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15Jun/090

7 Reasons Leaders Fail

I recently stumbled upon a great article on spring.org.uk entitled "7 Reasons Leaders Fail", that I will reproduce here. I'm sure you encounter this in your organisation if you are part of the "working ants" class but if you're a leader...pay attention.

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"Around two-thirds of workers say the most stressful aspect of their jobs is their immediate boss, their line manager (Hogan, 2006). While this will come as no surprise to most, this statistic suggests a massive number of unhappy working relationships. So, does this mean that leadership is failing on a massive scale? Well, not exactly...

A recent article published in American Psychologist beautifully explains why so many people experience their managers as piping hot geysers of stress (Vugt, Hogan & Kaiser, 2008). What emerges is that bosses aren't inherently bad people (mostly), but that the modern culture of work sets them up to fail. Here are the seven main reasons I've picked out from this article for why leaders fail:

1. Strict hierarchies.

For Mark Van Vugt of the University of Kent and colleagues a large part of the problem with many modern organisations is their hierarchies. Leaders are at the top of the chain and are assumed to have all the answers, so they make most of the decisions. In reality knowledge and expertise is spread across people in organisations. But it's the leaders who must be seen to lead and so followers get frustrated because their superior knowledge and expertise is frequently ignored. This leads to:

2. Poor decision-making.

Leaders often don't make any better decisions than followers, and frequently make worse ones. This is another consequence of strict hierarchies. Rather than setting up leaders to fail, Van Vugt et al. (2008) argue it's better to agree that leaders are not always the best people to make the decisions. Spreading the responsibility around, or using more participatory strategies for decision-making is often more effective. But this isn't the way things generally work, part of the problem is:

3. Huge pay differentials.

Followers often hate their leaders because of the huge difference in their salaries. It's hard to feel any sympathy for someone whose pay is stratospheric (average CEO pay is 179 times that of average workers). And, because more pay means more status, leaders can quickly come to believe they really deserve the God-like status their pay suggests, resulting in their thinking they have all the answers and that they have the right to treat their employees less than fairly. In the bosses' defence, though, there are:

4. Impossible standards for leaders.

Perhaps because of the huge pay and incredible demands, followers expect their leaders to be almost superhuman. The leadership literature identifies a whole range of personal qualities thought important for a good leader. These include integrity, persistence, humility, competence, decisiveness and being able to inspire the troops. While a leader may be high on one or two of these, they are unlikely to have the full set. Followers are almost bound to be disappointed by what is, after all, another fallible human who is just trying to:

5. Climb the greasy pole.

If the boss is nice to you, it's a bonus, because it's not required for them to get on in the organisation. Leaders are promoted by those higher than them, not those below them - so it's only necessary for bosses to impress their bosses. This is a recipe for disaffection amongst the followers. Talking of which, forget the psychology of leadership, what do we know about the:

6. Psychology of followership?

One of the best points Van Vugt et al. make is that although it's leadership that has been most extensively studied and discussed, most of us end up as followers. So really the psychology of followership is more important than leadership. What is it that makes us follow someone else? And, more subversively: do we need leaders? For example, some research shows that when people know what they're doing, they resent having leadership imposed on them. Generally, though, there's little known about followership, and how to avoid:

7. Alienation.

As a result of the strict hierarchies, huge pay differentials, poor decision-making, greasy-pole climbing and feeling powerless to change huge bureaucracies, followers naturally develop feelings of alienation, and alienation kills motivation and productivity, along with any hope of job satisfaction.

Talk is cheap

By implication the way to rectify these perceived problems is to do the reverse. Don't instigate rigid hierarchies, discourage huge pay differentials, democratise decision-making and don't set impossible standards for leaders. Some organisations are already managing this - presumably those in which followers don't find their bosses the biggest sources of stress - but most are not.

Of course talk is cheap and recognising the problem is quite different to knowing what to do about it, or having the courage to do it. Anyone wanting to make these types of changes across an organisation would have to be a really great leader - and there are truly few of those around.

What do you think?

