Keil Hubert: Slender Margin of Error

Keil Hubert, our resident US blogger, asks this week: why do office workers ignore the facts in front of them and stick religiously to their own beliefs?

What do your employees believe about your organization? When you set aside the vision statements and mission statements and official company songs and all the other manufactured cultural artifacts, how much of what your employees believe about you, your leadership decisions, and your motivations is based on fact, and how much is entirely invented?

I’ll bet you a fiver sight-unseen that your people harbor illusions about you that don’t correspond to the facts. Whether benevolent of malevolent or simply insane, belief is more powerful a force in office culture than fact. That’s just human nature.

I spent some time this week with a couple of my senior technical experts discussing some failed policy initiatives that had been put into place several months before I’d joined the organization. In once case, a senior supervisor on the production staff had made some remarkably bad decisions about customer service delivery at an off-site location. She believed (quite earnestly) that she and her team could not reliably do their job without access to the production network and the various customer databases. She was mostly right about the need … But was dead wrong about how to go about solving the problem.

Based on service level agreements, we couldn’t get accounts on the host company’s network. As a mitigating solution, I was working a purchase for cell modems and VPN remote access so that our employees could remote back home without ever touching the host’s physical infrastructure. Clean, legal, cheap and safe. Everybody gets what they want in the end, and the customers get serviced.

Normally, a situation like this would only warrant a single discussion. The production supervisor states her problem, IT services investigates and defines the best practical solution, everyone’s told what the way forward is and resources are assigned to make it happen. Sure, there’s a wait while kit is purchased and tech is configured for field operations, but the solution is clearly understood.

Except when it isn’t. In this peculiar case, the production supervisor threw her toys out of the pram and made an embarrassing scene both at the shared site and back in the office. The cause? She insisted that the way forward was to either get accounts on the other site’s network or to force someone with access to log in and then turn over their session to her.

We’d already told her multiple times that option one was not practical, and option two constituted a termination-level cyber security offense. Let me say that again: management informed the employee of policy and direction, and the employee utterly dismissed the explanation in favor of a fact-bereft paranoid fantasy.

That seems like a simple problem, doesn’t it? You have a delusional and disruptive employee. Fire her for cause and move on with a sane person. Easy-peasy.

I submit that this wacky supervisor’s case isn’t quite so simple. What we were dealing with wasn’t a simple case of crazy; it was the infectious and overpowering strength of an idea. This employee was captivated by the idea that local access was both right and proper, and the power of that idea overloaded her ability to accept that any other solution was appropriate. Why? Because she’d seen one of our technicians operate on the other site’s network and therefore made the illogical leap that she could, too.[1]

No matter what we told this upset supervisor, she couldn’t hear it. Note that I didn’t say “would not;” when she was confronted with information that challenged her world-view, her mind simply discredited and discarded it. No matter how many times management tried to explain the facts to her, it didn’t register. In fact, when confronted about her problem after the third occasion, she flatly denied that anyone was “working” on solving the problem.

This is a bizarre and very common human problem. When an idea that conforms to your worldview sinks its claws into your mind, you hold onto it with near-religious fervor and actively defend the idea against all evidence and argument to the contrary.

This condition is exacerbated when you try and explain esoteric technologies to employees (and, worse, to executives) who don’t grasp how they work. Your “facts” don’t jibe with their perception of their experience, and therefore fail to persuade. In fact, your refusal to validate the angry employee’s world view marks you as a corrupt, manipulative liar in their eyes: you’re not agreeing with them, and (or course) they’re absolutely right, therefore, your refusal to agree means that you’re actively trying to subvert the truth.

Here’s where it gets more fun: even when you know for an absolute fact that an idea is wholly manufactured, it’ll still “stick” if it’s attractive enough to the listener.

A good case of this has been plaguing one of our sub-sites on the main campus for year. The employees in one building are convinced beyond all reason that their PCs and network bandwidth have been deliberately throttled down by IT in order to punish them for some imagined slight. No matter how many times the systems and networks crew worked on upgrading the cable plant, the data switches, the network configs and everything else, it wasn’t meaningful to the angry customers.

