A Strong Strategy – Politeness

In yesterday’s entry, I wrote about an article by William Saletan in the NY Times called The Double Thinker. Another part of that article really hit me. It is the notion of Politeness Theory. I looked it up on Wikipedia and discovered another side to it.

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson first come up with the theory in 1987. But Erving Goffman defined the term “face” in 1963. It is the idea that our realities are shaped by our interactions in social contexts. Certain procedures and practices define how communication flow in social settings. So as the speaker talks the audience maintains a face for this person depending on what it is the speaker wants to convey and uphold. There is a positive face and negative face. Positive face is the desire to be seen as a good human being. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous. Goffman believes there are many strategies to remain in either position.

If you read yesterday’s post then you know that I love the following paragraph in a business setting:

The most important tenet of Brown and Levinson’s original text on
politeness theory is that we change our language based on the hearer
and thus our strategies for compliance gaining change depending on the
audience. In everyday life, we design messages that protect face and
achieve other goals as well. Politeness is the expression of the
speaker’s intention to mitigate face threats carried by certain face
threatening acts toward another.

The idea that we change the language used based on the hearer is subtle but important. I think that is why certain business terms exist i.e. decisioning. More:

Politeness consists of attempting to save face for another. Brown and
Levinson begin with the idea of ‘model persons’, rational agents who
think strategically and are conscious of their language choices. This
influenced Brown and Levinson when examining Goffman’s version of face,
where they agreed that rational agents have both positive and negative
face. Simply put, they believe that model persons want to maintain
others’ face, but nevertheless are often forced to commit face
threatening acts. Thus, politeness strategies are developed in order to
formulate messages in order to save the hearer’s face when face
threatening acts are inevitable or desired. This means that the speaker
avoids embarrassing the listener or making him feel uncomfortable.

So Brown and Levinson came up with four Strategies for Politeness. They are:

  • bald on record
  • negative politeness
  • positive politeness
  • off-the-cord or indirect strategy

Bald on record is when the speaker and audience are well established and pleasantries are unneeded. It also assumes there are some sort of understanding of position in the relationship. For example, if the rule is to switch turns on taking out the garbage, the person who has already performed their part can instruct the other person that it is their turn.

Negative politeness is with the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener. So to avoid awkwardness, the request is qualified. So the speaker might say something like “I know you haven’t slept much recently, but if you aren’t too tired, can you be at work early to help me with my project?” This allows the listener to say no in a reasonable manner.

Positive politeness is the similar to negative politeness, but more aimed at avoiding conflict. Here is what might be said in this case “You haven’t slept much recently, but could you meet early tomorrow to help with the project?” This acknowledges the issue but still gets to the aim.

Finally, indirect strategy is the speaker not actually putting a real request out. Only using clues for the listener to interpret as direction. For example, the speaker might say “The road is really curvy and blind” when the listener is driving too fast for the speakers comfort.

So next time you are in a group setting, try to pick up on the style used by the different speakers. You will get an idea how close they feel to th audience.

Business Talk

I have a few pet peeves. I’m sure everyone does. One that I have is business speak. It runs two fold:

  1. Double meanings or vagueness of what the point or promise is
  2. Inventing new words out of current words to sound different

Number 1 is certainly no surprise to anyone in a big business. Maybe to no one in a medium sized business either. But I see it all the time in the age of PowerPoint. It is similar to this:

    Our goal is to save the company costs from expense. Our plan consists of:
    Reduction of ordering
    Combining of purchases
    Tracking of use
    Full circle response

Now, on the face of it that doesn’t seem so bad, but what do any of these things really mean. The first two are basically the same thing, the third one seems to be something worth doing, and the fourth one just makes no sense. But what I observe, is that these aren’t really tested as often as they should be. Maybe it is just accepted or maybe it is politeness.

Number 2 is even more bothersome to me. Take for instance the term “decision.” Normally it is used like this “We need to make a decision by the 6 o’clock deadline so the team can act on it.” Then after the decision event the term usually changes to “decide” or decided.” What I’ve run across is the usage of the term “decision” in place of the term “decide.” So it is used like this” The group decisioned this last week.” Shouldn’t it be “The group decided this last week?”

I looked up “decisioned” and “decisioning” on both wikitionary.com and dictionary.com and neither had an entry for these terms.

