Thursday, March 31, 2005

Overcontrolling Bosses Aren't Just Annoying; They're Also Inefficient

Cubicle Culture by Jared Sandberg

Overcontrolling Bosses Aren't Just Annoying; They're Also Inefficient March 30, 2005 by Jared Sandberg The Wall Street Journal

One of Ken Marcus's former bosses was so reviled by underlings that when he dropped dead, a colleague went up to Mr. Marcus and shook his hand. Unlike some others, Mr. Marcus never danced on his old boss's grave. But the soft-spoken reference librarian still smarts from the travails of working under a tormenting control freak.

The former boss wouldn't let his employees order personalized stationery or even use up the stationery they had left. "A lot of paper went to waste," Mr. Marcus says. The man also spent days trying to get in touch with employees on vacation and then had nothing much to say to them -- except "keep me posted" -- once he got them on the phone. And in a gesture that Mr. Marcus found impossible to believe when he first heard about it, his boss assigned middle initials to employees who didn't have middle names. "I guess it offended his sense of order," he speculates.

Mr. Marcus still struggles with the illogic of it all: "You get up to that level," he says, and "you don't need to worry about these little things."

But the problem is that a control freak most certainly does worry about the little stuff. Deeply untrusting and puffed up with some devil-in-the-details justification, control freaks wrest tasks from colleagues, along with the colleagues' sense of self worth. It's as if they were burned by someone or something long ago, and everyone they come into contact with is a walking evocation of the past demon. The irony is that in the name of efficiency and cost savings, these managers are often the most guilty of operating far below their pay scales.

Overcontrolling "can cost more money in a whole bunch of ways," says Richard Kilburg, senior director of the office of human services at Johns Hopkins University. They create, for example, a culture driven by the assumption that everyone can't perform. "If everybody's covering their tail ends," says Dr. Kilburg, "you have all kinds of processing losses. You also have a tendency to lose your most creative people. They're able to say, 'Screw this. I'm not staying here.' "

Just ask Rich Dowd, the founder of executive search firm Dowd Associates, who learned that lesson the hard way. He says he used to hover over employees and interrupt them because they weren't working "in the way I saw fit," even though their work product at the end of the day was "outstanding." He recalls that one employee told him that if he wanted to do her job, fine, she'd quit.

Asked by Mr. Dowd to describe some of his annoying behavior, colleague Stephanie Bates cites his yellow-legal-pad rule, which dictates that anything other than a yellow legal pad "doesn't work." Mr. Dowd questions whether he ever imposed this rule on anyone else, so Ms. Bates reminds him of the time she had the temerity to use a blue binder. "Yup," Mr. Dowd says sheepishly.

And another colleague, Lauren Hendrick, recounts how Mr. Dowd once sent her home from the office for being three minutes late.

So what taught Mr. Dowd to let go? "It's got to cost you money," he says. "I've lost people that way."

Most control freaks, though, can't laugh at themselves. Don Shobrys used to work for a boss who argued that the office should remain open during a blizzard even though the governor had declared a state of emergency. That boss also spent valuable time trying to scrub a stain out of the office carpet. And he even threatened to fire someone for leaving computer boxes stacked in the hallway in advance of the company's relocation to a new office.

The worst thing about his behavior was the corporate paralysis that resulted. The company had planned to paint the men's room in the new office, including the wall behind the urinals. The painters recommended using tile on that wall, but midlevel managers were afraid to approve the $1,000 expenditure. They eventually went with the tile, but "the whole organization was intimidated," Mr. Shobrys says.

What explains the penchant of many control freaks for performing menial tasks? "At some level of consciousness they don't believe they know how to handle the demands of the job they're in," says Arthur Freedman, director of organizational development and change at American University. "So they revert or regress down one or two levels to the level where they felt comfortable."

Marilyn Helms, a professor at Dalton State College in Dalton, Ga., says she has seen too many managers waste valuable time taking attendance. There was her boss at the Rotary Club in Memphis who always dreamed up an excuse to call the office at 4:59 p.m. to make sure no one had slipped out early. At a university, she had a department chair who would "come by with some stupid excuse just to do a bed check," she says. And still other managers have required her colleagues to produce business cards as proof they were soliciting new clients or to staple their name badge to travel receipts to prove they were at a conference.

