In defence of the 1980s…

24 07 2011

Dynasty - the big hair, the shoulder pads, the painted-on makeup. How the super-rich lived and squabbled.

I grew up in the 1980s. I turned 13 in 1980, so this was pretty much my decade. And like every other generation, I have a fondness for the music and dare I say it – fashion – of the era that I went through my teenage years and became an adult. It has become fashionable to laugh about the 1980s but it wasn’t all bad!

So here are some of the best things about the 1980s.

• Big hair. All it took was hair spray / gel (it wasn’t called product then), a hair dryer and a bit of time. Anyone could do it.

• Shoulder pads. Yes, OK, we overdid it. But clothes that looked good on the coat-hanger also looked good on a person because of the shoulder pads.

• Power dressing. The thing about power dressing for women wasn’t the clothes, it was the public declaration that women could be highly successful in their careers and have – yes, wait for it – power. The fashion industry declared that women could have power and we believed them.

• Australian music – Models, Crowded House, Midnight Oils, Men at Work, Hoodoo Gurus, Divinyls, Hunters and Collectors, Mondo Rock, Icehouse, Nick Cave, Paul Kelly. I could go on, but then it would just be a list of 1980s music.

• But the best of them all, INXS – and Michael. Gorgeous, sexy, wild Michael.

• Stadium Rock. It was big. Big sound, outrageous costumes, wild hair and make-up, and massive lyrics. Yes it was commercial.

• Yacht rock. What would the easy listening stations play if yacht rock hadn’t been invented?

• But there were some good indi bands – B52s, UB40, Boomtown Rats, The Cure, The The, Joy Division.

• Pop rock – Madonna, Human League, Cyndi Lauper, Sade, Wham, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant, Billy Idol. And lots of others with the sugary texture of bubblegum.

• And of course, MTV. Music clips had evolved from just showing the band playing the song, to mini-movies with budgets to match.

• Aerobics gear. Yes, we got into gyms in a big way, but the best part was being able to get around in dance gear. Lycra does wonderful things for the figure! You couldn’t quite do the tutu unless you were Madonna.

• Mad Max. OK, so Mel Gibson might have fallen from grace, but in the 1980s he was young, gorgeous, and we claimed him as Australian.

• Entrepreneurs – we celebrated entrepreneurs. Big money, big egos, big yachts, young sexy wives with plastic surgery. They seemed to have it all. And it seemed achievable for us as well. The big court cases came later.

• For most of the 1980s we were in a major bull market. The stock market just rose and rose. Unfortunately I was too young for most of the 1980s and missed out, but that feeling of optimism that lasted until the 1987 crash – that’s still there somewhere!

• Video-games. This is where they began. Before this, they were pin-ball machines. Remember the iconic Pac-man and Space Invaders?

• Great British comedies that didn’t rely on unfunny sexual innuendo. Blackadder. The Young Ones. And the comedians they brought to our attention: Rik Mayall, Rowan Atkinson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Hugh Laurie (better known now as Dr House)

• Acid colours. I vaguely recall owning a fluorescent orange suit. I must have looked like a traffic cone.

• St Elmo’s Fire. An amazing coming of age movie that launched the careers of Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy and Andy MacDowell.

• Top Gun when we liked Tom Cruise (the volleyball scene with Val Kilmer). Flashdance (see dance gear above).

• I was really never into Dynasty and Dallas and their various spin-offs, but these were really big. They showed us how the super-rich live (apparently it involved a lot of cat-fighting and scheming) and how they spent their money (sequined dresses and private jets). Whole generations of Krystal and Alexis’ were named after characters in this show.

• Computers. OK, so computers were not invented in the 1980s. But the concept of the desk-top computer and a computer in every home and office was. And Microsoft Windows, for better or worse, made it all quite usable for the average Joe or Josephine. Prices came down and it was all quite affordable.

• Cheap plastic jewellery and sunglasses. Yeah they were cheap and they looked it. They were meant to be fun and they did mean everyone could get the look. Very democratic. And disposable.

