Friday, May 22, 2009

Madrid Blog--La Señora que Sabe

Adventures in the Workplace and with El Servicio

This one is going to make me wildly unpopular... I will preface the entry by saying that I have limited experience in management. This experience has been "when it's great, it's great," but, in those cases where you may be managing the "lesser motivated" worker, management is highly over-rated.

In my brief professional career, I worked with an outside PR agency team that was very competent. In general, they knew more about what they were doing, than I did. They made me look good. In my house, in the US, I employed a nanny for my children (live-out, hourly wages). In the seven years she worked for me, I don't think she was sick once and I can count on less than ten fingers the number of times she was late to work.

Recently, though, in Spain, I have not had such good luck in the house-hold help category. I wonder if this is not due to different cultural/personal expectations about the workplace. This is exemplified by a conversation I had one day with my "interna" about the fact that the children were consistently late for the school bus. I approached this from a very American HR workplace bias:

"We have a problem. How can we work together (as a team!) to solve our problem?"

I was shocked by the interna's response, which (paraphrased) was:

"Well, Señora, you can do my job for me."

The American weakness: Need to be liked/loved.

Wonder if this comes from the joy that is the American high school experience, where popularity is generally valued above and beyond any sort of academic achievement?

In the JBoss years, it truly was inconceivable to some people that my French-raised husband lacked any concern for what people thought of him. "Not giving a damn" is a good quality to have if you are an entrepreneur. Why? Because if you are doing something truly novel and different (with no money and connections in your chosen industry) expect to be called crazy. "Crazy" is a good thing. Nobody fucks with crazy. When you are in tight situations, acting like a completely unpredictable motherfucker who would rather self-implode than let the other guy win, increases your chances of survival and coming out ahead. If you succeed, you can always console yourself with the Southern (US) dictum: "When you're poor, you're crazy; when you're rich, you're eccentric."

If you are on to something, you will spend the second half of your start-up's life fending off people trying to kill you. This includes insignificant pissants as well as the powerful Personnages/Corporations of this world. Why do they abuse their position? Because they can. Concentrate on out-witting them and extracting revenge, or acting more morally if you ever get near their industry position.

I see "needing to be liked" in the work world as a particular American weakness. Nothing is more ridiculous than the company that thinks they can under-compensate their employees because they they are such a "cool" place to work. Note: employers who think this way are probably so far from cool the light from cool would take a million years to reach them. This is on par with the housewife who thinks she can pay "Edwina" less because Edwina "loves" her children. If Edwina won the lottery, would she be working for you? It's a job, people are there because they need the money or expect a liquidity event.

As for what other people think of us, not just employees, but friends and family, we probably are better off not knowing :) In a work relationship, I see fair compensation and establishing a relationship of mutual respect as more important.

American optimism: You are responsible for the ultimate outcome of your career

OK, I just read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" like everybody else, and he makes some good points de-bunking the individual's responsibility for her own ultimate success. However, if you don't start from this basic assumption, you will not be able to benefit from whatever Gladwellian experiential, cultural, chance advantages that come your way.

Religious bias and Social Values

I am the product of a Protestant/Catholic marriage, and was raised in, and, am comfortable with, both traditions. This is not a discussion of religion or theology, but a thought about Protestantism and the American cultural bias regarding individual self-determination. My experience with Catholicism was very laced with the "look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field--the good Lord will provide" outlook. The Protestant outlook, on the other hand (which is nowhere to be found in the Bible): tended toward "God helps those who help themselves." The Calvinist predestination doctrine--where it is assumed that God rewards the "predestined" with material success and that material success reflects moral character--is even more pernicious...The two traditions also have different outlooks on the individual's ability/responsibility for interpreting his faith. My experience with Catholicism emphasized dependence on the clerical hierarchy to achieve an understanding of theological tenets; whereas the Protestant tradition (of course both traditions have their dogmatic sects) generally emphasized Biblical textual scholarship and the individual's responsibility to work out his own faith--an approach that has understandably led to endless dissent and schisms...

Them that has 'gits

All this is speculative divergence from what I see as two fundamentally different outlooks in the workplace. One approach is that "the world has always been divided into "jefes" and "empleados". As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, world without end, Amen. Fuck them, I am going to do the minimum I can get away with in my job. My misery/poverty is virtue in and of itself. I'll get my reward in Heaven.


The second approach is that "I can impact my ultimate outcome in life" and, by my hard work, I could become a "jefe". This involves taking responsibility for and pride in one's work. It especially comes into play in dealing with how people handle mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes. This does not distinguish the former or latter category of employees, but how they handle them does. Employee A will 1) acknowledge no responsibility for his role in the mistake 2) expend endless amounts of energy telling me why it's not his fault and how he could not have done anything differently. Employee B, on the other hand, will 1) acknowledge her role in the mistake 2) spend her energy telling me what she is going to do in the future so that this never happens again.


Jean-Luc Vanhulst said...

Many, many issues raised to comment on. I'll just take on the one about the American need to be loved.
Seen from an EU perspective I'm not so sure about that. (And of course George and Dick tried very hard for 8 years to do achieve the opposite)

I think there's a lot of 'how do I look', social pressure on fitting in, political correctness and 'don't sit on the grass' stuff going on. And a huge pressure to fit in. Man, this morning the school traffic help suddenly scolded Florian because the new regulation as of today is that you cannot cross the road on a scooter anymore, you have to hold it in your hand. Of course we will comply.

So in the social, uber-regulated, fabric it's all about being nice but outside that I think people don't really care too much about what 'others' think?

But maybe it's my cynical view. :)

Nathalie said...

Hi Jean-Luc,
Some interesting points. Perhaps you don't realize it, but you are currently living in "Fake" America and thus may not accurately reflect the values of "Real" America (Daily Show reference).

Not sure I would compare Dick and George II. Dick was an intelligent and competent president who, unfortunately had issues with paranoia and ethics...George II has the IQ God gave a rhesus monkey and may not actually have been aware of the unethical machinations of his entourage. However, in the "American need to like our elected leaders" category--they both are interesting examples. The first US televised presidential debate was Nixon vs. Kennedy. Until that debate, Nixon was ahead of Kennedy. Those who heard the debate on the radio voted, as a majority, that Nixon had won the debate; whereas, those who watched the debate on the telly, claimed that Kennedy had won the debate. Even before Watergate, Americans did not react favorably to Nixon purely based on his appearance. On the other hand, they were willing to vote for George W. despite his obvious lack of experience and intellectual caliber for the job, because he seemed like "a decent, straight-talking guy, somebody you could relate to, share a drink with at the bar."

The US can come across as phony with its PC culture and skin-deep social regulation. My experience with "bringing people in line when they break the rules" is from the carpool at an International school in a Southern state of the US. There was one mother who consistently cut the car pool line. It pissed everybody off and everybody complained about it to their friends, but no one was willing to confront this woman because doing so would be more awkward and perhaps "more rude" than her initial action. Then, one day this woman cut in front of a German mother, who promptly got out of her car and proceeded to tell this woman off in no uncertain terms in front of everybody else. At the end, all the Americans were clapping! They all resented the woman's behavior, but were too "well-bred" (according to Southern US standards) to confront her.