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Bullying is theft

Someone in your office walks out every day with a laptop under his coat. He fences them down the street and keeps the money.

After he's discovered, how long should he keep his job? What if he's a really hard worker? Perhaps you give him a warning, but, when he's discovered stealing again a week from now, then what?

Bullying costs far more than laptop theft does.

The bully frightens away some of your best employees, because they can most easily find another place to work. He also silences the eager and the earnest, the people with great ideas who are now too intimidated to bother sharing them. His behavior has robbed your organization of the insight that could open so many doors in the future.

I define bullying as intentionally using power to cause physical or emotional distress with the purpose of dominating the other person. The bully works to marginalize people. In an organizational setting, the bully chooses not to engage in conversation or discussion, or to use legitimate authority or suasion, and depends instead on pressure in the moment to demean and disrespect someone else—by undermining not just their ideas, but their very presence and legitimacy.

The end to bullying starts with a question: does senior management see the cost? Do they understand that tolerating and excusing bullying behavior is precisely what permits it to flourish?

If so, the next steps are painful and difficult, but quite direct. Bullies can't work here.

If you don't have buy in on that, spend more time and passion and energy to get it. Not around a certain person or a certain action, but on the general irrevocable principle. An organization that is built on ideas and connection can't thrive when there's a bully in the room. If you're part of one that doesn't care about this, perhaps it's time to considering moving on.

Once you start to clean up the culture, will there be judgment calls and edge cases and a need for warnings and improvement plans? Of course. But just as laptop theft drops when our tolerance of it disappears, so does bullying. Most bullies aren't sociopaths, immune to correction. They are opportunists, using the tools that have often worked for them in the past.

It's a wrenching process for some organizations, but one that leads to few regrets. It's your chance to help a bully get his life straightened out too.

Evoking online trust

Interactions rarely happen with people we don't trust.

How is it that someone sees your website or your social media presence or your email and decides to interact? The decision to interact happens before someone actually listens to what you have to say. Here’s a way to think about the factors that kick in before the browser even hears what you have to offer them today:

  • Word of mouth
  • Direct interaction
  • Graphics
  • Tone of voice
  • Offer
  • Size of leap
  • Fear
  • Social ranking/metric
  • Tribal affiliation
  • Perception of transparency
  • Longevity
  • Mass acceptance

Word of mouth: The most effective, by far. If I’ve heard good things about you from people I know, the entire relationship changes. You get the benefit of the doubt.

Direct interaction: Have you previously touched me or interacted with me in some way beyond the passive? The way I feel about that ping will alter our interaction. If this is the first time you're reaching out, you can bet a piece of spam is read differently than something that comes via mutual introduction.

Graphics: What do you look like? What does it remind me of? With so few clues online, we read an enormous amount into every pixel, every typeface…

Tone of voice: A variation of graphics, it has to do with your copy, with your video, with the urgency of your offer. Urgency rarely leads to trust.

Scarcity: Is there a perception that early birds gain? This also hooks in with metrics, like the progress your Kickstarter has made so far, or the number of social links you display.

Offer: What’s in it for me to listen to what you have to say? Do I gain more if I listen with a sympathetic ear?

Size of leap: What are you asking me to do? It’s significantly easier to earn the trust that is required to follow you on social media than it is to get me to give you my credit card. When you hook your new idea to an old idea I already trust, you benefit.

Fear: This is related to the leap. Big leaps are scarier, requiring more trust, and thus more skepticism.

Social ranking/metric: Results on the first page of Google are more trusted. People with a lot of Twitter followers as well, which is one reason both metrics are aggressively coveted and sometimes gamed.

Tribal affiliation: Are you one of us?

Perception of transparency: When I can see the metrics, or understand your intention, or when the message carries with it the hooks to those ideas, I’m more inclined to trust you. (This is a cultural, not a universal, bias).

Longevity: How long have you been showing up?

Mass acceptance: When I sort of hear of you from my friends, when I recognize you from a hashtag or the logo on a shirt or from a TV show, you come out ahead. TV celebrities walk in to the room with a lot of trust.

You will be judged, best to plan on being judged in the best possible light.

