You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Can We Talk?

Difficult topics, difficult times. It’s getting hotter out there. Is real conversation still possible?

A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal got me thinking about that. It’s by Amanda Ripley, entitled: America, Meet America: Getting Past Our Toxic Partisanship (6/30/17). The author offers a powerful viewpoint on making peace with each other through interaction, in essence, the widened use of “exchange programs” like some of us experienced in high school or college. In many ways the premise is optimistic, even idealistic. People who have direct relationships with each other tend to be kinder to each other and less likely to be outright dismissive of ideological differences.

I don’t think it is impossible for us tolerate each other’s differences in the abstract. The problem I see comes with the common allocation of shared resources. When we all pool our dollars into a fund, especially when we are compelled to do so by a tax system, we are likely to have ardent disagreements about how those dollars should be used. That’s when personal philosophy becomes policy, and policy as a matter of democracy is less about consensus than it is about majority opinion. That as we know can be ugly, messy, and leave seeds of resentment, because legislative action transpires on current majorities, but policies once adopted can be difficult to unwind.

The problem with compromise is that it does not bridge values. If some people think universal healthcare is a civil right and some don’t, and we all have to pay for it, I don’t think there is a common worldview that bridges our differences. Same with a woman’s right to choose. That means we all become subject to prevailing law, like it or not, unless we wish to break the bounds of prevailing law, which inordinately few would ever consider reasonable. Again this is the sausage making of nightmares. No one stays happy for long, and bitterness has a compounding effect that is exacerbated by social media shorthand and abrupt defensiveness.

Where does that leave us? Pragmatism suggests we need coping mechanisms or we become frozen. I think that means we will find comfort in our own circles and collectives. We will begin to ignore rather than constantly confront our opponents and try to sweep hostility under the rug in tending to our lives. What it also means is that the rage is likely to fester, and while it may be convenient to leave well enough alone, it probably means lost opportunity in real unity. Does that mean the U.S will lose global leadership economically and in championing democracy? Yes, I think that’s inevitable. We can’t do big, important things together if we hate each other. We can visit each other and learn to tolerate each other, but commonality of purpose has to be built upon a majority of shared values. It has to be authentic. It can’t be feigned.

We are making this choice implicitly by agreeing that noble compromise on certain issues of shared resources is simply not honest or acceptable. We can share roads and bridges across red and blue lines until they crumble, and it will take all the statesmanship we have just to keep noncontroversial initiates functional. To think we can continue to do more than that is not terribly sensible. Thus we all lose together, which is probably the proper outcome of this dialectic.

We have been doing some work of late at The Good Men Project that is perhaps itself idealistic. Over the past six months we have expended our subscription service, also known as our premium membership program, to include telephone conference calls on difficult topics. We bring together people of varying opinions into what we call Social Interest Groups, assign a moderator, and allow people to engage across geographic, demographic, and ideological lines to learn from each other. The beta test has been so successful our staff is deploying an Indiegogo campaign to see if they can double or even triple the number of subject offerings and group leaders who are paid a nominal fee for planning the discussions and keeping them on track week to week.

I think the project is notable if for no other reason than it celebrates excellent conversation. I’ve suggested on more than one occasion to GMP CEO Lisa Hickey that I think conversation is one of the few high value products we lose over time that is remarkably difficult to commercialize. You remember good conversation, right? Oh, how we miss those long talks with friends and acquaintances about our favorite book, the reasons we go to war, and on wild tangents the meaning of life. What if those conversations could continue in our lives, with new topics and new participants, scheduled periodically for easy attendance, each episode self-contained but the connecting episodes serialized for those who have the time? We thought that might be an interesting way to bridge the divide. Maybe we are optimists at heart.

Lisa calls The Good Men Project a “participatory media company” because the content is written by the community and personal interaction within the community is what makes it distinct. We tend not to think of online commenting as the be-all and end-all of social interaction, particularly when it is anonymous. Rather we like the idea of people talking and listening about a complex subject, then thinking about it for a week and returning to talk about it some more. The participation is authentic, and while a certain amount of curation is imposed to maintain editorial standards, we are happiest when we are surprised by learning something we didn’t know before the participatory moment.

We also like to think that civility is best achieved through respect, which occurs less through the editorial funnel than it does from exemplary human behavior. Okay, so it can function as a sort of student exchange program. Maybe real dialogue is possible. Maybe inspirational conversation isn’t completely dead. I’d be going overboard if I suggested there might be a big idea here that could circumvent the festering rage that is destroying us, but hey, a good verbal chat each week certainly can’t hurt things.