In a recent article by William Saletan in the NY Times called The Double Thinker, Saletan reviews several books by Steven Pinker. Saletan is fairly critical of Pinker and hones in on Pinker’s use of duality. One such statement is that Saletan writes is this:

That doesn’t mean we always use language to convey reality. Language is
a social medium with social purposes. Sometimes, we use it not to
communicate facts about the world but to filter them. We euphemize
bribes as “contributions” to preserve the dignity of lobbyists and
legislators. We phrase treaties vaguely because if they were clear,
nobody would sign them. We invent subtle sexual overtures to avoid a
confrontation if the other guy turns out not to be gay. We complain
about doublespeak but rely on double meanings.

I especially like the last sentence because even though I’m complaining about doublespeak right now, I use it.

Are Indian Companies Expanding Too Quickly?

A recent NY Times article highlights the outsourcing methodology. The article is by Anand Giridharadas and titled Outsourcing Works, So India is Exporting Jobs.The premise is that the main consultant companies in India, Infosys and Wipro for example, are buying offices in other lesser developed countries or areas and training those that live there to do the jobs that can be outsourced there. The article marvels at how an American company can bring in Infosys to help with a Hispanic program with the rational being that Infosys can hire Mexican workers to write the program and understand the cultural nuances.

But what I am seeing are companies that are expanding too quickly. Not just in location but in ideology. Much of the reason for India being a popular place for outsourcing is the years it took to build a remarkable educational system. Now that the outsourcing proceeds are raising work rates in India, finding a cheaper alternative is paramount to continue to offer the service at the price outsourcers are comfortable with. So by expanding to other nations, the Indian companies are losing the educational experience that their current workforce has as a foundation. Expanding to Mexico and other areas and offering a training program is not the same thing.

So what do I expect from this? I expect to see this trend continue for another couple of years with more articles praising the idea. But then I expect to see a little backlash. This backlash I expect to come from the newly developed countries. I expect them to take the education and find that they are not as empowered as they believed they would be. I expect that service levels will decline. I expect to find a company like IBM buy these satellite trained offices on the cheap and educate the workers even more. That is when I think this idea will really take off.

73,000 Workers to Picket Lines

G.M. and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union could not come to agreement by the deadline set, forcing the UAW union to strike. The sticking point is a guarantee of jobs and benefits. These are the two main reasons for having a union in the first place. So how did it come to this? G.M. has suffered competitively for several years. To enable the company to avoid filing for bankruptcy, the UAW has worked hand in hand with the company to reduce the work force by providing early retirement packages. The UAW has also accepted concessions on health care costs.


That is the line in the sand. At some point the UAW has to stop enabling G.M. to remain competitive solely through reduction. By striking, the UAW is saying that G.M. must get more creative and innovative with their product offerings and strategies. Unfortunately for the UAW, G.M. might be a little ahead in that regard. Plants in other parts of the world, that don’t have union representation, are thriving and sales are up around the globe. In a global economy, the US dependence softens. So the UAW was absolutely correct in striking after the deadline has passed. It is their job to show how without their presence many assets falter. Otherwise, G.M. will continue to set find viable alternatives.

When I was in college I took a Labor Negotiations class. The main aspect of the class was to broker a new contract between a union and a company. I was the head of the union. It was my job to speak to the corresponding representive of the company. It was also my job to find the best strategy for my constituents. My team went through the numbers, prioritized, and found areas where we were willing to bend and others where we weren’t. The process started and for the first 5 weeks (we only met once a week) or so we debated and came to terms on the lesser important matters. But as the class was winding down we still had several important terms to discuss. I was ready to stand firm.

About two weeks before we were to conclude I was at a party. Tom, my opposing leader of the company was there too. We often socialized together prior to this class. Tom pulled me aside and said he didn’t want to negotiate anymore. He wanted to wrap it up. I listened to what his offer was. He found an accepted middle ground on every point and we worked out a framework deal right then and there. We each knew the acceptable number for every point and we were willing to oblige each other. No one was trying to “win” the negotiation. Our next class was somewhat awkward since we had to pretend we didn’t already have a deal in place. Either way, we flew through it and got a good deal done. The professor was pleased that everyone completed fair deals and I think earned a B+ in the class.

So what is the point to this little aside? That communicating and knowing the opposition are vital to getting over the “winning” aspect of negotiations and finding a fair deal. Tom and I were able to speak without all of our constituents present, find a fair a deal, and move on. We didn’t have to posture or anything like that. We boiled down our goals and since we each knew the fair numbers we didn’t have a wide gap to close. I see this a lot in lawyer movies.

The Next Management Stars: Divergence Generation

Fortune Magazine is currently doing an issue on Leadership with the usual flavor of 10 Best Companies For Leaders and How to be a Great Leader. Although I don’t think there is any significance to Fortune doing these articles now, beyond it being a yearly topic, it is timely for me.