Sure, but he’s our bully

There have always been bullies among us, and it's worth taking a moment to see how our culture has built a role for them to be useful heroes. Taught or not, bullying keeps showing up.

We often (for a while) view bullies as powerful or brave or important–as long as they are our bullies. Richie Incognito, Chris Christie, Rob Ford—each has a long list of supporters, people who have defended a particular bully as a passionate man of the people, as doing their job, as the visceral anti-elite, winning a battle that's worth fighting for.

At some level, it makes sense to have a bully on your side. If you're going to war, the thinking goes, who better to represent you than someone intent on belittling and demeaning the other side?

If it's us against them, the bully who represents 'us' is our hero.

Given the millenia that primates (and other species) have thrived on the idea of bullying, where's the problem? As long as our bully is stronger than their bully, it seems as though we're in good shape…

But what happens with the economy changes (and the culture along with it)? The zero-sum game of world domination or even of the gridiron seems to reward the selfish, war-like domination that the bully embraces. But in the connection economy, the world of our future, it's pretty clear that we're not playing a zero sum game, and the hawkish win-at-all-costs behavior of the bully is actually a significant cost, not an asset.

Bumbling Toronto mayor Rob Ford has put on quite a show for his core constituency, but along the way, has alienated the people he needed to work with. Instead of weaving a future based on productivity and innovation, he's created momentary excitement sure to be followed by plenty of downsides as his city works to regain its forward momentum.

The management of the Miami Dolphins initially encouraged Richie Incognito to "toughen up" one of their players, as if bullying serves a productive purpose within an organization. As they've learned, it doesn't work.

The bully might be able to thrill the crowd with some juicy behavior, but the thrill wears off quicker than ever. And the person who just got bullied may never contribute as much as he is capable of.

In your organization, there are no doubt bullies who can win their point, increase their power and defeat their enemies. But are they creating real value for the organization as a whole? In an economy based on trust and connection, how does the inevitable fraying that the bully causes lead to a positive outcome for the long haul?

I don't think we can make the bullying impulse disappear. But it's pretty clear we can create organizations that don't tolerate it, creating an environment where the bully is never the hero. We probably ought to try.

The generous skeptic

If you've got a big idea, there's no doubt that you will run into skeptics along the way.

Many skeptics are afraid for you, embrace the status quo, and in their twisted but well-intentioned way, will work to persuade you to give up your dream. This sort of skeptic should be ignored, certainly. It doesn't really pay to argue with them, because your impassioned restatement of your view of reality will do little to persuade them that you're not doing something crazy risky.

The other kind of skeptic, though, should be treated totally differently.

The generous skeptic has insight into your field, your strengths and weaknesses. She wants you to succeed, but maybe, just maybe, sees something you don't.

When the generous skeptic speaks up, she's taking a risk. If you respond to her generosity by arguing, by shutting down, by avoiding eye contact or becoming defensive, you've blown it. You've taken a gift and wasted it, and disrespected the gift giver at the same time.

The alternative is to emotionally stand up and sit down on her side of the table. Egg her on. Imagine the world the way she sees it. Take her tactical skepticism and amplify it, pushing it to its logical conclusion. Instead of defending the flickering flame of your idea as if it might soon be extinguished, dump as much of this sort of skepticism on the idea as you can.

Not only are you honoring the generous skeptic when you do this, you're learning how to see the way she sees. Your job isn't to persuade her she's wrong, your job is to learn from this and buttress your project in a way that when it collides with the market, you're ready.

"Tell me more about that," is the useful and productive response, not, "no, you're wrong, you don't understand."

There's always time to ignore this feedback later. Right now, dive into it, with an eager, open mind. It's a gift you're not often offered.

The first lie…

is that you're going to need far more talent than you were born with.

The second lie is that the people who are leading in the new connection economy got there because they have something you don't.

The third lie is that you have to be chosen.

The fourth lie is that we're not afraid.

We're afraid.

Afraid to lead, to make a ruckus, to convene. Afraid to be vulnerable, to be called out, to be seen as a fraud.

The connection economy isn't based on steel or rails or buildings. It's built on trust and hope and passion.

The future belongs to those that care and those that believe.

Your incoming–How do you process what’s offered?

