Category Archives: reflective practice

workplace bullying: the stakes are raised

A few days ago I wrote here and here about workplace bullying, and how I believe it is rife, if not in New Zealand, then certainly it’s alive and thriving here in Wellington. When I first wrote about the workplace bully as a vampire, I described some of their psychopathic behaviours and modus operandi. Allow me to recap: they can be male or female, usually have an education or are well equipped with native cunning, and they’re well up (and continuing to work their way up) the totem pole. Apart from the stench of the undead, you’ll be able to identify a nest of vampires by all or all of the following signs: a high staff turnover, a climate of change, changing (unfair) work conditions and environments, workers are stressed, and the vampires inevitably surround themselves with a clan of cronies.

Today I came across a story online from Patrick Crewdson – The Dominion Post – today, Monday, 27 August 2007. I’m going to excerpt it heavily, as their archive system is a bit uneven, not as some sort of plagiarism. This is a story that should be preserved. It’s about vampires; see if you can recognise any of the spoor.

The scene opens:

The case of Stuart Selwood v Queen Margaret College pitted the school against itself and exposed a serious rift between teachers and the management.

Before the Employment Relations Authority, current and former staff of the school lined up with the Selwood family against the school’s hierarchy – principal Carol Craymer, deputy principal Rosey Mabin, bursar Annette Lendrum, year 13 dean Milada Pivac and others.

Located in Thorndon, Queen Margaret College an independent Presbyterian girls’ school, prides itself on being one of the premier schools for girls in Wellington, if not New Zealand. The school motto is ‘Luce Veritatis – By the light of truth‘, and their marketing line is ‘Passionate learners, resilient women, future leaders‘.

Most striking among his (Dr Selwood’s) list of complaints was the charge that the stress he suffered at the school masked the symptoms of his bowel cancer till it spread to his lungs and became terminal.

He claimed to have been bullied, pressured, and mistreated – forced to accept a revised job description under threat of redundancy; made to work out of a “storeroom”; victimised after an altercation over a pupil’s iPod; denied a support person at meetings with management; and marginalised by an audit of the school’s IT operations.

He claimed the school downgraded his responsibilities, threatened him with redundancy if he did not accept the changes, and moved him to an office “unfit for human habitation”.

Originally, he sought $74,000 compensation – as well as for the school to cover his legal and medical costs – but he reduced that to $59,000 as the hearing closed. In the end, the authority awarded him $5000.

Oncologist Peter Dady told the authority Dr Selwood’s life expectancy was one to two years. Stress would not have caused the cancer, but it could have cloaked the symptoms till it was too late, he said.

What does the Board have to say about this?

“The board has unqualified confidence in Ms Craymer and her leadership team and is offended by the allegations and inferences made about Carol and her team.”

Criticising Dr Selwood for taking the dispute “into the public arena”, he said the school had “a very disciplined strategy” for dealing with media coverage and anyone approached should direct inquiries to him.

This is from Board of governors chairman Allan Freeth. Hmmm, now there’s a name that sounds familiar.

So, what about the parents and other staff? Well, it seems in the ancient tradition of vampires, a conspiracy of silence prevails.

Other members of the school community agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, afraid being seen to criticise senior management could damage their future at the college.

One mother told The Dominion Post that since her daughter had been at the school, she believed it had changed from a “vibrant, warm and nurturing” environment to somewhere with the atmosphere of “a fridge”.

As staff left, Ms Craymer had surrounded herself with a coterie of “scrubbed, ponytailed Brunnhildes”, she said.

“Factions developed, with the principal apparently gathering about her a closed senior management team and sending out messages about loyalty at all costs.”

I can only hope the Brunnhilde reference is to the Wagnerian Valkyrie, and not to the more frightening Brunhilda of Austrasia. But you couldn’t rule it out. Ok, so what about the vampire evidence?

Much of the most damning criticism of the school came in briefs of evidence submitted to the authority.

Part-time IT teacher John Barrow said unhappy teachers referred to the senior management team as “the enemy”. He has since resigned, after deputy principal Rosey Mabin told him his testimony at the initial hearing left him in an “untenable position”.

Former teacher Virginia Horrocks said teachers felt they “were being subjected to a regime of divide and rule” – under an autocratic system that even banned personal mugs from the staffroom.