Do you recognise these problems in your organisation? Has anyone tried to do anything about it? Are there other major reasons leaders fail?"

26May/091

Burnout

Web professionals are often expected to be “always on”—always working, absorbing information, and honing new skills. Unless our work and personal lives are carefully balanced, however, the physical and mental effects of an "always on" life can be debilitating.

It's taken me the better part of a year to finish writing this article, and the reasons it took that long are tied directly to the topic at hand. If anything, the last year has made it clear that we as an industry are facing increased levels of stress, illness, and exhaustion. Having learned a few things from my own battle with exhaustion and burnout, I hope they’ll benefit others who are now or may eventually be in the same situation.

Burnout: running on empty

Burnout is a psychological response to “long-term exhaustion and diminished interest,” and may take months or years to bubble to the surface. First defined by American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1972, burnout is “a demon born of the society and times we live in and our ongoing struggle to invest our lives with meaning.” He goes on to say that burnout “is not a condition that gets better by being ignored. Nor is it any kind of disgrace. On the contrary, it’s a problem born of good intentions.” Another description in New York Magazine calls burnout "a problem that's both physical and existential, an untidy conglomeration of external symptoms and personal frustrations."

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

During his research, Freudenberger and his associate, Gail North, developed a simple outline to describe how otherwise healthy individuals can burn out, the key being that people may experience several or all phases, though not necessarily in a specific order.

The identified phases, several of which I bet sound familiar, are:

* A compulsion to prove oneself
* Working harder
* Neglecting one’s own needs
* Displacement of conflict (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
* Revision of values (friends, family, hobbies, etc., are dismissed)
* Denial of emerging problems (cynicism, aggression, and frustration become apparent)
* Withdrawal from social contexts, potential for alcohol or drug abuse
* Behavioral changes become more visible to others
* Inner emptiness
* Depression
* Burnout syndrome (including suicidal thoughts and complete mental and physical collapse) [2]

It's important to note that burnout is not the same as depression, though there are shared characteristics that blur the distinction; burnout can be brought on by fits of depression or may lead to depression itself.

My own head-on collision with burnout came at the end of 2007. In the year since, my focus has changed and I’ve become extremely conscious—and protective—of the balance I need in my life. Here's what I've learned.

How it happens

Burnout doesn’t happen without stress. Characterized as being "too much" of something, stress may come from too many meetings, projects, responsibilities, unrealistic deadlines, improperly set expectations, distractions, or any number of other things prevalent in our hyper-connected world. Stress is not crippling in and of itself, but we each have limits, and once those limits are reached, we can find ourselves teetering on the brink of burnout.

Although burnout is primarily a work-related illness caused by an imbalance in an individual’s personal goals, ideals, and needs as related to their job, stresses and factors outside the workplace can also contribute to the problem by wearing down emotional defenses.

You may be flirting with burnout if:

* Every day is a bad day
* You are no longer emotionally invested in your job or the work you’re doing
* You feel unappreciated or do not feel like you’re making a difference in your job
* There is a clear disconnect between your personal values and what is expected of you
* Self-defined goals or those imposed on you are unrealistic or unreasonable
* A significant amount of your day is focused on tasks that are not fulfilling on a personal or emotional level

Ultimately, burnout results from a lack of equilibrium. When you lose your balance, physically, you fall over. Burnout is very similar, except that once you’re down, it can be a real challenge to get back up.

How to recover from (or prevent) burnout

The first and most important step in preventing or recovering from burnout is to recognize the problem and objectively survey your situation.

* What are the stressors in your life?
* Are there aspects of your job that do not align with your personal goals and values?
* Are you not doing the type of work you enjoy? Are your own measures of success realistic?
* Are you really engaged in the work you’re doing, or are you just overloaded?

These same questions can help you restore your internal balance without going as far as changing jobs or careers, which is rarely a realistic option. Burnout doesn’t have to be a career killer, but it can be if left untreated.

