Ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and command performance

Illustration of the Anabase by Xenophon

I became a fan of the FTGN podcast last year when they launched season 2. I like it because the questions that Joe asks are usually questions I really want the answers to.

I don’t want to know about General Votel’s career highlights – I want to know how he finds time to reflect.

I don’t want to know about General McChrystal’s running routine – I want to know how he dealt with the fallout of the Rolling Stone article.

And I don’t want to know what it felt like for Diamond Dallas Page to lead a successful wrestling career – I want to know how he dealt with his life crumbling around him.

Season 3 of the podcast recently launched. I’m already a couple of episodes behind, but I just finished episode 1 with author Kim Scott.

Kim Scott is the author of Just Work: Get Sh*t Done Fast and Fair and Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity and co-founder of the company Radical Candor. Kim was a CEO coach at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and other tech companies. She was a member of the faculty at Apple University and before that led AdSense, YouTube, and DoubleClick teams at Google. Kim managed a pediatric clinic in Kosovo and started a diamond-cutting factory in Moscow. She lives with her family in Silicon Valley. (Bio courtesy of Kim’s Website)

S3, E1: Kim Scott, From The Green Notebook Podcast

I have not read the books yet, but like my ever-expanding podcast queue, they’re on my book list.

It’s a fascinating episode to lead off with. I love Joe’s podcasts with military personnel, but I prefer his episodes with folks from outside of the profession. This one was no different.

Things that stood out to me in this episode:

  • Ruinous empathy and Maniplative Insincerity. These are concepts from Scott’s book Radical Candor. And they’re the type of frames that instantly ascribe an idea you may have been thinking about but have a hard time putting a name to. We’ve hammered the importance of empathy to death in military circles over the past few years – and for good reason. It’s a skill that was missing for a long time among many military leaders. But it comes with two edges to the blade. There is such a thing as being too empathetic where it gets in the way of giving the advice or feedback that is necessary to make a person better or accomplish a given mission. Manipulative insincerity is related, but different. It’s when we heap praise on someone or something without actually caring – we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do. Everyone – especially soldiers – sniff this out pretty quickly and it doesn’t actually contribute to positive outcomes.
  • Xenophon. Joe made reference to Xenophon, the ancient Greek scholar/military leader. This is only interesting to me because over the past year I’ve done some deep-dive research on Xenophon in relation to a much bigger research project I’m working on. A year ago I didn’t know who he is – now I know way too much. Once you start digging, you realize that his profiles of the “two Cyruses” is the inspiration to a wide range of thought leaders, from Machiavelli to Thomas Jefferson. The genesis of my interest in Xenophon comes from an exploration of T. E. Lawrence’s Greek education and his reference to Xenophon in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

There remained the psychological element to build up into an apt shape. I went to Xenophon and stole, to name it, his word diathetics, which had been the art of Cyrus before he struck.

T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
  • The importance of handwritten notes. Joe and Kim have a short discussion on the power of handwritten notes. It feels good to be told you’re doing well, it feels great to get an email that you’re doing well (with your chain of command cc’d), and it is something special to get a handwritten note out of the blue. Remember, everything old is new again. Dale Carnegie famously writes in How to Win Friends… “Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise.”
  • Sitting in awkward silence. When asking for feedback, state your request, and then shut your mouth. Count to six. It’s not easy. But if you can just keep quiet for a second longer, you can often compel the other to fill the silence. In our hyper-distracted world, this is a tough challenge. Try it. And practice it over time.
  • The assumption of the 20 year career. Too often when we counsel others in the military, if we are career-minded ourselves, we tend to assume the other has similar aspirations. The “20 year career” seems like the gold standard. With the termination of the 20 year retirement, this will likely change over time. The point is, aspirations of military service are not uniform. Most service-members will not stay in until retirement. It is a calling, a service, and a duty. There is more to get out of life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with meeting people where they are and helping them achieve their goals – not yours.
  • Command Performance. There’s a short discussion towards the end about the things peers and subordinates (and sometimes superiors) may do or say in front of others, and the importance of responding. This often takes the form of either controversial, subversive, or “envelope-pushing” speech/behavior. It’s often done subconciusly, I think, as a way to see how people will respond. I’ve written about this before and labeled it “command performance.” How is the PL going to react when I say or do this thing that goes against the grain? If she does nothing, then isn’t that tacit approval of the behavior/speech?

