It's time to throw Sun Tzu out with the trash.
It's time to throw Sun Tzu out with the trash.
One year ago, I became the editor of a small newspaper. I had never managed a staff before; in fact, I had never even worked in an office, and the only people I'd ever been in charge of in any sense were the members of my immediate family. The very term "in charge" implies a military sense of duty, but I ran my small household on a more typically maternal model, relying more on the feminine arts of negotiation, persuasion, consensus building, and reward than on anything resembling force or intimidation.
In my new job, I found an office environment that was about as welcoming and friendly as an encampment of Confederate conscripts in the waning days of the Civil War. The long-established management style at the paper was based on aggressive, militaristic, alpha-male behavior. Staffers told me they were rarely praised (praise, of course, fosters weakness), they were frequently set against one another (divide and conquer), and rudeness and humiliation of one's inferiors were considered the prerogatives of rank (a periodic dressing down was good medicine). One young writer even complained that she had been made to fetch coffee for her female boss every day, a version of KP duty to be sure.
Still, finding myself suddenly in charge of several employees and a weekly production schedule, I dutifully took the advice of a friend who is a veteran manager and picked up a copy of the modern manager's bible, Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Everybody knows that the only valid model for behavior in the workplace is the battlefield, right? Look at the recent popularity of The Apprentice, wherein men and women alike slaughtered each other in the ring to win Emperor Donald Trump's thumbs-up -- a management model that isn't merely militaristic but downright gladiatorial.
Cracking open The Art of War, I expected to find kernels of wisdom translatable to the workplace; what I found instead scared me almost as much as the movie Heathers had back when I was still recovering from high school.
"All warfare is based on deception," I read. So much for the Good Fight. "Speed is the essence of war," I read later on. "Take advantage of the enemy's unpreparedness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack him where he has taken no precautions." And my favorite, as a newly minted manager of a staff of six: "Throw your soldiers into a position whence there is no escape, and they will choose death over desertion."
I would never be a general. And really, I thought crossly, why should I be?
But it wasn't until the day I happened to spill mango juice on my favorite Brooks Brothers blouse that I happened upon the tool that showed me I had the power to be a brilliant manager all along, and that all the know-how I needed was to be found even closer than my own backyard.
While looking up the stain remedy (use detergent, but never soap, on tannin-containing stains like juice, coffee, or wine), I found myself falling headlong into a book called Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson, a woman who, when she isn't practicing law or teaching philosophy at Columbia University, amuses herself by keeping house. Home Comforts, published in 1999, is a very serious book about cleaning, cooking, organizing, and generally generating a condition of domestic bliss, but Mendelson is no Heloise; aside from giving explicit instructions on how to do everything from balancing a load of laundry to filing an I-9 for your Swedish nanny, she waxes passionate and philosophical on her topic, freely quoting Homer and Witold Rybczynski as the occasion allows. Pulling my nose out of Mendelson's masterpiece after hours of immersion, I felt as if I had finally discovered my magic feather duster (I'd say secret weapon, but that would be militaryspeak), a book that seemed to contain a wise solution to every managerial problem.
In short, Sun Tzu's mean little book gathers dust on the shelf in my office, while Mendelson's 900-page tome serves me as the source of any and all managerial metaphors:
In this regard, our homes are far ahead of most of our workplaces. "In today's servantless homes," Mendelson writes, "where shining, sweet-smelling kitchens are equipped with the latest labor-saving devices, cooking has been transformed into an art that everyone can be proud to master."
Her words set me to thinking: The small company over which I preside resembles a tumultuous household far more than it does an armed encampment. And for my part, I vastly prefer rattling around the proverbial kitchen, cooking up ideas potlatch-style, to sitting in a conference room strategizing with my minions. Accordingly, wouldn't my goals as a manager be far better served by treating the office more like a kitchen and less like a war room and fostering a sense of egalitarianism and pleasure in the process as well as the outcome? The first of many culinary ahas.
What Mendelson is saying, if I'm not mistaken, is that a recipe, or manual, is no substitute for mastery. Only through true mastery can you render a chore into a joy, an onus into an art form. Also, never accept conventional wisdom as to how a task should be performed. If you don't give someone a recipe but instead demand that he or she do the research, learn the skills, and produce an acceptable result, then you will never hear the words, "I was only following orders."
From Mendelson's treatise on laundry, I learned that by failing to schedule tasks properly, I was perpetuating chaos. She suggests that Monday is still the day to do laundry, as it is still the time when one is least likely to be tired. As a tired person who is always planning to do the laundry on Thursday but is inevitably too tired to do so when Thursday rolls around (it's easier to run to the mall for underwear), I saw the truth in this. I also saw that I was doing much the same thing in the office by continuing the policy of holding our weekly editorial meeting on Wednesday afternoons, after the paper went to the printer. We were always exhausted and had little creative energy to bring to the table, and by then it was really too late to make any meaningful changes to the next week's edition but too soon to think about the following week. So, acknowledging Mendelson's wisdom, I changed our "laundry day" to Monday, when everyone was fresh. Suddenly the meetings had meaning because there was time and energy to act on new ideas, move deadlines, swap out stories. The quality of our paper increased in proportion to the quality of these meetings, and our subjective experience of our workweek improved exponentially: We no longer felt at the mercy of our schedule.
