The middle manager predicament

“Landing in the middle of the status hierarchy actually makes us less original. When [psychology researchers] asked people to generate ideas, their output was 34 percent less original after being randomly assigned a middle-manager role than a president or assistant role. In another experiment, merely thinking about a time that they were in a middle-status role caused participants to generate 20-25 percent fewer ideas […] than thinking about being in a high-status or low-status role.”

-Adam Grant, Originals (p. 84)

I suppose “death by middle management” is basically cliché at this point. But normally I just hear people joking about it. It occurs to me now that middle managers are a good case study for examining the problems with traditional management hierarchies, because middle managers are subject to the stresses both of trying to please those above and trying to be responsible for those below. (To put it another way, the system gives them less than one-person’s-worth of power, yet more than one-person’s-worth of responsibility.)

The way I interpret the experiment’s results above is that being in a power hierarchy at any level stifles creativity, but middle managers receive a double dose.

The fat hypothesis

“The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a 2008 analysis of all studies of the low-fat diet, found “no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of dietary fat causes heart disease or cancer. Another landmark review […] stated “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of [coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease]”.

“In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.”

-Ian Leslie, The Sugar Conspiracy (The Guardian)

Manager approvals

Adam Grant, Originals (p. 40):

When managers vet novel ideas, they’re in an evaluative mindset. To protect themselves against the risks of a bad bet, they compare the new notion on the table to templates of ideas that have succeeded in the past. When publishing executives passed on Harry Potter, they said it was too long for a children’s book; when [the division president] saw the Seinfeld pilot, he felt it was “too Jewish” and “too New York” to appeal to a wide audience.

The book goes on to cite studies which found that managers, test audiences, and the creator of a given work all had poor track records when predicting the creative work’s real-world success. Instead, the most accurate predictions were made by creative peers evaluating one another.

It makes you wonder why today’s companies still make most of their decisions via manager approvals. Which also makes you wonder if there might exist a more effective approach


Scarcity vs. Mutual Benefit

A core thesis of Nonviolent Communication (Rosenberg) is that there is no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil. Rather, everyone simply has needs which may be met or unmet. “Moralistic thinking” judges an action or person that meets your needs as “good” and one that does not meet your needs as “bad”. Rosenberg argues that all violence is caused by such judgements and offers techniques for interpreting the world more compassionately.

Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero, chronicles the history of the world as the progress of biological and then social organisms to unleash new ways of collaborating in order to achieve mutual gains. This includes everything from the mutual advantage of organelles joining together inside a cell to the mutual advantages of paying taxes for shared services like roads and armies. It helps to explain the evolutionary development of human brains able to cooperate with ever larger social groups, as well as the emergence of human traits such as kindness and altruism.

Wright also makes it clear that there have always been plenty of situations where collaboration does not lead to mutual gains. When there is a fixed scarcity of food, water, control, or some other resource, violence and war have been the logical strategy to claim the limited spoils. (And the two situations are intertwined: competition for limited resources created the evolutionary pressure that favored human groups that were better at cooperating internally.)

I believe these authors offer two perspectives on a single phenomenon. Namely, we humans are flexibly equipped to deal with two distinct types of situations: those where collaboration results in mutual gain; and those where it does not.

When we act out of fear (including its variants, guilt and shame), we are using the part of our psyche that is adapted to scarcity and competition for limited resources. Scarcity calls for violence, and so our action will necessarily be violent. Nonviolent Communication describes a wide range of violent actions — not just physical but also relational and emotional violence, as well as violence to our own internal sense of worthiness.

When we act from a feeling of compassion (i.e. caring and love), we are using an altogether different part of our psyche that is adapted to the possibility of mutual gain. Such situations call for empathy — an understanding of others’ needs as well as our own — so that we can work together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. Our action is likely to be creative, searching out opportunities for new forms of mutual gain.

Among other things, this helps to explain why people meet the expectations of their environment. If you approach someone with violence or by wielding power, they are likely to assume they are in a scarcity situation and will probably respond using their fear pathway. If you approach someone with compassion, they are likely to assume they are in a mutual gain situation and will probably respond using their cooperation pathway.

Mindfulness meditation and other spiritual traditions (with their practices covering gratitude, compassion, patience, etc.) can be seen as a way to train the mind to react to as many situations as possible with the cooperation pathway rather than the scarcity pathway. This goal follows from the understanding that cooperation creates abundance, whereas violence only leads to more scarcity.

It may be that when we talk about “angels and demons of our nature”, we are really referring to our compassion and fear pathways. However, calling one of these pathways “good” and the other “bad” is itself a judgement that inevitably leads to more violence. The Zen of Fear is to nurture compassion for that part of us that is designed to face scarcity.

Causality of Success

“Most people assume the following formula: If you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy. Success first, happiness second. The only problem is that this formula is broken. The formula is broken because it is backward. More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around. Happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement.”

-Shawn Achor (TED talk, via Corporate Rebels)

Listening to hearts

“I’ve learned that I enjoy human beings more if I don’t hear what they think. […] I’ve learned to savor life much more by only hearing what’s going on in their hearts and not getting caught up with the stuff in their heads. [When I focus on their] feelings and needs, I see the universality of our experience.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 151)


“All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.”

-Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication (p. 147)