• Bling. It wasn’t called bling then. But big flashy jewellery preferably teamed with a sequined dress that swept the ground behind you, but plunged to expose as much cleavage as possible. Yeah, that was style!

• Ken Done, Jenny Kee. Probably less said the better, but they did put Australian fashion and the Australian way of life on the world stage. And their designs are instantly recognisable even today.

• We took the Me generation to a new level – Greed is Good! The idea that if you work hard enough you can achieve anything (the flip side being if you haven’t got what you want or need, then its your fault. Not so nice.) On the other hand, we had Band Aid.

• Trivial Pursuit. Probably the best new board game since Monopoly or Scrabble.

• The end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall came down. It seemed like such a good start for the 1990s.

So what have I forgotten? What else did you like about the 1980s? Leave a message in the comment section and I’ll add them in.



23 07 2011

Bad day at the office?

In an ideal world, we would all be happy and unstressed all the time. We would deal with other with respect and kindness, and would be treated the same in return. If this is the world you live in, please email me and tell me where this place exists.

In reality however, we all have bad days – some more than others. Some in fact seem to be permanently in a bad mood. And that might be a nice way of explaining away their behaviour. No names will be mentioned to protect the guilty.

The evidence linking positive morale with motivation and performance in the workplace (and in life) is inaarguable. But this also works the other way – a negative work environment has detrimental effects on performance. And it is not just that people feel demotivated and less enthusiastic – it actually affects their ability to do the tasks required of them.

In the July 2010 British Medical Journal, Professor Rhona Flin of the University of Aberdeen cited a series of studies demonstrating that being the recipient of rudeness – or even just witnessing rudeness at work – can make you more likely to make a mistake. Students who were insulted prior to performing a series of memory tasks performed worse than the control sample.

Perhaps this is obvious. Workplace bullies the world over know if you pick on someone you can push them to make errors. Usually as managers, we are told we need to deal with bullying for OHS reasons. But this series of studies link the workplace culture and the way workers treat each other to performance. And you don’t have to be the one bullied to make the mistake – you only need to be a witness.

Prof Flin referred to the risks inherent in medical mistakes and used the example of an operating theatre. But the evidence is not limited to the medical field. A US study in a department of transportation found that workplace incivility affected not only job satisfaction, but also the effectiveness of quality programs aimed at teamwork, customer focus and continuous improvement. Decision making and team work was found to be negatively affected by rudeness and incivility in a study of high school students. A quick search of reveals over 30,000 hits.

Generally, we all want to feel what we are doing is important and respected. We want to feel we are doing a good job. We want to work in a positive and supportive environment – and to be positive and supportive ourselves.

If only “the others” wouldn’t get in our way.


23 07 2011

queues at Versaille

Remember the Commodore 64?

Yes OK, maybe you weren’t born then. So let me tell you about the beginning of the home computer…it was a different world. Previously computers had lived in warehouses in massive stacks with tape reels on the front, whirring and whizzing, doing important stuff. An entire warehouse of computer probably had less capacity than my i-phone now has. But at the time, the idea of a computer in every house and office was still somewhat unreal.

So the Commodore 64 was relatively affordable, and small enough to fit on your desk. Computations took ages but we still thought they were amazing.

Even the early days of Windows, getting the computer to do something took…well, MINUTES! And we waited and thought how much faster it was than doing it ourselves. And when it flashed up on the screen, we were thrilled.

Now if the download takes more than two minutes, I walk away and get a coffee (yes, that is quite some caffeine addiction I have going). If I press a button I expect it to happen instantaneously. I am frustrated at how long it takes to load photos into Facebook. I can’t plan ahead long enough to download a tv program from the internet to watch it (hence I watch less TV – not a bad thing) and the “buffering” in u-tube videos means I rarely watch an entire video.

OK, so I am exaggerating for effect. I am not quite that impatient. But not far off it.

So a recent study conducted by parcel delivery company myHermes stating that most of us lose patience after 2 ½ minutes is – unsurprising. Citing a number of different situations, researchers found that people start to get cross after waiting in line for 60 seconds. After five minutes, they walked away. Clearly this study was not conducted at Disneyland, or any of the French tourist attractions I visited recently.