Since Ms Craymer took over as principal in January 2004, 14 teachers had left to take up similar or lower- level jobs at other schools, with three department heads leaving to return to the classroom, she said.

The authority also saw a May 2006 letter from members of the private school teachers’ union to the board of governors that read: “Over the last two years we have seen substantial change to the college resulting in a falling roll, extraordinary staff turnover and minimal value placed on the professional skills and the goodwill of the teaching and support staff.”

According to a document available on the Queen Margaret College web site, there are, in 2007, 65 teaching staff, including some on maternity leave. If it is correct that 14 staff had left, that’s be something like the 25% – a substantial turnover it seems, for somewhere as caring and nurturing as suggested by the web site. I can’t help wondering why would somebody find it necessary or desirable to go to the effort of setting up a Googlepage dedicated to commentary on the bullying at Queen Margaret College? Slightly more than someone with a bit of a grudge it seems.

Vampires. In the school. It’s a disgrace. My heart goes out to Stuart and Sally Selwood, their family, and the other victims. Somehow I don’t imagine the $5,000 the Selwoods were awarded will offer much in the way of comfort. If (IF) the predictions are true and Dr Selwood doesn’t see out the decade, I can image the management team’s angst as to whether they should send flowers, or attend the funeral, or both. The hollow words at the school assembly, perhaps even a minute or two of silence. One thing’s for sure – QMC’s web site’s promise of a ‘professional and supportive staff and a warm, caring and friendly atmosphere‘ isn’t immediately obvious. It doesn’t matter if the Employment Relations Authority found the school management were only guilty to the extent of $5,000 – I would’ve expected any good vampire would’ve covered their tracks just as thoroughly. What does matter is Dr Selwood, and apparently others, did feel bullied and the school authorities have been unable to respond and communicate the sincere support and aroha that the victims might reasonably expect to experience in a workplace that so strongly identifies with Christian beliefs.

from dusk ’til dawn II

We were chatting about the idea of the workplace vampires, and I mentioned I’d forgotten to mention one of the other effective ways the vampires can get in amongst their victims. It’s simple. It’s elegant. Simply load up the victim’s work level, and then when it comes time for professional development, there’s no time for it – even if there’s money for it. Which of course is an ideal way of holding a victim back, and makes it harder for them to get a different job, because they’re not current.

The simple solution for victims of this kind of workplace bullying is to take charge of your own professional development – in most towns there are some sort of free or attractively priced classes, courses, or workshops. It doesn’t have to be on a subject directly related to your job – that’s be a bonus – but learning something new, and making a new circle of friends (rare to find a vampire there) will be a very good thing. Not only will it help sustain you through the bad times, a new circle might know of some job openings and an opportunity for a fresh start.

from dusk ’til dawn…

Wellington, as a concept, makes an effort to attract the creative talent, along the lines described by Richard Florida. And while that’s a good thing, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing pattern here – that is, how common the bullying of staff is. I have no figures to compare to elsewhere in NZ, or indeed, the world; but it is rife here. I usually go for a walk at lunch time and a couple of times recently I’ve overheard distraught people telling friends as they walk about their latest horror. I don’t mean vague ‘I hate my job, it sux’, kind of thing, I mean very stressed people telling tales of abusive treatment. Outside my office recently I encountered a colleague who was so angry and upset that they were unable to weep, but clearly they wanted to calm down to the extent that that was an option. It seems so stupid and unproductive to me – how on earth was this person going to go back to their desk and in any way be productive for the rest of the day? This bullying – this abuse – not only is destructive to the person, it must have a lasting effect on the profit and productivity of a workplace, simply because the time is lost, quite apart from how the worker responds over the next few hours, days and weeks.

So where does it come from? I’ve had many jobs, many work places, worked with and for many different people. And I’ve struck a few nasty people in my time. And then there are people out the other side of nasty. They are psychopaths. I call them vampires. They are devoid of any empathy, their emotion is carefully engineered for their benefit, and they have no compunction about doing whatever is required to suit their own ends. Their ruthless manipulations generate some sort of pleasure reward, in much the same way that rape is not about sex, rather it is about power and domination. They’re not common – predators never are – but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Think: vampires. There can’t be lots of them because they’d run of out prey quickly. Same with your typical workplace psychopath – if the entire office was full of them there’d be no-one for them to prey on. My unscientific guess is 1 in 100 people has the goods – the fangs, if you will. Oh, and just like the Dracula movie, the vampires can be just as easily be female as male.

