Sunday, June 21, 2020

When HR Philosophy is not just a 'philosophical issue'...

These days, many 'pragmatic' HR professionals seem to have an aversion to the term 'HR Philosophy'. They seem to think that paying attention to 'esoteric' things like this would be a needless diversion when they are busy with their HR initiatives and HR Transformation efforts. Some of them even seem to worry that paying too much attention to 'HR Philosophy' would come in the way of their 'business-orientation' and 'flexibility'. This often leads to a situation where organizations haven't given serious thought to crystallizing the basic tenets of their people management philosophy. 

There is nothing sacred about the term 'HR philosophy'. What is important is to make an attempt to reflect on, crystallize and leverage the key tenets of people management in the organization. It can very well be called the 'guiding principles of people management' instead of being called 'HR philosophy'. This term  'guiding principles of people management' also drives home the message that this is about an organization-wide aspect touching everyone in the organization and not particular to the HR function.  

The key problem with the aversion to 'HR Philosophy' is that no HR initiative or HR transformation effort can be effective if it goes against the basic nature of the employer-employee relationship in the organization. For example, no 'employee engagement' (in its original meaning of 'deep emotional connect with the organization leading to discretionary effort') is possible if employees are viewed primarily as costs. If employees are primarily as costs, then 'business-orientation' of HR should require that the primary job of HR is to control this cost - through downsizing, limiting development investment  and reducing the people related spend in general. So, an HR Transformation effort that aims to transform HR into a more developmental role would be irrelevant in that context. 

When it comes to HR initiatives, lack of a clearly articulated and consistently practiced HR Philosophy  can make the organization susceptible to 'taking up the latest fad in people management and discarding it soon after to take up the next one'. 

It can also result in highly inconsistent people management practices in the organization. For example, this can lead to the organization swinging wildly between
  • high empowerment and high control
  • large investment in employee development and no investment in employee development
  • describing the organization as a 'family' and describing the organization as a 'talent market place driven purely by supply and demand'
  • 'encouraging employees to form deep emotional bonds with the company' and ''downsizing at the first available opportunity' 
  • high degree of differentiation for top talent and low degree of differentiation for top talent 
  •  wanting to the 'career destination' for most of the employees  and wanting to look at employment relationship as a 'short-term contract to accomplish a particular task' 
  • high degree of emphasis on organization values and no emphasis on organization values etc.
This, in turn, can cause a lot of avoidable suffering, confusion and waste! More importantly, the 'way the employees are managed' will influence how the employees respond to that/how the employees behave in the organizations. For example, 'Theory X' kind of assumptions/philosophy (i.e. that the employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can) in people management will promote 'Theory X' kind of behavior among the employees. This makes people management a very dangerous domain, unless we pay close attention to the (unstated) assumptions that govern people management - which is exactly what is meant by the HR philosophy of the organization. 

Examining the unstated assumptions, similar to the ones mentioned above, can also help to avoid the strange 'new normal for HR' that has emerged in some companies in response to extraordinary situation created by the Covid crisis. It goes something like this : 'Make large contributions to Covid relief, fire a large number of employees in parallel to reduce cost and conduct mental health sessions for the remaining employees'!

Now let's look a bit more deeply at the paradoxical issue of 'business orientation of HR'. There are multiple possibilities here - each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, HR can agree to whatever the business leaders say on people related issues ('after all, we get paid to support the business'). HR can take this approach to the next level by trying to ‘guess’ what the business leaders will be comfortable with and advocating that ('business leaders are our primary customers and we should be anticipating customer needs'). HR can also avoid surfacing issues (or suggesting solutions) that they think the business leaders will not be comfortable with ('business leaders are already stretched, how can we risk annoying them at this point').

This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible conflicts between HR and business leaders on these issues, leading to faster decision making and smoother relationships. In this case, business leaders might ‘like’ HR and hence they might be more likely to cooperate in the roll out of basic HR processes and less likely to come down heavily on HR when HR makes a mistake. Hence conflicts are avoided - making life easier for both the parties involved. However, this can also lead to HR becoming essentially an 'order-taker', to sub-optimal decisions (see 'Training the victim' for an example) and even to HR 'perpetuating the convenient collective delusions' in the company.

Of course. we have to be mindful of the possible conflict between the stated HR philosophy in an organization and the 'actual' HR philosophy practiced in the organization. What really matters is the HR philosophy (basic assumptions about people management) that emerges from/that can be inferred from (or that gets reflected in) in the decisions made by the organization. 