"Don't they need to focus on the big picture?" asks Prof. Helms. "It seems like they don't know how to do their upper-management jobs."

Five minutes of watching Indian channel leads to five hours of watching Indian channel

NEW YORK—A five-minute sampling of Hindi-language channel Zee TV stretched into a five-hour Indian TV marathon for Craig Mieritz, 23, Monday. "I have no idea what's going on, but I can't turn it off," the channel-flipping Mieritz said about a colorful, frenetic musical number on the soap opera Tum Bin Jaaoon Kahaan. "Maybe I'll just watch another minute..." Following the soap, Mieritz watched a Hindi pop variety show, 11 music videos, and the three-hour Bollywood epic Khuda Gawah, the remote in his hand the entire time.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Canada May Be a Close Neighbor, but It Proudly Keeps Its Distance

Canada May Be a Close Neighbor, but It Proudly Keeps Its Distance

Published: March 23, 2005

TORONTO, March 22 -Every Canadian student of foreign policy knows the story, but few Americans remember. In 1965, at the height of the Vietnam War buildup, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson suggested to a college audience in Philadelphia that the United States stop bombing North Vietnam in the pursuit of a negotiated settlement.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was not amused. When the courtly Canadian leader stopped by for a visit to Camp David, Mr. Johnson grabbed him by the lapels and accused him, in so many words, of soiling his rug.

Emotions are a bit lower now, and President Bush is likely to be a lot more polite on Wednesday when he greets Prime Minister Paul Martin, along with President Vicente Fox of Mexico, at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. But things could be tense nonetheless, with differences over trade and Mr. Bush's planned missile defense system adding to past strains over Iraq.

There is nothing really new about that. With the possible exception of France, no traditional ally has been more consistently at odds with the United States than has Canada.

Canada refused to take part in President Truman's Berlin airlift, withheld full support from President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and retains diplomatic and trade relations with Fidel Castro to this day. Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau made a distancing from Washington a centerpiece of his foreign policy, going so far as to welcome draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. Ottawa criticized President Ronald Reagan's interventions in Central America and more recently split with the United States by pushing vigorously for the International Court of Justice, an international land-mine treaty and the Kyoto climate control accord.

While the leaders always claim the greatest of fondness for one another, more often than not they have not gotten along very well. When they have, Canadian leaders have sometimes had to pay a political price.

"It's something in our bones, it's part of our DNA," said Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign minister who is now president of the University of Winnipeg, "though it's not something we necessarily immediately recognize." The distinguished Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein has called anti-Americanism "Canada's state religion." For Robert Fulford, the Canadian literary journalist, widespread "prejudice" against the United States supposedly lends the country "an aura of virtue."

It has been that way since the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when thousands of Loyalists left their homes to go north rather than rebel against the British Crown and then fought off repeated American invasions. Their hardships and efforts to differentiate themselves from the rebellious colonists forged the dominant Canadian identity.

Brian Mulroney was the exceptional prime minister who embraced the United States and negotiated a free trade agreement with Washington. At a meeting in 1985, he and Mr. Reagan hugged and sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." But the coziness of that "Shamrock Summit" did not sit well with many Canadians, with one pundit commenting that "our prime minister invited his boss home for dinner."

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and President Bill Clinton got along, but relations soured when Mr. Bush took power and Mr. Chrétien's press secretary called him "a moron" (for which she was eventually fired).

President Bush acknowledged how much Canadians dislike him and his administration during his visit to Ottawa late last year by thanking everyone who waved at his motorcade, particularly those who waved "with all five fingers."

But the laughter did not help relations much. A couple of weeks ago Mr. Martin refused to join Mr. Bush's missile defense system, after defending it only a year ago, because of pressures in his Liberal Party.

His foreign minister said the decision reflected "Canadian values," the usual suggestion from Ottawa that Canada follows a higher moral calling than its American neighbor - a distinction increasingly applauded by American liberals.

"Whether it's nukes or Iraq," said Mr. Axworthy, "we're just not in synch."

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Desk Surfers Abound

Cubicle Culture by Jared Sandberg/20050314

Desk Surfers Abound, But Some People Find Ways to Outwit Them March 9, 2005 by Jared Sandberg The Wall Street Journal

Unless you're a dentist, doctor or family member, don't get within three feet of Carol Kromminga.

