Management Math

No matter where you ended your academic career, I am confident that you and every adult you know can do basic math: addition & subtraction.

Why is it then, that no matter where you’ve spent your working career, you’ve no doubt encountered people who seem to have mastered only one of these basic skills: subtraction?

This worker appears to be inclined to suggest why something won’t work, can’t work, has been done before without success, or is otherwise too expensive, or too time or resource consuming. Such a person may simply be a realist, however, and their experience and practicality can be reframed to the benefit of the team.   

There is another kind of worker, however, a ‘super-subtractor’, who may "compliment" their realism and practicality with a dose of self-perceived superiority  and power-tripping smugness. A lower-level or competing colleague who proposes much of anything new may be in for a demonstration of a more advanced degree of subtraction, ie, sarcasm, squashing and rudeness.

“Whose idea was that? Why would anybody do that?” are typical commentary from this character.  These folks may derive energy from making others feel small - they have lots to say, but little to add.

In general, employees know who the ‘super-subtractors’ are and if they are not in a position to avoid these people- which anyone would prefer to do- tend to follow a common process in dealing with them: 

Step one: prior to the encounter, prepare for ridicule

Step two: have the encounter, then shrivel up and die (at least for the moment)

Step three:  following enough of these encounters, disengage or quit. 

My son, an avid student of improv, reminds me that the basic rule of improv is “yes, and.”  Improv actors don’t get to reject a line thrown at them from a fellow actor.  They can’t say ‘that situation won’t work’: they have to accept what they are given and make it work –or the whole team crashes together.

It would be unrealistic to propose that we can say YES to everything at work. HOWEVER, we can enable an environment such that everyone is heard, experience is appreciated and considered, and the team believes everyone is all in-together.

If those folks who don’t agree with a proposal can articulate why something didn’t work in the past (not simply that it didn’t work but why it didn’t work) and help identify or provide a source for the missing link, the team can profit from and leverage that insight. If they still don’t agree, but get a real and professional chance to be heard, they may get on board and work toward the success of the proposal.  This process takes more time, but is still likely to provide a faster result, with more engaged hands on deck.  This is additive to the team.

The super-subtractors on the other hand, require a much more significant, personal, introspective overhaul to become additive members to a team effort.  Sometimes the best mathematical solution is to remove these folks from the path of high performance teams until they can demonstrate that their comportment is as good as their potential advice. 

A little improv math adds up: the rule of "yes and" can lead to a more cohesive, productive, engaged and profit-generating team.