Like vampires, they have to have been invited over the threshold into the workplace, usually by inept HR processes, and, like vampires, once installed, they’re not easy to get rid of by the victims; nor by the other victims, the company itself who can see (hopefully, eventually) that previously good staff are starting to turn over. Typically however it’s not that easy – first the vampire will be quicker than that – there’ll be a seemingly valid reason why the staff turnover is going up, and no matter what, it’ll have nothing to do with the vampire. I have worked in places with a greater than 33% staff turnover – in other words, within three years 100% of the institution knowledge has walked out the door – not that there was that much in the first instance. I do not know why senior management compensation is not tied to turnover figures. I do not know what HR insist on inane questions at interviews along the lines of tell me when you succeeded at something, as if that’s really going to identify any aberrant behaviour. See the problem is, some of the vampire behaviours are desirable when you’re looking to recruit for sales or executive type roles – someone ambitious and charming, focussed and driven etc. What needs to be considered (apart from a thorough follow up on reference checking) is the emotional responses – along the lines of Dekkard checking for replicants in Blade Runner. I’ve yet to see any HR process that in any way genuinely looks at weeding out vampire applicants. And turbulent times – restructures etc is the exact environment to attract vampires. People are unsettled, they come in looking like leaders and champions, they’re sweet talking, and you look like fresh meat. The greater the staff turn over, the greater opportunity for vampires. They’re thrilled by change. Just like in the vampire movies – Drac wafts in when the wheel falls off and there’s a storm brewing.

The perfect murder
According to Dr John Clarke, Sydney based author of ‘Working with Monsters‘, people who have been ruthlessly bullied have sought escape from the depression and fear by taking their own lives. In that case, I believe the management of a company should be charged as being accessories to murder. And the vampire him/her-self be charged accordingly. The colleague I met outside was obviously highly stressed, and had finished a second cigarette. Killing – murder – takes many forms. A death resulting from these things would not be attributed back to the vampire (and they would not feel any remorse), but the end result is the same.

On becoming a vampire slayer
OK – so you think your boss is a vampire. What do you do? You’ve probably become aware of the worsening of the situation between you. You’re probably blaming yourself, or wondering what’s happening to you. Heads up – you’re not going mad, you’ve got a vampire there. The situation is exactly the same as in the Dracula movies. You have to get away from the vampire, or get rid of the vampire. There’s a good chance the vampire will have reinforced their position with some other people – so keep a look out for favorites, buddy-buds, shared in-jokes – that kind of thing – they will build their power base. Just like the bullies in the school yard – just like the movies – the children of the night, and the lurking manservant. J.K.Rowling summed the cronies nicely in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:

They were a motley collection; a collection of the weak seeking protection, the ambitious seeking some shared glory, and the thuggish, gravitating towards a leader who could show them more refined forms of cruelty.

Look also for cover-ups, incompetence, and blame. Look for rules being changed arbitrarily, unfairness, inconsistency, and things that were acceptable before are now no longer so. You’ll know, because you’ll be baring the brunt of it. Don’t feel completely bad, you’re not mad, you’re not alone and you’re not the first – have a quick check of an online survey that’s about as authoritative as the HR babel. Don’t take it too seriously, but it’s an indicator.

Do a bit of a reality check – have you actually become crap at your job because something else has happened outside – are you studying on the side, started a new relationship, got into debt etc – these kinds of things, coupled by not getting enough sleep can affect your performance at work. So, be honest and look at yourself in an honest way, and, rather than reach for your stakes and garlic, make absolutely sure your performance is outstanding. I know it was once, is it still the same? Don’t be holding grudges because a person older or younger, male or female, straight or gay or whatever has got the role you wanted and now you’re jealous. Once you’ve cleared that up, go back over the points of complaint, and see what was wrong. If you genuinely stuffed up, sort it, learn from it, and move on.