There is no conflict of opinion on whether HR should be business oriented. HR exists to support the business and hence it should be aligned to the business needs/goals/strategy. ‘HR for HR’ (‘I want to do some HR interventions and I will get the business to agree’) is definitely not a good idea. The paradox occurs when we look at how exactly should HR demonstrate this 'business orientation'.

A more effective option is to work with the business leaders to crystallize the HR Philosophy/the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also enable HR to come with effective responses to various issues/situations – based on the people management philosophy of the organization, HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation. 

This is not to say that the people management philosophy is cast in stone. The people management philosophy can be revisited as the organization and its environment evolves. Also, if there are extraordinary situations, extraordinary responses are required. The idea is to be as mindful as possible about the basic tenets of  people management in the organization (HR philosophy) while coming up with those responses. For example, some companies will have to downsize because of the headwinds created by the current Covid crisis. However, if the extent and manner of that downsizing should be in line with the basic tenets of people management in the organization. This would also help in reducing the 'survivor syndrome in organizations'.

While it is unpleasant (or even traumatic), employees understand that 'surgery' is sometime unavoidable in organizations. But they would also expect that that the organization uses it after exploring all non-surgical options, that the organization uses a surgeon's blade (and not a butcher's knife!) and that too with skill, sufficient post operative care and compassion! Of course, in a connected world, the organization's actions under a crisis situation would speak much more loudly than any employer branding efforts in the future!

Any comments/ideas? 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Of life and human process labs!

“Life seems to have become a human process lab on a cosmic scale”, I blurted out during a recent conversation with a friend. This conversation happened in the context of the environment of uncertainty that all of us are grappling with currently. Since, both my friend and I have a process work/ human process lab background, this comment appeared to have communicated 'something'.

Later, I started to wonder why I made such a statement and what exactly it meant. In a way, this is a strange statement. One of the key features of the current environment is 'social distancing' whereas in a human process lab one spends about 40 hours over 5 days with a group of 10-12 'strangers' sitting in a small meeting room. 

When I persisted with this question for a while, three 'answers' emerged. One similarity was in terms of the uncertainty/unpredictability and the lack of structure/direction involved.  The second similarity was in terms of the transformation potential. It is said that transformation potential of human process labs is comparable to that of very stressful life events. Also, this learning/transformation is something that one has to derive by oneself though the facilitators and the group are 'there with you'. Of course, this 'transformation' need not necessarily turn out to be 'easy' or even 'pleasant'  for the participants. 

The third similarity was in terms of the importance of the focus on 'here and now'. While 'here and now' (which is emphasized in a human process lab) has always been the most 'real' aspect of life in general, the unpredictability and uncertainty about the future generated by current crisis environment has made the 'here and now' focus even more important. So, the statement I made on the similarity between the current environment and the human process labs might not be so strange! Yes, under normal circumstances, it would have been much more appropriate to say that the lab is a microcosm of the world (or life), and not the other way around. 

As enough and more has already been written about the current crisis/environment, in this post let's focus on taking a closer look at the human process labs and the potential they have to trigger insights and transformation. We will also explore the thorny issue of taking the learning from the lab to the real world. 

The origin of human process labs is often traced back to the workshops conducted by Kurt Lewin post World War II, the 'encounter groups' of Carl Rogers (to facilitate authentic encounter between people to promote personal growth) and the Sensitivity Training Groups (T-Groups) of  the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in USA. So, various factors, including the need to help individuals to deal effectively with post war stress/tensions, the desire to facilitate authentic human interactions and the Human Potential Movement influenced the origin and development of the underlying concept. In India, currently Indian Society for Applied Behavioral Sciences(ISABS) and Sumedhas Academy for Human Context (Sumedhas) are the prominent organizations that organize these labs - in various hues and shades. In this discussion, we will focus mostly on the so called 'basic' versions of the human process lab (that focus on intra-personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivity) and not on 'meta-labs' (that builds on basic labs to explore deeper aspects of group dynamics and process work). 

As we have seen earlier, human process labs are typically so called 'stranger groups' or 'encounter groups' where one is likely to spend about 40 hours over 5 days with a group of 10-12 'strangers'  sitting in a small meeting room. The organizers try to ensure that people who have known each other before/the people who are working in the same organization are not part of the same lab group. While the group typically involves two facilitators, they are very different from the facilitators that one sees in training programs (where the facilitator structures the agenda/ interaction and ensures that a predefined learning content is delivered). Especially in the initial stages of a process lab, the facilitators are unlikely to do any visible 'facilitating'. 