Other instances of impatience included slow traffic and traffic jams, slow internet connections (see above), queuing for the public toilet and friends who were always late.

The pace of life has increased considerably. If you will indulge my reminiscences again briefly – when I started work desk-top computers and pre-email, I would receive a handful of letters every day. I would draft responses by hand, send them off to the typing pool to be typed up and then send them out maybe a few days later. This amounted to maybe ten decision points per day.

Now I might receive 80 to 100 emails a day. Some of them are just chat – people saying “thanks” for something I have sent, documents being sent to me, meeting invitations and the like. But there are probably between 40 and 50 emails a day that require serious thought and a response. 40 to 50 decision points and responses within a day or two, all within the same 7 ½ hour day (yes OK I am kidding myself, it is a 9 hour day at best). And 40 or 50 yesterday and another 40 or 50 tomorrow.

No wonder we are so impatient.

social media for the risk-averse organisation

21 07 2011

Introducing social media into a risk-averse organisation can be challenging. So much of what is reported in mainstream media about social media is negative – paedophiles grooming children, online bullying, sexting, brand sabotage. Why on earth would any sane organisation get involved?

The usual reasons proposed by staff relate to marketing and communication. Social media is a great way to reach out to people, spread your message – go to where your audience is instead of waiting for them to come to you (push communication is always more effective than pull). But this argument does not address the fundamental issue of risk. The conversation needs to be changed.

The real reason why risk-averse organisations need a social media strategy – and note the terminology has changed there – is to address risk. There is significant risk in NOT being involved in social media. The conversation will happen whether you are involved or not. Better to at least monitor and respond if appropriate than live in ignorance while your brand is being flamed. Social media does not stay online – it affects behaviour, as seen in recent middle east uprisings, and drives “old media” – newspapers, television and radio – with reporters sourcing and researching stories based on social media movements.

However – back to the change in terminology – it does need to be a social media strategy. Social media in all its forms is communication mainlined. There is no editor to go through. Anyone can do it – all it takes is a computer and a modem. Whatever you say – good bad, silly or unintelligible, libellous – will be out there for all to see.

So what are some of the aspects and risks that your strategy needs to consider?

• Be clear about what are you trying to achieve with your involvement in social media. This might be obvious for a sales-based organisations but less so for others. Know what you want and expect from this activity. Choose which social media you get involved in based on your goals.

• Don’t think one-way communication works in Web 2.0 and beyond. If you don’t give people the opportunity to converse with you, at best you become irrelevant. At worst, you send the message that you aren’t interested in their opinions. They will notice, and they will comment elsewhere, where you have less control and less awareness.

• Social media needs to be monitored and responded to quickly. If there is a negative or incorrect comment, you need to respond. If you get back in two days time or next week you might find it is 100 comments, or 20,000 tweets. There is a cost associated with live monitoring.

• What do you do if someone leaves a negative comment? You can’t please everyone, so it will happen. Ignore it and you look like you don’t care – it might inflame the issue. Delete it and it’s censorship. Answer it – could result in a good or a bad result. You need to have made the decision about what to do before it happens – not policy on the run.

• Be aware that if someone posts something that is incorrect, illegal or libellous on your social media or website and you leave it up there, you may be liable for it. All the laws that affect your business in real life also work in cyberspace. And you don’t have to have been the one who wrote it, if you allow it to stay out there, you are in the frame. Recent court cases regarding false advertising demonstrate this.

• Monitor other social media forms that you aren’t using. Just because you aren’t there doesn’t mean you aren’t being discussed.

• Don’t give the social media strategy and monitoring to the office junior “because they understand social media”. You also need someone who understands your business, the political and commercial sensitivities your work in and has authority to speak to the media on behalf of the organisation. This person does however have to understand how the various forms work though.

• How are you going to measure the outcomes? When everything else in the organisation is accountable against KPIs, it is important to ensure that your social media strategy is as well.

• For organisations subject to document retention legislation – how are you going to meet this requirement for your social media conversations? How will you index and cross-reference them?

