Category Archives: Communication

The Devil We Know

I’m not a social scientist, but I play one on TV. Especially interesting to me are experiments that highlight the human decision-making process. For instance….

“The Ellsberg Paradox” (Daniel Ellsberg) is a little glimpse into the human decision-making process, and our proclivity for choosing the “known” option regardless of whether that happens to be the “best” decision.

Here’s the skinny; You have an urn with 90 balls inside:

  • 30 of the balls are Red
  • The other 60 balls are either Black or Purple*.
  • The balls are well distributed, so there’s a fair chance to draw any color
*"Purple" was utilized instead of Yellow for the purposes of pretty colors on my font. Yellow just doesn't work.

You get the chance to make 2 separate bets on the outcome of drawing a ball from the urn:

  • $100 on the first bet – you either choose A. “Red” or B. “Black
  • $100 on the second bet – you either choose C. “Red or Purple” or D. “Black or Purple
  • Both bets occur with the same urn, same distribution of balls.
  • The same people (i.e., YOU) are making both bets.

Go ahead, place your bets…..

do you have any 8's?
do you have any 8’s?

In the experiment, there was a predominant pattern to the bets. Option A and Option D  were the clear choice for those surveyed.

In scientific terms, that’s messed up, Yo. Why?

In the first bet, the people choosing Option A are making a bet knowing they have no better than a 1 in 3 chance of winning. There may be several reasons, but the 2 most telling are this:

  1. We’d rather take bad odds than take unknown odds.
  2. We naturally assume the unknown (in this case, the number of Black balls) is designed to deceive us. In other words, if you are asking me to bet “Black”, I’m guessing it’s a trick.

Here’s where it gets good….

In the second bet, Option D was the clear preference, but that doesn’t jibe with the first bet – can you see why?

In the first scenario, we’re taking the “sure” bet of 1 in 3. We’re also stating our belief that there are less Black balls than Purple balls. Remember, you’re trying to trick us.

That would mean Option C, which pays us for either Red or Purple, is the logical bet, but to hell with logic, right? What, exactly, is going on here?

  1. We’d rather take the “known” quantity (in this case, 60 of the balls are either Black or Purple) rather than the unknown.
  2. Remember, this is a bet based on the same urn of balls – right after betting in a way that assumes there are more Purple balls than Black, which means Option C would be the logical bet. Humans are fun.

I don’t need to tell you the many applications this little experiment could have in the business setting, but to me there’s one very strong message as it pertains to the human condition ~ we hate ambiguity.

Remember that during times of change – what your employees don’t know, they assume is meant to deceive them.


Communication – Corporate Bedside Manner

“Tell me the truth, Doc… how long do I have?”

Have you ever been under the knife? Consider your state of mind when you feel especially vulnerable. Not only are you subjected to physical exposure via hospital gown ass-flap, your mental state reminds you that everything can change—you are figuratively and emotionally exposed.

Being at the mercy of others can be debilitating as our present and future become a fog in an instant. When you find yourself in this “place,” there’s really only one thing you want.

“Talk to me.”

Unfortunately, to recognize good bedside manner, sometimes you must be exposed to the poor variety. Sounds like a simple request, but it’s a skill not everyone possesses and even fewer choose to master.

Despite good intentions, business leaders attempt to manage uncertainty as opposed to managing expectations. It’s easy to justify—there’s just too many variables that could change the outcome, so we will default to two poor communication practices:

  1. Silence: Communication vacuums are often mentioned as engagement “killers,” as individuals are left to their own devices to develop meaning to the events surrounding them.
  2. Insincerity: Not necessarily said with malicious intent, but communication without sincerity can be a career killer for an otherwise talented leader.

Why does this happen? Fear.

Fear that we’ll screw up the message. Fear that employees can’t handle the truth. Fear that we don’t have enough information. Fear that we might be wrong after all is said and done. It’s not (99% of the time) a matter of someone wanting to deliberately lie or deceive their employees, but you be the judge of how it’s interpreted. Uncertainty is different than “change;” uncertainty is personal, change is process. Dealing with our own uncertainty is tough enough, attempting to manage the uncertainty of others is fruitless.

What we want as employees (and patients) is for someone to give us the information available. I’d rather know that there’s going to be pain, soreness, discomfort, and even possible outcomes that I might not like.

Give it to me straight, Doc. I can handle it.

Sackett and the D-List

Tim Sackett, whom I have nicknamed the”Michigan Me,” with some insight into the life of a “D-List” Public Speaker.

