Contextual considerations

I was reading an interesting thread over at Joel on Software yesterday. The original poster wanted to know how to figure out in the interview process whether a given candidate was the type of person who would be gung-ho and eager to work hard for the glory of the company, or the type of person who would come in, put in the minimum amount of time and effort possible and go home. This kicked off a relatively long discussion, as everybody talked about how to tell the difference, and what the advantages of both types were. And I read it all, and then had to add a comment at the end, because it seemed like everybody was missing a big assumption that the original poster had made: that candidates were either one type of person or other.

As I commented:

In my personal experience, the company environment itself often determines which type of people they get. If the company has a goal which excites its people, gets them involved in the planning of projects, and rewards them appropriately for good work, they turn their employees into the people who are wild with enthusiasm. If the company treats its employees like automatons, excluding them from making decisions about how to do their work, and puts in place stupid compensation structures, then their employees become automatons, putting in the minimum effort necessary. If your company has a lot of people who are slacking off, maybe it’s not the people you’ve hired – maybe it’s the company environment. Nothing is as demotivating to good people as feeling unappreciated and being treated like a mindless drone.

This fallacy, where qualities are perceived to be inherent in the person itself rather than in the interaction of the person and their environment, is something I’ve commented on before. I use the term “object-oriented philosophy”, which I describe in this post as our inclination to “try to stuff all of the properties of an object into the object itself rather than the network of relationships surrounding the object”. I’ve also commented at length on the idea that our identity is the emergent interaction of ourselves with our social environment.

This discussion also ties in well with books I’ve been reading recently. Built to Last emphasizes the importance of creating a cohesive company vision and making sure that every single aspect of the company reinforces that vision for its employees, from the physical environment to the incentive plan to the way it runs meetings to its business cards. Any mis-alignments between business processes and the vision must be ruthlessly eliminated, because it creates cognitive dissonance, which leads to employees mentally checking out. The authors admit that you have to start with good people, but they emphasize that it’s not enough: you have to have a good environment as well.

The other books I’ve been reading recently include Plans and Situated Actions by Lucy Suchman, and Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction by Paul Dourish. Both books, as might be expected from their use of words like situated and embodied, emphasize the emergent nature of interaction. Nobody acts in a vacuum. We are firmly grounded in our environment at all times, and speaking of our tendencies and plans and interactions without the context of an environment is almost meaningless.

I’m not sure where this is all going yet, but all of these inputs are swirling around in my head right now. I just need to keep on writing to see if I can start sorting them out.

P.S. Back from vacation. Still jet lagged and waking up ridiculously early. Crunched at work (there until after 8pm the last couple nights). Need to catch up on about ten blog posts, including four or five book reviews obviously. I’m thinking about turning my review on the Jane Jacobs book, which isn’t written yet but which I’ve sketched out in my mind, into an examination of how her specific recommendations for urban planning can be interpreted as manifestations for universal design principles, and then submitting that as an article to the cross-disciplinary design magazine, Ambidextrous. We’ll see if I get off my butt and do the necessary writing and editing. If any of you see me, you should ask me about it so that I continue to stay focused.

4 thoughts on “Contextual considerations

  1. good call on submitting to ambidextrous. i think it’d be an excellent place to submit something like that. particularly if you (or they) can come up with some pretty pix to go with it.

  2. I think this post is very interesting in light of various reports on post-hurricane looting (and the reactions of people in unaffected areas to those reports).

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