Social media – as part of a planned and managed communication strategy – can achieve organisational goals. But conservative organisations are right to be cautious about how they enter the field and how they manage it.

For some entertaining and somewhat horrifying examples of corporate social media gone wrong, click here.

When organisations turn cannibal

21 07 2011

Many years ago I worked for a boss who fits all the criteria for “psychopath in the workplace”. He, and the place I worked, shall remain nameless for the purpose of this blog! (Disclaimer: If one of my former bosses is reading this and worried it is them – the fact you are worried means it is not you.)

This man ran a small organisation with four different operational arms. I can only suspect he was worried about his managers getting together and overthrowing him (much as he had done to the previous CEO) because the culture he encouraged was for each of the managers to attack the other managers’ units as a way of deflecting attention and negative focus from their own. To say that the organisational culture in this workplace was toxic is an understatement. When a manager came through your office you hid whatever you were doing and said nothing of any value to them at all. Non-cooperation was the order of the day. Staff turnover was endemic – people couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Years later I had risen through the ranks and happened to work alongside one of the “other” managers from this workplace. Her view on the experience was illuminating. She did what she had to do to survive and to keep her staff safe – as we all did. Imagine how effective the organisation could have been if everyone had been focussed on achieving organisational goals instead of cannibalising each other.

So a recent Forbes India article about leadership intrigued me. There were of course the usual “bad” manager types (Sociopaths, Opportunists and Chameleons) but one of the “positive” leadership types – Achiever – also had some cautionary tales attached to it.

The Achiever, according to the article, is highly prized for reaching goals and achieving outcomes. However, they tend to have a shorter term, insular view of their goals. An example given was shutting down investment in R&D as a cost-saving measure. Very effective in the short-term, but ham-strings the organisation in the medium to long-term.

Another example is where the achiever is competing against internal competitors. They do things that benefit their unit (and disadvantage other units) without understanding or perhaps caring about the broader organisation. Short term personal gain – their unit is working well, they may look good – but causing problems for the organisation.

Management book “Think One Team” uses the example of a jelly bean company (one of my former staff called the book “Jelly Bean Dreaming”) to illustrate how silos that compete against each other and don’t have an organisation-wide view actually work against the company.

While silos exist for a reason – the coalition of like services into units makes sense organisationally – silos that don’t see themselves as achieving for the whole organisation, or worse, compete with each other and actively disadvantage each other, equal a dysfunctional organisation.


18 07 2011

When I started on Social Media, I was very careful about personal information. I didn’t add my hometown to my Facebook page or to TripAdvisor. I carefully avoided anything geographically identifying, or particularly, identifying of my children. When I left the house or went on holidays I carefully refrained from posting comments or photos until I returned home – in case I was advertising that my house was empty.

I worried about identity theft and carefully googled myself to see what information was out there. (Sidebar – I was somewhat alarmed to find an obituary for myself – then realised it was an 82 year old woman in the US with the same triple barrelled name.)

I marvelled at the difference between my Gen X friends – all as paranoid as me – and my Gen Y friends who put it all out there. My Gen X friends, like me, know everyone on their Facebook Friends list, even if some of them were school friends from 25 years ago. Some of my Gen Y friends have over 2000 friends. How is that even possible?

And then came the “check-in” app. Or as I like to call it, Stalker-App. In case I ever need to know where someone is – they check in. They check in when they are in bed (and then their address is clearly visible on the map, helpfully GPS positioned by Facebook). They check in when they are out – and where. Sometimes they also check in their friends. And yes, it has become a competition to see who can check in from the most exotic places and who has the best social life.

Where privacy is concerned, this seems to have become the great leveller. And the thin edge of the wedge. Suddenly everyone is checking in somewhere. (Perhaps we should be enjoying ourselves wherever we are instead of busily tapping it into our iphone or ipad.) And once you’ve started posting personal information and the world doesn’t end (or at least no-one has stolen your identity or targeted you in some other way), why stop? You get so much more feedback.