Yesterday I wrote a post about Paul Krugman’s illustration of the US over the last 100 years. The depiction shows that since 1987 or about 20 years, the US has changed into something called the Divergence Generation. Well, 20 years is almost the same as the age as the next leaders coming out of college. This group won’t know the middle class America, this group knows the Divergence Generation. Well, to hop on the bandwagon of catchy labels, I will call this group the Divergence Generation, or D/Gen for short. The sounding of the name is purposeful, for good and for bad reasons.

Fortune submitted today a good article from Geoff Colvin called How Top Companies Breed Stars. It has several ideas that I agree with, such as “academy companies” where one company has such talented leaders that other companies hire them away for even larger roles in their firms. Another idea I agree with is that even though we are currently in a credit crunch, it is still no comparison to human capital crunch. Talented people are such a vital asset. Here is a blurb that I especially liked:

Even if that weren’t true, companies would still be beefing up
leadership development for a more immediate reason: The best young
employees are hungry for it. It seems young people understood the new
nature of today’s economy before a lot of CEOs did, and they insist on
jobs that will keep making them better.

Judy Pahren, senior VP for development and diversity at credit card bank Capital One Financial (Charts, Fortune 500)
(No. 5), says that new employees cite “job flexibility, development,
and community involvement” as the top three factors in keeping them at
the company. GE’s Immelt says his company is responding by, among other
things, sending high-potential employees to the company’s famed
Crotonville, N.Y., leadership-development center much earlier in their
careers; in attracting top prospects, “that’s a strong selling point.”

are finding that the advantages of building a reputation for developing
talent are greater than they may have thought – “a first-pick
advantage,” as the RBL Group calls it, an edge in attracting the cream
of college and business-school students.

Says Hewitt’s
Gandossy: “Companies that provide people with opportunities to learn
and grow become talent magnets, drawing scarce talent in droves.” By
continually attracting the most promising graduates and then developing
them, these firms become higher-performing organizations, enhancing
their ability to attract the best – a self-reinforcing cycle that makes
the company more dominant every year.

The very first paragraph talks about how the best young employees are hungry for leadership development. This is D/Gen instituting some sort of collective plan.

  • The current economy contains baby boomers transitioning their jobs into routine process for potential outsourcing.
  • The new economy has D/Gens, untethered by middle class experience, demanding the very things that won’t make their jobs routine:
  • leadership resources,
  • flexibility,
  • development,
  • community involvement,
  • and I’ll add creativity.

Paul Krugman: The Conscience of a Liberal

I don’t normally read Paul Krugman in the the NY Times. I did see that he started a new blog though. I wasn’t interested in his columns because they tended to be a little too political for me. What I find odd about myself is that I love politics, but not political newspaper articles. I prefer it to be explained to me like a game. How one person managed their position on one issue but gave in on another for comprise. What I usually get is something much more short sighted and only topic related.

But Krugman did have an interesting chart in his blog about the birth of the middle class and the times before it and the era after it.

<img src="/images/85389-74649/19krugman2_5331.jpg” border=”0″ width=”533″>

I often harp on the difference between CEO pay or Fund Manager pay and the increases that the common worker gets in the US, especially when productivity is going through the roof. This illustration, along with Krugman, points to an eventual change. I aim to identify the causes of that change and the timing of it.

MBA Alternatives

I’ve heard the term “quants” many times in my work environment. I’ve always thought it sounded cool – quants. So I’ve looked it up several times to get an idea of what someone that is labeled a quant does. Here is the wikipedia entry:

A quantitative analyst is a person who works in the financial markets developing mathematical models to assist the activities of traders and risk managers within banks and other large corporate institutions. Throughout the industry, such professionals are known as quants.

This goes right along with what I’ve written about in other posts, that jobs that aren’t the next level up will find a way to be outsourced. If you can make it routine then you can create a list of activities for someone else to do. Being a quantitative analyst sure is the next level up. But interesting enough there are new educational programs for the people in this space. Again, here is the wikipedia entry:

The disciplines of finance, mathematics, statistics and computer science are now linked. A corporation whose risk management
policy compels it to lock in a foreign exchange rate must deal with a
foreign currency derivatives trader. The trader bases his pricing and
hedging decisions on the behavior of a Brownian motion, determined by statistical estimation
of parameters and simulated under probabilities that differ from those
of the real world, a simulation justified by the profound mathematical
and financial dual ideas of change-of-measure and risk-neutral pricing.

