Perception != Value

This is an excerpt for my upcoming book on millennials in the workplace called. “Ballpits, Segways, and Other Useless Shit: A Millennials Perspective” Shoot me a follow for the latest publication information.

There is a simple one liner when it comes to business success that many companies embed into their culture that goes like this: “Perception is everything.”

You have probably heard this a lot. Especially when referring to branding. Brands are all about perception. Companies want you to be able to instantly recognize a logo, a color scheme, or a unique style that makes your lizard brain draw conclusions. You see the orange Home Depot sign? You know you’re going to get what you think you need, and end up going back a few hours later. You see the McDonald’s arches? You know you’re going to get some quick, cheap — food? Not really sure what you call it. But you catch my drift.

The moment you view something, you draw a conclusion about it. Brand managers all over the world want you to immediately perceive that their company is associated with quality; aka give us your money, it will be worth it. This is why Apple products are perceived to be of higher value, when in actuality the physical hardware — typically — is behind other manufacturers. But because those things are designed well, built well, are a bit heavier than normal, they have that perceived value that has rocketed Apple to be one of the largest companies in the world. So the big question becomes, does perception about people work the same way as it does with brands? Quite simply, the answer is no.

We have a problem in the corporate world, and at it’s core is this idea of perception. That is, the perception that things are getting done. The perception that you, your manager, or your group are competent at the jobs they’ve been given. In many organizations, managing this perception becomes much more important than getting actual work done; and therein lies the problem. Now, I’m no psychic, but whether you’ve worked for a month or for decades, I know you’ve seen examples of this in the workplace.

Activities that are created to manage perception of work take all kinds of forms. Status reports to higher ups that have a whole lot of words, but actually don’t say a god damn thing. Numbers, projections, and forecasts projecting into the next five years with little red, yellow, or green colored arrows. Which, while look impressive, basically tell me that you have too much time on your hands, and / or you believe you are the second coming of Nostradamus. These are just two out of hundreds (literally) of examples I’ve encountered over the past decade. Deliverables like this might have their place, but they should in no way be the focus of the majority of anyone’s time, including managers.

We also have trouble when managing self-perception. That is this idea that you, yourself, have other people perceiving and deriving some judgments about you. What you wear, how your hair looks, your level of fitness, the kind of car you drive, all of these things increase the positive perception people have of you. It’s why we buy luxury cars. It’s why people put little signs at the end of their driveway that name their house something stupid — inadvertently telling the world that they’re loathsome. Can’t you feel it? This prickling energy, this aura of awesome? No? Good, that means you’re sane. As for your boss and coworkers? Hard to say. But what I can say is this, it’s all bullshit, and it too contributes to the broader perception problem our society and our businesses face.

I have a question for you. Do you think that people place more emphasis on the perception of value, or actual value created? Just look at your television guide and the answer should be pretty clear. Time and again I have seen people, companies, and policies focus on rewarding this idea of perception rather than value creation. It is an absurdity that has become mainstream and normal. So, if you want to have a happy workforce going forward into the future, anything that values perception needs to get blown away, and fast; because at the end of the day, anything that values perception over actual value has a major cost associated with it.

Cost is everything in business. We are always seeking new and innovative ways to reduce and control excessive costs. Yet, the biggest cost of any operational budget is staring us right in the face. The amount of time spent on trivial activities, meetings, and “cover your ass” (CYA) work is quantifiable to dollars; and these activities are freaking expensive. Let’s use a real world example.

A few years back I was called to a meeting by a general HR manager. It was a meeting with twelve others including my boss, his boss, and several higher ups. Alongside them were a handful of engineers, analysts, and some expensive contractors. All of us were well compensated veterans of the company. After settling in, the organizer of the meeting stated the necessity of having the meeting — we had to come up with a shared definition of the word ‘innovation’.

The first thought that came to my mind was, “Why?”, and so I asked. I was met with resentment and irritated looks. The organizer stated that in order to report up to executive management in a concise way, we had to all share a common definition of what innovation meant.

So, with that, I gave myself a self-induced (metaphorical) lobotomy. My brain was in a universe filled with donut trees and licorice rainbows; of course my survival mechanisms were still in place, so I nodded every now and then to remind those in the room I was still alive.

An hour and a half later of back and forth, crissing and crossing conversations, multiple people speaking at once, and more excitement — we came to a consensus. The organizer reeled in all the talk and pulled up a web browser on the projector. She typed in the word ‘innovation’, pulled up wikipedia, and read the definition aloud to everyone in the room. I looked around and saw people nodding.

So, we ended up defining the word innovation for the company, based on the definition presented on wikipedia. Everyone felt they had done a good job as they left the room in time for lunch. I felt like I had made a terrible life decision somewhere along the line to be thrown into that conference room of hell.