Just got through another fall conference season and I think I’m starting to pick up a few things and understand the game a little better.  I’m definitely not an A Lister, or B Lister, hell I’m not even on the C List, but I like to think I’m a Top 10 D List Conference Speaking selection!   As you run around the circuit speaking, those A and B Listers will definitely give you some pointers, the C’s won’t, they’re all high and mighty about how they’re no longer on the D List, so they kind of hold stuff close to the vest.  It’s a great education that spans much more than just your ability to go on stage and “Dance Like a Monkey“.  The Conference Speaker education has to do mostly with human behavior and likeability.

Knowing I only have a few secrets I wanted to share them with you before I get dropped from the D List, either up or down, we conference speakers only have small windows in time to share our very specific knowledge.  Here are my D List Conference Speaker Secrets:

  • Everything should be sunshine and rainbows!  The best content you can produce is actually content that challenges how someone does their job. Think – “5 Reasons You Suck at HR and How to get Better”, but while that content is great, it bombs on the speaking circuit.  People want to come and hear speakers tell them that they made a great life decision to be in this career/position they are in, and here’s 3 Silver Bullets that will change your life forever and make you prettier and thinner. By the way, that’s my 2014 Conference Season Session: “You’ve Made Great Life Decisions: 3 Things You Can Do Today To Be Prettier and Thinner”.
  • There are no Silver Bullets, but you always have to have Silver Bullets.  Let’s face it we live in a USA Today society.  We want to be told quickly how to make everything better, without doing any work to make it better.  That can’t happen, but as a D Lister, it’s my job to sell you on the fact that you can do that. That’s why there is a lot of Dancing on the D List circuit.
  • The differences between an B Lister and a D Lister is that the B Lister is usually a lot better looking, taller and much more polished in their Dancing ability.  The knowledge content usually isn’t really that different, the B Lister is just much better at how they share that knowledge.
  • The differences between an A Lister and D Lister is that the A Lister is selling an ‘idea’ and that idea is usually something they’ve trademarked and written a book about. Think: 7 Habits, Good To Great, First Break All The Rules, Who Moved By Mercedes, etc. Or, the A Lister is famous for something (business, political, sports type celebrity) and they are sharing their own story about how they became famous and while you’ll never become famous the same way, they try and make you feel like you could also win the fame lottery, but you can’t.
  • When being paid to speak, for all those under A List status, who gets paid and how much has a lot to do with how much someone making the pay decision likes you personally.  That’s hard for a lot of speakers to take. Some have great content, but they aren’t very likeable or even approachable.  Some have crap content and aren’t even that good at speaking, but are extremely likeable. Those people get paid!
  • Having a book makes you ‘smarter’.  It really doesn’t, but on the speaking circuit it does.
  • Being a Practitioner makes you know more about a subject. It really doesn’t, but on the speaking circuit it does.  This one is really funny! Because conferences now say ‘we want practitioners’ to speak.  Do you realize those speaking as “consultants” where great practitioners that were so good they made a career out of selling their knowledge.  They were the 1% best practitioners.  But, no, really, let’s listen to Mark from Albuquerque explain why his hiring process he just developed is so cutting edge…

That’s it, the only D List secrets I have. If I get to the C List I’ll let you know what else I find.  My guess is it will have to do with being able to negotiate first class travel, or least I hope it does!

Tim is a friend and colleague, albeit a little slow on the cross-over dribble. Speaking of dribble…check out some of his other musings on (original URL, Tim)

If This Is a Marriage, Where’s The Cake?

“Merger of equals” is a nice phrase….brings to mind harmony, togetherness, compatibility, and a common concern for the well-being of one another.

It’s also, for the most part, a total fabrication.

If you’ve been through a merger, you already realize this. If, on the other hand, you’re viewing this with cocked eyebrow and a look of disbelief, consider the code broken.

In an effort to minimize the emotional response of employees involved in an acquisition, you’ll hear terms that are meant to remove the sting. Referring to a merger as an “equal” proposition rarely does the deal justice. Somebody is the winner, somebody is the loser.

If you’re unsure which category your company falls into, well….I’d like to invite you to my next poker game.

Button it!

Never miss a good opportunity to shut up.” – Judge Roy Bean
If you don’t know Michael Keaton’s fine performance as Billy Blazowski, do yourself a favor: stop reading, watch Night Shift, and then we can talk. Specifically, look for a scene where “Billy Blaze” listens to a recorded message over & over (courtesy Henry Winkler) reminding him to “SHUT UP.” Now, that my friends, is good advice.
Especially in HR.
“Shut up?” Wait, aren’t we, as ‘protectors’ of the company, required to stand up and be heard? Yes… and no.
There’s a time to talk, no doubt, but not at the cost of listening. In HR, we have multiple opportunities to effectively shut up. For example:
  • As a Coach. The most effective coaching technique you can utilize is allowing the client to create their own solution. That requires patience and silence. If you’re yakking, you’re advising, not coaching. It’s tougher than it sounds, but resist your need to offer solutions.
  • As an Investigator. Awkward silence is your friend… those quiet lulls in between questions? Let the subject fill those gaps; that’s where the juicy information comes out. Shut up and let it happen.
  • As an Interviewer. Savvy job candidates know how to get their interviewer talking…the more you talk, the less control you have in the interview. I used to crack up at the Sales Managers with whom I would co-interview – these are salespeople you are interviewing, quit letting them sell you! We had candidates walking out with account information, product information, POA. Shut up, man.
  • In your Inner Circle. Admit it, one of the cool things (maybe the only ”cool” thing) about being in Human Resources is access to privileged conversations, confidential information, and other various skeletons buried in the corporate closet. The urge to share this information can be almost irresistible…bury it. Put it in the vault, shut up already.