This unstructured situation prompts the participants to make attempts to structure it and in that process project themselves into that attempt. This, in turn, prompts reactions from the other participants and gets the group interaction going. This is most important, as human process labs use the processing of the 'here and now' (shared) group experience and the flow of feelings and behaviors in the group as the primary tool  for learning with each group member being a resource. 

The main role of the facilitators is to create/manage the learning environment (to hold the learning space) and to  help the participants to be in the 'here and now'. Extensive storytelling about past events in the life of the participants are discouraged (as those past events are not in the shared experience of the group) and the participant is encouraged to focus on how that past event is impacting the 'here and now' of the participant (which is available to the group). The focus is on authentic sharing of emotions and not on deriving conclusions/making judgments. A lot of focus is placed on helping the participants to focus on and magnify their feelings and to break down composite emotions (or 'vague sense of discomfort') to concrete feelings. 

The most common benefit of attending a human process lab is greater awareness and a more nuanced understanding of one's emotions, in addition to insights on how one's actions impact others and how one is impacted by actions of others. These insights typically come as a series of small epiphanies that add up and not as one 'big bang' realization. In a way, the other participants and the facilitators act as mirrors that enable the participant to see oneself and one's actions more clearly (especially around one's 'blind-spots'). The lab also provides a supportive environment to try out new behaviors based on the insights and awareness mentioned above. So, the lab enables one to get in touch with one's feelings and to express one feelings/behave in an authentic and open manner. 

Different people experience the human process labs differently. Some find it to be highly stressful, some find it to be deeply liberating, and some find it to be a bit of both. A human process lab is essentially an invitation (and not a compulsion) to explore and experiment. In general, the more (of yourself) you invest in the lab, the more you get back. Also, while the labs often trigger insights, what to do with those insights is entirely up to the participant. The insight is the easier part and integrating that insight into one's life is the harder part. This is especially significant because these insights, might not necessarily be 'pleasant' ones. In a way, it is like what happens in psychotherapy;  making the unconscious conscious is just the beginning. One of the risks with human process labs is that they might not provide a sense of 'closure'  to the participant and this can be quite disconcerting. 

'Outsiders' often associate the lab experience with a lot of crying. While some people do cry for some time in the lab, crying is not the main point. When someone expresses strong emotions, tears sometimes come along with it. While crying can be cathartic, crying as an end in itself (or as an attention seeking behavior) is not something that the human process labs encourage. 'Empathy without collusion' is one of the key principles for the interaction in a lab. 

Another comment that is often made by 'outsiders' is that the typical five-day duration of the human process labs is too much or even unnecessary.  While each lab has its own course of evolution over the five days, it is usually observed that most of the significant learning and insights happen during the last two days. It takes time for people to tune into the lab process and for the lab process to gather momentum. Since the labs use the shared experience of the participants in the lab as the raw material and each participant as a resource, it is very much logical that it takes time to 'develop' these resources. Attempting a lab with too short a duration risks trivializing the underlying principles of human process labs.  

Some people do find the supportive environment of the lab 'intoxicating', 'seductive' or even 'addiction-forming'. It is true that the level of emotional openness and emotional support found in the human process labs is found only in very close relationships in real life. Yes, this can lead some of the lab participants (in a Pavlovian/classical conditioning way) to believe that they are in love with another participant in the lab (or that another participant is in love with them). In general, human process labs do help in some sort of emotional detoxification, and hence attending labs periodically can indeed be a rational decision!

While the human process labs do increase emotional literacy and provide insight on the impact of one's behavior on others (and how one is impacted by the behaviors of others), it is often very challenging for the participants to take the learning from the lab to 'real life' (e.g. to one's family and to one's workplace) where the supportive environment ('shared space') of the lab is missing. 

The significant others in family and work (who haven't gone through a 'human process lab experience) might not be able to relate to the level of emotional intensity and openness that the participant might have carried forward from the lab environment. They might even consider such emotional intensity/behavior inappropriate/dysfunctional in the work/family context. In a way, a relationship is like an equation and if the lab abruptly changes one  side of the equation, it can destabilize the equilibrium in the relationship (which can be very unsettling for the other person who hasn't gone through the lab experience). Fortunately or unfortunately, this 'post lab high' experienced by the participants usually lasts only for a week or two!