That's pretty much the radius that circumscribes her personal space. It's bad enough that some colleagues waltz around to Ms. Kromminga's side of the desk and linger. And it isn't any better when they try to eye documents on her desk or the work on her computer screen from afar.

When a desk surfer barges in, she says, she swivels her chair around, puts her elbow on top of her documents and makes eye contact to "control those roaming eyes." But the computer screen is trickier to protect. She has closed one embarrassing site -- say, the Estée Lauder Web page -- only to reveal another embarrassing one. So she has concluded that her best tactic is to click on the Start menu -- "A big menu pops up and temporarily distracts them," she says -- and then to swivel and make eye contact.

The prevalence of snooping is yet another indication that office privacy is a myth. And because some co-workers mistakenly think they're subtle about it, it's yet another example of office self-delusion, right up there with all the people who think they have great leadership potential or interpersonal skills. Granted, it's impressive that these people can read upside down or somehow appear out of thin air behind you. But that's where their magic ends.

One New York equity trader isn't exactly fooled when someone he calls the "chief surfing officer" visits. "When she is at your desk, she does the old, 'Oh, your son is so cute,' and leans forward to grab the picture," he explains. "But prior to picking up the picture she thoroughly scans the content on my three flat-panel screens."

Some people peep to gain grist for the rumor mill; others do it to slake their insatiable curiosity. "They're trying to pick up any shred of information, personal or professional, that'll give them a sense of power that they don't have in their current job," says Angelo Calvello, a financial-services executive in Chicago.

And sometimes snooping stems from office rivalries. Fred Chang and his colleagues in the marketing department used to be visited regularly by the folks in sales to find out what was going on. "They couldn't help but look at what we were doing," Mr. Chang says.

Lynn Urban admits to an occasional look-see at someone else's work because, she says, "you can find a lot of things out." She never goes into someone's office intending to conduct reconnaissance, she says. But "if I get bored, the longer I'm in there, the more likely my eyes are to wander." And if someone takes a phone call, she adds, "how can they expect that you not look?"

Still, office spying tends to inspire massive counter efforts. At one point, when Ms. Urban's office was arranged in such a way that her back was to the door, "it drove me nuts," she says. One colleague even lifted documents off her desk for closer inspection. So she bought a small rear-view mirror, which she attached to her computer screen, at an auto-parts store. "I had a wide view of what was going on behind me," she says.

Some victims behave as though their most innocuous information is a state secret. Patricia Witkin, who works for a computer-book publisher, says she doesn't mind providing data that colleagues request. "If you ask me, I'll probably give you the key to the castle," she says. But anyone who tries to glean information surreptitiously, as a female colleague did recently, isn't met with the same sharing spirit: "On principle now, I don't want to share anything with her: what I had for breakfast, how I spent my weekend or what Web site I'm visiting."

Obvious counter measures may only serve to whet the office snoop's appetite. When Tim Dougherty worked for a publisher, he was asked to use a privacy screen on his computer that limited the angles from which it could be read. But it also prompted snoopers to think: "He's got a privacy screen, this must be juicy stuff," he says. "People would just come right up behind me and stand there, without any qualms, and read what I was doing."

Engineering manager Jeff Ihnen has developed a special rebuke for
peepers: "Would you like to have a seat at my laptop for a better view, operate the cursor, see what I'm writing, or should I just e-mail you a copy?" Eric Blinderman, on the other hand, recommends a diversionary approach: "Hey," he suggests saying to snoopers, "I hear there's chocolate cake in the kitchen."

To battle office spies, Mike Wetherington, a securities analyst in Dallas, puts his messy office to use. "There is so much crap on my desk, floor, credenza you can't really tell what I'm working on," he says.

And Stephen Cotton and a colleague at a manufacturing plant tried setting a trap. One of their co-workers had a tendency to rifle through their supervisor's desk, so they wrote a bogus memo on the company letterhead exploring the "feasibility" of having "a very small implant put into employees to monitor their activities."

