Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Cube Monkeys & Other Animal Lessons for the Foreign Service

I’ve heard of workplaces being referred to as “the zoo,” as in “it’s a zoo out there,” usually from a departing person with relief in his voice and obviously happy to be on his way elsewhere. I was never sure if the phrase was uncomplimentary to the “zoo keepers” unable to “tame” their charges, or to the “animals,” unwilling to follow the direction of their keepers. Other times, even offices are referred to as “bullpens” as in a “bullpen in the visa section” a large open work area consisting of modular cubicles with no separating walls and private offices where most of the staff works (in the urban dictionary, one who does not have an office at work is a “cube monkey”).

Both references are instructive from a management’s perspective. First, it presumes the interaction between two groups of players, the smaller group of zoo keepers or boss monkeys (management) and the larger groups of various animals in the zoo (cube monkeys and the rest of us). Second, the term presents an image of herded animals (the rest of us) within a specific kind of enclosure (herder unseen). Apparently, late comers to ball games in the late 19th century were cordoned off into standing-room areas in foul territory’ and because the fans were herded like cattle, this area became known as the bullpen. Not really a far-fetched metaphor for people working in large organizations who must follow the rules within the chalked lines.

I’m not sure why the term “bullpen” seems preferable in workplace usage than the word “zoo,” unless we also assume some hierarchy of good behavior and order; that is, simply that the bullpen is chaotic but not as chaotic as the zoo. Translation, if you’re the boss you probably would not mind having your office called a bullpen but would be offended if it were known as “the zoo.”

In any case, there are basic management lessons here. And since I’ve been here awhile, I don’t feel too forward when I say I am qualified to render management lessons from a peel of banana up, so to speak. If you’re a boss monkey and you happen to stumble upon this blog, please don’t take offense. Except for one or two instances, I’ve been treated rather well by most of my keepers; I did not turn out so badly and I’ve even learned to appreciate the purpose of a slice of banana and a whole banana (or crummy little fish and a large mackerel, take your pick) equally. The lessons here are written for the boss monkeys who are not quite sure how to handle the diverse animals in this kingdom. I don’t want them to get bitten, you see or to train some poor souls the wrong way, unintentionally.

You probably know these lessons, as might your other keepers and boss monkeys, but sometimes, just shoveling crap makes folks and relations display displaced aggression and strike out at whatever is near. Before anyone takes offense, the word "animal" comes from the Latin word animale and is derived from anima, meaning vital breath or soul. So, the biological definition of the word refers to all members of the Kingdom Animalia, which includes you, me and them, and everything in between that bites (diplomats and ambassadors not excluded). Below are a few lessons on how to manage your menagerie (cube monkeys or otherwise) adapted from Ms. Sutherland’s very instructive book.

“Know your animals”

Just because I would somersault for a slice of mango does not mean that Shamu in the next cubicle would. Trainers may use the same basic principles in training animals but they can’t train all their animals in exactly the same way. As Amy Sutherland writes in What Shamu Taught Me About Love and Marriage, “a cookie-cutter approach would fail because Mother Nature likes her diversity, and so the animal kingdom brims with individuality.” So it is important to get to know your animals – what makes them tick, what are their strengths, their natural talents, and what are they not good at.

You can train a dolphin to jump because it can but what’s the point in teaching an elephant to jump when it can’t? Same goes for your human animals. Just because one of your charges could easily substitute as a talking head on TV with very little training does not mean that everyone can do exactly the same thing. You should know that some cube monkeys subjected to intense media attention without proper acclimation develop tics and insomnia and forever shuns public appearances later in life. The truth is - there’s nothing more important than knowing your two-legged animals. This is the foundation after which your entire relationship is built upon. Without this knowledge, you cannot presume to influence, motivate, train, or teach any of them, much less march them willingly into the middle of a food fight.

“Keep your animals happy”

Sutherland says that the “traditional training technique is to withhold food from an animal, the thinking being that if an animal is famished, it will be more motivated to do as asked. But apparently, progressive trainers do not withhold food from their animals, they don’t withhold toys, play sessions or whatever makes the animal’s life a good one. Instead, they work on making sure their animals are healthy and happy. Why? Because that’s when animals are most able and willing to do the things you want them to do. Heck, just try getting a spider monkey to do acrobatic tricks on an empty stomach – no, can’t do, not when all the brain could think about is that darn hanging banana!

So, if you’d like your cube monkeys to willingly stay after 6 pm to help with last minute Front Office “taskers” and whatnots, don’t make them miserable with 30-minute lunch breaks, especially if they’re lunch is already delayed by two hours in the visa window! And now that I’m thinking about this with my monkey brains, I understand that the “business class perk” was taken away recently due to a few bad eggs. Just so you know - any time you put an animal in a tiny space over 14 hours, they get grouchy and bitey. Do we really want our human animals grouchy, cranky and bitey negotiating across the table with those North Koreans? Just think about it. There are obviously lots of things we can’t do given that even a crummy banana is expensive these days, but perhaps we can start thinking more about what we can do to make our animals happy instead of what we can’t do?