While there are labs that are designed for couples (that one can attend along with one's spouse), the same can't be extended to the organization context. In a way, such attempts to extend the lab's scope goes against the basic assumption that the human process labs are 'stranger groups' who learn together and go back to their different worlds after the lab. If that assumption is violated, it can pose very serious challenges to the effective functioning of the lab (e.g. by introducing power structures into the lab interaction, creating concerns about possible retaliation after the participants go back to the real life etc.). 

The human process labs can also give insights on how groups function/on group dynamics. One of my key insights from the human process labs that I attended was that so much processing can be done with so little data.  However, we must remember that the dynamics of an 'intact group' (e.g. a work team in an organization) can be significantly different as compared to that of a 'stranger group' (because for an 'intact' group, there is a shared past and future in addition to the 'here and now' of the lab). So the insights that one gained from the lab on group dynamics might not translate easily to the workplace context. Also, as we have seen above,  running human process labs for work groups/teams in organizations becomes a very challenging  as they are not 'stranger'  groups.

While conducting human process labs for 'intact teams' in organizations are not advisable, one can definitely leverage some of the elements of the human process lab principles/approaches with appropriate modifications in the organization context to drive participative discovery and non-coercive change. For example, I have leveraged those principles/approaches to help a large group of leaders to do joint exploration and deep soul-searching to crystallize the identity, vision and mission of the organization. I still remember many of those leaders saying that they never had a similar opportunity in their career to have such authentic interactions and open discussion, especially on their fears and on their not so politically correct opinions! Similarly, one can leverage human process lab principles as part of  programs aimed at facilitating effective 'Campus to Corporate' transition. 

The vitality of organizations can be enhanced by the authentic human interactions, joint exploration, creative problem solving, proactive contribution and commitment that approaches based on human process lab principles can facilitate.  Leaders must remember that this is essentially an organic process and hence they have to trust the wisdom of the group and not get too prescriptive about the solution. The paradoxical aspect there is that while such interventions (using human process lab principles) can positively impact the level of trust in the group/organization and the organization culture, the receptivity to such an intervention would depend of the level of trust and the organization culture! 

In  a way, the magic of the lab lies in the 'lab space'. Even for people who participate in the same lab interacting with each other outside the lab space is very different as compared to interacting with each other in the lab space. But, lab do give us hope (and offer a 'proof of concept') that 'authentic human interactions', 'resonance' and 'living life intensely each moment' are indeed possible and that we need not be prisoners of the entrenched patterns of behaving and relating. While the magic can't be  fully replicated outside the lab environment, labs can make us more confident of the human potential and also enable us to be a little bit more aware, sensitive, authentic, creative and alive! This, in turn, can benefit the groups and organizations that we are part of. 

Where does this leave us? To me, developing greater  emotional literacy, self awareness, active non-judgmental listening and inter-personal awareness/sensitivity is definitely a reasonable expectation from the lab. Of course, this would happen only if one makes oneself open and vulnerable during the lab. This implies that people should attend labs only if they are  self-motivated. Organizations nominating/ forcing employees to attend human process labs to correct perceived problems related to self-awareness or inter-personal sensitivity is highly unlikely to work. There is quite a bit of stress and stretch involved in learning through human process labs and  hence an enthusiastic participant with an open mind is an important part of the alchemy of the magic of human process labs!

Any comments/suggestions?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Of inner compass and uncertainty

“Do what you think is right!”, said the HR leader. I had gone to him to seek his advice on a complex issue where there were multiple courses of action possible and all of them contained significant risk of failure. Somehow, this comment impacted me profoundly.  

I am not sure if I interpreted this comment in the way he intended it to be. May be, the that is exactly the way it should be. The impact of these conversations are often similar to what happens when we read a great book. The meaning often runs in parallel with or is even independent of what is written/spoken. These books (and conversations) create some sort of a ‘field’ that helps us to derive our own meaning.

I guess, the current uncertain environment made this comment emerge from the ‘back of the mind’ to the ‘day to day mind’! To me, what is great about this comment is that it helps in decision-making under uncertainty. 

To maintain integrity (in the sense of integration of thoughts, words and deeds), our actions should be in alignment with our values (what we consider as important, see ‘Of values and competencies’). In an uncertain situation, evaluating the various courses of action based on whether they are likely to work becomes even more difficult. 