Suddenly, my entire career path is up on LinkedIn. Is this a good idea? Who knows?! I was told the other day at a social media conference that people get jobs through LinkedIn. No-one I know, I have to say. I know many people who were checked out by recruiters, looking up information on LinkedIn and Facebook. But I don’t know anyone who actually got head-hunted as a result of their LinkedIn profile. I wonder if this is an across-the-board trend, or is it just for people working in social media?

If I google myself now I can find all sorts of personal information about myself, most of it posted by me. Much of it is from chatting to people I feel like I know. But it is all out there forever.

In an age where we mistrust others, lock ourselves away behind bolted doors and gates, lecture our children on stranger danger – is social media the reaction to the isolation we feel?

How do you feel about the amount of personal information about yourself available on the net? Have you had a job offer from LinkedIn? Tell me about it!

Freak Show

16 07 2011

Vintage Freak Show poster: credit: x-ray delta one

Circuses used to feature Freak Shows. Those born with disfiguring deformities or maimed through accident or disease found a way to make a living by exhibiting themselves and their lives to the paying public. I don’t think records exist as to what sort of living they made, but given that many other jobs would have been barred to them at the time, it was probably better than starving. Who knows, perhaps they enjoyed the interactions, being the centre of attention.

Did you think as a society we had moved on from turning the misfortunes of others into a spectator sport?

Starting with a generally celebrity-driven format, the Phil Donahue Show (1967-1996) and later Oprah pioneered the “average Joe and Josephine” stories as interesting to others. We peered into the lives of others, asked probing questions and watched from afar as they cried. We began to believe that the private lives of others could be served up as entertainment for vicarious thrills. But we wanted more drama. We wanted their private lives to be like soap operas.

And so entered the evil twin. Starting with Jerry Springer Show, where family and relationship disputes between dysfunctional, wildly emotional and occasionally violent people were paraded, with Jerry as the lion tamer prodding and poking them into a frenzy. Some of the stories seemed so unbelievably bizarre and complex that viewers speculated that they were made up, with actors playing the parts. Others were just sad. Perhaps this is the latter day version Roman entertainments, where we watch people tear each other apart for our amusement.

And then there is Reality TV where groups of people are placed in artificial situations under high pressure, isolated from their families and friends, deprived of sleep (a form of torture under the Geneva Convention) and asked to do highly stressful tasks such as memorise a song and perform it for a live audience, cook a meal for a visiting celebrity chef with three bizarre ingredients they have never seen before, or compete in some sort of humorous obstacle course hobbled by fancy dress.

According to author Jon Ronson, the insanity we see on Jerry Springer, and the later reincarnations of Reality TV, is not accidental. Of all the people who write into these shows offering up their stories and begging to be given air-time (a sign of insanity to start with), the producers (or at least the one he spoke to) actually picked who would get onto the show based on the level of madness they exhibited. Like Goldilocks and the three bears, they picked their way through the diagnoses to select those madnesses that could be served up for entertainment. Psychotic illness – too much. Mild depression – not enough. Personality disorders – now we’re talking.

What damage is done by placing people with diagnosed mental illness into artificially manipulated high pressure situations and then tormenting them until they crack? Some go on to become minor celebrities, sure. But others may be damaged permanently.

In 1995 the Jenny Jones Show lured a man onto their show to find out who had a secret crush on him. When it was revealed on the show that his secret admirer was a male friend, not a female as he had been led to believe, he appeared to deal with it with a sense of humour. Three days following the taping of the show, he bought a gun, went to the home of his secret admirer – and shot him dead. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled although that particular episode was not aired. Turns out he had a history of mental illness and drug & alcohol addiction – he was convicted of murder in the second degree and is now serving a 25-50 year prison term. The Show won a suit brought against them by the victim’s family for wrongful death.

One wonders how the contestants fit back into their lives when the TV cameras are gone and all they are left with is the memories of what they confessed or did publicly on TV.

Do we want to be a society that considers watching people disintegrate to be entertaining?

(This blog was inspired by Jon Ronson’s latest book, The Psychopath Test: A journey through the madness industry. Fascinating book that kept me up all night reading, well worth it. Jon can be seen on Youtube explaining a little more about the premise of the book. To purchase the book from Amazon, please click here:The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry