A Wolf Tone in the Workplace

cello1Is a dissonance good or bad? Does it add a richness to the output or does it detract? If you play a stringed instrument you are familiar with the “wolf“. This is an overtone produced when a note is played that matches the natural frequency of the instrument. The wolf is an oscillation that sounds like an animal noise. It is annoying for a cellist or violinist and it is often dealt with using a “wolf eliminator”. If a cello is properly proportioned it will have this problem. It seems that the very best instruments have this characteristic. Many musicians buy eliminators to dampen this noise. But some cellists choose to embrace this flaw and actually write music with the wolf in mind. Naldjorlak I is a piece that capitalizes on the wolf tone. Some cellists work around and with their cello’s wolf tone rather than putting an eliminator on the instrument for fear of dampening the richness of the other tones. Perhaps they have discovered that a little dissonance can be used to advantage.

In our workplaces we often find annoying “characters”. They find a way to stir things up and call to attention all that is wrong. Often they are different from the rest and don’t blend in with the gang. There are several ways to deal with this kind of person and each way has its consequences.

  • Kick ’em to the curb: There is no time for people problems. Teamwork is the highest priority to get the job done. If this is your situation then eliminating the annoyance will optimize the team’s output. You can try to coach and cajole but you will likely not get to a place where this “wolf” is tamed. Dissonance will persist. However, if you eliminate the problem it is likely that you will also eliminate a skill or set of experiences that created some synergy for the team.
  • Ignore and let the organization work it out: Usually the people with the annoying habits or ideas have something to bring to the table or they wouldn’t have been hired. They have deep experiences or unique skills. Perhaps they are jaded and maybe they have some quirks based on that experience but they are tolerated based on what they bring to the team. Letting the organization work it out is a typical management response. The logic is that there is more benefit than harm and everyone is a grown-up. The organization should work out their differences and move on. This response usually results in inefficiency and frustration. In the extreme the result is the loss of good people.
  • Harness the wolf and find synergy: This third alternative creates the most organizational value.  Different styles and personalities will usually bring the best results. Dissonance and disagreement will help deliver a stronger product. However, there is a technique to optimizing the result and the best organizations work to maximize teamwork while maintaining differences.
    • Teach the team about their own and other’s personalities. Techniques such as Meyers Briggs and Strength Based Leadership are often used to help a team figure out how to optimize their own strengths and quirks while working with others.
    • Allow for disagreement, but then insist on a “commit”. While at Sun I worked with a leader who used the phrase, “disagree but commit”. He was tolerant of discussion and disagreement up to a point. Once the decision was made, he insisted on commitment to the decision with no back-channel negatives.
    • Lead through the dissonance. Purposefully designing an organization that has differing views is a way to enhance results but leadership is needed to guide discussions and allow for a reasonable tension without too much delay. A leader who is self-confident and knows how to bring out the best in a group of people is hard to find but once in place this type of person will be a star.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
― Rob Siltanen

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