I’m not kidding. This shit actually happened in a fortune 500 company.

For the sake of my math, let’s assume that everyone in that room was billing $100 an hour; which I know is low balling for most of them.

(12 people x $100) * 1.5 hrs = $1,800

$1,800 dollars was spent, essentially, on a Google search that could have taken less than thirty seconds for free. This tells me the company was willing to spend a lot of money on bullshit. Let’s say these twelve people met once a day for a year to discuss these types of things, we’re up to $657,000. Now let’s magnify this by adding three conference rooms to our building, each with six people in it that meet once a day; now we’re at $1,314,000. Now let’s add three floors with the same layout, $3,942,000. Imagine, if you will, that the picture I’m painting here actually pales into comparison on the amount of waste that occurs in the real world. I can promise you that there are way more conference rooms, on way more floors in most companies. And what are we spending that money for? To enable people to create reports in a similar manner so higher up executives didn’t have to think about what they were looking at? I thought we paid them for their ability to think! You might as well take your quarterly earnings, halve them, and flush them down the toilet.

Of course, it is entirely possible I’m over simplifying all this. If we go back to the scenario that actually happened to me, I suppose it could be argued that at least everyone left that room on the same page, and that has intrinsic value. But, I’d argue against that. The true value of that meeting, the quantifiable part of the equation, was nil. Zero value added. The only thing produced was maybe a text box on a slide relevant only to the organizer of the meeting. A slide that a higher up will see, and perceive valuable discussions resulted in the creation of it; but we know that to be false.

Who knows what work could have been done in that one and a half hour time span? Maybe great things could have been discovered or created. Maybe not. But no matter what speculative thing could have happened, there is one thing I know for sure, the value created for the business would have likely been greater than zero.

But unfortunately, these types of activities are a way of life for many people in corporate America. Endless manual reporting, constant CYA work, mundane tasks to appear productive, form after form after form being filled out to get anything done.

Constant email chains that grow like bacteria on a festering wound. Mindless meetings and valueless discussions. All of these things in the name of keeping middle management and/or their bosses in good standing with the person above them. These kinds of activities need to stop if you want to succeed with a professional millennial workforce.

You’ve probably heard somewhere along the line that millennials want to work on “stuff that matters”, or that they “want to change the world”. Of course, as we already know, both goals are subjective. But the underlying message of the statements shouldn’t be put on the back burner. The message is that professional millennials want to do work they’re proud of. I would love to say that this is no different than anyone else, but we all know those retirement factory workers I mentioned earlier in the book; the people that are fine filing blank paper as long as you keep signing their check. I’m proud to say that the professional millennials I’ve met in my journey on this Earth so far, are not OK with the mundane.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying your company has to be a green initiative startup that measures it’s success by the level of overall dolphin happiness. No, you could be manufacturing the glue used on the back of stamps as far as I’m concerned. But the real work has to be exposed to us. We want to work on things that have an impact on the business. To work on things that are interesting, projects that transcend us away from working a bullshit job, into having a career. There’s a dramatic difference between the two.

In the past, many were OK with working jobs forever, skilled or unskilled. They were cool with getting more responsibility with no additional pay, as long as their title was fucking sweet. Now, the average amount of time someone in my generation stays somewhere is two years; and until titles pay student loan bills, most of us could give two shits about them. Why? The answer is very simple, it’s because professional millennials are looking for careers that enable them to create actual value, and be appreciated and compensated for the value created. Places and projects where their ideas are taken seriously, where their age doesn’t play a factor to their leadership and/or growth potential within the company or industry they’re in.

The phrase I’ve picked up along the way is that we’re looking for businesses that employ guard rails rather than gatehouses. We don’t want to be a part of businesses that block us at every turn with policies that do nothing but pad some random middle manager’s ‘Here’s why I’m important list’. We want policies that guide us down the road, but not stand in the way. We want red tape to be minimal allowing us to own everything from start to finish. Yet, most organizations don’t want to fit this mold; they hold perception to a much higher regard. What would people think if they let someone younger own an idea? After all, everything must be a personal affront to your career and your “political capital”, right? I digress.

The reason for the jumping jobs is simple, we want to find strong businesses with a clear vision we believe in. We want strong leadership to guide us, and we want to be heard rather than being seen and counted. It really is that simple. Want to retain your talent? Be transparent, allow those under you to thrive and grow. Give them more responsibility, let them fail and learn. Be observant and introspective in order to place value on the important things. Be able to recognize that the guy who shows up exactly at nine everyday might produce mediocre work, and the girl who is flaky with her ETA, who breaks the rules, who questions authority, but produces superior work, may be exactly what your firm needs to thrive. Realize that the old way of doing things would value the former employee, rather than the latter and you’ll be far ahead in the game.