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Candy Counter Girls, Thriving and a Recipe for Human Stupidity.

Prompt: What was your first boss like?

Paper: “Trust, Connectivity and Thriving: Implications for Innovative Behavior at Work.” Abraham Carmeli (Bar Ilan University) and Gretchen M Spreitzer (University of Michigan).

Recipe for Stupid Shit: A Human Stupidity Spinner Game

Jeff Rabkin. President, creative director and sprint facilitator Wowza inc.

I’ve had many, many jobs. The consequence of coming of age during the stagflationary late-70s/early-80s. I wrote about my rotted-tooth boss in a previous post, so this week, I'll reflect on some other bosses.

In high school, I worked at the Valley Theater, a movie house in a diverse, working-class neighborhood. A couple years prior, the theater was divided into two screens but its days were numbered as big shiny multiplexes continued multiplying outside the inner rings.

The manager was a lanky guy, probably in his thirties, with a 70s mullet and a bushy mustache. He looked like a character from Boogie Nights. What I remember most about him were his pitiful attempts to persuade the girls who worked the candy counter to come to his apartment to smoke weed and watch the porn collection he proudly boasted about. The street-smart girls he hired from the inner city high school were pretty good at mocking his harassments.

Needless to say, he earned no respect from his adolescent charges. He also didn't take his job very seriously, so we pretty much did what we wanted. We’d hang out in the lobby shooting the shit and eating the pre-popped popcorn that came in big bags we poured into the broken popping machine. By the standards of a high school kid working a summer job, this guy was a pretty good boss.

I was the projectionist. Every Tuesday, when a bunch of silver-metal film cans arrived, my job was to splice the smaller reels together and transfer the film to the big projector reels. One theater had a pair of really old projectors; half of the movie would go on each projector. When the first reel ended, the next one automatically started. It didn't always work, so I was supposed to be present before the switch to be sure it transferred smoothly.

The other theater had a newer projector, where the film sat on a horizontal platter as one continuous reel. In both cases, when the film ended, I’d have to rewind it all, rethread the project, and get the movie ready for the next show.

While the movie played, I could stay in the booth and watch the film or go down and bullshit with the candy counter girls (they were all girls, for the reason I mentioned above). If we had smartphones back then, I might have set a timer to remind me to go back to the booth before switchover. The reminder system in 1979 was customers yelling to get the movie back up. Some films were so filled with splices they repeatedly jammed in the projector and occasionally caused the film to melt on the screen. That was pretty cool. If it stopped during an interesting scene, I could snip out frames to give to my friends.

The films we showed were a mix of slasher movies and family comedies. The big highlight of the summer was a grand opening screening we hosted for Honeysuckle Rose, starring Willie Nelson.

The prospect of bigwigs coming really lit a fire under Don Juan Mustache Manager and he started acting like an actual boss. We cleaned the hell out of that grungy old theater for the big event. I could recite a big portion of the dialogue from that stupid movie for quite a while. I still know most of the theme song . . . “On the road again . . . like a band of gypsies. we go down the highway . . .”

The same year I worked at the theater, I attended a photography lecture given by the photographer Duane Michals. As he presented his innovative, narrative-rich images, he said something I’ve never forgotten: people are disposable. Writing this blog, I’ve become much more aware of the strange randomness of our memories. I can remember buying huge tuna fish sandwiches at the restaurant next to the theater. I remember the name of an art photographer, and something he said, from four decades ago. I can’t remember anyone I worked with or the name of that sleazy boss.

The 80s was a tough job market, so I was fortunate my friend’s father took me on as a framing carpenter to build new houses in the fast-growing suburbs. Roger was a good boss. He was a skilled professional, a master of his craft. He worked harder than anyone. He was fair and had realistic expectations. I didn't have the natural talent or physical constitution to excel at that kind of work but Roger kept me on and paid decent money for the time. It was hard work but satisfying. On a Monday morning, I’d pull up in my red Ford Escort to a foundation and a pile of lumber. On Friday afternoon, I’d drive away from what was unmistakably a house. I was part of a small team working together on one thing until it was complete. This is why I love working in sprints.

The problem-solving and building skills I learned on a framing crew have proven to be among the most valuable of the many skills I’ve ever acquired over my career. I still don't consider myself to be much more than a hack with a hammer, but I’ve drawn on those abilities many times and derived pleasure and satisfaction from building projects with my own hands. As we become more “meta,” we’re losing the intelligence and mental balance that comes from creating physical objects in three-dimensional space using our hands.

I had a few other bosses. There was the manager at the real estate office. This was during the Gordon Gekko, blue-suit-red-tie days. I got my real estate license and set out to do what ambitious young guys did in those days: make money. I was a stupid kid.

There’s an essay by Carlo M. Cipolla titled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. The essay is wonderfully insightful and amusing. Cipolla points out that stupidity has nothing to do with what we consider intelligence. Stupid people are distributed throughout the population, irrespective of the mental, social, or moral capabilities they possess. He defines a stupid person as a person who causes losses to another person, or to a group of persons, while deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses himself. He considers stupid people the most dangerous people in the world.