The product is conversation. The value is a bit of connection and a bit of joy through sharing and compassion. I hope this experiment is a beginning. If we don’t find some way to talk to each other, the dark consequences seem as obvious as they are unavoidable.

You Call This a Loyalty Program?

Try this episode on for size and tell me how it makes you feel about the brand:

I recently logged into one of my hotel loyalty accounts where I had amassed several hundred thousand points. That is, I thought I did. All my points were gone. Apparently this chain has a policy that deletes all your points if you don’t stay at one of their properties for a year. Did they send me a courtesy email reminding me I needed to stay there toward the end of the twelve-month lapse? They did not.

I called customer service and they recited the policy back to me, willing to say farewell to a customer who had paid the freight to accumulate several hundred thousand points in its loyalty program, just not in the past 14 months.

Then I tweeted my complaint about the forfeited points publicly. A few hours later whoever runs the company’s Twitter account tweeted back publicly that the company was very sorry for the situation and dedicated to my satisfaction. The Twit-master asked that I send a private tweet to follow up, which I did. Then we moved the correspondence to email.

I was then told that the company had a one-time exception to the policy where points could be reinstated, but that had already been done for me approximately 13 years ago. Silly how I could have forgotten their grace. However, they said that in an attempt to reinstate my customer satisfaction, they would restore half my forfeited points now and the other half if I agreed to stay at their properties at least three times in the next six months. I wrote back that it sounded a bit ridiculous to be playing Let’s Make a Deal – Loyalty Edition with them, but I would agree because, well, why not?

To their credit, they did return half my points upon receipt of our “written agreement” in that email thread, and I have booked one stay with them. I just wonder, is this what they really set out to accomplish in developing their loyalty program? Is it a loyalty program at all, or just a rewards program that effectively gives me a rebate on what I spend provided I do it on their timetable?

If you give me a reward for my business, then take it away because I didn’t precisely follow your rules, then give it back conditionally with an expectation that somehow I have become pleased by our interaction, how has this helped me as a customer or you as a business? It’s a quid pro quo. I don’t think a quid pro quo has anything to do with loyalty.

When I think about loyalty, I think about preference. When I think about preference, I think about what brand comes first to mind when I need a particular item or service. I choose that brand for a host of reasons, for the totality of my experience with the brand.

I prefer to fly Alaska Airlines because they tend to treat me better as a human being, so I am loyal to them. I am also a member of their loyalty program, but that has very little to do with my loyalty. The way we interact all the time has to do with my loyalty. There is a consistency in my interaction with their airline personnel whether I am flying in coach or upgraded to first class, whether I bought a discount or full-fare ticket. That consistency is what creates loyalty.

I prefer to shop at REI for sporting gear because they are patient with me when I come to their stores not knowing nearly as much about hiking or biking shoes as they do, and when I leave it is with the right pair of shoes. I am also a member of their co-op because that is required to shop in the store, and I get a member rebate every year, but that is not why I am loyal. I am loyal because when I am on a trail or in spin class and my shoes are comfortable, I remember how great they were about helping me get the exact fit and charging me nothing more for their time.

I don’t prefer the hotel chain that gave me back half my points now with a contingent promise for half my points later. We have a transactional relationship based on price and location. I wouldn’t seek them out. I could, but they have given me no reason. Now when I think of them I think of my Let’s Make a Deal experience rather than any experience staying under their roof. That’s sad.

Maybe the problem is terminology. Maybe there is no such thing as a loyalty program. Maybe they are all just rewards programs masquerading as loyalty programs. That’s kind of a punt when you think about it. We could design a loyalty program that involved every point of customer interaction to ensure your satisfaction, but heck, that would be hard, why don’t you just take these points instead and we’ll play like we’re loyal to each other even when we know, wink-wink, we couldn’t care less about each other. It’s a bed and bathroom and points if you follow our rules, so come here at least every twelve months and someday maybe you can cash in those points for a standard room on the house. Maybe, if we have availability, certain restrictions apply.

I recently attended an e-commerce industry conference where at more than one session I heard the phrase, “There is no customer loyalty, consumers only care about price.” If this cynical statement is true, then I wonder why we have marketing departments at all. Don’t believe it. All customers are not automatons who solely focus on what’s cheapest.

Brands are not dead. A brand is a promise. Brands compete on price, quality, and service. If a company wants my loyalty it is there to be won, like Alaska Air and REI. If a company wants to make it about points and rules, that’s something else, and yes, in that scenario why should there be customer loyalty?

