-communicating, writing long emails that can be perceived as pedantic and condescending, when he’s just trying to cover all bases.

There are times when someone has sent something in and it’s not clear what they want, we can’t reach them and we don’t have time to wait until we can.  I’ve tended to say, “Either do it or don’t do it, but don’t agonize over it,” and if he keeps fretting over it, I’ll go to, “If you don’t feel comfortable doing it, I will.”  Then I’ll do the job and fume silently, and I imagine he is too, because he didn’t really want me to take the job over, he wanted me to give him a solution so he didn’t have to feel like he might be making a mistake.

The challenge for me is to figure out how to encourage my coworkers to take initiative without making them feel like I’m either being condescending or demanding they do things that aren’t part of their jobs.  In the past I’ve said, “Look at this cool thing I’ve learned, maybe you should try it.”  Generally people ignore me, and I think, “Okay, they don’t want to learn anything new, fine.”  Now I think maybe I’m just being too loose and assuming other people are self-learners because I am.  Maybe I should say, “I’ve learned this cool thing; if I organized a class, would you all be interested in learning it?”

So in retrospect, I feel like the last two days were well spent.  I got to meet some coworkers I didn’t know – including one who turns out to live on my block and another who lives two blocks away – and got to know some others better.  I found out someone I’ve always liked but didn’t know well is a professionally trained clarinetist and we made tentative plans to get together and play music. I also got some insights into why I have a lot of conflict with one of my non-work friends, who I would guess is an Sc or even a Cs.

Yet I still have a nagging question about whether this kind of training represents unnecessary incursions by our bosses into our internal and personal lives.

What do you all think?

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