Training and Sexual Harassment

I’m not on Mark’s side on this one, even if the training in question is as ham-handed and badly implemented as he expects, and even if our common employer (same university, different campuses) is cynically viewing it merely as pre-emptive of future litigation risk.

Briefly: inadequate on-the-job continuous education is one of the main management deficiencies in nearly all public agencies. It may often be done badly, but instead of railing at that we should be looking for ways to do it well, because it’s important to our ability to create value. Not only men but also senior women would do well to be modest about our enlightenment and (a separate but equal issue) our practice in the matter of how we treat women in any workplace. (Yes, and minorities of all sorts; humans are hard-wired for dysfunctional prejudices and exclusionary behavior that we can only suppress by being aware and practiced in dealing with it. Like overcoming our genetic proclivity to eat too much fat and salt, it’s not just a matter of will and good intentions but something that needs socially organized, serious, support.)

I. As regards continuing education, whatever we call it: we both work for a company that for the most part acts as though job skills and knowledge are something to fill up students with once at the beginning of their careers.

But a career is nothing like this, indeed, we expect our own faculty employees not only to go on learning but to find new stuff other people can learn through their entire employment. (It is true that we seem to think faculty magically know how to teach from day one and need no formal help getting better at it, ever; go figure. I think the relative quality of our pedagogy and our research speaks volumes in favor of lifetime, ongoing, collegial, learning, but that’s a topic for another post.) And very high performance firms seem to have a different idea entirely. On-the-job teaching (something much more formalized than merely doing a job and happening to learn therefrom) is a continuous enterprise at, for example, Toyota, and the last time I looked, Motorola held its managers to a minimum of 10% of payroll for training of employees at all levels, all the time.

I don’t know a better word than training for formal workplace job skill development outside academic degree programs. Puppies (and new soldiers) get trained, but puppies also get fed and hugged and loved and I am personally happy to get all I can of that to this very day. I think the word is unexceptionable. Training can take all sorts of forms, from the worst sort of lecturing-at didaction to creative and effective exercises and practice. The good kind is a lot better than the bad, but this doesn’t condemn the institution across the board.

[Full disclosure: (1) I have a professional wife and two daughters, and my mother and grandmother were professionals in very male work contexts (sculptor and politician respectively). I have collaborated with women as peers and junior colleagues all my life and liked it. I have rarely reported to a woman boss, so I don’t know for sure how I would handle it, but I hope it would be a non-issue. In any case, I am very interested in a better professional life in every way for women. (2) Like Mark, I do teaching for a living, (my own includes regular mid-career programs). I admit to a real conflict of interest when I say I think teaching done well is just a really splendid thing that society should buy lots more of, especially at my store but also at Mark’s. ]

II. This particular training is (again, successfully or not) aimed at a real problem. The last place I worked had more than a hundred faculty including no women with tenure (also no people of color with tenure). In the last 15 years, things have improved there, but not spectacularly. Maybe this is because of the right-tail dispersion difference that Larry Summers got in trouble over, or because of discrimination happening earlier in the pipeline that the school couldn’t overcome by itself, but maybe it was also because a lot of the faculty were simply clueless about how their behavior affected women and had decided that because they were good people and frequently asserted their rightness of thinking, there was no work to be done.

How could this be? Well, I recall two near-crises of misunderstanding involving groups of foreign students about whose very deep cultural conventions an American faculty was simply clueless, and who were repeatedly insulted first by things we did that were unimaginably crude in their social structure, and then by our extreme laziness in trying to find out what was really going on. I have been present at a serious discussion between Harvard colleagues about whether Catholics are “really capable of independent thinking”, and to emphasize the cluelessness, the parties knew my last name but almost certainly couldn’t have known that I’m not in fact Catholic. My whole intercultural experience with people in several European, one Latin American, one Asian and one Middle Eastern context has been that I am frequently not as hip as I feel I am, or sometimes simply wrong, about the experience others are having of me, and I think we are well advised to take any help anyone offers at getting better at helping people who are not entirely like us create value. I think women are not entirely like men.

Oh yeah; I also see no reason a workplace with increasing numbers of women supervisors shouldn’t be at risk of unintended harassment (or behavior that feels like it) of men by women, so my point is in principle symmetrical. And I think this particular kind of training would benefit from helping people hate the sin and love the sinner more, so to speak, and terrify people who know they will do something careless or thoughtless at some point despite their best efforts less. Many of my colleagues have simply stopped risking classroom discussion at which someone might take offense at something. The institutional atmosphere is overweighted to support anyone’s right not to be offended by anything anyone ever does, and too little directed at reminding people that there’s a lot to learn from plain flawed humans and that forgiveness and understanding of defects we all have is a really admirable virtue. But neither of these considerations justifies trashing the whole enterprise; some things are worth doing badly even if its a lot better to do them well, or because doing them badly at first is the only way to learn to do them better (ready/fire/aim principle).