You get what you give. Since you’re selling and I’m buying you get to go first. You want my loyalty, show me yours. You want my loyalty, enter into a brand-customer relationship with me. You want to make it about points, if you piss me off I’ll dump you at the next possible off-ramp.

Loyalty is hard to win. It should be, because it’s valuable. That’s why the great brands think in terms of lifetime value rather than rules. If I have to publicly embarrass you with a tweet to get your attention, you don’t care about me a hoot, especially when you just had me on the phone. Think about that the next time a company penalizes you for breaking its loyalty rules. Those are stupid rules. You don’t need the points that badly, and if you don’t prefer the brand, you sure don’t need its crappy rewards program.

_____

Image: Stefan Hatos – Monty Hall Productions

Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Godspeed, Barack Obama

obama-farewell

I found President Obama’s farewell speech magnificent. Maybe he did divide the nation. So did Abraham Lincoln. On matters of principle it’s necessary to force us to face our lesser selves. Social justice, inequality, racial bias, healthcare as a human right, healing our polluted planet, science and data as benchmarks, yeah, those are divisive issues that need to be in our faces.

Where he divided us on the what, he will be a historic figure in the continuum of our empathy — as he said, this is a process and we’re not where we need to be. Where he divided us on the how, I have empathy for the lines where we split — that is political and he is admittedly imperfect, driving us to carry the torch to fix the unsolved problems of implementation.

We should disagree, but not as much about the what as the how. It’s healthy to divide on the how until thesis and antithesis resolve in synthesis. Where we can disagree respectfully on matters of resource allocation, we can commit to working together toward compromise. Where we shouldn’t disagree on matters of fairness and sustainability, we must continue to grow as a nation and people.

Barack Obama leaves office loved by many not just within our borders, but in the global community where he is a welcomed traveler. That kind of passion is extraordinary. His style is content. He is embraced as an ambassador of authenticity, positive change, and achieving complex goals. He reminds us what we can be if we set the bar higher than we can ever imagine.

Among those of us who feel this sense of love, our admiration is heartfelt and has been earned. Love is about inspiration and aspiration. Love causes us to care more, work harder, and believe in a call to service. We know this because we have lived it together, guided by his leadership, knowing we are part of something that has mattered and will continue to matter.

On this Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday, it is my true joy to say the only words I know that express my pride, admiration, and humble gratitude to the outgoing President of the United States: Thank You. His courage, his life example, his visionary contribution to our world may not be repeated in my lifetime. To have shared these eight years with him from afar has reminded me that hope is possible, good deeds are possible, one person’s life can forever make a difference for the better in the legacy of selflessness.

I don’t think I have ever been more inspired to thought and action than I have by this man. He will forever be in my heart. He makes me want to spend my remaining years trying even harder to help lift humanity a tiny inch higher.

Yes, we can.

Do You Want My Opinion?

dilbert-feedbackIt’s a new year. With another trip around the sun completed and ahead, we mortals often go to our cabinets to withdraw the long-procrastinated projects we someday hope to deploy. In that revitalized spirit of invention, people often ask me for my opinion on this or that idea. Often it’s a start-up business idea. Sometimes it’s an investment opportunity. Occasionally it’s a request for feedback on a manuscript. I’m sure you’ve been asked to be a sounding board for similar notions and found yourself in a similarly awkward situation.

“Hey, mind if I bounce something off you?”

I usually respond, “Why do you ask?”

You may ask yourself, Why does he ask the question “Why do you ask?”

My question to your question is born of its own overarching question: Do you really want feedback, or do you just want me to tell you that what you are pitching is wonderful?

Yeah, you’ve been there. It’s a tough place to be, because it’s impossible to be sure what the other person is actually seeking. Is the seeker in need of a boost of self-esteem, where anything critical you offer is likely to triple that person’s therapy bills and end a rebound before it finds form? Is the pitch-person stealth-seeking your financial commitment, where any positive response on your behalf will be followed by a deal memo solicitation at a valuation that would make the Uber people blush? Is the ask truly heartfelt but the work so early and unedited that it could be more harmed than helped by a random response?

It’s not easy to offer an opinion on someone else’s work. Way more can go wrong than can go right.

I tend to find that most people who ask for my opinion don’t really want feedback. They want validation. If you’ve partaken in-depth of the creative process, you know they aren’t the same. Validation is net neutral. Feedback can save your ass.

What do I mean by that?

