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Does your workplace squawk or sing?

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How lazy was I over the Thanksgiving weekend? So lazy that not only didn’t I write a new column but I didn’t even carefully choose the re-run. Instead, what follows ran ten years ago today. Hope you enjoy it … even though I didn’t choose it carefully I still liked what I read when I looked it over.

– Bob


The wood thrush sings beautifully. The ring-billed gull does not — it squawks. Don’t blame the gull.

Blame the gulls. There’s a difference.

Thrushes sing without interference. This gives males room to produce complex vocalizations. Female thrushes decide whose song they like best, which more or less determines who mates with whom … the whole point of birdsong.

Gulls, in contrast, live in crowded colonies. With so many males vying for mates in such close quarters, it’s all a male can do to even get noticed. Amplitude is the name of the game. Subtlety has no place in it.

Any parallels between different work environments are purely the reason I brought the whole thing up. This isn’t, after all, an ornithological or sociobiological blog, and I’m certainly not going to compare either gulls or thrushes to our political campaigns.

I don’t, after all, gratuitously insult birds.

So let’s stick to the workplace you’re responsible for. Among the reasons: you can do something about it.

The question, of course, is whether the communications environment your employees work in is more thrush-like or gull-y.

It boils down to what someone has to do to get someone else’s attention, whether it’s a peer, someone in another part of the company, or, for that matter, you.

Some work situations have far too much in common with gull colonies. Crowded and frantic, everybody has too many demands on their attention and no time at all to absorb messages that require serious thought and analysis. This being the case, everyone flags every email they send as Urgent! while preceding their executive summaries with brief abstracts, and the abstracts with catchy subject lines.

Even worse, in situations like this, where every signal contributes to the overall cacophony, everyone involved has a legitimate reason to ignore everything … except, that is, for the small number of messages they receive from a trusted few (analogies do eventually break down).

Compare this to a more thrush-like situation. The background noise level is low. Messages have more depth. Recipients have more time to absorb. The occasional shrill voice gets urgent attention, which, if the urgency turns out to be artificial, leads to quiet coaching regarding the value of quietude.

Sound idyllic? It might be idyllic. Or, it might go beyond idyllic, reaching the realm of utter fantasy.

In the world of the professional management consultant, organizations thrive when everyone focuses their time, attention and energy on the few things that matter most, ignoring the trivia that constantly tries to distract them.

It’s entirely possible this view of the world can actually work. It is, however, just as possible that it works for the people who adopt it only because there are others hidden in the background who handle all of the so-called trivia … a flock of tasks that really do have to get done, but which have no glory attached to them.

The two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive either. It’s likely most work environments have to be complicated but don’t have to be as complicated as they are.

Here’s what I know for sure: Almost without exception, everything … everything … is more complicated than it looks at the surface. And if it isn’t, it will be soon, because a competitor will add to the complexity by enhancing their next-generation product or service.

Often, government regulations also add to the complexity load. Not that they’re unnecessary — that depends on the regulation. But they do generally add to the complexity, although there are exceptions.

Someone has to handle it all. And in many situations, adding enough staff to let everyone concentrate on just a few important priorities would be completely unaffordable. The conclusion: Some employees are valuable precisely because they don’t focus on a few important matters … they multitask, juggle, keep track, and muddle through somehow.

When they need help, or discover something that calls for higher-level attention, they’re going to sound inelegant, more gull than thrush, because they’re competing for attention with quite a few others who also have to multitask, juggle, keep track, and muddle through somehow.

Take two lessons from this. First, from a purely personal perspective you’re better off being a thrush than a gull. The stress is lower and everyone will admire you more.

And second, do everything you can to keep the complexity to a minimum.

You might not be able to eliminate it altogether. But only a birdbrain would make it any worse than it absolutely has to be.

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