Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Artists, Not Assholes

Getting rid of that one obstructionist ...

"The title of this column may seem a bit harsh. That’s exactly what Robert I. Sutton’s publisher said at first, when he submitted a manuscript titled The No Asshole Rule. [1] Yet, they did publish the book, and it’s worth a read. I don’t use the term lightly, but as Sutton suggests, other terms such as jerk just don’t convey the same understanding or intensity.

My key point in this column is that we need to support, defend, and promote our artisans, or artists, and we need to eliminate the assholes from our organizations. In practice, I see a lot of managers who do not support their artisans—their greatest performers—but hold onto and even reward their assholes. In the end, an organization that rewards the wrong people can destroy its effectiveness and drive the most talented people out. Often, such managers just don’t understand why things aren’t working out and make excuses for their weak performers. Bottom line… Any manager who either doesn’t understand the difference between the artists and the assholes—or simply can’t make the hard choices—shouldn’t be a manager. As managers, we must be incisive and exercise the courage of our managerial convictions.

In using the term artists, I don’t mean people who have an art degree—or the archetypal designer wearing a black turtleneck and a beret. I’m referring to the indispensable artisans who energize and uplift an organization, helping transform it from the merely average to the excellent. These people may be researchers, interaction designers, visual designers, information architects, creative leads, or prototypers. Whatever their roles, they are the people who carry us. There are times when artisans may seem prickly or arrogant. Often that’s because they have such a strong sense of what is right, it is difficult for them to do something that opposes the integrity of their vision. Their way feels like the right way. When we listen to them, they make us better. I’ve found such artisans often have a vision for change that is powerful—even though perhaps disruptive. Such disruption is always for the better though.

Mind you, I’m not saying everyone who’s stubborn is an artisan. Far from it. In my experience, only one in ten good researchers or designers is a true artisan. Though, perhaps eight in ten think they are. It’s your job to figure out who is and who isn’t. I, for one, have learned to identify the artisans, listen to them, support them, and give them the room to exercise their abilities. Often, that’s the primary motivation for an artisan: They want room to exercise their vision, so they can deliver ground-breaking work that delights users and makes their group thrive. They have an almost palpable need to do so. As a manager, you need to defend, coach, and promote these individuals, and you need to do so unapologetically and publicly.

By the pejorative asshole, I am referring to individuals who suck the life out of any organization. They can, at times, seem indispensable, because they may deliver value. They may, in fact, be among the smartest people in the room. But they are a destructive force that creates distrust, animosity, and tension among team members. They reduce creativity and make people feel uncomfortable contributing or even walking into a meeting. Rather than building trust and confidence, they undermine it. Sometimes they can even be subtle. I’ve seen such people build allegiances and cliques that polarize a team and subtly sow seeds of distrust, whether with other team members or with management. Some assholes hide their actions in passive-aggressive behaviors: They show one face to the manager or larger group and another to their clique.

No matter how valuable these people seem to be, you have to fire them. Let me repeat: You have to remove them as decisively as you would eliminate a cancer. No matter how valuable you think they are, you cannot let an asshole stay on your team. Like any manager, I learned this the hard way, by having made the mistake of keeping highly skilled assholes on my team against my better judgment. Every single time I’ve made the wrong decision, it has caused me and my teams heartache and diminished the value of everyone on the team."    (Continued via UXmatters, Jim Nieters)    [Usability Resources]

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