Stop (or at least slow down)

If you’re working 50 or more hours a week, cut that number to the bare minimum. If possible, use up your sick days, work from home one day a week, and take a vacation or a leave of absence to give yourself the time needed to decompress, reflect, and reconnect. Sabbaticals are gaining acceptance in our industry, and even one day outside of your normal routine can help prevent burnout or get on the right track to push through it.

The point being: take yourself out of the problem for as long as you can realistically afford to.

Communicate

When in doubt, talk.

Seek counsel and support from family, friends, and industry peers, or consider more formal coaching, possibly through a local business network or wellness center.

In my case, my wife recognized my burnout before I did, and helped me find a local business coach who understood client demands in the creative realm and the pressures of operating a small business. The time spent reflecting on how I got to where I was at the end of 2007 was invaluable, and has been the catalyst for the many changes I’ve made since.

Set boundaries and expectations

The days of the 9-to-5 job are gone and the boundaries between work and home are blurred to the point of non-existence. We're expected to be available nearly all the time, and the problem is often exacerbated for freelancers or anyone who works primarily from a home office where the only divide between being “at home” and being “at work” is a single door or a flight of stairs.

It’s not a badge of honor to work 80 hours a week or to answer e-mail or to Twitter at all hours of the night. Ask yourself: Have you set sufficient boundaries between your job and your life outside of work? Are you guarding those boundaries?

Although clients may choose to leave you messages and send e-mail at all hours, it’s up to you to set expectations about your responsiveness. As soon as you leave yourself open to responding to e-mails at 10 o’clock at night, you set a precedent that can be hard to take back.

Sleep. More.

The world is a much smaller place now than it's ever been. Information is at our fingertips whenever we want it and wherever we happen to be. Time zones blur, allowing us to work with clients in the same city as easily as those on the other side of the world. But we still need sleep, and we rarely get enough.

Sleep gives our brains a chance to work out problems and process the information we’ve absorbed throughout the day. Even if you can function on four or five hours of sleep, how much better would you function on seven or eight hours? Even though the 9-to-5 work day is history, there’s no reason work should extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Create a daily routine

It’s not unusual for creative types to do their best work at the same time every day. By this I mean that it’s important to follow our own circadian rhythms. Hemingway began writing every morning at dawn and explained his choice this way: “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.”

The same system often works well for designers or developers. Do your most important work (or the work requiring the greatest focus) during that time when you’re most energized and have the fewest distractions. Use the rest of your working hours to solve secondary problems or gather information that will fuel the next productive sprint.

Make time for numero uno

Whether you’re treading water or already below the surface, making time for yourself is critical. It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of bosses or clients and leave precious little time for your own needs.

Spending time with family, friends, or your personal interests may provide the fulfillment you don’t get at work. So get out. Go to a museum or an art gallery. Go to the library or a concert. Get some exercise. Play. Make time for what makes you happy, and guard that time fervently.

Examine your values, goals, and measures of success

Know thyself, but be gentle. What are you passionate about? How do you evaluate yourself against expectations placed on you by managers and clients, and the work you’re doing? Are those measures grounded in reality? Are your personal development goals being met by the type of work you are doing? Are you feeling too much pressure from unrealistic demands or those that go against your values? What frustrates you?

Simply connecting with things that matter to you can provide perspective. Although burnout is a miserable experience, it can also be a great opportunity for personal growth and discovery.

Focus

Good work requires focus.

Focus might mean restricting your access to e-mail, IM, Twitter, and Facebook, or turning off your cell phone. Modern communication conveniences provide a valuable social connection to the outside world, but they can also destroy concentration and clarity.

Change your situation

Although changing careers is usually not an option, there’s plenty you can do to make your job more engaging and fulfilling.

Change departments, learn a new skill, or simply focus more on the things you’re good at, and that make you happy.

Offload responsibilities that are not fulfilling or that are not part of your core job function. If you’re a designer, focus on design, not on day-to-day accounting. If you’re a developer, focus on building great applications, not on client hand-holding. If you’re a freelancer, shake up your routine—and whenever possible, bring in additional help on the parts of projects that you don’t enjoy or that someone else could do better.