Validation is a bifurcated switch. If I say the work is good, you’ve heard all you need to hear. If I say I don’t think it’s good, you’ve heard exactly what you didn’t want to hear. The effect is net neutral because either way I have added no value to your project. If I say it’s good, so what? You already thought it was good or you wouldn’t have shown it to me, so I’ve done nothing but increased your standing bias. That takes you nowhere you couldn’t have gone without me. If I say it’s bad, we may no longer be friends, not because I don’t want to be friends but by being honest (even if diplomatic) I have likely hurt your feelings. There isn’t much positive energy that can follow.

If feedback is what you seek and I have any grounded expertise to offer, then perhaps we have a place to go together. That feedback is almost certainly going to be nuanced (“this part makes some sense, that part not so much”) but it has to come your way without consequence to me or expectation of a secondary agenda that involves me. If I want to get involved, I promise I will let you know, but the act of giving you feedback should be reward in itself. That means you have to enter into the feedback discussion with an openness to critique solely because you want your idea to improve, or perhaps decide instead you don’t want to waste any more time on it. There can be no ulterior motives or it’s not feedback, it’s evaluation. I don’t want to evaluate your work. That’s your job, not mine.

As an author, I seek feedback constantly. When I draft something, I always go out for feedback from a broad sample of demographics. When I get good feedback it can be life-changing, because anything that I have missed and you found I can fix. Is it painful? It’s horribly painful. Yet even worse than negative feedback is the silence of no feedback from someone who said they would offer it. That tells me with uncanny certainty that I have failed to connect with their voice. Do I regret asking? Never for a moment.

As much as we dread feedback, we actually should cherish it, because it is the only path from mediocrity to something that matters. The creative process is laden with setbacks, but each time we find a nugget of corrective action, we can improve. That’s what makes the creative process both daunting and healing. It is the reality of success quantified one fix at a time. It’s never fun to edit away what doesn’t work, but that’s how innovation at its finest evolves. There are no shortcuts. If you ask, be sure you want to listen for the answer. It may not be pleasant, like medicine, but hopefully it makes us better one way or another, if it’s the right medicine.

Most people don’t know how to give useful feedback, especially tough feedback that can help us improve our thinking or channel it to more productive ends. Words of validation or invalidation are relatively easy to render and equally useless. Offering consistently constructive feedback is an art. Be careful whom you ask to help you, or you can really go astray.

If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it. If you ask for it, don’t be defensive when you get it. If you don’t ask for it, you probably will never reach your potential. If you do embrace it, you can make a small idea become a big idea. A big idea becomes something tangible when we add the necessary recourses and fight past the objections readily available from amateurs. Those who embrace feedback are resilient by nature. There is power in vulnerability. Embrace it, and the sky is the limit.

Do you still want my opinion? I don’t mind if you say no, but if you ask carefully, I’ll try to answer in the same honest spirit.

# # #

Author’s End Note: It’s been hard to write about anything other than Trump the past year. I am still aghast at what has happened, but I am forcing myself back into more diverse subject matter as sanity demands. With my third book now in first draft and about to go into the editing process, I find my love of words never more pronounced, but never more conflicted. It’s hard to write about normal subjects in a world where nothing I once considered normal ever will be again. It is impossible to think about characters more outrageous than the strange ones emerging on the stage of reality. Regardless, I am committed to diversifying my output in continuing this creative journey we began together. I’ll still write about Trump when I must, but I promise you I will pursue more interesting material, if only to prove that he hasn’t won. Stay with me, and I’ll stay with you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Politically Incorrect Is Harder Than You Think

Lenny BruceThere’s something eerie about the Facebook world-view, which challenges us to live publicly out loud, to reveal ourselves globally and without filters, as we communicate in real-time our every thought and action, trivial or serious.

Mark Zuckerberg, at a relatively young age, has suggested the world will be a better place if we live more open lives, if we have no fears about what is private and what is public about us.

That’s quite a counterintuitive notion given our past, and one that has made him enormously wealthy in its adoption at various levels among a billion or so human beings across every settled zone of Planet Earth. Curiously, I find the thundering rhetoric around the U.S. Presidential Election has taken some of that “openness ideal” into the still largely uncharted territory of political correctness.

Here are two opposing views in the argument:

Am I being unnaturally confined if I allow myself to be restricted by a set of language norms accepted broadly as being politically correct?

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Am I a more authentic person for saying whatever is on my mind absent artificially imposed rules somehow intended to protect the feelings of others but violating my first amendment rights?