“Rewards work better than punishment”

Human animals like all animals do not want to be forced to do anything whether it’s jumping or peeing, drinking kool-aid or balancing the ball on their noses (try it and they bite). The problem with most keepers is they want to show us who’s boss, so animals must do what they are told or else; which is very 16th century. As Sutherland writes, progressive trainers think of training as communication. They teach rather than tame and the goal is not to break the animal’s spirit (good grief!); the goal is engagement not obedience.

I used to work for somebody who did not believe in rewarding anyone, even with a crummy little fish, but believed firmly in punishment for every infraction, however minor. It was a zoo for sure and everyone could not wait to get out of that zoo. When giving a reward was unavoidable, this monkey boss’ timing was not only wrong, often the citation was also wrong, and a mackerel was given when a crummy fish would have done the trick. But worse yet, the fish often went to a dolphin that did not even do the trick. What signal did that send to the rest of us? That if we are quiet and hang around long enough, that the boss might just toss us fish for being kiss-up spineless creatures of the wild. That unintentional lesson was not lost on anyone and just as in good leadership, bad leadership and management has a multiplier effect.

Sutherland has some good points about rewards – get your timing right, match the reward to the task, reward for doing not trying and give your animals something better than what it already has. I think that perhaps one part of the zoo got this right. Apparently, one recent ambassadorial appointee has, in a role of a lifetime as back-up tippy top boss, has been imploring (i.e. putting a squeeze) others to put their lives on the line and “volunteer” for an expedition to Iraq or Afghanistan, but has herself never served in either country. Our friends in WhirledView have more on this here and here and decried the blatant favoritism based on the numbers. But perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way – they’ve done the work they were asked to do (I bet they’ve read Sutherland’s treatise on rewards!) Just trying to put the squeeze is not career enhancing, but actually doing the squeeze is worth something – the harder the squeeze, the bigger the fish. Here, enjoy a fat mackerel on your way to Ecuador!

“Teach your animals what you want them to do”

Sutherland tells the story of Kaleb, the camel who likes to throw tantrums. When he’s in a fit, there would be lots of yelling and leash jerking and eventually the trainers calm the camel down. But as Sutherland points out, keeping the camel from thrashing was not the same as teaching him what the trainers wanted which was “to walk nicely on the lead.” When you scold your cube monkey for screaming at the applicants in the visa window, you’re discouraging unacceptable behavior for sure, but it does not teach your cube monkey how to deal professionally with the people at the window. So, you need to teach them what you want them to do and not leave it to chance that they could “intuit” what you want them to do. Sure, they are smart, but don’t expect their smart brains to read your smart cells; nature has yet to equip us with that function. Say clearly what you want done, then toss the fish when appropriate not six months later (and for goodness sake, stop hovering around unless you want to do the job for them).

Avoid trial by fire; it’s a lazy way to teach

“Trainers basically construct a behavior from the bottom up, starting by teaching an action that will be the foundation and then building from there,” Sutherland writes. “Nothing makes the blood pressure spike like working at warp speed and trying to impress a new boss when you don’t even know where the delete key is in your computer.” Have we ever seen a Sea World trainer asked a whale to jump simply by saying “Just do it because I say so?” Most certainly not. Unfortunately, we have no inoculation for this type of behavior from boss monkeys, past or present. We have some who fervently believed that the sink-or-swim approach is not only instructive but a necessary lesson before anyone can become an effective interlocutor in the wild. If you are a boss monkey who subscribe to this principle, you must understand that without the basic foundation, most of us simply flounder. And in our relief for not drowning as we struggle in the deep end of the sea, we learn to appreciate survival but missed out on the larger lesson altogether. I am happy to be alive, the heck with the rest of it!

Besides being a lazy way to teach, Sutherland cautions the effect of the trial by fire and the sink-or-swim approach because they “take an energetic, eager employee and in short order, turn them into an exhausted, resentful underling.” If we’re lucky, the cube monkey would have enough sense and say, “I’ll never be like this when I become boss monkey” or if we’re not so lucky, we’ll have a cube monkey who’ll think “Why should I do this differently, this was how I was treated when I came into the zoo?” And so, on and on, it goes ...

In the animal kingdom, the bottom line is really simple - there are no deadbeat whales, only deadbeat trainers. If your cube monkeys and other animals are not doing things right – you might try asking yourself - “What am I doing wrong?”

This works the other way around too; so next time it will be for the cube monkeys – “how to shamu your boss without getting wet” or something like that….

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