Even when the department head was sat down in front of the network management console and was shown the real-time statistics on data flow from his building to the server room, he flatly refused to accept it. At some unknown point in the past, a co-worker had insinuated that his building’s network was “too slow,” and he clung to that idea in violent defiance of all evidence to the contrary.

If you’re an Internet culture otaku, you’ve probably come across the new Slender Man Mythos. It’s a modern ghost story that was invented by a bunch of creative story tellers over on Something Awful a few years back.[2] In a nutshell, the writers invented a new baddie and turned the idea loose for various creative teams to expand on. One energetic crew had created thee entire seasons worth of pseudo reality TV episodes on YouTube. You can even buy DVD editions of the seasons.

What’s fascinating about this ghost story phenomenon – and what ties it into my argument on strong beliefs in the workplace – is the common thread of how attractive ideas resonant inside a sympathetic mind and become the seed of a rich, exciting new crop of follow-on ideas. Theoriginal Slender Man seed was nothing more than a clever PhotoShop project by a user named “Victor Surge” that drew a creepy, inhuman figure in the background of a playground photo. Other users saw the work and were inspired to fill in the background, motivations, and story arc for the character. Each submission by an artist was evaluated by the community and accepted as canon or dismissed as unproductive. Eventually, various side projects and variations took off and the rest is otaku fodder.

The key behind this collaborative artistic effort is that everyone involved knew that it was entirely fake; the genesis of the idea was openly discussed by its creators and is readily available for independent review by anyone with a web browser and way too much free time.

The exact same phenomena occur in the office. A controversial or compelling idea is generated and it reaches a receptive audience. From there, the audience member considers the idea, adds to it and returns it to the community with supporting embellishments. Over time, this idea – ormeme, if you’re feeling scientific [3] – goes on to both infect and inspire others in the community. Once the new idea reaches enough biological hosts (employees), it becomes an accepted fact, and becomes incredibly difficult to eradicate.

In the case of our remote building and their belief that IT is maliciously throttling back their bandwidth, the idea is so deeply rooted that nothing we ever did can eradicate the idea. Infected employees transmit the idea on to new employees; new employees invent experiential pseudo-evidence to justify the irrational belief, which perpetuates the myth throughout the community. Each invented supporting element cements the idea deeper into the collective culture.

In the example of our angry production supervisor and her remote access beliefs, she’s the only person truly given over to the irrational belief … so far. That’s why my upper management team and I have to take swift, consistent and decisive action to kill her proposed irrational idea early on, before it can spread and infect other people.

We’re not suggesting that she is a bad person; only that her irrational idea is inherently bad, since acting on it causes harm and distracts employees from implementing the required work solution, and encourages employees to act irrationally. We can’t have that – good employees could be sacked if they buy in to this proposed remote site access idea and violate our service level agreement with the site owner. Therefore, we’re obligated to combat the idea throughout the organization, every time it manifests. If we fail to act, or fail to follow through in those narrow windows, our ineffective response can actually lend credence to the irrational idea!

Cultural idea contagion is a very real, very interesting phenomenon. It’s happening all around you in the workplace, right now. I submit that you have to deal with it, like it or not. If you don’t, it could well be too late by the time you finally choose to engage. A dangerously bad idea could take root and have spawned an entire crop of related bad ideas that endanger good order and discipline throughout the organization.

[1] The reality is that we’re allowed one network account on the other organization’s site. Just one.  We abide by our service level agreements, and chose the tech who’s most often working at that location to maintain our only approved account.

[2] I’ll wager that Something Awful is probably not safe for viewing on your company network. Click at your own risk.

[3] I really like Wikipedia’s functional definition of a meme, so I’m quoting the entire opening paragraph of the entry here directly: “A meme is ‘an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.’ A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.”

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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