A day or two later, people from human resources came around asking questions like, "What in the world is going on here?" Mr. Cotton recalls.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Da Vinci Code: “Bloomers In Dock” Cavil

Da Vinci Code: “Bloomers In Dock” Cavil
By James McConnachie
February 1, 2005

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a great thriller – eighteen million readers can’t be wrong – but it claims to be much more: it rewrites the stories of Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci and some of the most fascinating buildings in France and the UK. The preface states “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate”, but from the start, Dan Brown makes basic errors of fact, as co-author of the Rough Guide to The Da Vinci Code, James McConnachie, demonstrates.

The new Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code aims to separate fact from fiction by examining Dan Brown’s arguments and providing the historical, cultural and religious background material to enable readers to make up their own minds. From the true history of the Holy Grail and the Priory of Sion to what art historians really make of Leonardo da Vinci’s symbolism in the Last Supper, the guide covers a complex topic with Rough Guides’ customary mix of impartiality, irreverence and erudition. The selection of Da Vinci Code claims that follow are just a few of the most interesting divergences from the truth.

Da Claim: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.
Da Truth: If they were, then the oldest and most authoritative sources – still the Gospels – don’t mention it. Rabbis did usually marry in Jesus’ time but prophets and other religious figures (John the Baptist, for one) often didn’t.
Da Funny Thing Is: One of the “Gnostic Gospels”, discovered in a cave in Egypt in 1945, says that Jesus used to kiss Mary Magdalene on the mouth, though this may just have been a mark of special respect.

Da Claim: Jesus and Mary’s descendants ruled France as the Merovingian dynasty, and are still alive today.
Da Truth: The whole idea that Mary went to France is a eleventh-century monastic fraud. Thankfully, the ghastly Merovingian dynasty has long since died out – a habit of murdering members of their own family can’t have helped.
Da Funny Thing Is: Like most European royal families, the Merovingians made up illustrious ancestors to make themselves look better.

Da Claim: Leonardo’s Last Supper shows a woman “with flowing red hair, delicate folded hands and the hint of a bosom” sitting at Jesus’s right hand.
Da Truth: It’s actually John the Evangelist, who was typically depicted in Leonardo’s time as a young, pretty and beardless man.
Da Funny Thing Is: Leonardo did make a habit of painting strangely androgynous figures. One expert even thinks the Mona Lisa is a Leonardo self-portrait in drag.

Da Claim: The Louvre’s pyramid has 666 panes of glass.
Da Truth: 673: that’s what the Louvre says, and I’ve counted them myself.
Da Funny Thing Is: The office of the pyramid’s architect, I.M. Pei, counted 698. But Pei is not interested in numbers or symbols. Geometrical abstraction and light are his obsessions.

Da Claim: The Holy Grail is not the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, but a coded way of talking about the Holy Blood, or family of Jesus.
Da Truth: The idea was made up by a trio of semi-serious authors in the 1980s, based entirely on fake etymology for the medieval French word for the Holy Grail. They creatively turned “Saint Graal” into sang royal, or “royal blood”.
Da Funny Thing Is: The idea of the Holy Grail was itself an invention, by the twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes. And he said it was a serving dish – graal in medieval French – not a cup.

Da Claim: Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, stands on a “north-south meridian” that also runs through Glastonbury, and its name cames from the mystical “Rose Line”.
Da Truth: Glastonbury’s longitude is 2°65’ W; Rosslyn’s is 3°16’ W. The name comes from the Scots Gaelic ross, meaning promontory, and lynn, meaning pool or stream.
Da Funny Thing Is: Rosslyn Chapel was built in 1446 but it has carvings of cacti and maize, which are indigenous to America. Did the builder’s grandfather, Prince Henry of Orkney, sail to America a hundred years before Columbus?

Da Claim: Mona Lisa is an anagram of Amon L’Isa, from the Egyptian god Amon and the goddess Isis – “whose ancient pictogram was once called L’Isa”. Leonardo meant her to represent the goddess.
Da Truth: “Mona Lisa” is an English nickname for the painting, taken from art historian Giorgio Vasari’s comment that it was a portrait of one Monna (“M’lady”) Lisa, so Leonardo had nothing to do with it. Isis’s pictogram was never called “L’Isa”.
Da Funny Thing Is: The sitter may not actually be “Mona Lisa”. Vasari described Lisa’s portrait as having thick eyebrows, while the Mona Lisa has none, and parting lips (she smiles, but her mouth is closed).
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