Having done that, the vampire’s still there? Ok, sounds like you might have a live one. You’ve got two options. Get out, or get the vampire out. Usually the vampire is further up the totem pole than you, so, getting out is the straight forward option. Dust of your resume/cv – and get yourself gussied up ready for the next role by dropping your cv off to agencies and other employers. What you’ll gain is a feeling of being in some control, and jobs don’t seem so bad if you know there’s a back door somewhere. Don’t pretend it’ll get better, or you love your job. Stop making excuses, get out while you’re alive. Stress is a killer, and you and yours don’t need it. And the vampire will simply move on to the next victim – they are ruthless and relentless, and they won’t stop with you. If you stay you might just as well offer your naked throat to Hannibal Lecter. Other defenses include networking with friends and letting everyone know you’re in the market for a new role. Also, make an effort to build up some cash reserves – ideally 6 months worth of pay – so if all else fails you can simply leave. Get out of debt. If you let it slip that you need your job because of some financial horror you have just entirely put yourself at their mercy. And they have none. Remember, this is not the school bully (although they probably started there) the work place vampire has a control on your income, and there is no big teacher to come and sort it out. The HR team have their hands tied, and the vampire will typically have sorted them first, and besides, if the HR processes were any good there wouldn’t be a vampire here in the first instance.

Disclosure. Do not disclose anything that in some way can be twisted by the vampire. They will, and will use it against you. I’ve mentioned the being in debt thing. Do not disclose any weakness at all. Keep your private stuff to yourself. I’ve seen guys present their necks at those matey drinking sessions. That vampire is not as drunk as you think. They are taking it all in, and it will be used. If you are good, and you intend hunting the vampire (careful, they are very, very dangerous), you might avail yourself of any information, but remember to triangulate evidence – they are are glib and convincing liars. Check out Gormenghast’s Steerpike as a classic example of a workplace vampire. Absolutely do not whine to HR or a more senior manager about the vampire, until you have got overwhelming, triangulated, documented evidence (and that you are free of all spatters). They cannot get rid of a person because you’re petty and don’t like them. The vampire will make it seem like that, and then you’ve shown your hand, and there will be no protection for you at all. A vampire will see your emotions very clearly, and they will manipulate them to their best advantage. Do not apply your value set to the vampire. They don’t have it, it is irrelevant. At best you can be thought of as a lamb for the slaughter.

Document. Get yourself a diary, (pay for it yourself so that doesn’t trigger any possible attack) and make detailed notes of everything. What time you start, take breaks, finish. Every phone conversation for work, stop using the phone for social purposes. Back up email etc. Take your own minutes of every meeting. That would be EVERY meeting. I use bigger postits and leave notes to myself as I go – along the lines of – I filed this here, here and here, because this may be needed for this, this, and this. They’re generic so other people finding them simply think I’m being helpful, but before today a note from two years previously has been the garlic to fend off the vampire. Some might call it covering your butt, I think of it as garlic on my throat. Document, document, document. And stop doing anything that provides a chink in your armor. Stop taking coffee breaks that are longer than allotted, leave the private photocopying to others, stop doing anything other than being an exemplary employee. Become the model employee. Sure, I know, you are now. What I’m writing about is closing off all opportunity for the vampire to strike, don’t quibble over a paper clip. Make a big effort to connect to your job – take every opportunity to get into every nook and cranny – learn all there is to know – knowledge is power, and besides, when you get the new role elsewhere you’re even more valuable.

In terms of fighting back, as an underling your options are limited. If your vampire is any good your access to the information and knowledge will be being limited, the rules will be being changed, and if they’re doing their job properly, they’ll have a group of people who’re rewarded for knifing you. Perhaps not overtly in either case, but that changes nothing. Your only hope is as per the villagers in the Dracula movies, group together with people who you know and trust, bide your time and strike a blow. Bare in mind it will be an all or nothing blow, if you fail to have the vampire removed you will have no backstop. I have heard of staking vampires being achieved with a successful (and valid) sexual harassment claim. Documented evidence, or be gone. By the way, if you see one of your colleagues being treated badly and unfairly (is there a difference?) then you should step in and offer support. Remember, you could be next…

If you are a more senior manager than the vampire, then it behooves you to get off your arse and do something for the health, not only of your employees, but also that of the company. Employment laws make it difficult to dismiss an employee – the vampire – unless there’s a clear reason for doing so. So you have to use some things that you should’ve had in place in the first instance. You, by the way, are responsible for the vampire being there in the first instance, so you should thank your lucky stars the workers aren’t chasing you with pitchforks and firebrands. First, why not start with a fairly simple test something like this one from FastCompany. It’s aimed at employees, but using your common sense you can see patterns of behaviours that your could verify by talking to the line workers. And there’s another hint. Why don’t you talk to your line workers? Management by walking around. It’s an exciting new business concept.

