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Sam Kinison on management (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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I miss Sam Kinison.

Kinison was the comic, killed a few years ago by some drunks in a pickup truck, who fell into fits of screaming with the voice of a dull hacksaw attacking an I-beam.

Sam’s spirit occasionally invades my flesh, like the time I heard a consultant compare management to raising children. Sam came to me then, and I felt like Dr. Strangelove fighting his own hand. I wanted to jump up and scream like Sam, “NO IT’S NOT! IT’S NOTHING LIKE RAISING KIDS! I HAVE A SIXTY-YEAR-OLD MOTHER OF FIVE WORKING FOR ME! SHE’S AN ADULT! A GROWN-UP! AHHHH AHHHH AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!”

This all came back to me as I read the megabytes of responses to my column on the 70% solution — the arithmetic that says you’d better create 70% more value than your salary or your employer loses money on you.

I did get two flames (one reader misunderstood the point, agreeing with me after we exchanged messages), but most readers endorsed the point enthusiastically. In fact, I received the ultimate compliment from one, who tacked up my column in his cubicle right next to Dilbert.

And these weren’t only managers wanting a whip to flog the hapless analysts who work for them. As many hapless, and for that matter hapful (there must be such a word, don’t you think?) analysts, and programmers, and other people who have to produce Real Stuff (RS, to use the technical term) for a living, were at least as supportive.

Employees want to succeed. They want to produce real value for their employers. Along the way, they want to enjoy their jobs, but that’s no trouble at all: let them produce real value and they’ll enjoy themselves, because most people naturally want to do exactly that.

Don’t believe me? Next time you have some strange assignment or other, call five people in your organization you’ve never met before, tell them what you’re working on, and say, “I was told you may have some good insights on how to approach this problem. Can you spare an hour to help me get my thoughts together?”

I guarantee you, at least six of the five will offer more help than you have any right to expect. And when you’re done, they’ll thank you. People want to create value for other people — that’s where self-esteem comes from.

The whole idea of empowerment stems from this basic realization about human nature. Very few employees go to work just to get a paycheck. Yes, that’s a part of why they show up, but it’s not the whole taco.

Every survey ever done on this subject reveals the same result: employees rank money between 7th and 10th in what they find most important in their work environment. (There are some qualifications on this statistic … the employees have to be making enough to have some disposable income, for example.)

Want more proof? Listen to what people gripe about. IT’S NEVER THEIR SALARY!

Employees complain about office politics. They complain about too many meetings. They complain about the food in the cafeteria. They complain about the number of meetings they have to attend. They complain about ridiculous procedures and regulations. And of course, they complain about having to go to too many meetings.

Every … every complaint you’re likely to overhear has to do with distractions from producing value.

Want happy, motivated, high-morale, high-performing employees? View every distraction they have as leg irons and hand-cuffs. Get rid of all that stuff.

Most of all, treat employees as adults, not because it makes them more effective, but because that’s what they are. They may work for you. If you’re doing your job, they look to you for leadership. They don’t need you as a parent.

So watch out — if you treat your staff like children, Sam’s going to come back and visit your office.

* * *

I still miss Sam Kinison. And I still like this column, all these years later. My only regret, when re-reading it, is that I missed pointing out that when you treat adults as children they’re likely to start living down to your expectations.

– Bob, 3/7/2016

Comments (5)

  • Bob, Thanks so much for reminding me about the blazing star that was Sam Kinison. I’ll hear him echoing through all my meetings the rest of the week.


  • I inherited a teenage nephew and, when suddenly thrust into the role of parent without any preparation on the part of any of us, it is easier to make observations. Adults (most adults) increase their social standing from having accomplished something preferably continued accomplishment through time. Teen aged boys are different than that. They increase their social standing by avoiding accomplishment. Boy 1: “my dad wanted me to help him with X but I managed to get out of it.” Boy 2: “good job, high five.” My own opinion is that becoming a mature adult happens when the boy makes the transition in the way he seeks increased social standing. Some boys do that at age seven, some don’t do it until age 70. (See plot line of The Big Chill (1983) directed by Lawrence Kasdan) Your Analysis is only true when working with functioning adults… which most (but not all) office workers are.

    • In my experience, most employees live up or down to expectations. Expect employees to function as adults and a leader will create a “culture of adulthood.” An important characteristic of cultures is that they’re normative – reinforced through peer pressure.

      Your teenage boys are exhibiting a “culture of adolescence” – even if one of them were to want to achieve something important, peer attitudes will act as a brake on it.

      That is, it isn’t a matter of personal maturity so much as it is a matter of creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

  • Ummm — Bob, “six of the five”? Assume that’s a typo. Good article, by the way! Very to the point.

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