Your choice: should you come to that meeting, read those articles or go to this event? Should you have those expensive medical tests, have surgery or hire that consultant?

If someone stands up and shares a big idea, some people might run with it, others might not hear it at all.

If you're eager for change, every bit of information and every event represents an opportunity to learn, to grow and to change for the better. You hear some advice and you listen to it, consider it (possibly reject it), iterate on it and actually do something different in response.

On the other hand, if you're afraid of change or in love with the path you're on or focused obsessively on your GTD list, then incoming represents a distraction and a risk. So you process it with the narrative, "how can this input be used to further what I've already decided to do?" At worst, you ignore it. At best, you use a tiny percentage of it to your advantage.

Going to a brainstorming meeting with that attitude is a recipe for failure. Someone in the  meeting needs to shout, "Put down your spreadsheets and come out with your hands up!"

If you've already decided, if you have an incoming process that involves deflector shields, if you are too busy to do a reset, then the best path is not to take the meeting at all. Don't pay attention to test results and don't look for new learning.

Don't bother accepting new input if you have no interest in using it. (I happen to think that once you're committed to your path, this is in fact a brilliant approach. Halfway up Everest, it makes no sense to have a discussion about climbing K2 instead.)

Every presentation worth doing has just one purpose

To make a change happen.

No change, no point. A presentation that doesn't seek to make change is a waste of time and energy.

Before you start working on your presentation, the two-part question to answer is, "who will be changed by this work, and what is the change I seek?


The answer can be dramatic, "I want this six million dollar project approved."

More likely, it can be subtle, "I want Bob to respect me more than he does."

Most often, it's, "I want to start a process that leads to action."

If all you're hoping for is to survive the ordeal, or to amuse and delight the crowd, then you're not making a presentation, you're simply an entertainer, or worse, wasting people's time.

Change, of course, opens doors, it creates possibilities and it's fraught with danger and apparent risk.

 Much easier to deny this than it is to embrace it.

Every element of your presentation (the room, the attendees, the length, the tone) exists for just one reason: to make it more likely that you will achieve the change you seek. If it doesn't do that, replace it with something that does.

And of course, you can't change everyone the same way at the same time. One more reason to carefully curate your audience with your intent in mind.

If you fail to make change, you've failed. If you do make change, you've opened the possibility you'll be responsible for a bad decision or part of a project that doesn't work. No wonder it's frightening and far easier to just do a lousy presentation.

But you won't. Because the change matters.

What “no” means

  • I'm too busy
  • I don't trust you
  • This isn't on my list
  • My boss won't let me
  • I'm afraid of moving this forward
  • I'm not the person you think I am
  • I don't have the resources you think I do
  • I'm not the kind of person that does things like this
  • I don't want to open the door to a long-term engagement
  • Thinking about this will cause me to think about other things I just don't want to deal with

What it doesn't mean:

  • I see the world the way you do, I've carefully considered every element of this proposal and understand it as well as you do and I hate it and I hate you.

Victims of the Hollywood Paradox

The studios spend ever more on the blockbusters they make because that demonstrates their power and pays everyone in the chain more money, which creates more (apparent) power for those in charge.

But since they pay so much, they have no choice, they think, but to say, “This must work!” So they polish off the edges, follow the widely-known secret formula and create banality. No glory, it seems, with guts.

Every meeting is about avoiding coming anywhere near the sentence, "this might not work," and instead giving ammunition to the groupthink belief that this must work.

And as soon as you do that, you’ve guaranteed it won’t.

Every bestseller is a surprise bestseller, and in fact, nobody knows anything.

(And of course, it's not just movies, is it?)

Holiday shopping head start

I've put together some reviews of particularly arcane, wonderful or just nicely giftable items for people you want to indulge this season. Things you can hold and touch and wave around. Or at least listen to.

So far, royalties from my reviews have raised more than $35,000 for Acumen and other worthy causes. Thanks!

Headphones that dramatically change the experience of listening

A coffee table book featuring funny people in poignant poses

An over-the-top MP3 and digital music player for people who love music and gadgets

A flashlight that doesn't deserve the term. It's more of a functioning light sabre

A new set of all of Bob Dylan. Well, almost all.

And when in doubt, add a hug.