Thursday, May 03, 2007

Marxist Corporations (2/2) : Being Thankful and the Reputation Capital

Man thanking another manHaving read one too many stories about office dwellers robbed of their credit or about the rapid ascension of seemingly incompetent colleagues, I now realize that most of the self-anointed victims somehow failed to understand the notion of reputation as capital.

This is a long post so you may want to skip to the list of tips at the end. If you stick around, let us start with the classic notion of capitalism and apply it to the reputation built during our daily routine in a large corporation. From Wikipedia:
“…the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit, and in which investments, distribution, income, production and pricing of goods and services are determined through the operation of a market where all decisions regarding transfer of money, goods (including capital goods), and services are voluntary rather than by government…”
What makes reputation a capital? Complex products. The modern worker may still toil in dark engine rooms, but the production cycles have certainly become longer. A typical car may take 3 years to leave the drawing board and reach the assembly line, traditional software development cycles take anywhere between 1 and 2 years, software as a service iterates in a matter of weeks or months (though vaporware takes longer).

Labor output cannot be measured precisely in an environment where hundreds, or even thousands, of people contribute to the final result. Often people move to different assignments long before their contribution can be assessed. Ever more often, several layers of management insulate the reputation creditors from the people earning the reputation. It is in that lack of precision that reputation ceases to be an individual attribute to become a capital that can be traded in a market.

As you already learned through the years; goods in the reputation market can be traded for promotions, bonuses, or just permanence in the job during trying periods of organizational shuffling. This entry is not about how to raise that kind of capital; too many people write about it everyday, it is about the mechanics of that market.

...the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.
When you join any organization, you immediately have two bosses: the ethereal entity embodied by the management chain and your flesh-and-bone supervisor. Anyone who lands tasks on your desk and helps your boss assess your performance is your supervisor. Before you finish the snide rhetorical question about CEO’s, I’ll quip that CEOs have nor bosses nor the time to read blogs.

The supervisory chain is an alternative market where reputation is the currency. Complete an assignment on time and you earn some reputation; miss a deadline and you give back some of that reputation.

Senior employees responsible for the junior employees executing work under their supervision mechanically capitalize on that credit, holding some of it for them. No mischief, it just comes their way because, ultimately, they are responsible for the outcome of that work. So does reputation debit, a poor euphemism for blame.

Just like in a regular capital-based market, one can earn capital faster than others, by exploiting the labor of those who are willing to trade it for compensation below the actual value of their work. It should follow that a smart employee can accumulate reputation capital faster than his peers by taking credit for someone else’s work or capitalizing on a share of the reputation from individuals in the team. However unethical and questionable, and I do not endorse it, these are means to the end of building up reputation.

To the untrained eye, the above logic is a parking-lot-broken-antenna-badly-keyed-paint-job short of irrefutable, but the reputation capital is somewhat different from hard-cash in that sharing credit with someone in your team actually increases your overall reputation.

It will make you feel better too.

I once received advice on leading a happier life: be thankful for something, however irrelevant, at end of the day. Whether your toddler ate his meals without a fuss or your favorite music played on the radio on your way to work, close your eyes before you go to bed and be thankful for it.

Should such profound advice also be valid in our professional lives? Virtually nothing can be accomplished individually nowadays. The difficulties in our work should not be so overwhelming as to numb our senses to the contributions from those around us. However simple those contributions may seem - the coworker who lent you an ear after an elusive problem swallowed your whole morning and shared your enthusiasm after you found the solution - these are contributions.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization.
Marx anticipated communism as a natural evolution of mature capitalism. Unhindered by our karmic attachment to capital, universal sharing of the reputation capital is the natural evolution of the mature work environment.

Granted, human nature influences the way we share our credit with others. People fulfill their needs at different stages in life and it is not until they achieve the stage of growth needs that altruistic behavior takes root. At least not naturally, and that is why this entry should interest you as a leader: these values can be fostered. Share all of your credit in front of your superiors and team. Praise those who do the same. When someone completes a nice piece of work, ask them who they would thank the most for it.

When people feel pressured to take individual credit for their work, they become a breathing example of a dysfunctional organization. Whether the motivation is an ill-conceived attempt to improve ones standing or a self-defense move against an oblivious management chain, the team spirit suffers.

None of the above means that you should selflessly forgo whatever credit you may receive, the point is acknowledging contributions.

Maximizing your reputation capital

Some lessons learned across the years:
  • Be regular. Make a point of praising at least one person in your team to your supervisor or manager every day. If possible, have the person present.
  • Be specific. Highlight how the contribution helped you complete your work.
  • Be fair. Even someone in your bad list may eventually contribute something. Acknowledging a contribution from someone doesn't make you wrong or concede whatever other grievances you may have with the contributor (you should try and avoid those anyway) .
  • Spread a thankful culture: Always ask the presenter of an interesting piece of work about the contributors. A true team-player will not skip a beat before answering.

  • Beware of the heroes: No matter how indispensable someone might seem, they received help to get there. A hero is only worth praise when carried on the shoulders of his coworkers and not dragging a chain of unappreciated people on their wake. Refer back to "spread a thankful culture".
  • Acknowledge the intangible: Thank or compliment people for small improvements, like a well-written meeting agenda. You may want to be casual about it too.
  • Now this is important, be sincere. If you are sharing credit or paying compliments just to look good in front of others, you are doing it wrong. And it shows.
  • If you are accepting an award or a promotion, make a list of individual acknowledgments tailored to the time you will have to accept it. Save a time slice for general acknowledgments. If you are not ready to be sincere, thank people anyway at least out of professionalism; you are not awarded or promoted everyday and there is no point in looking like a jerk until the next opportunity comes (and keep working on not being a jerk afterwards) .

Barring the above advice, I can suggest staring at this wall poster every other day. If the poster does not work either, you can only hope life to be kind enoigh to land you for six months on a pathologically dysfunctional team.

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