A good conversation with lots to think about.

Glad to have the podcast refreshing again in my queue and I look forward to the rest of the season!

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“Just In Time” Information Management

Army photo by Spc. Andrew McNeil (link)

You may be familiar with “Just In Time” inventory or manufacturing. This is the business strategy that aims at reducing the amount of time product is in storage or on a shelf. This is done by working towards hyper-efficiency across all aspects of a business. Parts, material, and labor are right where they are at precisely the time they need to be.

On at least one occasion, I’ve heard this concept used in the context of knowledge workers – and we’re all pretty much knowledge workers these days.

Instead of manufacturing, we apply the same idea to information. Our management systems allow us to delay accumulating more information until the precise moment it is needed, and we can be reasonably sure that it will be there when we need to retrieve it.

Calendars, task trackers, productivity apps, and management systems allows us to move through a day more efficiently. When we come to a point where we need to make a decision, we can retrieve the infromation we need, usually pretty quickly.

If we are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, we can focus our attention on the things that matter right now and delay work on future problems until we absolutely must.

Have you ever scheduled a meeting and then reviewed your notes a couple of minutes immediately prior? Then you have already put this idea into practice.

This system allows us to do more (and better), but it also depends heavily on flawless execution from a living person. The technology will rarely fail – but there still needs to be a person there to pull the lever or hit the button at just the right time.

When running effectively, ‘just in time’ systems can supercharge productivity. But without constant attention, they can fail spectacularly.

Time, attention, and energy are all finite resources.

My personal management system has slowly been creeping towards a ‘just in time’ one. I actually really like it – it does allow for more. It’s a way to squeeze just a little bit more out of a productivity system.

In fairness, it comes at the cost of a near-constant low hum of anxiety, as there is always something coming on the horizon that is unsettled.

If this stuff interests you, I’d recommend signing up for the monthly newsletter. I tend to pontificate about planning from time to time.

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In getting things done, time and attention are the only two things that matter

If I just grabbed you on the street and said:

“WHAT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN YOUR LIFE?”

You would probably say something like your family, or your church group, or maybe your career, or maybe your kid or your pet, or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense in which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claimed is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going?

In fact is the thing that you claim is important really important?

Because, if a lot of people actually looked at where their time and attention went, the parts that they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life is Facebook.

It’s been over a month since I’ve written anything.

I’ve been in a recalibration period, and as part of that, I revisited a great talk by Merlin Mann that he delivered at Rutgers University in 2010. It’s titled “Who moved my brain?” and it’s about time and attention.

When I was enlisted, I spent a lot of time after work researching productivity and ways to be more effective. That brought me to Merlin’s old website, 43 Folders. I started reading Merlin’s articles and listening to his talks. I was simply looking for tips on how to be more productive, the specific things I was supposed to do – like make a “Hipster PDA,” which I used until the iPhone came out. Merlin has a way of speaking philosophically about the topic of productivity, time, and attention, often to the annoyance of a listener who just wants to know how exactly to be more effective.

What are the specific things I’m supposed to do?

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate his more indirect approach. In this talk, he opens up with “The more time I spend thinking about this stuff, the less interested I am in the relatively superficial problems of things like e-mail.” He describes the anxiety and frustration that we have with email, social media, time, and attention as the “top layer” of our problems.

If you pay attention, what he’s usually getting at is that the things we’re seeking to fix are often really easy, but they suggest much deeper problems underneath that we haven’t addressed.