Now consider the underlying question: Are these two viewpoints in fact diametrically opposed? Is someone a hypocrite if in public he speaks politely and without offensive language, yet out of the public eye makes racist slurs among friendlies? Or is that individual living more candidly by saying whatever is on his mind via stream of consciousness as long as his expressions align with his actual belief sets?

Said another way, if someone isn’t particularly sympathetic to embracing social diversity, are we as a society better off with that potentially upsetting speech articulated or kept silent? Those trying to stomp out political correctness might suggest we all are better off saying whatever is on our minds, but I am going to suggest that this has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness. Bigotry is bigotry. Political correctness does not ensure civility when it is unwillingly imposed; it simply masks a dangerous expression from public view in the name of conflict avoidance.

Of course all of us have the ultimate hypocritical alternative: to speak cordially in public bound by understood norms of political correctness but then go hog-wild and say what we want anonymously online no matter how vile it is, convincing ourselves that hiding in the shadows as we spew is further entitlement in our right to free speech. To his credit, Zuckerberg mostly solved this by requiring Facebook posts to be signed under true identities, but, as we know, if you want to spew, Facebook is not the only game in town.

If you believe a wall should be built between the U.S. and Mexico, then go ahead and say it, but don’t think you have beaten political correctness by blurting that out. I don’t think the wall should be built. I feel in no way restricted by political correctness. I am comfortable saying what’s on my mind and I also find it pretty easy not to be offensive or threatening in my remarks. If you think the wall should be built but are filtering your public opinion because of the chokehold political correctness has around your vocabulary, you are deceiving yourself. Political correctness is not your problem. Your unwillingness to come clean publicly on your controversial stance is your problem. No one can liberate you by removing the filter. You are what you stand for, no matter what you say, and when you say what you stand for, you are no better than what you are saying.

Perhaps we are we missing the point of why political correctness was challenged in the first place. Being politically incorrect and saying whatever flows from your lips no matter how hurtful it might be are not the same thing, not even close. It is critical that we put in context where the modern politically incorrect movement began, long before it was labeled. It was a reaction by comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor to exposing the hypocrisy of what was said behind your back, not in front of your face. To twist that into an intolerant free-for-all that justifies hurtful speech or even hate speech, is the opposite of what these language pioneers set out to accomplish.

There was a time in this nation, largely the second half of the 20th century, when it was brave to say the unsayable because someone was trying to discourage hate, not justify it. Here’s what Lenny said:

“Every group every system has a set of values and morals, and when you get outside those, then the alarms ring. I was politically incorrect to 95% of the country; luckily my 5% had the bread to come see me.”

Lenny also said:

“Freedom of speech is a two-way street, man. You have a right to say whatever you want and the Boss has a right to tell people to arrest you.”

Compare that to the recent words of Presidential candidate Trump:

“I don’t frankly have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

And more recently from Trump:

“And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African-Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”

Is it fair to compare a groundbreaking stand-up comic from a half century ago with the current GOP candidate for President of the United States? Probably not, but if you don’t see a difference in how each of them applies the need to speak freely to make a point, we probably aren’t going to agree on when it is justified and makes sense. In Lenny’s case, he is embracing irony to open our eyes to self-awareness. In Trump’s case, he is playing to disenfranchisement to stir up resentment.

Bill Maher called his original show Politically Incorrect to make a point about the absurdities of covering up hypocrisy with language. He has offended many, and he is anything but always right in his opinions, but his intention is to make us think harder about what we say and do. If you have a point to make in the name of a lightning rod that takes us to better thinking  like Lenny, like George, like Richard — have at it, but be ready to suffer the consequences of being misunderstood if your point is not clear. Samantha Bee is doing an amazing job carrying the torch now. She is hugely politically incorrect and a beacon of light, afraid of nothing. All of these people carry a core message of love. If you carry a core message of love and have something to say that makes me work harder at understanding my failings, have at it, but don’t think you’re doing me any favors by calling me one name behind my back and being polite when we meet face to face. If that’s political correctness, we have failed at diversity. If you’re a bigot, we’ll know.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Lenny Bruce. Let’s keep his torch burning brightly by proving we know the difference between stepping beyond the bounds of political correctness to make a point and blathering on insensitively about how we wish we could say what was on our mind but somehow feel repressed. If you have something to say, say it, then stand by it. If it makes the world a better place, you’ll have said the right thing no matter whom you may offend in the short-term. I’m guessing if what you have to say really matters, it won’t be offensive in the least.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.