White is not the new black, no matter how you like to spin it

Column: A new fashion in management circles involves taking something we all think is bad and telling us it’s good (or vice versa)


There is a brand-new fashion in management circles. It doesn’t yet have a name so I’m calling it “white is the new black”, because it involves taking something we all think is bad and telling us that it’s good (or vice versa).

Everyone loves this latest fashion. It’s refreshing. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s liberating. And it’s so cool. On LinkedIn and the Harvard Business Review website, readers can’t get their fingers on the “like” button fast enough.

In the past week alone I’ve come across four examples of it. The first and most popular case of white-is-the-new-black says that failure is not bad: it is good. Pushers of this theory, who first appeared a few years ago, have consistently said mistakes are vital because you learn from them. This is fair enough. What isn’t fair enough is to say that since it’s hard to succeed without failing first, you must therefore aim to fail.

A recent Harvard Business Review blog argues that failure is so fantastic that organisations ought to hold regular “fail-fests” at which employees wear pink feather boas and celebrate their cock-ups. This is not only silly and patronising, it is dangerous.

Fear of failure
It is true that a fear of failure can be paralysing, but in my experience it can also be galvanising. I’m currently working on a radio series and the dreadful and very real prospect of screwing it up is focusing my mind no end. If I thought the BBC would organise a party for me and give me a pink feather boa if I messed up, I would barely be moved to try at all.

Failure is a bad thing and should not be celebrated. It shouldn’t be punished either, unless it is caused by laziness and sloppiness. In that case I can think of a better use of the pink boas – force offending employees to eat them.

This leads naturally to the second white-is-the-new-black theory, which says laziness can be a good thing in a boss. This idea is peddled in Richard Koch’s latest book, The 80/20 Manager , published last week. In it he writes: “Lazy managers achieve exceptional results. Only by being economical with your energy and attention can you make it count when it matters.”

He goes on to say that sloth is such a gift that those managers not fortunate enough to have been born with it must work to acquire it.

Koch is right to point out that most of our work is wasted effort; but the trouble is that we have to crunch through the wasted bits to get to the worthwhile ones. In real life, there are few lazy bosses, since if you are an idle slug you tend not to get promoted. The few that I have met were incompetent, much disliked and generally sacked before long.

The third idea is another new trend being pushed in an article by consultant Jordan Cohen on the Harvard Business Review website. He argues that telling workers what to do – another essential principle underpinning organisational life – is a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. He proceeds to “prove” this with a cute anecdote and then with neuroscience: when people are told what to do, he says, “the brain’s emotional response centre can actually cause a decrease in cognitive functioning”.

Bullied into submission
I’m always suspicious of non-neuroscientist writers who use science as a way of bullying me into submission. All they are saying is: here is something I don’t understand and neither do you, but I’m ordering you to accept it because a neuroscientist told me.

Thanks, but I’d rather stick with what I have observed to be the case after decades of paying attention: that most employees need instruction, although what they don’t need is micromanaging. I also can’t help thinking that if Cohen found himself in hospital having an operation on one of the “response centres” in his brain, he might not like it if the hospital staff were told: cut into this man’s brain in whatever way feels right for you.

The final example is described in an article being plugged on LinkedIn called: “How to Retain Talent? Teach Them to Leave, Says KBS+.” It tells how KBS+, a New York advertising agency, is teaching staff how to start their own businesses and – guess what? – some are taking the opportunity and quitting to do just that.

But never mind: KBS+ insists this is a great way of keeping staff motivated. It sounds a pretty far-fetched way of keeping people to me. Making their jobs more interesting and saying the odd “thank you” might be a better – and cheaper – way of doing it.

So white isn’t the new black, after all. Black is black, white is white, and any company that has a mathematical symbol as part of its name is sending a clear sign to the world that it dispensed with logic a long time ago. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)

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