Dr Clarke’s book has some solutions – one was quite elaborate that took the vampire off to manage a company that the home company set up, and then left in the ownership of the vampire. It was elaborate and beautiful, and I can imagine volunteering to be one of the ‘victims’ if I got a chance to stake a vampire like that. But simpler would be simply tie employee turn over to the vampire’s performance criteria. If staff turn over is above industry average, you’re paying out more for induction and training than is necessary. Why are you so determined to squander investor profits? Another figure to look at is employee absences. Is there a pattern – is one employee absent every Monday? Why is that? Why haven’t you got employee absences tied into the vampire’s performance agreement? Personally, if I saw that the same employee was absent on the same day of the week twice in a month I’d want to know why, from the employee themselves – not in a vindictive way, but in a ‘how can we help?’ way. You haven’t got time for this? So why do you pay HR as though that’s some sort of added value to the business, when all you really need is a pay clerk?

Another solution that I’ve never ever seen implemented is generally the vampire controls the employee’s performance management and their word decides what the line worker’s income will be. The vampire gets to comment on the employee’s work, attitude, and performance. Why isn’t it back the other way as well. Why doesn’t the management value the opinions of the line workers? You do? How would I, as a consultant vampire slayer, be able to measure this? What are you afraid of? Being charged if an employee suicides as a result of being bullied by the vampire you hired? Of the highlighted loss of profit because of the staff turn over? I can see no reason why all employees shouldn’t also respond on the performance of their manager. It should be anonymous. If a single person has a trivial gripe it’ll show as being what it is. If more than one person comments perhaps there’s a pattern there worthy of further investigation. The basic perspective is to drive fear (and vampires) out of your work place. This is not to say that your workers will necessarily love every decision made – if you think of the great leaders (and I bet you can’t name a single great manager in history), leaders such as Shackleton, they made decisions that were not universally popular, however they remained respected leaders in the face of genuine adversity.

You have to get rid of the vampires. They have to go. You cannot retrain or therapy them. All you will achieve there is retrain them how to be more manipulative, more successful at the evil they do. Drive evil out by bringing light and communication in. That’s how it’s been done since the days of Vlad the Impaler. Be brave, take action. Save your good employees, save your company.

stories make the difference

My workmates (and I) have a regular daily ritual involving answering the 10 trivia questions in the DominionPost. The DomPost? It’s a newspaper. If you didn’t know that you’re in those slightly scary foreign parts…

One of the questions required, as an answer, the Maori word: mauri. It’s a word that can be translated as – the life principle, emotion, spirit – maybe the essential essence – the vibe.

I was a bit confused because I thought the word was: wairua. It’s a word that can be translated as the spirit, or as having a spiritual quality.

I talked to my Maori colleagues about what they thought was the difference – or not – between the words. I knew that most everything has mauri, but what’s the story about the wairua? Can that only be applied to animate objects? I can really feel the energy – the mauri – from a waterfall, but does that also bear wairua?

My colleagues weren’t 100% sure what the difference is between mauri and wairua. In my mind – and let’s face it, my Maori language knowledge is iti at best. I think that mauri – the vibe – can be in any object or item, alive, animate, or not. But I don’t think that necessarily makes it spiritual. A superb knife can have a vibe, but it’s a long way from being spiritual. I think the difference is in the story.

The story. A bible isn’t spiritual unless you can read it. It’s a book, at best. If you don’t know what a book is, it’s not even a book. It’s the story that makes – confers – the wairua. An alley cat definitely has mauri, I think it’d only have wairua if the cat somehow has a story.

So, what’s your story?

using tiddlywiki for study

Back when I was putting my Masters away I lusted after a small hand-held scanner so I could grab research material quickly and review it later. There were some cool scanners around, however me and the money and the scanner never even got close to each other. In real terms, however, I wonder about the real value, because I would still have had to OCR it and redo it and blah blah blah.

