Thoughts on Steve Ballmer’s Exit from Microsoft

I was asked to comment on the shakeup at Microsoft and this post in the New Yorker. 

So, here are a few bullet points of my initial thoughts…

  • Fear snuffs out creativity.
  • Taking smart even brilliant people and having them compete to avoid failure breaks every rule of how to build motivation and morale.
  • It is obvious that Microsoft didn’t know how to build effective working teams — either in the management of the enterprise or the the creation of ideas to make the enterprise competitive.
  • Brilliance without heart is not sustainable.
  • Steve Jobs was, at times tyrannical, but he had a sense of the team, of how to motivate and challenge individuals. 

I could go on and on.

Just because you’re intelligent doesn’t mean you’re smart – whether you’re an individual, or a organization.

The Sucker Punch of Technology

Somewhere on the road to leisure, we took a turn down the information highway. There is no doubt that we can do more with less in this digital age. Also, during this same momentous time period we, theoretically, moved away from command and control leadership toward greater use of the collaborative, toward participation and consensus building. Other phrases such as life balance have crept into the jargon of business, as if they actually mean something. But, something’s not right.

Let’s imagine that I am an ambitious boss, not evil, just a tad insensitive and desiring the best for my company. I have the capability to communicate with my “team” of leaders at any time, by email, through a smartphone or tablet. I can discuss, give orders, criticize and never have to leave my office, or car, or wherever an idea – good or bad — crosses my brain. Of course, because I am the boss, I deserve and expect to be heard. The average, conscientious subordinate will never stand tall and say,

“Boss, I’m drowning, I have no time for my wife and kids, I have fifty to a hundred emails a day to answer, twenty calls to make that are backed up at any moment in time, I work on week-ends, late into the night, and often arrive early at the office because it is the only time I have to clean up my communications, many of which make no sense or are a waste of time.  I am stressed out, short tempered, always trying to catch up and with little time to plan or think strategically and no time to attempt mentoring or developing my own people.”

The “all access all the time” attitude generated seeps down into the organization, which increasingly responds with an urgency that suggests the last command is the most important. While “life-balance” is often banded about, in reality not responding to the latest urgent directive can be perceived as being complacent, lazy or, even, disloyal. The norm (unspoken rule) in some organizations is that email must be responded to in less than an hour, text messages immediately. Think what that does to the stress factor.

The process is insidious and persistent and cultivates a culture of conformity that is conflict averse and less and less open to feedback or the notion of being self-critical. Conformity dominates meetings (see group think) because not only is there no time for dissent, but, little apparent advantage for doing so. Multi-tasking is valued with more credits for getting something out of the way and completed. Quality or concern about “how” the work is accomplished and the long-term consequences on morale and productivity are of less and less interest. Just do it is the melody and don’t complain is the lyric.

Technology, with all its benefits, has simply exaggerated the emphasis on the what of workthe bottom line and the speed of getting there. There is little or no focus on the how. While we are willing to look at the process of work-flow, what is lost are the bigger process issues which underlie morale and productivity: How power is distributed, how people relate and engage with each other, whether trust is gained or lost, and whether those who do the heavy lifting feel appreciated and of high regard to those in positions of influence.

Instead of the 30 hour work week promised by technology years ago, 50 or 60 is the norm, particularly for the ambitious manager. In some quarters it has become a calculated, even abusive, means of squeezing hundreds of additional hours out of managers a year – without paying for it – an expectation rather than an exception. It has been almost invisible, an insidious, covert process without discussion or negotiation. The new technologies have swept into business unbounded, without thought of the detrimental consequences on the system. The quite obvious short-term benefits are being countered by the cumulative impact of stress, disorganization and crisis management.

 So, what’s the real price organizations, and individuals, are paying for technology? 

Am I willing?

We live in a world of small transgressions that left untreated will fester and grow. They are cumulative so that when finally addressed it may be too late to overcome the attending vitriol – the effort to transplant care and love and forgiveness will be rejected.

The key is to see the “signs” of failure, and, without blame, to creatively address the problem, to bring to bear the positive energy of good will and understanding and live with gratitude that there is still hope, still opportunity to do good in a world filled with too much evil.

It is in us, up to us, to be creative in how to close old wounds and to let go of the hurts that drive the pain we all carry. It is the willingness to explore such a barren land that all too often reduces our will, our ability to risk and be vulnerable, leaving pride and antagonism thrown to the curb freeing us to act as human beings one to another, even when we have been wronged.

How do we begin about letting go old hurts, seeing the humanity in others and, most importantly, in ourselves. And, again, forgiveness, is the operative word essential if we are to enliven the latent good in all of us. Even if the other is unwilling to change, the process of creative change can unburden us from anger, from the toxins that erode our mental and spiritual health.

I believe it begins with this – the willingness to step away from our rejection and hurt and see the full story – because we all have a story that needs understanding. Only then can we hope to bring our creative selves to the table and with it the humor that can lift our downtrodden spirits.

The openness to love plays a very big part.