This linkage has led to the creation of specialized Masters and PhD courses in mathematical finance, computational finance, and/or financial reinsurance.
In particular, Masters degrees in financial engineering and financial
analysis are becoming more popular with students and with employers.
Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business,
which created the Masters degree in financial engineering, reported a
21% increase in applicants to their MS in Computational Finance
program, which is on top of a 48% increase in the year before[2]. The University of California Berkeley‘s program in Financial Engineering through their Haas School of Business
is considered the leading program in the field and admits 60 students
each year. This surge in popularity has led other schools (the University of California at Los Angeles, Rutgers University, Polytechnic University and the University of Minnesota) to add Masters level degrees. These Masters level programs are generally one year in length and more focused than the broader MBA degree.

Although the original “quants” were concerned with risk management
and derivatives pricing, the meaning of the term has expanded over time
to include those individuals involved in almost any application of
mathematics in finance. An example is statistical arbitrage.

So as the business world changes to create educated professionals streamlined for their needs, other people can take advantage of MFA – Masters in Fine Arts to separate themselves. Educational institutions are developing programs to even attain a PhD level. So what do you do if you are MFA candidate? You select a field like theater, creative writing, film making, or the visual arts. You then spend two to three years developing your craft. The end result is a performance of sorts. I personally think the creative writing program would be a boon to the business that hired you next, but I can’t really see any downside in any of them. Each one is very applicable to today’s business and it completely separates your skill set from, not just outsourcing, but from your coworkers. I’m not sure on the cost, but MBAs are pretty expensive. I’ll go out on a limb and say that a MFA is cheaper.

Two alternatives to an MBA:

  • Masters degree in Financial Engineering
  • Masters in Fine Art

Charm in Business

This is a simple observation post.

I was watching a show called Nothing But Trailers on HDNet and it featured a movie with Jeff Goldblum called Fay Grim. The commentary talked about Jeff Goldblum as a dancer in the movie, but not in the literal sense. In the sense that his co-actors can play off him. This interaction is special in acting and it is in the business world as well.

There are people in the world that are just more charming than others. Maybe it is a born skill or maybe it is practiced. Either way, it is a fine line to balance. And those that do it well are rewarded one way or another for it.
What is most interesting about people with business charm is the ease. It is the naturalness of it that is so inviting. But to notice and be taken in by their charisma you have to be face to face. I guess this is what fuels the airlines – Charm.

I’ve attended several meetings with different people with business charm. What I find is that they move more often than everyone else. Not in a twitchy way, but like Jeff Goldblum, in a dance. The hands might be together during a point he is making or raised up to signify vulnerability. This makes the person much more accessible – much more like you and me. Other times, they don’t say much at all – just sitting there imparting confidence in what you are doing or saying. This is gratifying.

Another observation: there is usually one person during each meeting that exudes this charisma. That isn’t to say that there are others without it, but there is some sort of recognition of the dance and the others find their role in it. Good consulting teams do this effortlessly.

Risk Aversion

I’ve commented before about how I think the US isn’t taking many risks anymore. Ideas like going to the moon and building an interstate road system are no where near the horizon. I wonder if the collective attitude of the US has changed to the point where only focusing on the failure is the norm? And the repercussion is that only guaranteed successes are attempted.

I think a new skill that people should put on their resume is the “ability to tactically act quickly in the face of failure.” I say this because remorse is paralyzing people into not starting. But remorse is the byproduct of risk. If someone is comfortable with executing on risk, then the remorse is negligible.

Finally, perhaps having successes like the interstate system prevents the US from taking risks because the risk is complicated by the current environment. For instance, cell phone penetration was initially limited because it had to adhere to rules already established for land lines. But cell phones are arguably a superior form and function of communication. India on the other hand doesn’t have that issue with land lines so it has greater cell phone penetration rates. The ability to scrap what is already built is slowly going away – tying our hands in the future.

Finding Perception

Clear off a table. If possible, find a needle. Maybe you have some thread with a needle attached to it. Now find a nickel. Finally, find a stack of Post It notes. Place all three on the table and stand directly above it. When you look down at it you have a line, a circle, and a square. All very simple. This is just like a 2 dimensional representation, as if you drew each of them on a piece of paper. Now point the needle at the edge of the table. Bend down to the edge of the table to where your eye level is even with the table. Look at the needle. It is no longer a line, it is a point – a small circle. Now take the Post It note stack and turn it diagonally to the edge of the table. Again, bend down and look at it from the edge of the table. You will see two intersecting lines, creating a wedge, with varying shades depending on the light. Now, look at the nickel from the edge of the table. What do you see? You see a line with varying degrees of shading, but no intersection point like the Post It note stack.

Why is this important? Depending on your point of view:

  • a line can become a point
  • a circle can become a line
  • a square can become something completely new

Take a moment and find out which way you are perceiving things. Try to figure out what ways other people are looking at things.