While we’re on the subject, I’m told (quite a bit actually) that this same advice can be equally beneficial to married men.

That seems ridiculous, but I’m still compiling data…more on that later.

Watch Your Ass – Aesop Paraphrased

Fridays posts always have a different tone – hopefully the “ass” didn’t scare you off.

A man and his son were walking the family donkey to market when they heard an onlooker chastise them, “Fools, why walk when you have an animal to ride?” Hearing this, the two mounted the donkey and began riding into town, only to hear two passerby’s whisper “Look at that, two healthy men riding that poor animal.” The father quickly dismounted and began walking aside the animal,while his son continued to ride – at that point a man watching them muttered, “The shame…a son rides while his elder father walks.

“laugh it up old man, laugh it up…”

The men switched places, and now the father rode the donkey while his son walked alongside. A woman villager saw this and was compelled to comment,”What lazy man rides while his poor young son is forced to walk?

As they approached the bridge leading into the market, their options were almost exhausted. Incredibly, the man & son decided to carry the donkey, hoping to avoid the disdain of anyone else. They tied the donkeys fore and hind feet to a pole, then lifted the beast and began the tedious journey across the bridge.

It wasn’t long before the donkey, scared and somewhat confused, began to kick and thrash about, causing the boy to lose his grip on the pole. The animal fell into the river below, and, unable to unbind his feet – he soon drowned.

Aesop’s Moral – “Please all and you will please none.

Hardball Interpretation – “If you try to please everyone, eventually you’ll lose your ass.


Motivation vs. Innovation

had an interesting and important epiphany while preparing for an upcoming speaking engagement.

In our last conversation, the client mentioned the term “motivational speaker” when discussing the gig – this phrasing gave me an immediate shudder, as it brings to mind the exact antithesis of what I believe I offer as a resource.


This is not to discount or disparage the Carnegies or Robbinses of the world – there is most definitely an audience for a motivational message. I just don’t believe it’s my audience, and here’s a quick explanation why:

  • “Feeling” vs. “Thinking” ~ A motivational speaker wants to touch your heart by stirring your emotions. I’m not going to do that. I’d much rather you find some sort of immediate relevance that you can apply to your professional life, whether or not you feel like having a good cry.
  • Limited Resources ~ There’s a reason professional coaches (NFL and MLB, not the ICF) don’t rely on the “pep talk” on too many occasions ~ you can only go to the well so often when it comes to emotion. Emotional spikes can perform short bursts of brilliant performance, but that reservoir is easily tapped.
  • Internal vs. External ~ Teams needing motivational speeches are at a point of crisis, to the point they need an external shot of “drive” administered. That doesn’t change the power of the engine under the hood. I’m sure there’s a Fast and Furious parallel just begging to be made, but I just can’t go there.

This is the conversation I had with the client; it can be a tricky distinction, since I am, in effect, an external resource (see bullet-point above.) The client obviously knows his team better than I do, so maybe a quick dose of adrenaline is what is needed ~ but for the long term success of the manager and his team, the motivation needs to come from the inside. My hope is to provide a method, a technique, or an idea that helps channel the talent already in the room.

“Innovation” beats “motivation” every time.

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder and OH (Original Hardballer); HR Hardball™ is a blunt, self-aware, and sometimes snarky perspective of Human Resources. 

The Costanza Principle of Communication

"And I'm kinda engaged."
“And I’m kinda engaged.”

“Jerry remember; It’s not a lie if you believe it.” – George Costanza (Jason Alexander)

Why do we do it? Half-truths, soft-sells, euphemisms, white lies, and whoppers. Some do it more than others; some are more comfortable doing it than others, but we are all guilty of telling lies. Removing sociopaths from the equation, you can narrow down 99% of lies down to four basic reasons:

  1. We don’t want to get in trouble.
  2. We don’t want to be embarrassed.
  3. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
  4. We want to exaggerate our accomplishments.