So in such situations, one’s inner sense of right and wrong or the inner sense of fit or inner sense of beauty (one’s inner compass) becomes the only useful guiding force. If one hasn't paid enough attention to this inner compass, then one's actions might be driven primarily by fear, in uncertain situations. Use of this inner compass also ensures some sort of affirmation/intrinsic reward even if the course of action that one chose doesn’t succeed to the expected level or ‘pay off’ in the external sense!

This 'inner compass' is somewhat like a muscle. The more one uses it the stronger it gets. In a way, this creates a bit of a 'chicken and egg problem' and hence this involves some sort of 'leap of faith', with the word 'faith' being used in its original meaning of 'trust' (from Latin 'fides').'  While external validation has some relevance, the most important question is if one beats oneself up if the choice made using the inner compass does't succeed as expected. This brings to mind the following quote/story: "From the morning, I have been standing in front of a house begging. Only now I realized that it was my own house!".  

Note: It would be interesting to examine if the concept of 'inner compass' is applicable at the organization level also. To me, the 'inner compass' is applicable - for those organizations that have done successful 'soul-searching' efforts and haven't 'bartered away the soul' after that. In a way, the 'real values' of the organization (not necessarily the ones that are pasted on the walls) are the closest organization equivalent to the inner compass. One must differentiate between values and competencies. Something qualifies as a value only if it is so important (so core/so valuable) to the organization identity that it would be demonstrated even if it leads to a competitive disadvantage. Also, values are discovered (through a deep soul-searching process) and not designed. Competencies are about how to win whereas values are about how to live! 

Any comments/thoughts?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Who is talking to whom?

This post was triggered by the pattern of interactions that I observed in one of the alumni groups that I am part of. Most of the people in this group had worked together for a period of 3-5 years about 20 years ago. After that, there was not much interaction among these group members, till a WhatsApp group was set up a couple of years ago.

So, the ‘shared experience’ of this group was from a period about 18-22 years ago, when most of the members in this group would have been in their twenties or early thirties. So, the current interaction is taking place when most of the members are in their forties or early fifties. Very different life stages indeed!

This can lead to a wide variety of scenarios, in terms of ‘who is talking to whom’. For example,
  • the ‘younger selves’ of the members are talking to each other about their shared experience (that happened a long time ago)
  • the 'current selves' of the members are taking to each other about their current situation
  • the ‘younger selves’ of the members are talking to each other about their current situation
  • the 'current selves' of the members are talking to each other about their ‘old’ (shared) experience
I guess, the most ‘interesting’ interactions occur when the ‘current self’ of a member 'unexpectedly' interacts with the ‘younger self’ of another member. In a way, this is similar to a ‘crossed transaction’ in Transactional Analysis (TA), because the response one gets is from a 'different self' (different 'ego state', in TA terms) of the other person as compared to what one was trying interact with. It is very much possible that different people are looking for different patterns of interaction in  the alumni group. 

Since the alumni groups are created based primary on a 'shared experience that took place a long time ago', people can have varying expectations on the extent to which they want the members in the group, including themselves, to 'grow up' - in terms of the behavior/interaction in the group. If some of the members had joined the alumni group mainly to 'relive the good-old days' or to 'be their young self again', then 'growing up' might not be such an obviously correct choice for them, when it comes to their behavior in the alumni group (and this can annoy some of the other members in the group who have different expectations)!

These 'crossed transactions'  can lead to rage, tears, frustration, laughter or indifference. This is also one of the most common reasons* why people leave such WhatsApp groups (though they tend to come back after a while). The key factor that influences the outcome of this 'crossed transaction' is the level of trust/strength of the relationship between the members. If others join in on this interaction (from their various 'selves'), the situation can get even more 'interesting' and unpredictable!

*Note : Apart from the crossed transactions mentioned above (which is, in a way, a 'perceived violation of the psychological territory' of a group member), another important reason why people leave alumni WhatsApp groups is a 'perceived violation of their ideological territory'. As we get older, we tend to solidify our positions/ideologies in life. In a way, this is a attempt to make our life easier/ a mechanism to simplify the complexities in decision-making. If I define myself as a socialist  (or as a religious person or as a liberal), I can view and respond to life from that perspective. While this simplifies decision making, it can lead to inflexibility and intolerance. So, if someone says something in the WhatsApp group, that goes against my ideology, I am likely to perceive it as a personal insult and feel compelled to respond to it or to leave the group. This is especially so since the shared experience (that would have acted as a bonding factor/integrating mechanism) is in the distant past and it is no longer strong enough/active enough to help in resolving these perceived violations of ideological territory. 