Thanks to the gentle nudge from friend of the blog Andrew Steadman at The Military Leader, I’ve been listening to podcasts again and I get the sense that the field of cognitive optimal performance is surging in a way I’m not sure that it was ten or even five years ago. It’s for that reason that I’m sharing this talk, because it’s still relevant and potentially pretty illuminating for someone trying to grapple with managing their own time and attention better.

The talk is worth listening to in its entirety and will be especially useful for anyone interested in understanding how they use and manage all things digital (email and social media especially) and optimizing workplace performance.

If you’re wondering what my biggest take away from the talk was, it’s this: I turned off notifications on my iPhone. In the talk, Merlin discusses how we allow our time and attention to be captured by literally anyone in the world with an internet connection. If someone in Zaire emails me and it pops up on my screen, for that second that my eyes diverted from whatever they were looking at to see that I got an email from some guy in Zaire. I’ve lost control of my time and attention. No matter what I was doing, by allowing myself to be interrupted, I am tacitly saying that nothing that I am currently doing is more important than what anyone on the internet wants me to pay attention to.

When you think about it in those terms, when you keep your notifications on, or the email “bubble” that pops up when you get a new email, or whatever other form this takes, you’re relinquishing an incredible power -really the only power you have.

Doing something as simple as turning off notifications might not seem like a big deal for some people, but I’m a compulsive checker. If they’re on, and I see them on the screen, I’m compelled to investigate further.

“What did he say in that comment?”

“What’s in that email?

Turning off notifications is in the “tips and tricks” category of productivity. It’s a small thing that you can do right now to reclaim some time and attention, but it is indicative of a bigger problem in how habits are formed and managed, hence the recalibration period I mentioned in the beginning.

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Life Lesson: Have a “Capture Device”

During our initial inbrief at IBOLC, the battalion commander read off a list of ten things (I think it was ten) that would help us be successful officers in the Army. Some of them were pretty basic, like be in good physical shape and try to get enough sleep. I dutifully copied down the notes, but became particularly interested when he said “Number 8, always have a ‘capture device.'”

I straightened up and craned my neck to listen.

Around the time I was getting out of the Army in 2006 and starting college, I became super-interested in all things “productivity.” I read all the blogs and articles and theories. I created my own monster of a “getting things done” system that I still follow and tweak today (a post for another time).

So when he mentioned something that sounded like it might fall into that realm, I found myself listening intently.

He went on to talk about how good ideas often present themselves at random and inopportune times, and without a “capture device” they will simply disappear.

A capture device can be anything, from a simple pen and pad to an App on your iPhone (I use Things, and to a lesser degree, Evernote).

It is some of the best advice I ever heard, and my feeling is that it was lost on most the young Lieutenants sitting in the room.

Did you ever notice that you’ll often have fantastic ideas while in the shower or during exercise? There’s a bunch of scientific reasons why that happens. When Don Draper is stumped on an idea, he goes to the movies and lets his brain rest.

By the time he leaves, the idea is there waiting for him.

Only in real life, if you don’t have a place to “capture” that idea, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks hours later, staring at the floor with an outstretched index finger and scrunched face, trying to remember what it was you wanted to do.

When I get an idea for work, social life, a gift, this blog – anything – I will stop what I’m doing and go to my “capture device,” in this case, my iPhone, and capture it quickly, usually in just a couple of words, and then revisit it later. The idea for this blog post came after I got an idea for another blog post and went to my phone, realizing that it would also be interesting to write about that in the first place!

Those “good ideas” only last a few moments before I forget them, usually because I’m caught up in something I’m enjoying, like watching a movie or exercising. Without capturing them, I am essentially letting them pass, hoping they’ll return at a later time when I’m not so engaged – unlikely, says science.

Over time, I’ve collected lots of great ideas for ‘things,’ most of which amount to nothing, or sit in an ever-growing list of things that I may one day do. Others, though, have been fantastic and lead me down paths or allowed me to do things that I never thought I would do. That is why I almost always have my iPhone with me.

It is my capture device.

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