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Scraping real estate listing data is a red herring controversy

When analyzing the issues in protecting real estate listing data, many people are looking at it from an outdated angle, as listing data becoming a commodity actually makes Realtors more valuable to consumers.

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The red herring of protecting listing data

A recent blog post on the Realtor.com lockbox blog starts out with the rather definitive and provocative statement:

“Listing data.
It’s valuable, it’s important, and it’s something that a lot of folks are trying VERY hard to steal and misuse.”

So, I figured it would only be fair to start my editorial with something equally provocative:

“Listing data.
It’s so common online that it’s a commodity of far less value than you’ve been led to believe.”

Before the comments fill up with angry missives, I want to be clear that I don’t condone scraping, I think it’s unprofessional and undignified, and I fully support Realtor.com’s efforts to prevent it. But I also don’t lose any sleep over it, and here’s why I think it’s a red herring.

Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us. Perhaps you saw a name and number on a lawn sign, or a friend suggested their agent, or you just walked into a real estate office and chatted with the available floor agent.

In an era where all of the information we once so closely guarded is now available for anyone online 2/47 without having to talk to a Realtor, it’s easy to feel irrelevant. Our value hasn’t gone away, and I’d say our value has actually increased because of the incredible amount of data now available online. Where is the value in a Realtor?

The modern value of a Realtor

First: Making all of the data make sense
We can make sense of all of that data and put it in a meaningful context in a way that makes it easy for a particular client to understand. For an agent that actively tours in their market and engages daily with buyers, sellers, lenders, appraisers, and other real estate professionals it’s so easy that we sometimes don’t realize how valuable it is to take a huge amount of data and distill it to the relevant, essential and important information. This isn’t meant to sound patronizing to home buyers and sellers. They aren’t babies who need to be gently spoon-fed an easy to digest puree of real estate information. But home buyers and sellers have jobs, lives, families, children, pets, travel plans and hobbies – and they can’t put all of those things on pause to buy or sell a home.

Second: Real Estate will always be about People
It’s about people buying and selling homes. Yes, square footage matters. Yes, location matters. Yes, bedrooms, bathrooms, school-districts and plenty of other data points factor into the decision. Research1 has shown that the greater number of data points involved, the worse our conscious minds are at making the decision. It’s the ability to trust your gut, and have someone that you trust – an expert – to cross-check that feeling by being able to turn and say “I can’t put my finger on it, but I really think I like this home. What do you think?” Moments like that are when real estate is more about the people involved than the home itself. While I might ask Siri where to help me hide a dead body (just for fun and games, I assure you), I can’t envision the day when people are comfortable asking her if they should buy this home or that home. There are too many intangibles for a computer program to ever capture the quirky, bizarre, hard-to-describe but important details in buying a home.

Third: Websites only capture the easy data
Beds, bath, Square Feet, Date of Construction, Schools, etc. Those are the easy fields to capture, display, sort, and generally manipulate. But what about those items that are highly subjective, periodic or otherwise hard to easily classify and assign a value to? What’s light and airy to you may be a cave to me. What about the house next to the high school field used for band practice late into the evenings – but only during certain months of the year? Can you imagine the number of data fields it would take to capture every possible aspect of a home throughout a year? And if you can, see point two above.

Fourth: Negotiating and Navigating Escrow
Ever gone white water rafting without a guide? If you have, and you’re still alive to tell the tale, then you are both insane and lucky. It’s common sense to hire a guide when you are negotiating and navigating wilderness that is unknown to you – particularly when your day job involves sitting in a cubicle and wearing stylish shoes. Plunging into the river called escrow without a Real Estate agent to smartly negotiate and navigate on your behalf is inviting disaster. Real estate is filled with wildly unpredictable animals, well-camouflaged dead-ends, and false mirages – the cost of a simple mistake can be far greater than it originally appears. Just like the wilderness!

Realtors are more valuable when listing data is a commodity

So if Realtors are more valuable when listing data becomes a commodity, why the concern with scraping?

One: it makes it easy to misrepresent who the listing agent for a property is. If you are going to display my listing on your website (and depending on who you are, I might or might not be okay with that), at a minimum, I want credit as the listing agent. Not because I want to represent both sides of the transaction (double-popping/agent level dual agency) but because I worked hard to get that listing and my reputation online is incredibly valuable to my business.

Two: Accuracy. If I had a dollar for every phone call I got from clients looking on Trulia, Redfin, or Zillow asking about listings that are advertised as available but really aren’t available, I’d have a Benjamin and a few extra Lincolns in my wallet. And these are from some of the big players that work hard at keeping their data up-to-date.

Three: I’d prefer to make money from my hard work, thanks very much. Plenty of sites using scraped or syndicated data have business models that don’t rely at all on selling houses. Trulia, Zillow and even Realtor.com (and these aren’t even the scrapers) are in the advertising business, making money by selling advertisting on their sites regardless of if a particular home sells or not. They aren’t interested in selling homes, they are interested in generating page views and click-throughs. But to generate those page views, they need your listing data. Which they get without ever offering me or my broker a few dollars…

The continuing evolution

Listing data is on the internet, and it’s not going anywhere. How and where it is displayed, how it is protected (or not protected), and who controls it will continue to change and evolve. Realtor.com wants you to know they are obsessed with defeating the scrapers. But like I said, I think it’s a red herring and pretty far down on my list of concerns. What about you?