I’m always learning new stuff (should I ever get serious about undertaking my PhD?) I’ve started by firing up a tiddlywiki repository. It’s incredibly easy to set up, and almost frightening in its potency. Here’s how to do it:
1. Fire up Firefox. You don’t use Firefox? Well, there you go then. Fell at the first hurdle…
2. Cruise over to TiddlyWiki and download the latest version. Save it somewhere meaningful. Hint for students – this could mean your memory stick.
3. That done, point Firefox back to TiddlySnip and install the Firefox extension. Follow the simple (but thorough) online installation instructions and in five minutes or less you’ll have a tiddlywiki enabled, web-based, browser powered scrapbooking device with tags. Did I mention free?

You could also use the TiddlySpot online wiki (again, did I mention free?). You’d be building a resource there that’s visible to all, so perhaps if you were a generous soul and you wanted to build something to share with your peers – or perhaps a group project. Hmmm, I’m tempted to consider returning to teaching.

TiddlySnip grabs a highlighted selection of text, wraps your tags around it, and writes it into the TiddlyWiki, complete with a clickable url back to the original page. Effortless, fast, and fantastic for doing basic literature reviews, gathering notes, and building a knowledge base. Team that up with some speed reading and high speed net access it’d be awesome how quickly you’d build a potent resource. The only thing the TiddlySnip people haven’t done for you is format the citation into APA, but I expect you can do that through Noodlebib or something similar. For luddites like me, I just did it by hand.

it’s getting better…

links to The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cd at Amazon I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time…

It’s about 30 years since this album came out. Today, on Amazon, it’s at number 8 on the best seller list – it’s still selling well. Interestingly, fabulously, Paul McCartney’s latest offering – Memory Almost Full deluxe limited edition is sitting at number 4, and the standard edition is sitting at number 5. Three albums, 30 years apart, in the top 10 on Amazon. Awesome! Congratulations, Paul.

Like it or lump it, that’s a fantastic talent. Paul himself compares the latest album with aspects of Sgt. Pepper’s:

The album title came after I had finished everything. For me, that’s when they normally come, with the exception of maybe Sgt. Peppers, otherwise I don’t think I have ever made an album with The Beatles, Wings or solo where I have thought of a title and a concept. I was thinking about what would sum the whole thing up and `Memory Almost Full’ sprung to mind. It’s a phrase that seemed to embrace modern life; in modern life our brains can get a bit overloaded. I realised I had also seen it come up on my phone a few times. When I started bouncing the idea round with some friends they nearly all got different meanings out of it, but they all said they loved it. So the feedback helped solidify the title.

Paul offers us a preview of ‘Dance Tonight’ and a plug for the album… make sure you stick around for the second video starring Natalie Portman and Mackenzie Crook and preempting (perhaps) the whole Harry Potter frenzy that’s about to start.

If you’re like me, and have wondered who are all those people are on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s, wonder no more.

writer’s cramp

It seems like ages since I wrote here – my apologies, regular readers – irregular writing doesn’t help. I have been writing pretty much non-stop for the past few weeks, just not here. Words and time and space are becoming squeezed together in a most unseemly fashion…

I write as part of my job – that uses up quite a few of my available words each day. In addition to this I’ve converted our office manual into a tiddlywiki – not a hideous task but time consuming never-the-less. If you, or your company, desires a wiki manual (or indeed, a more traditional paper-based model), please feel free drop me a note – will write technical content for money. I am particularly interested in the creation of procedures manuals – i.e. specific instructions on how to do stuff.

I’ve also been writing for fun, for me. I’m writing a couple of books, and I have a third busy fermenting in the spare moments. I’ve been finding writing the books a challenge – one has started to take shape quite well and I’m very happy – it’s a kind self-development book based on reflective practice. I don’t know if it will ever see the pale light of day but I’m learning a lot – dare I say it? Reflecting on what I’m doing as I do it. Reflecting on action, while in action. It’s causing me to want to make changes about myself, and that’s not always comfortable – it’s easy to want to make change, it’s easy to make change…for once. Maybe twice. But sustained change so it becomes even beyond an ingrained habit – now that’s a demand that takes an effort. I’m preferring to think about it as a work in progress.

The other book is a work of fiction – and I have to say it could easily make an effort and write itself for once. I work and rework the ideas out in my head and then on to the screen – the results are stella – as in they make you want to reach for a beer. I guess like everything it’s a learnable skill. I’d just for once like to find something useful, valuable, and profitable to do that just flowed for me. Sadly it seems everything extracts a price – a learning curve – and a high tolerance for mediocrity and worse. Urgh! The novel and I are working out on an almost daily basis and in general I’m impressed with my paucity of fiction writing gifts.