As a twenty-something real estate agent in the inflationary 80s, I didn't do too much damage, and I didn’t lose that much myself, but at that time, I was involved in various attempts at personal enrichment that did not achieve the desired aim and left some wreckage behind. Had I the good fortune to fall under the tutelage of a competent boss, maybe I would have been mentored out of stupidity and nudged into the upper right, intelligent quadrant, on Cippola’s 2x2 model, where one produces benefits to himself and others.

Cippola’s model would make an excellent tool for good people management. I can imagine an HR department defining a manager’s job as identifying and maintaining employee intelligence. A performance report in this system might take the form of

an evaluation of how an employee's actions benefit others as well as themselves. If the evaluation turns out to fall on the bottom of Cippola’s scale, we have a problem.

I’m hearing stories lately of talented workers tangled in webs spun by stupid bosses; managers, threatened by competent underlings, working to undermine their accomplishments. This problem often goes unnoticed due to the general misunderstanding of what stupidity really is. Thinking a manager is intelligent based on her articulate communication skills or facility for data analysis and Excel spreadsheetery can blind upper management’s ability to see that the slick Harvard MBA managing the team is just as likely to be as stupid as a night watchman, the HR intern, or the CEO. A company with too many seemingly-intelligent-yet-actually-stupid (SIYAS) bosses doesn’t function well, even if somehow happens to make shit tons of money.

If you’re a boss, try this test: look at all the emails you sent, the meetings you attended, the reports you filed, and whatever else you did or didn't do today. Tally up how many actions you took that in any way protected or advanced the interests of the people you manage. We should make this a new KPI. The Wowza Alternative Manager Action Stupidity Score (WAM ASS).

A boss who scores well on the WAM ASS test will build trust and connectivity, which creates a nurturing environment that enables people to thrive and be innovative at work. This is the hypothesis from a 2011 paper by Abraham Carmeli from Bar Illam University and Gretchen M Spreitzer at the University of Michigan, “Trust, Connectivity and Thriving: Implications for Innovative Behavior at Work.”

Carmeli and Spreitzer are interested in how trust, connectivity, and thriving influence behaviors that contribute to creative ideas and innovation within the workplace. They define thriving as “the joint experience of a sense of vitality” (feeling energized and getting better at work). Anyone who’s had a job in which they thrived recognizes this condition. Anyone who’s suffered in a terrible job understands it from the opposite position. Thriving implies there’s some purpose, challenge, and growth. One can enjoy a job, as I did running the projector at the Valley Theater, but that doesn't mean you’re thriving. Thrivers do a better job and get along with their coworkers. Apparently, thriving at work also helps you make better lifestyle choices. (Blame your shitty job on that last junk food binge.)

Thriving happens when workers are connected in a way that builds trust and encourages them to learn from one another. Through positive connections with a variety of coworkers, a thriving employee understands the work context better, accesses more information, and can synthesize it more adroitly.

Working under these conditions helps you feel safe to try new things. The key concept here is trust. Going back to our WAM ASS measure, creative behavior is empowered in the absence of stupidity. The paper specifically mentions the supervisor, referencing another paper by Amabile(1998) who found that “connectivity with one’s supervisor (i.e. encouragement from supervisors that one's work is valued and matters to the organization), is associated with creative behavior in subordinates.” When people work in an atmosphere of distrust and cynicism, you shouldn't expect many light bulbs to go off. Nothing shuts off creative power faster than stupid managers.

An in-depth study at Google found that the main difference between more and less innovative teams was psychological safety. People who trusted each other while working together were more creative. Workers thrive, and their creative output increases when they work within a trusting team. But what about the quality of the creative ideas? Don’t you need conflict to raise creativity and innovation to a different level?

I had a couple of other bosses at an ad agency where I worked on a creative team (an agency creative team is an art director and a copywriter). The creative director and the account director were afraid that my partner and I wouldn’t deliver the highly creative, edgy work they believed necessary to win a new business pitch. Out of their insecurity (my biased interpretation), they hired a freelance team to compete with us. Our bosses lacked trust in us. We didn't trust them. We were not thriving. Using the conclusions from this research, you might predict that we returned crestfallen to our cubicles and produced work that wasn't very creative.

Actually, we got pissed. In response, the two of us pulled an all-nighter and created five fully developed, highly creative, edgy campaigns, which we delivered, bleary-eyed, to our stunned bosses the next morning. In the end, the creative director pitched his own trite, cliched ideas (my biased interpretation), and they lost the pitch. Two more bosses in Quadrant Stupid.

Recipe for Stupid Shit: A Human Stupidity Spinner Game

Tools and Supplies:

  1. Tools and Supplies:

  2. Cardboard or Wood

  3. Spinner Hand

  4. Copy of Cipolla’s 2x2 Model


Put Cippola’s 2x2 on cardboard or wood. Attach a spinner hand in the middle and make up your own human stupidity game.

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