1 Research about decision making

Matt Fuller brings decades of experience and industry leadership as co-founder of San Francisco real estate brokerage Jackson Fuller Real Estate. Matt is a Past President of the San Francisco Association of Realtors. He currently serves as a Director for the California Association of Realtors. He currently co-hosts the San Francisco real estate podcast Escrow Out Loud. A recognized SF real estate expert, Matt has made numerous media appearances and published in a variety of media outlets. He’s a father, husband, dog-lover, and crazy exercise enthusiast. When he’s not at work you’re likely to find him at the gym or with his family.

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18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Benn Rosales

    April 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Epic, just epic.

  2. Jeff Brown

    April 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Hey Matt — “Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us.”

    Change that to, “Coke used to be very successful cuz they kept their formula very well guarded. Since they gave it away, they’ve become less than a shadow of what they were.”

    Coke knows that giving away their only possession of any value would be, um, less than intelligent. I understand where you’re coming from, Matt. But this discussion and all that flows from it, is akin to talkin’ about how to get along without all the gold we used to have before publishing our vault’s combination.

    It begins with a false premise: That the public has a right to the only thing we had of value. How’s that been workin’ out for us lately? Nobody wants to address that question, cuz they realize the horse is outa the barn, making the discussion a complete waste of productive time.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      Jeff,

      Coke is carbonated water, sugar, and a few other chemicals thrown together. Those are all commodity items. The magic in Coke (if you think there is any) is how they take a few commodity ingredients and turn them into massive profits and brand loyalty.

      I think the same argument applies to successful Realtors. They take a few commodity items – listing information and customer service for example – and spin them into their secret sauce that wins them business and clients.

      The only thing that came close to killing Coke was when Coke got mighty arrogant and insular and decided they knew what would make for a better tasting Coke than the general public.

      • Jeff Brown

        April 23, 2012 at 10:35 pm

        Much appreciated. I understand now.

  3. Russ Bergeron

    April 23, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    It is not so much about protecting the data itself but protecting the copyright to the data. If you don’t enforce it, the copyright does not exist. The question I would ask is – should any 3rd party be allowed to use copyrighted material (raw materials) to start a for-profit business at the expense of the owner of those raw materials?

    I am starting a subscription based blog. Below is my first article. What do you think?
    ———————————————
    The red herring of protecting listing data

    A recent blog post on the Realtor.com lockbox blog starts out with the rather definitive and provocative statement:

    “Listing data.
    It’s valuable, it’s important, and it’s something that a lot of folks are trying VERY hard to steal and misuse.”
    So, I figured it would only be fair to start my editorial with something equally provocative:

    “Listing data.
    It’s so common online that it’s a commodity of far less value than you’ve been led to believe.”
    Before the comments fill up with angry missives, I want to be clear that I don’t condone scraping, I think it’s unprofessional and undignified, and I fully support Realtor.com’s efforts to prevent it. But I also don’t lose any sleep over it, and here’s why I think it’s a red herring.

    Realtors used to be valuable because we were the gatekeepers to listing data. We knew what was for sale, how much it cost, and where you could find it. And the only way to get that information was to work with us. Perhaps you saw a name and number on a lawn sign, or a friend suggested their agent, or you just walked into a real estate office and chatted with the available floor agent.

    In an era where all of the information we once so closely guarded is now available for anyone online 2/47 without having to talk to a Realtor, it’s easy to feel irrelevant. Our value hasn’t gone away, and I’d say our value has actually increased because of the incredible amount of data now available online. Where is the value in a Realtor?

    The modern value of a Realtor

    First: Making all of the data make sense
    We can make sense of all of that data and put it in a meaningful context in a way that makes it easy for a particular client to understand. For an agent that actively tours in their market and engages daily with buyers, sellers, lenders, appraisers, and other real estate professionals it’s so easy that we sometimes don’t realize how valuable it is to take a huge amount of data and distill it to the relevant, essential and important information. This isn’t meant to sound patronizing to home buyers and sellers. They aren’t babies who need to be gently spoon-fed an easy to digest puree of real estate information. But home buyers and sellers have jobs, lives, families, children, pets, travel plans and hobbies – and they can’t put all of those things on pause to buy or sell a home.

    Second: Real Estate will always be about People
    It’s about people buying and selling homes. Yes, square footage matters. Yes, location matters. Yes, bedrooms, bathrooms, school-districts and plenty of other data points factor into the decision. Research1 has shown that the greater number of data points involved, the worse our conscious minds are at making the decision. It’s the ability to trust your gut, and have someone that you trust – an expert – to cross-check that feeling by being able to turn and say “I can’t put my finger on it, but I really think I like this home. What do you think?” Moments like that are when real estate is more about the people involved than the home itself. While I might ask Siri where to help me hide a dead body (just for fun and games, I assure you), I can’t envision the day when people are comfortable asking her if they should buy this home or that home. There are too many intangibles for a computer program to ever capture the quirky, bizarre, hard-to-describe but important details in buying a home.