Have you come across such patterns of interaction? Any observations/comments?

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Career-Limiting Moves(CLMs)

In this post, let's continue our exploration of the Unorthodox concepts in People Management. We have been exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements', 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’, 'Herophobia', 'Type N and Type O organizations', ‘The plus one problem’, ‘Exporting your problems’, ‘The IR mindset’ and “Magical Transformation of Talent” for the previous posts in this series).

The most popular informal concept in the domain of people management seems to be that of a ‘career-limiting move’(CLM). In fact, it is so popular that I was not even sure if it can be included in this series featuring the unorthodox concepts in HR. However, looking at the ‘richness’ of the CLM concept and its impact, I decided to do a brief discussion on CLM here.

A Career-Limiting Move (CLM) is an act that is likely to adversely impact the career prospects of a person. This 'act' can be that of 'omission' or 'commission', though the latter is more common. Also, this 'act' might be done by the individual (whose career is getting impacted) or by others who have power over the individual (e.g. by his/her manager or the organization). The ‘richness’ of the concept comes from the various ways in which this term is used and also from the causes/motivations that lead to CLMs.

Let’s look at some of the ways in which the term CLM is used: 
  • The most common use of the term CLM is as a warning to someone. We tell someone that a particular action would be a CLM for him/her, to warn the person against following a particular course of action.
  • Another use of the term CLM is as a prediction. When we hear about someone moving to a particular role, we might say that it would be a CLM for him/her, implying that this move is going to adversely impact his/her career. 
  • Similarly, CLM can be realization on hindsight. When we look back, we might realize that a particular action in the past turned out to be a CLM.
  • Yet another use of the term is CLM is to describe a particular aspect of the culture of an organization. We might say that questioning senior leaders is a CLM in a particular organization.
Now let’s look at some of the key factors that lead to CLMs:
  • Lack of alignment between the individual and the organization (as represented by the managers/leaders) on  what good lookslike’. Similarly, a clash between individual and organization ‘values’ can also lead to CLMs.
  • The organization failing to differentiate between a ‘stretch role’ and a ‘designed to fail’ role, moving a person to such a ‘designed to fail’ role, and, that move becoming a CLM for him/her. See ‘Of stretch roles and designed to fail roles’ for more details.
  • 'Self-Destructive Intelligence Syndrome’ (SDIS): This is ‘what makes smart people do stupid things’ that turn out be career-limiting. While sometimes  this could just be a matter of misjudging the situation, sometimes this could also be a deliberate act of violating the rules/regulations. 
  • Plain bad luck :Just being ‘at the wrong place/at the wrong time’ can turn out to be career-limiting! Also, unpredictable elements in the context can turn what could otherwise have been a perfectly good move into a career-limiting one. 
So, is there a ‘bright side’ to CLMs? Yes, what appears to be a CLM might not necessarily turn out to be like that. Even when there is some adverse impact because of the CLM, it might often be a temporary setback. It is even possible that what appeared to be a CLM turns out to be something that enhances one’s career (see ‘Of competencies and carbohydrates’ and ‘OD Managers as Court Jesters’ for two personal examples). This happens mainly because CLMs often involve pushing the unstated boundaries’ and sometimes it can work out very well. Also, standing up for what one believes is right is something that is too important to be let go because of CLM warnings. We must also remember that not all CLMs have a bad ending! Yes, having great managers/leaders very much enhances this possibility!

I have also come across situations where the CLM warning was based on the fears (ghosts!) in the mind of the person giving the warning and not based on reality. Similarly, sometimes a CLM warning could be an attempt to protect the interests of the person who is giving the warning (see the ‘IR mindset’ for more). So, we must do a reality check before acting on CLM warnings we get!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Part 12 – Magical Transformation of Talent

In this post, let's continue our exploration of Unorthodox concepts in Human Resources/People Management. We have been exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements' , 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’, 'Herophobia', 'Type N and Type O organizations', ‘The plus one problem’ , ‘Exporting your problems’ and ‘The IR mindset’ for the previous posts in this series).

“If there are times when you feel that you are not being valued by the organization, don’t leave. Quietly do your work. You will come back into fashion!”, said the experienced business leader to the new joiner during an informal conversation. 

