Show me the victim!

Insider trading is in the news, and is so often is the case, there are parallels to your day-to-day decisions and actions as a leader in the world of business, independent of the specific indictment. And so …

A common defense for insider traders is that it’s a victimless crime. That is, when the stock in question is from a publicly held company, it’s rarely possible to identify any individual who was directly harmed by the insider trading.

The usual counter is that the stock in question is priced wrong because the information in question is known only to insiders. Armed with that information, insider traders know when a stock is underpriced and they should buy, and when it’s overpriced and they should sell. Who do they buy from and sell to? To other investors who lack access to the key facts in question.

From KJR’s perspective this is interesting but not essential, included here for completeness. Here’s what is essential to you as a business leader.

Imagine that, instead of investing, we’re talking about the Minnesota State Lottery. Now imagine the headline story is that one player has been told the first 3 numbers of the winning entry.

If I’ve done my arithmetic right, this knowledge improves the odds of winning from 1 in  36,348,339,200 to 1 in 115,600. As payouts, based on the first number, are typically in the tens of millions and each ticket costs $2, an investment of $231,200 pretty much guarantees the player with insider knowledge a multi-million dollar profit.

Ignoring the debate over whether this is a crime with victims or not, we come to a more important matter: Everyone now knows it’s a rigged game.

This is an issue that matters to all business leaders, or at least it should: Many, without even thinking about it, rig the game of getting raises, bonuses, and promotions.

Take, for example, the very common situation of a mentor/protégé relationship. This is widely considered to be a positive thing — leaders should mentor promising employees as part of being a good corporate citizen.

And it is: the additional mentoring makes the protégé a better manager and leader; having a better manager and leader makes the company incrementally more effective; and as the protégé progresses through the management ranks, the mentor increases his or her influence in the corporation at large.

Also: Because the mentor/protégé relationship is warmer than that of boss to direct report, the mentor and protégé inevitably develop a personal friendship, the result of which is that the protégé has increasing influence with his/her mentor.

Which is also good, in that the mentor now gets a second pair of eyes on difficult decisions.

What’s not to like?

Everything is not to like if you aren’t the mentor or protégé, which, mathematically speaking, is everyone minus one. Because everyone (minus one if the protégé is oblivious) knows the game of raises, bonuses, and promotions is rigged in favor of the protégé.

Take, for example, one of the most basic leadership skills (and one of the eight tasks of leadership — see Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World, 2nd Edition, by yours truly, IS Survivor Publishing, 2011. Leaders generally delegate to those they considered most qualified. As they mentor their protégé, the protégé is, in their eyes, more and more likely to be the most qualified, especially for high-visibility assignments.

Which gets the protégé the next high-visibility assignment.

It’s a virtuous cycle if you’re the protégé; a vicious one if you’re anyone else.

How, as a leader, do you solve this? It isn’t complicated: As a business leader you should think of yourself as mentor for all of your direct reports.

What’s easy is the concept. What’s hard is that you inevitably have better rapport with some of the men and women who report to you than you do with others.

My recommendation: Invest the time needed to develop rapport with the ones who are harder.

That’s the view as you consider your relationship with your direct reports. How about your relationship with your own manager, if your manager is less conscious of these dynamics?

The solution is as inescapable as it is unfortunate. It’s that the only thing worse than having to play a crooked game is losing one.

Be the protégé.

It was an innocent question. I don’t want to embarrass anyone about actual recent events by relating the specifics. What matters is that it was a simple inquiry that should have been readily answerable.

I didn’t get a ready answer. It turned out I’d asked a tar-baby question.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, the original tar baby had its origins in African-American folklore. It was a doll made out of tar by Br’er Fox (the bad guy) to trap Br’er rabbit (the good guy). A tar baby is anything that’s easy to grab but hard to let go of once you’ve grabbed it.

[Because it matters: “Tar baby” has been accused of being a racial slur. Given its origins and meaning it isn’t, and given the lack of evocative synonyms I’m unwilling to give it up.]

I’d sent my question to everyone who might plausibly have known the answer. Several –probably the ones who figured they were responsible for answering — sent me responses that weren’t answers. After a couple of rounds of trying to clarify my question, it became clear that while someone should have figured it out quite some time ago, nobody ever had.

My question was a tar baby — having grabbed the topic I couldn’t let it go.

Except that yes, I could.

So can you. If you find yourself holding on to a tar-baby question, there’s a simple, although unsatisfying solution: Stop.

Don’t even announce that you’re stopping. Just stop. Unlike actual tar, you can let go of your email chain any time you want to through the simple expedient of not clicking the Reply/Reply All button. You won’t experience the satisfaction of closure, but you will experience the satisfaction of not wasting any more time on a losing proposition.

There’s a variation on this theme — asking a question when you know nobody can answer it. It’s a way to suggest someone should come up with the answer without volunteering to be that person, as you would if you were to recommend it instead.

There’s another variation on the same theme. Call it Q&A Dissonance. It’s when you ask a question and get an answer to a different question that sounds something like your question but wasn’t your question.

Usually, Q&A Dissonance is the result of the ambiguity inherent in human communication. Try to clarify in a Reply. If that doesn’t do the job, pick up the phone, or, if possible, walk over to where the other person sits and hash it out face to face.

Email might be the most efficient communication channel when you’re measuring efficiency in terms of your time budget, but the printed word lacks many of the nuances vocalization provides; voice-to-voice is far less robust than the body language and facial expressions that accompany face-to-face conversations; and nothing beats sharing a whiteboard.

There’s a variation on the Q&A Dissonance variation that’s far less benign. Call it Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing. (Or don’t — call it anything you like. I won’t mind.)

I found myself on the receiving end of Opportunistic Dissonance-Driven Posturing quite a few years ago when one of my then-employer’s executives came to town for a meet-and-greet with a large program team I was part of.

After his opening remarks he opened things up for questions. I asked one, about our company’s growth strategies. He answered … well, no, he didn’t. He instead lectured me about my sense of entitlement, my not being willing to make sacrifices to further the company’s success, and a few other choice items, all of which were centered on his personal history and virtues as models for me to emulate. “Did that answer your question?” he finished?

Well, no, but it answered two questions that were far more important: “Do you have any interest in what those of us here on the ground think?” and “Please reveal something important about your character.” Not that I had the presence of mind and absence of good sense to say that. I believe my eloquent reply was a mumbled, “close enough.”

Which brings us to the point of this week’s missive, to the extent there is a point: Every question is more than a request for information. Questions are also useful tools for making suggestions, and opportunities to build working relationships.

Beyond that, they call attention to whoever asks them. Sometimes you want that, as when someone who hears you ask it might think, “Now that’s a perceptive question.”

Know your audience before you call attention to yourself, though. Because for everyone who appreciates the value of perceptive questions there are probably a dozen who ask … themselves … a very different question:

Who do you think you are?