Mark is absolutely right that to the degree that this program is or feels like an indoctrination–that it seems to be telling us what to think–it’s to be deplored. Good teaching of any kind is about unveiling what others think (and feel) and what’s known in the way of relevant facts. What the law allows and doesn’t allow in a workplace is relevant whether or not a trainee thinks the law is right. No employer has the right to require anyone to believe anything, but employees have a duty to pay attention to how their colleagues take this and that behavior, and a right to know what the rules are without inadvertent experiments that get them in trouble.

Training of the type Mark deplores has two other functions in an organization, independent of whether it actually improves individuals’ insights. One is to signal what the firm thinks is important enough to pay for (with salaried staff time and the direct costs of the training). This signalling effect can certainly be undermined by cynical or incompetent training or going through the motions, but it doesn’t have to be. The second is to establish what everyone knows everyone else knows (this effect requires that the training engage everyone, not just the supervisors). A harassee uncertain of whether what she’s experienced is really an offense will have a better idea after good training either way, and will know that the harasser also knows what’s what. Potential abusers will know that their targets know their rights.

On balance, my sense is that a wide range of behaviors mostly acted out by supervisors (but also by peers), and feared even when they don’t occur, continues to keep all sorts of people in workplaces, including my own, from creating the most possible value. I think a good part of this is unintended and the ‘harassers’ really don’t know what they’re doing, and would do less of it with some quality training. With all the ways the UC program might go off the tracks, and I haven’t had my dose yet, I think Mark is wrong to rail at the enterprise as he does.

The Bad Apple Metaphor

Mark’s post about prisoner abuse provides a peg on which to hang some remarks on the “…few bad apples” metaphor, which is commonly misused. The complete expression is “even a few bad apples will quickly ruin the whole barrel”, because the decay quickly spreads to the good ones. The implication is that bad apples must be removed immediately, because they are worse for the system than they appear. It’s a justification for rapid and fell attention to the beginnings of corruption in a human system, and for making that attention the duty of highest authority.

Recently, the phrase has been attached to quite different ideas, such as “…it’s only a few bad apples; the [army, police department, school system, etc.] is basically [sound, honest, capable, etc.] “, or (worse) “…every organization always has a few bad apples, there’s nothing particularly wrong here”, meanings that justifiy institutional inaction and excuse managerial failure.

The metaphor arose to describe a real phenomenon, namely the rapid spread of rot from seemingly inconsequential and exceptional cases in human organizations, and I think we should try to use it in the original sense. Discovery that one or more bad apples have been allowed to remain in a system (let alone hidden by suppressing reports) should be a damning indictment of management in any context.

Promoting innovation in the public sector

How can we make more public-sector organizations innovators, and fast followers of innovations made elsewhere?

That turns out to be a hard and interesting question, or so I learned when my old friend (and former boss) Jerry Mechling had a layover in LA on his way from the Kennedy School, where he runs a program on information technology, to Seoul, where he was giving a talk. Here’s how the problem sets up:

Innovation is risky. (As another friend in the IT business remarked last week in discussing London’s apparently successful road-use-pricing scheme, “The default option for a big IT innovation is that it fails.”) Even when it succeeds rather than failing, it means that the people involved (1) have to work very hard for a while and (2) have to change their routines.

Organizations are naturally conservative, in two related senses: averse to change, and intolerant of risk. That means they need incentives if they are to innovate. Since settlers benefit from following pioneers, innovation tends to have external benefits, which means that the level of innovation generated by supoptimizing decentralized decision-making may be below the desirable level.

Indeed, even if we ignore the organizational-behavior factors that limit innovation, it’s not even clear that innovation is often a good gamble from an organizational viewpoint. An organization willing to change can avoid much of the risk while getting most of the gain by looking for innovations elsewhere and quickly adopting the ones that work. (The jargon distinguishes between “leaders” and “fast followers.”)

Competitive enterprise creates some incentives for innovation — first-mover advantage, sometimes protected by patent or copyright — and strong incentives for fast following. Moreover, some private-sector employees have strong personal career incentives (and pride of craft) that leads them to want to be at the cutting edge of whatever they’re doing. (Corporate managers sometimes need to restrain the enthusiasm of their technical employees for spending stockholder money on neat gadgets.)

But most public-sector agencies can’t gain “market share” by innovating successfully. That means that, from the perspective of their taxpayers, they should only rarely take the risks associated with innovation. (Tell a public sector manager or elected official about a good idea, and the first question you get back is “Where has it been done successfully?”) Moreover, as organizations they have relatively little to lose from being very slow followers, or even ignoring proven innovations entirely; their customers mostly can’t take their business elsewhere.

So we have two problems: How to get some public agencies to innovate, and how to get the rest to follow quickly when an innovation works. The external benefits of innovation justify the practice of giving grants-in-aid for innovative practice, but the disincentives to innovation help explain why those grants are often used to maintain existing operations rather than as intended.

But developing an appetite for fast following seems to be at least as important, and at least as hard, as encouraging innovation itself. To some extent, that means subsidizing successful innovators to evangelize. But although that will tend to reduce the costs of following fast for agencies inclined to do so, it won’t do much to create demand.

Well, I think I see the problem, but I don’t see anything that looks like a solution. Maybe you do. If so, please let me know.