6 phenomena you may notice in business meeting with Israelis- and what they mean

Lois Martin is the Americas sales manager for an Israeli firm which sells drug detection technology to police forces. Lois, a Toronto resident, was recruited 9 months ago; she has just finished her first visit to Israeli HQ, in Tel Aviv. Lois was absolutely shell shocked after a week of meetings.

Lois and I met for lunch today to debrief her on her impressions. Here is what shocked Lois, and the meaning I ascribed to augment her understanding.

1 Lois-Decisions appear to be final; then they are revisited and then undone.

Allon-Correct. No decision is binding until the very last second. It is common practice to challenge decisions all the time. This does not detract from commitment, rather it is a sign of commitment.

2 Lois-No one follows a meeting agenda. They jump from subject to subject.

Allon-Indeed. Issues get discussed but not as per a planned agenda. Free association and “I have something related to this” constantly shift the focus of discussion. However, everything get done but just in a different order.

3 Lois-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

Allon-Everyone is glued to their cellphone, all the time.

4 Lois-People interrupt one another all the time, and raise their voices; it’s pandemonium.

Allon-People talk at the same time, butt in and contradict people before the other has finished speaking. It is not pandemonium; it is a discussion with different rules of engagement. You don’t use the rules of baseball in a football game. Discussions in Israel have their own rules. Join the mob or sit on the sidelines. And there is a lot to be said for almost total absence of “feigned commitment” so frequent in more polite cultures.

5 Lois-There are many off colour jokes; I was shocked.

Allon-Isn`t that refreshing-not to have all that PC rammed down your throat? Lois smiled, clearly not in agreement.

6 Lois-I noticed that people come to meetings late, and at times deal with family issues or bureaucracy during work.

Allon-Being on time is not all that important. A minimum ten minute delay is common practice, And Israel has a crushing bureaucracy which drains endless effort, especially if people are taking care of elderly parents or dealing with an insensitive government agency. For example, it can take 2 hours waiting to get a package at the post office, which often is open only until 2 pm. Or another example, cars have a compulsory “test” at a government accredited garage, a procedure which often entails quite a few hours. There are many more chores which need to be done, often on company time.

 

 

 

 

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Consulting individuals who are severely misreading reality

CEO Liz leads a company with an outstanding product suite and market leadership, yet sales are missing the numbers due to  market slow down and increasing price sensitivity. Liz believes that her last 3 sales managers have been incompetent.

Liz hired me to look into the Sales organization. I found a group of highly skilled and highly motivated people who were doing a great job under the toughest of circumstances.

When I presented my findings to Liz, she was upset. “I did not hire you to hear that”.

I have been working with Liz for 9 months. She has not changed her espoused opinion about the Sales organization, but she is happy with the work I am doing with her (about how she manages).  I have not managed to change her views about how Sales is run, but I have changed some of her behaviours towards the Sales organization, Liz talks the same, but acts differently.

Here are a few things I have done with Liz,

  1. Used paradoxical interventions. “Liz, how about firing the whole lot of them now and biting the bullet. I’m sure you could turn this around in a quarter”. Or, “Liz, you aren’t busy enough, why don’t you run sales as a pastime?”
  2. Put Liz’s misunderstandings into context. Liz rose to the top quickly. She never failed. She prides herself on her spectacular career. She sees people as winners or losers. Once I understood this I could be more compassionate. (She sees me as a winner.)
  3. Winter driving techniques. Having learnt to drive in Montreal, I know how to get out of a snowbank, thanks to Mr Canning, my driving teacher. Back and forth-slowly. No force-just go back and forth. With Liz it’s same-same but different. Sometimes I entertain two opposite ideas, rocking her mind back and forth. because it’s stuck. “Liz, how about putting pre-Sales under a different manager, or setting up a technical pre-Sales department, or better localizing the Sales team”..Such sessions of “rocking her mind” are the ones she appreciates the most, subsequently settling back into rigidity.
  4. Giving Up. Sometimes I tell her that she looks at a giraffe and does not see its neck (an Israeli euphemism). That I cannot do anything. That she has defeated me. This gets her very angry, then she softens up.
  5. Humour. Liz and I share a sense of humour, Making her laugh about her own rigidity is very helpful.
  6. Understand the personal bias. Liz comes from a technical background. This is what we have cooked and it tastes great, Just sell it. Liz does not understand the complexity of other peoples’ non technical roles, yet.