    Third: Websites only capture the easy data
    Beds, bath, Square Feet, Date of Construction, Schools, etc. Those are the easy fields to capture, display, sort, and generally manipulate. But what about those items that are highly subjective, periodic or otherwise hard to easily classify and assign a value to? What’s light and airy to you may be a cave to me. What about the house next to the high school field used for band practice late into the evenings – but only during certain months of the year? Can you imagine the number of data fields it would take to capture every possible aspect of a home throughout a year? And if you can, see point two above.

    Fourth: Negotiating and Navigating Escrow
    Ever gone white water rafting without a guide? If you have, and you’re still alive to tell the tale, then you are both insane and lucky. It’s common sense to hire a guide when you are negotiating and navigating wilderness that is unknown to you – particularly when your day job involves sitting in a cubicle and wearing stylish shoes. Plunging into the river called escrow without a Real Estate agent to smartly negotiate and navigate on your behalf is inviting disaster. Real estate is filled with wildly unpredictable animals, well-camouflaged dead-ends, and false mirages – the cost of a simple mistake can be far greater than it originally appears. Just like the wilderness!

    Realtors are more valuable when listing data is a commodity

    So if Realtors are more valuable when listing data becomes a commodity, why the concern with scraping?

    One: it makes it easy to misrepresent who the listing agent for a property is. If you are going to display my listing on your website (and depending on who you are, I might or might not be okay with that), at a minimum, I want credit as the listing agent. Not because I want to represent both sides of the transaction (double-popping/agent level dual agency) but because I worked hard to get that listing and my reputation online is incredibly valuable to my business.

    Two: Accuracy. If I had a dollar for every phone call I got from clients looking on Trulia, Redfin, or Zillow asking about listings that are advertised as available but really aren’t available, I’d have a Benjamin and a few extra Lincolns in my wallet. And these are from some of the big players that work hard at keeping their data up-to-date.

    Three: I’d prefer to make money from my hard work, thanks very much. Plenty of sites using scraped or syndicated data have business models that don’t rely at all on selling houses. Trulia, Zillow and even Realtor.com (and these aren’t even the scrapers) are in the advertising business, making money by selling advertisting on their sites regardless of if a particular home sells or not. They aren’t interested in selling homes, they are interested in generating page views and click-throughs. But to generate those page views, they need your listing data. Which they get without ever offering me or my broker a few dollars…

    The continuing evolution

    Listing data is on the internet, and it’s not going anywhere. How and where it is displayed, how it is protected (or not protected), and who controls it will continue to change and evolve. Realtor.com wants you to know they are obsessed with defeating the scrapers. But like I said, I think it’s a red herring and pretty far down on my list of concerns. What about you?

    • Benn Rosales

      April 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      Hi Russ! Benn here, so glad to see you – your point is well taken, but I’ll be honest, Matts points are also well taken. As he mentions, protecting copyrights as well as trademarks are important, but what I got out of this was something so much more – a Realtor brilliantly defining how powerful it is to be a Realtor in 2012 regardless of data hijacking, right?

      I’d go a step further however with his assertions of Realtor value proposition – I sort of get the feeling non-Realtors, namely a simple licensee can use R/T/Z or any number of sources to actually provide some semblance of representation in a neighborhood these days. It’s all out there for a well farmed licensee w/o the R the do what Matt so artfully describes as value. This service will in time get better as aggregators get better, and why can’t they use the new tools Zillow provides to disintermediate the associations right on out of the drivers seat. ahhhhhh Zillow CRM? Zillow IDX? etc…

      They don’t and aren’t a broker, they’re defining a new way. Matt’s points only makes this more evident.

      • Benn Rosales

        April 23, 2012 at 6:41 pm

        If it’s not the agenda, then they’re missing a huge opportunity – not that I support it, I’m just sayin.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:32 pm

      Russ,

      As I mentioned at the beginning of my article, I’m not condoning scraping. As to your question about “should any 3rd party be allowed to use copyrighted material (raw materials) to start a for-profit business at the expense of the owner of those raw materials?”

      From the agent level perspective I’d say that to a degree, sites like Trulia, Zillow, and Realtor.com do exactly that. They are all in the business of selling advertising packages – primarily to real estate agents, and while Move.Com might profit from allowing Zillow to use their data, it doesn’t trickle down to an individual agent.

      That said, I also couldn’t tell you the intricacies of who owns the data about my listing once I enter it into the MLS. From a quick google of your name, it sounds like you have a fair amount of experience in this area and I’d love to hear more from your perspective.

      I’d also be really curious to hear your opinion and thoughts on IDX. When I display another agent’s listing on my website and a buyer contacts me, have I profited at the expense of the owner of that listing data (the listing agent)?