Changing your situation could be as easy as changing desks: If you work at home, spend more time at a local coffee shop or bookstore that has free wifi. If you work in a more traditional office, change desks or spend time in another part of the office.

Rely on a good process

The reason we have processes is so that we can focus on getting things done, not on wondering what to do next.

If you don’t have a good work process, get one. Talk to your peers, read up on the topic, and see what processes others use. Experiment and find out what works for you. If you already have a process that you think works, scrutinize it, clarify it, and simplify it as much as possible.

Educate your clients on your processes, follow them yourself, and ensure that everyone you work with understands the consequences of failing to complete deliverables or meet deadlines.

Regaining your balance

When you’re burned out, you know it. You can feel it and taste it, but in order to get past, it you have to acknowledge it and fight to restore your internal equilibrium. Stop, decompress, communicate, and focus. That process often begins with a look inward to learn what gives your life balance, such as family, friends, personal interests, and hobbies—the things that counterbalance your life on the web.

Your life should be just that—a life; if your waking hours are entirely consumed by work, or if you’re unfocused and inattentive to your own needs, burnout will be waiting at every turn.

By Scott Boms

18May/090

Programming is like sex

  • One mistake and you have to support it for the rest of your life. (Michael Sinz)
  • Once you get started, you'll only stop because you're exhausted.
  • It often takes another experienced person to really appreciate what you're doing.
  • Conversely, there's some odd people who pride themselves on their lack of experience.
  • You can do it for money or for fun.
  • If you spend more time doing it than watching TV, people think you're some kind of freak.
  • It's not really an appropriate topic for dinner conversation.
  • There's not enough taught about it in public school.
  • It doesn't make any sense at all if you try to explain it in strictly clinical terms.
  • Some people are just naturally good.
  • But some people will never realize how bad they are, and you're wasting your time trying to tell them.
  • There are a few weirdos with bizarre practices nobody really is comfortable with.
  • One little thing going wrong can ruin everything.
  • It's a great way to spend a lunch break.
  • Everyone acts like they're the first person to come up with a new technique.
  • Everyone who's done it pokes fun at those who haven't.
  • Beginners do a lot of clumsy fumbling about.
  • You'll miss it if it's been a while.
  • There's always someone willing to write about the only right way to do things.
  • It doesn't go so well when you're drunk, but you're more likely to do it.
  • Sometimes it's fun to use expensive toys.
  • Other people just get in the way.
  • You can do it alone, but it's even better in a group
18May/090

Life as a programmer

"You know, when you have a program that does something really cool, and you wrote it from scratch, and it took a significant part of your life, you grow fond of it. When it's finished, it feels like some kind of amorphous sculpture that you've created. It has an abstract shape in your head that's completely independent of its actual purpose. Elegant, simple, beautiful. Then, only a year later, after making dozens of pragmatic alterations to suit the people who use it, not only has your Venus-de-Milo lost both arms, she also has a giraffe's head sticking out of her chest and a cherubic penis that squirts colored water into a plastic bucket. The romance has become so painful that each day you struggle with an overwhelming urge to smash the fucking thing to pieces with a hammer." - Nick Foster ("Life as a programmer")

23Apr/092

The truth about working in the IT industry

1. We work weird (night) shifts…
Just like prostitutes.

2. They pay you to make the client happy…
Just like a prostitute.

3. The client pays a lot of money, but your employer keeps almost every penny…
Just like a prostitute.

4. You are rewarded for fulfilling the client’s dreams…
Just like a prostitute.

5. Your friends fall apart and you end up hanging out with people in the same profession as you…
Just like a prostitute.

6. When you have to meet the client you always have to be perfectly groomed…
Just like a prostitute.

7. But when you go back home it seems like you are coming back from hell…
Just like a prostitute.

8. The client always wants to pay less but expects incredible things from you…
Just like a prostitute.

9. When people ask you about your job, you have difficulties to explain it…
Just like a prostitute.

10. Everyday when you wake up, you say: “I’m not going to spent the rest of my life doing this.”
Just like a prostitute ….