You could probably call me the One-Hour Manager. I waste a lot of time on needless conviviality, playing hostess in my office, where I keep an electric kettle, along with the other accouterments of tea, not the least of which is a comfortable sofa. Whenever someone walks into my office with a knitted brow and an open mouth, I say, preemptively, "Would you like a cup of tea?"
Whatever the answer, this creates a pause and sets the tone for the discussion to follow. If, as is often the case, the employee came in to bitch about someone or something, then the offer of tea turns the focus subtly away from the expression of aggression and toward the expression of the employee's own feelings. He or she ends up venting rather than attacking. This usually results in a bright, "Gee, I feel better now," without my having had to say much of anything. And while it often feels like an intrusion on my valuable time, I'm convinced it's ultimately less time-consuming than letting hostilities escalate to the point where I end up following the fire-breathing dragon around the village with a bucket of water.
Mendelson doesn't actually advise against running with scissors, but only because she doesn't really approve of walking with them, or especially with knives. "You are more likely to cut yourself if your blade is either extremely keen or extremely dull," she says. "In the former case, a mere touch will rend the skin; in the latter you may press so hard that the blade slides into your hand with great force."
The same could be said for any kind of technology, from telephones and copiers to software: Push yourself too close to the cutting edge and you risk being distracted by bloody nicks and scrapes on a daily basis, but allow yourself to grow too dull and you will eventually inflict upon yourself a serious wound. I made this mistake when I found the advertising department and the editorial staff constantly quarreling over the use of the newspaper's single digital camera. First I bought three very cheap digital cameras, which were outdated by the time they were shipped and consequently were never put to use. Then I decided to buy a high-end camera with lots of complicated bells and whistles, and this one turned out to be hard to use. The upshot? Everyone continued to use the old camera. I should have just split the difference and bought a second camera exactly like the one everyone liked so much.
To some extent, we all outsource, whether it's just for processing payroll and having the wastebaskets emptied or having people in Third World countries answer a tech support line. In a chapter on household help, Mendelson warns against outgrowing one's own abilities: "Households of a size and nature that can be kept up by those who live in them are the most homelike, and housework in itself is physically and emotionally pleasant and restorative."
This cleared up a great mystery for me: The question of why the company I work for seemed to have little soul or identity. It had started as a family business; later it was bought by an individual; then suddenly it grew, first with the purchase of a second small paper, then with the launching of a third and fourth. This rapid growth meant that a lot of people were being hired to act as servants rather than to participate as family members. They certainly didn't feel their work to be "physically and emotionally pleasant and restorative."
From this I inferred that small companies ought not to grow faster than a family can grow, allowing time for courtships, honeymoons, gestation periods, adoptions, and the occasional Brady Bunch kind of merger. On the micro level, I now "date" prospective employees for several weeks by giving them several freelance assignments before even hinting at the possibility of a staff position.
Hominess, Mendelson explains, has nothing to do with tidiness or even cleanliness, but rather with appropriateness, which is created "by knowing the habits of the members of the household -- a hook where this person wants to hang his cap, a basket where that one tends to leave keys and odds and ends from her pockets." She warns against too much emphasis on order, which can lead to vinyl-covered sofas, excessive grandeur, or drop-dead coolness, all of which are uncomfortable to live with. How many offices have you seen in which there was much striving to create an impression, through decor, yes, but also through management's particular brand of dictatorial bluster? A lot of energy seems to be spent on making sure that workers inhabit a "professional" environment, or worse yet, a "competitive" one. That never made sense to me. If you want workers to invest as much energy in putting out a product as they do in raising their children, you need to foster a sense of home. This discussion of hominess led me to contemplate the matter of, to use the simplest possible word, niceness.
Creating a nice office, to me, meant that everyone was held to a high standard of behavior -- I required not only mutual courtesy, but also genuine caring. Several independent contractors with whom I did business threw tantrums early on. Their contracts were swiftly rescinded. This sent a message to all that there would be no gratuitous bad behavior in this household.
Nine years ago The Economist ran an article called "The Male Dodo," which announced the coming obsolescence of testosterone and the decline of maleness as the dominant gender style in human culture. "In the grand sweep of things," the anonymous author, a zoologist, declared, "the human race may before long have completed its evolution from a warring collection of romantic, male-dominated tribes to a peaceable, cool-headed sisterhood devoted to shopping and household management -- those most feminine of arts known nowadays as economics."
In a masculine, militant culture where competition decides survival, the weak will always perish, and that is probably a good thing. But will those individuals who make it to the top really be the best qualified, and will those companies that survive in the marketplace really be the best at what they do? Or will they just be the brashest and meanest among the marginally qualified and competent? This crude sorting method may be good enough for military operations, but it won't fly in the complicated, subtle business of designing and running a unified global economy. For this, Mother Earth and Mother Nature are going to need help from Mother Economy. And the only male whose assistance will be required is Father Time.
Hillary Johnson lives and works in California.