      Cheers,
      Matt

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      Russ,

      Isn’t Google’s entire business model predicated around indexing (scraping, to some degree) other people’s data, selling advertising around it and making a fortune? The value isn’t the data, in google’s case it is helping people find the data. And no, Google doesn’t represent other people’s data as belonging to them, but they’d be out of business without it.

      – Matt

  4. Roland Estrada

    April 23, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I’d like to bring up a possible scraping issue not of MLS data but of Realtor email addresses for spamming purposes. I’ll tell you why I think one or all three associations are at the core of Realtor spam.

    In 2007, I switched email providers from Earthlink to a .mac account. After a couple of months I thought I should update my association info – NAR, CAR and OCAR. Up to the point where I updated my email info with the associations, I had zero spam of any kind. Roughly two days after I updated my email info, I started getting real estate related spam. I was suspicious of course.

    I set up and alias address with Gmail and resubmitted that new email address to the three associations. Sure enough, within a couple of submitting the new email address I started getting real estate spam. All three associations deny selling our email addresses. Either someone on the inside is selling them or they are being scraped. It’s a pretty crappy situation when we can’t trust our associations to keep email info secure.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:34 pm

      Roland,

      While I have nothing to base it on other than personal experience, I’d say that’s scraping and not your association selling your data. That said, I’ve never actually bothered to ask my association what our privacy policy is with regards to member data.

      But spam still sucks!

  5. Matt Thomson

    April 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    I think the biggest element here is that Realtor’s value has changed. That’s okay. The sad thing is few Realtors have changed with it, or understand or are willing to admit their value has changed.
    I’ve made a really nice living the past 4 years, while many former top producing agents in our community have left the business, redefining value.
    A community blog offering tons of information about the community folks are buying into. I have dozens of out of state clients…I do face time chat or send videos of homes to them, so they don’t have to keep flying out here and can see more than just what is online.
    We still have value, we just need to define what it is.

    • Matt Fuller, GRI

      April 23, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      Matt,

      I totally agree with you! Our value has changed, and I’m okay with it.

      I’d be curious to hear how you define your value – unless, of course, that’s your secret recipe for success, in which case you should keep it in the vault 😉

      Cheers,
      Matt

      • Matt Thomson

        April 24, 2012 at 1:58 pm

        I promote my value as having extensive knowledge about the community.
        I know the real estate market #’s intently. I know the absorption rate and DOM of each price range. I know who the builders are of which homes.
        I have spent time getting to know administrators and personnel in each school, including the private schools. I engage in Chamber activities and attend a weekly Public Affairs forum.
        I know the City planner, the county commissioner, the superintendent of schools, the chief of police and the fire commissioner.
        There’s not many questions about our area that I can’t answer, from the schools and parks to where to get a hair cut and who to call to remodel your house.
        Finding homes is something I do, but something my clients can do just as well on my site or any number of other sites.
        Really truly knowing this community is something my buyers need and my sellers appreciate as I can market their home around the perks of the community as well as the home.

  6. Matt Cohen

    April 24, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Funny how it’s obvious that scraping is a problem for emails (for a commenter) but scraping of listings, which can result in the same harassment of consumers (especially when listing address is mashed up with a telephone directory) is a ‘red herring’.

  7. Frank LL0SA- broker FranklyRealty.com

    April 24, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    Redfin? You sure? You lumped them in with the likes of Trulia and Zillow.

    While I agree that Zillow can have weeks or months old data that causes problems and confusion for the consumer, are you sure Redfin has the same issues? They have a direct IDX feed from the MLS and a kick ass site. Never heard of one complaint about them having outdated info.

    Frank
    broker
    FranklyRealty.com
    FranklyMLS.com

  8. Bryan

    May 14, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    First, I must correct a horribly silly mistake one commenter made: Copyright does NOT have to be defended to be retained. This is a very common belief that betrays total ignorance of intellectual property law. Trademark has to be actively defended, COPYRIGHT DOES NOT. Likewise, copyright does NOT cover information or methods. It covers the SPECIFIC PRESENTATION of the information. A "copyrighted" listing is not the number of beds, baths, square footage, acres, etc. It's not subject to copyright. It's how that information is displayed that falls under copyright. Photos, of course, do fall under copyright, even if they are in digital format.

    Second, when I have done housing searches purely for myself, I have resorted to crude scraping. I can then use the data amassed to pare down the selection based on criteria that are derived from the scrape but are too tedious to go through on a listing-by-listing basis (yes, the search tools on the sites are too crude and primitive for me).

    Then, once I've pared that down, what have I done? That is where the Realtor comes in. When it comes time to take a look at specific properties, I find an agent willing to represent me as a buyer. Any Realtor who viciously clings to listing data as if it were life-blood a secret that must be kept to stay in business is nobody I would trust to do business with in the 21st century. They provide ZERO added value by being listing gatekeepers. However, there is still a lot of added value a good Realtor can provide a prospective buyer without being a listing gatekeeper.

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Opinion Editorials

Decision-making when between procrastination and desperation

(EDITORIAL) Sometimes making a decision in business can loom so large over us that we delay making them until it’s absolutely necessary. Why?

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decision-making between procrastination and desperation

I need to confess something to you

So, a little confession’s good for the soul, right? I feel like I need to confess something to you, dear reader, before we jump right into this article. What follows is an article that I pitched to our editor some months back, and was approved then, but I’ve had the hardest time getting started. It’s not writer’s block, per se; I’ve written scores of other articles here since then, so I can’t use that as an excuse.

It’s become a bit of a punch line around the office, too; I was asked if I was delaying the article about knowing the sweet spot in decision making between procrastination and desperation as some sort of hipster meta joke.

Which would be funny, were it to be true, but it’s not. I just became wrapped up in thinking about where this article was headed and didn’t put words to paper. Until now.

Analysis by paralysis

“Thinking about something—thinking and thinking and thinking—without having an answer is when you get analysis by paralysis,” said St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Matt Bowman, speaking to Fangraphs.

“That’s what happened… I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, or if I was doing anything wrong. I had no idea.” It happens to us all: the decisions we have to make in business loom so large over us, that we delay making them until it’s absolutely necessary.

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Worse still are the times that we delay them until after such a time as when making the decision no longer matters because the opportunity or market’s already moved on. So we try to find the avenues for ourselves that will give us the answers we seek, and try to use those answers in a timely fashion. Jim Kaat, the former All-Star pitcher said it well: “If you think long, you think wrong.”

Dumpster Diving in Data

In making a decision, we’re provided an opportunity to answer three basic questions: What? So what? And now what?

The data that you use to inform your decision-making process should ideally help you answer the first two of those three questions. But where do you get it from, and how much is enough?

Like many of us, I’m a collector when it comes to decision making. The more data I get to inform my decision, and the sufficient time that I invest to analyze that data, I feel helps me make a better decision.

And while that sounds prudent, and no one would suggest the other alternative of making a decision without data or analysis would be better, it can lead to the pitfall of knowing how much is enough. When looking for data sources to inform your decision-making, it’s not necessarily quantity, but an appropriate blend between quantity and quality that will be most useful.

You don’t get brownie points for wading through a ton of data of marginal quality or from the most arcane places you can find them when you’re trying to make an informed decision. The results of your ultimate decision will speak for themselves.

“Effective people,” said Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, “know when to stop assessing and make a tough call, even without total information.”

Great. How do I do that?

So, by what factors should you include (and more importantly, exclude) data in your decision-making?

Your specific business sector will tell you which data sources most of your competitors use already, as well as the ones that your industry disruptors use to try to gain the edge on you.

Ideally, your data sources should be timely and meaningful to you. Using overly historical data, unless you’re needing that level of support for a trend line prediction, often falls into “That’s neat, but…” land. Also, if you’re wading into data sets that you don’t understand, find ways to either improve (and thus speed) your analysis of them, or find better data sources.

While you should be aware of outliers in the data sets, don’t become so enamored of them and the stories that they may tell that you base your decision-making process around the outlier, rather than the most likely scenarios.

And don’t fall into this trap

Another trap with data analysis is the temptation to find meaning where it may not exist. Anyone who’s been through a statistics class is familiar with the axiom correlation doesn’t imply causation. But it’s oh so tempting, isn’t it? To find those patterns where no one saw them before?

There’s nothing wrong with doing your homework and finding real connections, but relying on two data points and then creating the story of their interconnectedness in the vacuum will lead you astray.

Such artificial causations are humorous to see; Tyler Vigen’s work highlights many of them.

My personal favorite is the “correlation” between the U.S. per capita consumption of cheese and people who died after becoming entangled in their bed sheets. Funny, but unrelated.

So, as you gather information, be certain that you can support your action or non-action with recent, accurate, and relevant data, and gather enough to be thorough, but not so enamored of the details that you start to drown in the collection phase.

Trust issues

For many of us, delegation is an opportunity for growth. General Robert E. Lee had many generals under his command during the American Civil War, but none was so beloved to him as Stonewall Jackson.

Upon Jackson’s death in 1863, Lee commented that Jackson had lost his left arm, but that he, Lee, had lost his right. Part of this affection for Jackson was the ability to trust that Jackson would faithfully carry out Lee’s orders. In preparing for the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson approached Lee with a plan for battle:

Lee, Jackson’s boss, opened the conversation: “What do you propose to do?”

Jackson, who was well prepared for the conversation based on his scout’s reports, replied. “I propose to go right around there,” tracing the line on the map between them.

“How many troops will you take?” Lee queried.

“My whole command,” said Jackson.

“What will you leave me here with?” asked Lee.

Jackson responded with the names of the divisions he was leaving behind. Lee paused for a moment, but just a moment, before replying, “Well, go ahead.”

And after three questions in the span of less than five minutes, over 30,000 men were moved towards battle.

The takeaway is that Lee trusted Jackson implicitly. It wasn’t a blind trust that Lee had; Jackson had earned it by his preparation and execution, time after time. Lee didn’t see Jackson as perfect, either. He knew the shortcomings that he had and worked to hone his talents towards making sure those shortcomings were minimized.

Making trust pay off for you

We all deserve to have people around us in the workplace that we can develop into such a trust. When making decisions, large or small, having colleagues that you can rely on to let you know the reality of the situation, provide a valuable alternative perspective, or ask questions that let you know the idea needs more deliberation are invaluable assets.

Finding and cultivating those relationships is a deliberate choice and one that needs considerable and constant investments in your human capital to keep.Click To Tweet

Chris Oberbeck at Entrepreneur identifies five keys to making that investment in trust pay off for you: make authentic connections with those in your employ and on your team, make promises to your staff sparingly, and keep every one of them that you make, set clear expectations about behaviors, communication, and output, be vulnerable enough to say “I don’t know” and professional enough to then find the right answers, and invest your trust in your employees first, so that they feel comfortable reciprocating.

Beyond developing a relationship of trust between those who work alongside you, let’s talk about trusting yourself.

For many, the paralysis of analysis comes not from their perceived lack of data, but their lack of confidence in themselves to make the right decision. “If I choose incorrectly,” they think, “it’s possible that I might ________.” Everyone’s blank is different.

For some, it’s a fear of criticism, either due or undue. For others, it’s a fear of failure and what that may mean. Even in the face of compelling research about the power of a growth mindset, in which mistakes and shortcomings can be seen as opportunities for improvement rather than labels of failure, it’s not uncommon for many of us to have those “tapes” in our head, set to autoplay upon a miscue, that remind us that we’ve failed and how that labels us.

“Risk” isn’t just a board game

An uncomfortable fact of life is that, in business, you can do everything right, and yet still fail. All of the research can come back, the trend lines of data suggest the appropriate course of action, your team can bless the decision, and you feel comfortable with it, so action is taken! And it doesn’t work at all. A perfect example of this is the abject failure of New Coke to be accepted by the consumer in 1985.

Not only was it a failure to revive lagging sales, but public outrage was so vehement that the company was forced to backtrack and recall the product from the market. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way they’re supposed to.

You have to be comfortable with your corporate and individual levels of risk when making a decision and taking action. How much risk and how much failure costs you, both in fiscal and emotional terms, is a uniquely personal decision, suited to your circumstances and your predilections. It’s also likely a varying level, too; some decisions are more critical to success and the perceptions of success than others, and will likely cause you more pause than the small decisions we make day-to-day.

In the end, success and failure hinge on the smallest of factors at times, and the temptation is to slow down the decision making process to ensure that nothing’s left to chance.

Go too slowly, however, and you’ve become the captain of a rudderless ship, left aimlessly to float, with decisions never coming, or coming far too late to meet the needs of the market, much less be innovative. Collect the information, work with your team to figure out what it means, and answer the third question of the series (the “what”) by taking action.

#TakeAction

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Opinion Editorials

Managing bipolar disorder and what I wish my employers understood

(EDITORIAL) This editorial offers a perspective on living with bipolar disorder in the workplace, giving employers insight into how to support similar team members.

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bipolar disorder

I met Jacob Martinez (Jake) a few years back at one of our offline events. He is an eager and ambitious person that always wears a smile (and seriously, it’s an infectious smile), always seeks to help people around him, and is kind and positive at every interaction.

In his most current effort to help others, Jake asked what I thought about his writing about his new bipolar disorder diagnosis, something that most people hide and pray no one discovers. But not Jake. As he dug deeper into the rabbit hole of available information, he realized there was little available discussing how this diagnosis impacts career paths, and almost nothing available to help employers to understand the nuances.

And let’s face it – there are plenty of people hiding their diagnosis, and employers that could be missing amazing talent simply for not understanding how to accommodate.

The following is about Jake’s journey with his diagnosis, how it has impacted his career, and his ideas on how hiring managers and business owners could interact with people living with bipolar disorder in a way that keeps their talents in full use on the job. This isn’t scientific and the suggestions aren’t based on some HR seminar, no, it’s meant to give you unique insight that most people don’t share – I want you to read this through Jake’s eyes. It’s a brave look into working with this challenge:


As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, I’ve struggled to find resources that would help individuals like myself jumpstart our careers and learn to navigate working full time with a mental health disorder. Most generalized stories about mental health disorders and the workplace focus more on how things didn’t work out and not on how they started or advanced their careers.

Many give examples of individuals with mental disorders in high-ranking positions who end up leaving their specialized field to work as part-time cashiers or other less stressful and less triggering roles in order to seek a better work environment for their mental health.

I’ve also found that there is a lack of resources for employers when it comes to helping employees with mental disorders. Not many employers are prepared to do so, nor have this skill in their wheelhouse. Without this knowledge, training, and experience, how could they understand the struggles of what it’s like to work with a mental disorder and be expected to provide the necessary support to help their staff?

Many factors contribute to this being overlooked or left unaddressed, such as the stigma behind people with mental disorders in a work environment, or simply because no one knows how to talk about it. When I apply for jobs, I always ask myself “Do I put in an application that I am someone with a condition that needs reasonable accommodations? Is that even an option?” How would I even begin to ask an employer to understand what I am going through? And while I’m still figuring this out and working through what my diagnosis means for my career, I’d like to share my experience and start talking about it.

Like many young individuals, I started college bright-eyed and with a hopeful outlook. I navigated internships, jobs, and full course loads but only to exit with a mountain of debt and depression that can be best described in a meme. Many, with no prospects out of university and an average GPA, end up working menial jobs to get by, hoping for their big break.

For me, this time was spent at Torchy’s Tacos, a local Austin Texas favorite. My luck finally came through when I found a new opportunity. I thought to myself, how hard could it be to deliver packages to people? Especially in a city like Austin where anyone could make a business out of cleaning cat litter boxes. This company, I thought, was going to be my lucky break – my jumping-off point. And it was for about a year. That is until my bipolar diagnosis came in.

Suddenly dealing with bipolar disorder…

I experienced sporadic shifts between depression and hypomania. With my diagnosis came a new understanding of what my limits and strengths were. I understood that stress only made it worse but that physically moving around was the best way to cope with it. Working in a warehouse-type environment allowed me to run around, helping to melt my stress away physically.

But when it came down to job performances, some weeks were better than others.

When I did well, management would make comments like, “I like this new you,” or “whatever is happening, don’t change it.” But nothing was said when I didn’t do so well. Comments continued to dismiss the real issue that I was heading towards an uphill climb of mania. And as I climbed higher and higher, more mistakes began to happen – small ones that added up beyond anything I could control. With each and every episode of mania or depression I had, the trust I had taken time to build and cultivate slowly began to fall apart.

Then came the drop – an episode of depression so deep that it’s hard to recover from. For myself, this began as a result of multiple episodes and when several “options” were laid out on the table by my employer.

First, my employer recommended that I take Family Medical Leave Assistance (FMLA). For someone like myself who never knew what FMLA was, I didn’t know where to start and what this meant. No one told me I would not be getting paid and that I would have to use my sick and personal time off to supplement my income. As someone who has built their identity around working, taking time off felt like an attack on my identity at the time.

Subsequently, I was also told I could be released for making any mistake (no matter how small or slight), attempting to change the work culture, or requesting anything unreasonable such as requesting time off for anything other than medical. My manager also called my episodic shifts a “stunt.”

Every time he said this, I lost faith in him, and he lost trust in me.

Some of the hardest words someone with a mental disorder can hear from a manager or mentor are, “When you pulled that stunt, I can’t trust you anymore” and “we will no longer be working together if you do that again.” His words cut deep and only made each episode worse—finally leading me to turn in my two-week notice.

During my time there, none of my managers ever asked if something was wrong when warning signs showed up. They just assumed that I had already checked out and given up. I felt like a cog that was replaceable and could easily be overturned. Trust was required to help me battle my mental demons, and in this case, that trust was broken on both ends. No one came out of this on top, coping skills were not utilized as they should have, and no one reached out like they said they would.

After reflecting on this experience, here’s what I’ve learned and wished my employer did:

Trust: Trust is earned, not given as the adage goes. But for an employee living with bipolar disorder, trust is given before it is earned. I made the choice to trust my employer (and my entire team) by opening up about my mental health and battles – I had to. And while not everyone may be prepared to open up about what they’re dealing with internally, it can help.

Doing this tells people that you’re asking for help and are making yourself ready to receive it. It signifies your willingness to allow others inside. This can be beneficial to you as it helps your team members become better at recognizing warning signs and understand when to check in to see if you need help. My recommendation here to anyone working with someone who has a mental disorder: Listen if we choose to open up, don’t be dismissive of our efforts, and trust us when we ask to carry more for the team.

 

Don’t assume: Someone opening up about a diagnosis can’t expect everyone at work to have a background in psychology or psychiatry and to understand when comments like “I like this new manic you” are harmful and dismissive.

Not everyone is going to be interested in researching and learning how best to help a team member who is dealing with a mental health disorder. So, don’t assume that they know.

What would have helped me and maybe changed my situation would have been to be more honest and direct about my specific needs upfront. For employers, try to also understand our needs and limits with stress. Ask your employees directly what they need from you in order to make them feel more comfortable. Another way of tackling this would be to ask your employee about some of the coping strategies they are learning in group therapy sessions. If you know your employee is going to group therapy, if you feel comfortable with it, check in with them and encourage them to keep up with those sessions. When assigning unique projects or extra tasks, it’s also helpful to explain what you are asking and offer employees the best ways to achieve it.

 

Ask for and give reasonable accommodations: In my case, I eventually learned that taking time off was not an ‘attack on my identity’ as I had previously felt. I learned to accept it as part of living with bipolar disorder and know when to ask for it. Pushing for myself was empowering and was the best thing that could happen in that given moment.

So, if you’re someone who struggles with bipolar or other depressive mental health disorders, the best thing you can do to help yourself, while building courage and confidence, is to speak up and be your own advocate. Ask for accommodations.

For employers with a team member struggling with a mental disorder, when it comes to giving that team member time to themselves, it should never be a fight or argument. Change the schedule, do what you can to make accommodations, and support someone who needs time away for treatment.

 

Give helpful feedback: In my experience, my previous employer either avoided giving me feedback completely or made dismissive comments like, “I don’t know what the hell happened…”, followed by something positive. Like many others who suffer from bipolar disorder, ineffective and unclear communication can easily lead us to spiral from misinterpreting details and having self-doubt.

I would have benefitted from receiving clear and specific feedback, whether that was immediately after a mistake or as a conversation during team lunch. This small amount of open dialogue could have allowed us as a team to resolve conflicts, improve teamwork, help me build my self-esteem, and improve my performance.

 

Show appreciation and have open dialogues: What is equally important for employers to do is to let us know that you are paying attention to and appreciate our efforts, regardless of how small or large of a task we complete. In a warehouse, things are extremely routine, but it doesn’t take a lot to thank someone for trying.

A few small words and gestures could have been really helpful in breaking me out of a depressive funk or a manic episode and can certainly help someone else in the future.

 

Practice mindfulness: At this moment, let’s check in with our emotions. In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT Therapy), some of the questions they ask are about checking in with your emotions and your thoughts. Are you in control of your thoughts or are they in control of you? Are we still in touch with our emotions? Perhaps we are cross at ourselves for playing the victim to our mind’s frustrations?

When it comes to mental disorders, employers need to be more understanding of what their employees are going through. However, we as individuals should also be able to look inwards and see what we are feeling. Core mindfulness is a skill to develop no matter what position you work in or what you’re dealing with. Mindfulness teaches awareness of thoughts and feelings, the focus on the here and now.

From my experience, learning to control my thoughts and emotions is an effective way of dealing with my bipolar disorder. While it took time to discover, I learned that my mindfulness practice was running around the warehouse and moving. This allowed thoughts to flow in and out of my mind without having to give them any power over me. Knowing this made me feel stronger and clearer. Finding a mindfulness practice to help you cope takes time and experimenting – so try different things and figure out what works for you.

 

Ask for help: If you’re struggling with a mental disorder at work, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. That help may look differently for everyone, be it talk therapy, telling a co-worker, or taking time off. Either way, sometimes the best way to help yourself is to start asking for help. If you’re someone who has a co-worker struggling with a mental disorder, pay attention and reach out to them if they need help.

While I’m still learning to navigate my bipolar disorder, this experience has taught me (and hopefully others) some helpful lessons. I have learned to manage it better and am continuing to advance in my career path.

My hope is that companies make a more concerted effort to improve their training on mental health disorders in the workplace. I also hope that by sharing my story, I can help others with bipolar disorder to excel at work.

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Opinion Editorials

How to ask your manager for better work equipment

(EDITORIAL) Old computer slowing you down? Does it make a simple job harder? Here’s how to make a case to your manager for new equipment to improve your productivity.

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better equipment, better work

What is an employee to do when the work equipment bites.

Let’s be frank, working on old, crappy computers with inefficient applications can make the easiest tasks a chore. Yet, what do you do? You know you need better equipment to do your job efficiently, but how to ask the boss without looking like a whiner who wants to blow the department budget.

In her “Ask A Manager” column, Alison Green says an employee should ask for better equipment if it is needed. For example, the employee in her column has to attend meetings, but has no laptop and has to take a ton of notes and then transcribe them. Green says, it’s important to make the case for the benefits of having newer or updated equipment.

The key is showing a ROI. If you know a specific computer would be a decent upgrade, give your supervisor the specific model and cost, along with the expected outcomes.

In addition, it may be worth talking to someone from the IT department to see what options might be available – if you’re in a larger company.

IT professionals who commented on Green’s column made a few suggestions. Often because organizations have contracts with specific computer companies or suppliers, talking with IT about what is needed to get the job done and what options are available might make it easier to ask a manager, by saying, “I need a new computer and IT says there are a few options. Here are my three preferences.” A boss is more likely to be receptive and discuss options.

If the budget doesn’t allow for brand new equipment, there might be the option to upgrade the RAM, for example. In a “Workplace” discussion on StackExchange.com an employee explained the boss thinks if you keep a computer clean – no added applications – and maintained it will perform for years. Respondents said, it’s important to make clear the cost-benefit of purchasing updated equipment. Completing a ROI analysis to show how much more efficiently with the work be done may also be useful. Also, explaining to a boss how much might be saved in repair costs could also help an employee get the point across.

Managers may want to take note because, according to results of a Gallup survey, when employees are asked to meet a goal but not given the necessary equipment, credibility is lost.

Gallup says that workgroups that have the most effectively managed materials and equipment tend to have better customer engagement, higher productivity, better safety records and employees that are less likely to jump ship than their peers.

And, no surprise, if a boss presents equipment and says: “Here’s what you get. Deal with it,” employees are less likely to be engaged and pleased than those employees who have a supervisor who provides some improvements and goes to bat to get better equipment when needed.

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