I’ve added a few postings over at the Tea Garden, and I’ve gone a little further up the video editing/publishing curve as well. I find the collecting of stories is exceptionally interesting – I’d hoped the video recording would help capture more of the context – and it is good – but the incorporation of stills really enhances the material. And I like the stories people tell about themselves and their responses very much. I want to add more stories as soon as possible.

In the meantime I’ve also been taking myself off to life drawing. Yes, naked people. I’m slightly amazed at how good some of the drawings are – there’s a slight potential for likeness – that ever-elusive prey (from my perspective). I find somehow I can generally capture a reasonable image and magically – I simply don’t know how – suddenly my drawings fit on the page. It used to be that I needed to get tape and more paper because the models were bigger than the paper. Now, it’s nice. Thought: perhaps the models in Wellington are shorter. Or simply more experienced in the art of fitting on a page.

One of my work colleagues looked at my drawing book and asked, ‘Do you sketch the drawings before you put them in the book?’ He was amazed when I told him no, you just draw straight into the book. You get sudden success (or the unmentionable alternative). Nowhere to hide, what you see is what there is. And I suddenly realised that maybe my drawings had worked, he was amazed to think that someone (well, me, more to the point) could just draw the human form in a book. I started to look at my drawings in a new way myself – perhaps they aren’t too bad after all…

if joy is the engine…

Hillman Curtis on Creating Short Films for the Web (VOICES) - details from Amazon…then hope is the fuel. If I got nothing more from Hillman Curtis’s book, then perhaps that message is sufficient – although perhaps insufficient for the price. Creating short films for the web is less of a text on how to make film, or more precisely, video for the web; and more of a reflection of Curtis’s technique and processes, and what he thinks about it. In this respect, the book is good for the rank newbie – here’s someone who’s been there and done that – get the following gear and get on with it. The book is also good for the seasoned video maker – they no longer have to wrestle with the hardware etc, they might find the reflection on what works and what doesn’t more useful than a paint-by-numbers approach. For the person in between newbie and guru – I think the book isn’t intended for you – you need to grab your camera, sticks, mic, and go. Go make some video, get it up, get it on. Once you’ve got some practical experience (i.e. figured out what works, what doesn’t, and what difference makes a difference) then settling back and comparing notes would likely to prove useful. I liked some of Curtis’s reflections, agreed with some of his technical advice, and learned some valuable new ideas. Not bad for a nicely produced and very readable book.

let us prey

Yesterday, while doing my daily lunchtime writing, I was watching a gull and I began to wonder if the most successful species were omnivores. Gulls will eat most anything, and there’s lots of them. Kakapo are vegans, and there’s not many of them. Kiwi are carnivores and there’s not many of them. Is the reason why humans have been so successful because we, like gulls, will scarf down anything? Like gulls, we flock. Perhaps the edge we have over gulls is that we will cooperate more.

Other omnivores I could think of were sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. Heaps of them. Chimps, bonos – hmm not too many of them, but rats and mice, again, omnivores; and lots. I began to wonder about pests. What makes an animal, bird, or plant a pest? I decided the standard answers – along the lines of – a plant pest is one that grows fast, is hard to kill, reproduces easily, and is simply growing in the wrong place – was insufficent. What makes an animal pest is one that grows fast, is hard to kill, reproduces easily, and is simply living in the wrong place. And this is insufficient too.

Why? Cabbages grow fast, are hard(ish) to kill, they reproduce easily, and well, could be growing in the wrong place. Sheep grow fast, they’re sturdy, they breed like sheep do, and the only reason they aren’t in the wrong place is we farm them. A cabbage growing in the wrong place isn’t a huge worry. In fact, there’s never a wrong place for a cabbage because it’s on the way to the table, no matter what. No wonder the sheep are worried. A little minced lamb, a cabbage leaf to roll it in… dinner at 21:00…

And that was my clue. Here’s my new thoughts about what is a pest. While chimps are omnivores, as are rats, chimps have not mastered the ‘eat from the human table thing’. Rats have. Mice have. Sparrows, starlings and pigeons have. They’ve managed to get a food range from near what humans eat. They’ve hung out near the master omnivore, and they dine from our tables.