It’s really no more complicated than that, even if we like to paint ourselves as “above” this kind of behavior. When you detect less than forthcoming information, these are your options for defining the motivation behind the deceit. And, since we spend more & more of our time at work, we are more likely to hear some current corporate “whoppers”:

  • We are a performance-based culture.” – Well, maybe in theory, but in practice….? Meh. It’s a reality that some people will be judged by a different scale. Personal bias, empathy, absence of management, and/or a lack of any meaningful differentiation make this statement (often times, not always) ring hollow.
  • We don’t expect any significant changes.” – Uh oh. This is the corporate equivalent for those times your wife says “Nothing’s wrong;” it may not be now, but at some point that statement points to bad things ahead.
  • We empower every employee.” – Most HR people are familiar with the success stories of SW Airlines, Pizza Hut, Xerox, and a few others who created a true culture of employee empowerment. We all know those stories b/c they are the exception, not the rule. It’s a major commitment to relinquish decision-making power, so be wary of anyone who is saying this rather than practicing this.
  • “_______________” – This is the sound of silence. Easily the most frequent abuse of truthful communication. Leadership is usually hesitant, as opposed to deliberately deceitful, but the employee interpretation often make the two indistinguishable. We are trained to be especially attentive to blackouts in communication as a sign of impending bad news.
  • We are not just a company, we’re a family.” – Let me clarify that I don’t necessarily think this is an intentional lie, but a hopeful disillusionment. Remember, your company (no matter how it is phrased) does not love you. That’s why they pay you instead of hug you.

You can only control your own behavior; so, as you consider your next rationalization, “spin,” or political response, choose instead to tell the truth.

Even George Costanza recognizes the value of “doing the opposite.”

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

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Little League & The Small Things….

Fridays are great days for humanizing the ol’ blog post. Appropriately qualified, I still won’t bore you with a hokey message about the lessons I learn in Little League each and every season & how they apply to life in general. You know those blogs? They are so freaking sappy, drives me crazy; stuff like:

  • Gradual improvement marked by occasional “Quantum Leaps” when you decide to trust your abilities and do things a little bit differently.
  • Using “fun” and humor instead of threats and demands, after all, it’s just baseball(work/school/money/life).
  • The power of encouragement and specific praise, and the impact of timely & challenging feedback. Don’t spread peanut-butter compliments, and don’t let unacceptable behavior go unnoticed. Pat ’em on the butt, sit ’em on the bench, both work.
  • Attitude does count…a LOT. Give me a team of little scrappers who come off the field every inning with more dirt on their uniform than the inning before – give me THAT team any day.
  • Getting a trophy is about the coolest thing in the world. Getting a trophy on the field in front of everyone is THE coolest thing in the world. You better recognize, and not always in private.
  • It’s important to realize, even as a kid, that EVERYONE makes mistakes, even the Coach. Even your parents. Even YOU.
  • Kids (people) do rise to the occasion. We see plays in the field every week during a game that we NEVER saw during practice – people will amaze you. They will also drive you to drink, but still…..

So, “Hardball“, Shmardball, I’m a big softie at heart. Like most of us, when we strip away all the noise in our life, it comes down to the small things. And for me, looking at this picture, those are smiles from two sincerely happy people.

Father’s Day comes in May

btw, we LOST this game.

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ and proud coach of the 2nd Place Reds. 

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Lost in Your Translation

“ooooh yeah, forgot about that.”

Words mean something. We are forever reminded of this, whether it be a tersely interpreted email, an emotional outburst at your child, or any number of recorded gaffes that become internet memes for the ages. The advent of social media as an additional communication vehicle only assures that our mistakes will be easier to share and quicker to capture.

Why, then, do we continue to fail miserably, as individuals and as a collective society? Last week, tragedies in Boston and West, respectively, were exactly the kind of events that desperately need buttoned-up communication, but we just can’t help ourselves ~ careless, hyperbolic, unsubstantiated, unfettered, and unnecessary words~ anything to fill the awkward pauses between fact and conjecture. If there was ever a time to be clear in communicating…

Than again, people in glass houses…

What’s the communication like in your company? Better yet, what’s in like in your house? None of us are without room to improvement, so here are four simple edicts I try to follow (emphasis on “try”):

  1. Be Clear
  2. Be Brief
  3. Be Sure

“Brief” and “Clear” should be no surprise to anyone…it’s the “Sure” piece that is really suffering these days. In times of great uncertainty, the combination of emotion and pressure create bad juju. False data, rumor mongering, grand-standing, and fabrication. You see the same kinds of dysfunctional communication during an acquisition, during a layoff, and during employee investigations. We are a chatty, creative bunch, aren’t we?

Yes, I realize I said there were FOUR simple edicts I try to follow:

4.  Be Quiet

John “Whit” Whitaker is Founder of the HR Hardball™ Straight talk, no-nonsense approach to workplace issues. 

Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn for more samplings of the Hardball message.