 

 

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Anxiety in organizations

Anxiety is built into organizations.

The anxiety stems from peoples dependence on one another.

  • If I build something but you do not sell it, I may get blamed.
  • If I cook a feast but the person who designs the menu makes it appear unattractive, then fingers may be pointed at me.
  • If I teach a course but the room is too hot, people may walk out on me.
  • If I answer the clients’ queries but the IT system is too slow, then the level of service provided gets knocked.

This inherent anxiety happens both within organizations and well as between organizations. Lawyers are used to lessen the anxiety between organizations. Sometime SLA’s (service level agreements) are used, with very partial success, to mitigate anxiety between people and functions within one organization.

Nothing whatsoever can eliminate this anxiety.  It is a built in feature. The only way to mitigate the anxiety is to talk about it, acknowledge overlapping responsibilities, maintain realistic goals, reward cooperation and hire-for-both-attitude and competence.

In the framework of the supervision I constantly hammer my young flock to avoid jumping to wow-wowism and sloganeering to paper over the basic anxiety  all organizational members carry on their backs or in their gut.

It’s there, and we need to learn to live with it. It cannot be otherwise, nor should it be. Depending on others is no mean feat.

 

 

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Preconditions for Enhancing Ownership

Blame shifting, buck passing and turd-on-the-table avoidance are rampant in many organizations.

There are very good reasons why this happens: lack of long term mutual commitment between employee and work place, the gig worker/external vendors upon whom blame is easily shifted, goals which are overly aggressive and “a victim must be found”, the shocking lack of solidarity between what was once “the working class”, and the use of digital communication which make shirking of ownership so easy.

Many organizations play lip service to enhance the level of ownership. These organizations PREACH ownership, put the word ownership in job descriptions and mission statements and T shirts. However, this is what Israelis call “hasbara”, or (mindless) propaganda.

Other organizations want to enhance ownership but do not know how. This is my advice:

  1. If the goals that are set are too aggressive, forget about enhancing ownership. If you set up your employees to fail, they will not tolerate it. They will not agreed to be screwed. They will avoid being hanged at all costs.
  2. If risk assessment is shared, then ownership can be enhanced. This sounds like a contradiction, but it isn’t. The sharing of risks provides the context in which people can assume ownership yet feel safe. Force clarity of language. “Challenging”, “obstacles”, “threats”, “probable.”…these are words which hide more than they reveal.
  3. Use shared KPIs so that team members help one another to succeed. Do NOT rely on goodwill or teamwork. No one should be able to look good if they don’t help their peers succeed.

 

 

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The cruelty of the so called flat organization

Flat organizations have a very cruel dynamic which I will highlight in this post.

A flat organization is way or organizing which has no hierarchy or very few layers of hierarchy. Supposedly, these organizations are superior  places to work, giving more room for creativity, abstaining from forcing decisions and  less infighting and bureaucracy.

I have worked for 8 flat organizations. Two are listed on Wall Street and are technology powerhouses. Three are industrial/agricultural collectives in Israel, and three were start ups.

Here are a few shared dynamics between all 8 organizations.

  1. There was a huge gap between what the way that they operated, and the way they claimed that they operated.
  2. There was a power elite in all these organizations, whether or not the people held office or not.
  3. There was massive social pressure to conform.
  4. The culture of these organizations was viewed as a ritual, ie, one must behave according to the rules in the spirit of a blind leap of faith.
  5. There was a lot of apparent buy-in to decisions.
  6. A language developed to hint at disagreement without actually saying it. Eg, the goal is really tough, yet if we all hunker down, it may be possible.
  7. There was a lot of cynicism about organizational life.
  8. Decision making was a nightmare.

Organizations need hierarchies to coordinate, make decisions, allocate resources and manage the inevitable kindergarten that exists in all organizations. And often, there is a dirty diaper to change. Lack of hierarchy causes extreme dysfunction and massive anxiety, so a de facto hierarchy is re-construed under the “non-hierarchy”.

The challenge of good organizing is about making more effective hierarchies, not via taking away the very scaffolding which provides sanity against extreme anxiety, albeit many many negative side effects.

 

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Coping with the Critical Flaw of a Senior Manager

Meet three of my clients from the past: a Quebecois, an American and an Israeli. Jacques, Marshall and Zeev are three outstanding executives whose organizations have constantly  over-performed for the last decade. Each manager has a critical flaw in his style.

Jacques sells all the time. When he should be consulting with his management team, he sells them his ideas. When he should be telling them what to do, he sells to sell them his ideas.

Zeev lacks emotional intelligence. Severely! Despite outstanding cognitive capabilities and strategic depth, he fails to factor people into his decisions.

Marshall commits his organization to impossible goals out of an almost fanatical religious belief in aggressive over-commitment. His teams constantly over achieve yet few executives (none) can stay with Marshall for more than one year due to mental and physical exhaustion.

Over my long career, I have worked with outstanding managers like these three on their critical (and near fatal) flaws. In this post, I want to share what I have learnt in the hope that can help someone.

  • Many of these flaws are like chronic pain. They are here to stay. There are good times and bad times, but the flaw is best recognized as permanent. By doing so, appropriate expectations can be set.
  • Taking the bull by its horns (“stop selling to me Jacques”) is rarely effective. Damage control strategies appear to be more effective. (What happens if your people don’t buy in, Jacques?)
  • Working around the flaw has proven itself in many cases. (Zeev should empower his HR partner to provide input and guidance for to augment his poor instincts).
  • Paradoxical interventions are very effective. For those who are not acquainted here is a link. Paradoxical intervention should not be practised without appropriate training. (Marshall, why not have your staff work on New Year’s eve? Just give them the appropriate carrot).

And the consultant must remember that he or she is not a brain surgeon. Dealing with critical flaws is a slow uphill crawl. It’s not about your own competence; don’t push to be overly effective otherwise you will lose your clients’ trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Strange fetishes of organizations

A recent visit to the Museum of Sex in Amsterdam enlightened me about various strange sexual fetishes. I grew up in the sixties in an era when, let’s put it this way…I assumed that there was very little I did not know. I was wrong.

So I got to thinking, is there such thing as a fetish in organizational behaviour? If we describe fetish as obsessive interest, the answer is a resounding yes. So in this post, I want to provide three examples of rampant organizational fetishes that I have seen, and I believe that my readers can see, all around them

  1. The fetish of defining away complexity. Given the complexity of reality, overlapping responsibility is often necessary, creating the need for people to communicate and decide together in the areas of disagreement where overlap occurs. Instead of focusing on addressing this need, organizations prefer to focus on over-definition of roles, responsibilities and process clarity. Thus, our first fetish.
  2. The fetish of overdosing on gender diversity. Oh yes, I may be in trouble for this. However, there are roles where professional competency trumps gender as a selection criteria. When a hospital wants to recruit 6 brain surgeons, three of them of each gender, this makes no sense at all. As a patient at least heaven forbid, I would prefer their recruiting six top surgeons, in the unlucky scenario that I would need their services.
  3. The fetish of engagement. Most management (except perhaps on social media) is about getting as much as possible for as little as possible over an optimized period of time. In a bad market place, employers exploit employees, and in a fast growing market with skill shortages, employees squeeze and extort their employers. It’s a market dynamic for the most part and since 2008, it is a blood bath for employees. Engagement is a sedative aiming at dulling the true nature of the relationship. The goal of engagement is more for less, regardless how the pig is perfumed. Most people know this, but the fetish is rampant.

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How do organizations function without trust

Trust is a great enabler and meaningful success factor in organizations. But many organizations have low levels of trust, yet perform well or beyond expectations in some cases, at least for the short run.

The goal of this post is to point out how organizations compensate for lack of trust.

  1. Escalation. In lieu of the capability of solving issues between people or functions, things get escalated up to a more senior level. Often, this escalation is done by emails to a large list of people. Eventually, a senior manager puts people out of their misery and makes a call.
  2. Feigned trust. Like  some of the orgasms some of the time, trust can faked. It is often faked by apparent agreement, nicey nicey fuzzy statements and decisions which are ambiguous, like, “we need to address this issue at a higher level some time by the end of the quarter”.
  3. Blaming. Rabid blaming can replace trust, and often does. The root cause of any given issue is not dealt with, so someone or some function gets hanged. For example in software, when release dates between development and marketing are not agreed upon, release managers get fired. Furthermore, this often happens between governments and their  military. The government can claim military incompetency while the army can claim that the “goals of the mission were unclear”. A perusal of most Israeli newspapers will provide ample examples.
  4. Brute force. Coercion and fear can get jobs done. It is not popular to say so, but it’s very very common. Good? NO. Frequent, heavens yes.

So go for building trust yet realize that if it ain’t going to work, there are bypasses which are not wow wow, but they are usable. If this is the case, focus on damage control.

 

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What do organizations forget?

Last week, I discovered a small sum of money that I am entitled to withdraw, given my advanced age, 68.

So I went on line, spent hours and hours filling out forms and uploading documents to forward to the financial institution so they can forward me the funds. Among the documents included was my identity card that states my age.

I then called the call centre to check that all the documents are correct. After 2 hours and twenty minutes, they answered the phone; after a document check I was told that I need to sign a form that I am over 60 years old. However, the form is not available on line. The form will be sent to me by (a very unreliable 3rd world) Israel Post. “But you have my ID card”, I protested. The clerk ignored my comment, then told me that “she understands my anger” and thanked me for calling the call centre.

All of which led to the first thing that organizations forget- 1) common sense.

There are many more things that organization forget.  Here are a few more-

2) How important mediocre people are to success, ie, plain ordinary people who want to do their job as directed, and go home.

3) Luck plays an important role in the success and failure of the company.

4) Organizational culture cannot be changed. Things can be done differently and this may Impact culture over a protracted period of time,  but it is almost impossible to “change culture” by acting on cultural artifacts.

5) The possibility of human stupidity is endless. When you think that you have covered everything, watch out. A common example of this is end endless attempts to “define away” complexity of roles and responsibilities.

6) Diversity is not mainly about skin colour, race, sexual preference, or bathrooms for transgenders. Diversity is mainly is cognitive styles, cultural preferences, and emotional proclivities.

7) The only secret that exists is when two people know something, and one of them is dead. Everyone eventually knows everything.  This includes who earns what and who is fucking whom.

8) Everyone, absolutely everyone, thinks about change ONLY in terms of “what’s in it for me”?

9) There are no mergers, only acquisitions. The acquired companies culture is ultimately decimated.

10) Often, doing a job well requires less people, not more.

 

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On surviving the protracted rule of the right wing

I have never voted for a party that has been elected. For years I have found myself in disagreement with almost every law passed by my (Israeli) government. Religious practices are rammed down our throats; messianic lunacy drives our illegal settlement policy.

Furthermore, the political system is itself is systemically corrupt. The corruption started with the Bolshevik style of the very first generation after Ben Gurion. The right wing under Netanyahu “perfected the system” shamelessly.

The actions of the governments in my country are a deep source of shame for me.

My liberal  American friends and colleagues are now learning to live in a country dominated by “others”. Social media and traditional media are brewing with anti Trump resistance. Polarization and bi partisanship is rabid. Everything appears to be either/or, our way or their way. I have been in such a milieu for over 20 years. So, I want to share with my readers a few tips about how to survive.

1-You need to understand why you are in the minority. You need to stay there, in the minority, for a long time, until you get it. I suggest reading about the philosophical underpinnings of the right. You don’t need to agree with them. But understanding them is a must. I would start with Strangers in the Their Own Land.

2-For those not willing to take the intellectual journey, as to why we are witness to the return of the right,  you can always focus on achieving small things. Small things enable victories. In the last few years, I have focused on Beach Day for Palestinian kids.

3-Read different perspectives about the same problem. I often read Israeli right wing press, left wing press, the Egyptian press, the Saudi press and the Turkish press to develop an understanding of Iran. In other words, stop inhaling your own smoke. It’s worse than living under a leader with whom you disagree.

4-Keep friendships across partisan lines. I have many friends who are more left than me (one state solution) and many friends who are observant (although not messianic). Use friendship as a bridge to understand the internal logic of the other side.

5-Think  about democracy. Are you a democrat until the opposition is in power? Think hard about that. Personally I am struggling because illiberal democracy is not my cup of tea.

6-Also, think about what the real issues are for you . Save your energy for important matters. Personally, I pretty much ignore issues like the rights of transsexuals to choose their toilets, or should the trains run on Saturday. Because trains will not run on Saturday, ever. And the rights of transsexuals to choose their own toilets is a symptom of the agenda-less-ness.

7-Finally, think about if you want to be politically involved or not. Because the time we all have is limited and the “right “is going to be in power for an awfully long time.

8-And finally, stop attacking Trump on his mental condition. Kennedy, Johnson, Lincoln, McKenzie-King, and Churchill all had severe issues of mental health. If Trump bothers you more than Trumpism, you are pissing into the wind. If you don’t know about McKenzie-King, you are missing some wild stuff.

 

 

 

 

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