The reason why there are many ducks, chickens, sheep, cows, goats, pigs, and a few other species that are commonly on or near our tables is because – well, because they are on our tables. Anything that interferes with getting them on our tables is a pest. Simple as that. We go beyond out of our way to protect our food. The same applies to the vegetables we eat. We’ll do all kinds of madness to remove plants and insects using all kinds of chemicals not because they’re inherently evil, but because they compete with us for food. The nerve of them!

We tolerate dogs and cats, and other pets, sometimes because they help defend our food from the ‘pests’, or there’s some other pay off – the aesthetics of the singing canary for example. But for the most part, our ‘good books’ life forms are those who help defend OUR food e.g. the ladybird (yay) preys on aphids (boo). In our ‘bad books’, animals that eat our food e.g. cabbage caterpillars (boo) are preyed on by predatory wasps (hmmm wasps? – wait, they’re goodies – oh good – yay). We like labrador dogs (serve and protect), we don’t like hyenas (omnivores, yes, but altogether too sneaky, and they steal our food, or prey on OUR zebras).

Rain forest is a pest. Takes up the space of a cattle farm, a soya bean farm, a farm farm. Wetlands are a pest. Wild things are pests. It’s our planet, it’s all about us. If we can’t eat you, you better be entirely about dealing to whatever pest is standing between me and my food. Or you’re a pest, and be gone.

I wonder if this is a genuinely ‘human’ thing, or whether this is because of the Judeo-Christian perspective that God said humans will have dominion over everything. When we created God, it’d make sense to create a God that worked on our side in terms of what we eat. Otherwise God would be standing between us and our food. God would be a pest. Be gone. But luckily for God he was created in the image of humans, and therefore knew which side his bread was buttered on.

I think the ‘primative’ races created Gods that were often animal forms – and they worked with the people to ensure there weren’t pestilence in the land. Abundance, paucity according to the ebb and flow of the seasons; but rarely did another species stand between the human and their food. Other species were kind of neutral – and perhaps this is reflected in the broader based eating habits – most anything edible was in the food chain.

It doesn’t seem overly primative to me. Seems unusually sophisticated. But then I am the guy who watches gulls at lunchtime.

employee satisfaction / employee loyalty

Following on from writing about happiness at work (or the lack thereof), I was interested in a journal article by Kurt Matzler and Birgit Renzl in Total Quality Management (Vol 17, No. 10, 1261-1271, Dec 2006) entitled ‘The Relationship between Interpersonal Trust, Employee Satisfaction, and Employee Loyalty’.

Matzler and Renzl comment that employee satisfaction is considered to be one of the most important drivers of quality, customer satisfaction and productivity. Seems reasonable – a dissatisfied employee can effortlessly undermine quality, destroy customer satisfaction, and all while causing productivity levels to plummet. Most businesses carefully build an image with substantial investment in advertising and staff training, but few look beyond the superficial in terms of building the staff. No one I asked today had ever been asked by their employers something simple like ‘do you like working here?’ or ‘how can we do this better?’.

Matzler and Renzl argue that interpersonal trust (trust in management and trust in peers) is a strong driver of employee satisfaction, that it influences employee satisfaction, and as a consequence, employee loyalty. Their research confirmed a strong link between trust, employee satisfaction, and employee loyalty.

So, interpersonal trust. But how can it be built? I can recall attending one of those ghastly ‘team building’ weekends where we were supposed to do the fall backwards and trust the team to catch you. The CEO was watching a fly go by and dropped me. Sure, I learned to trust them – as in, I KNOW I can’t trust them…

Matzler and Renzl offer four ‘trust builders’ to promote interpersonal trust. First, trust can be fostered when managers and peers show trustworthy behaviours – they identify acting with discretion, consistency between word and deed, ensuring rich and frequent communication, engaging in collaborative communication, and ensuring decisions are fair and transparent.

Secondly, on an organisational level, hold people accountable for trust, and a shared vision and language.

Thirdly, on a relational level, creating personal connections and giving away something of value – eg willing to offer others one’s own network of contacts when appropriate. And finally, on an individual level, the disclosure of expertise and one’s own limitations increase trust. They also note knowledge sharing is an important driver of workplace trust.

It all seems reasonable. Could we build a team based on mutual trust – and if we did, would our team feel more satisfied? Happier? Be worth a try…