Comments like this are quite common. They also true to a large extent. Yes, there are some employees in any organization whose fortunes are relatively steady (remains the same, steadily improve, steadily worsen etc.) But, most of the employees with long tenures have faced some degree of waxing and waning of their fortunes in the organization.

So, let's look a bit more deeply at the question “What are the factors that make the fortunes of an employee wax and wane in an organization?”

Now, 'fortunes of an employee in an organization' can mean different things (like promotions, salary increases, bonuses, being chosen for important roles/projects etc.). To simplify our discussion, let's take the 'talent classification' of the employee (placement of the employee on the 'performance-potential matrix') as the indicator of an employee's fortune in the organization, as this talent classification acts as a key driver for the decisions on promotions/increments/bonuses/roles etc. So, a drastic change in the fortunes of the employee ('magical transformation of talent') can be indicated by more than one step change in the performance and/or potential ratings (say on a 4 point rating scale) of the employee.

Let's look at seven factors that can lead to this kind of a drastic change in employee fortunes. If you were to ask me why exactly seven factors, I can only say that this list of factors is only illustrative (and not exhaustive) and that the number 7 is considered to be a 'perfect number' in many cultures (and some even attach mystical qualities to it)!
  1. Role change : If an employee is moved to a role that doesn't play to his/her strengths the performance can reduce significantly, especially in the short-term. One especially unfortunate case (that is more likely in the case of top talent) is to be given a 'stretch role' with an impossible degree of stretch. This, if not managed promptly, can lead not only to a drop in performance but also to loss of confidence in the employee (and to the employee losing self-confidence). See 'Of stretch roles and designed to fail roles' for details. There could also be a more subtle variation of 'role change'  where the role (that the employee has been handling so far) itself changes - in terms of expectations from the role and the skill-set requirements - and if the employee is unable to respond well to these changes, his/her performance can be adversely affected.   
  2. Promotion : It is possible that the last promotion moved the employee to 'his level of incompetence'. This is especially true for the 'sublimated' employees who haven't invested enough in building their skills while climbing the organization ladder. See 'Career development and sublimation' for details. 
  3. Manager-related changes: This is essentially because of the 'manager discretion'  involved in performance and potential assessments. A well-designed performance management system that also includes calibration involving the other stakeholders in addition to the manager, can help in reducing this subjectivity in manager judgement. As we have seen in 'Paradox of potential assessment' , potential assessments are inherently more subjective and hence more prone to the variations introduced by manager changes. Also, in spite of all the systems, processes and tools that we have implemented to make people management more 'objective' , the 'Chemistry' between two human beings  (the manager and the employee in this case) continues to be a factor in all these decisions (and it is something that will be impacted when there is a manager change). Of course, one's 'equation' with the current manager can also change  and that can add another layer of variability. Another important 'manager-driven' phenomenon is that of 'great by rotation'. This typically happens in those organizations that insist on a fixed distribution of performance and/or potential ratings and a positively differentiated rating is required for promotions. In such cases, managers might be tempted to inflate the performance/potential of different employees each year so as to make them eligible for promotions. So, employees become great by rotation! Using a well-run calibration process for talent decisions (instead of taking a purely Mathematical Approach of relying on rigid distributions and rules) can avoid these kind of situations. 
  4. Leadership changes at CEO/CXO levels: Leaders hired with a transformation agenda might look at tenured employees as part of the problem that they need to solve, and, this can lead to a dramatic change in the way the tenured employees are looked at. This is more common in 'Type N Organizations'. See 'Type N and Type O Organizations' for details. 
  5. Employee-specific factors : Employees are human beings and their level of effort/involvement/engagement and hence their level of contribution to the organization can vary based on the factors in their personal life. Yes, a supportive talent management system that focuses on 'managing the whole person' can definitely help. See 'Mass career customization' for a related discussion. 
  6. Larger organizational factors: Employees' fortunes depends on the fortune of the organization. While the fortune of the organization affects all the employees, the impact on employees might not be uniform. Some roles and skill-sets might become more critical. If there is a restructuring, some roles might get eliminated. This also brings us to another important aspect. These days. it is very much possible that an employee might not necessarily recover/bounce back from a phase of waning fortunes! Yes, change resilience and change agility definitely helps!
  7. Luck!: Being ,at the right place at the right time' has always been a key contributor to employee's fortunes. Though sometimes scenario planning and change agility can help us to be 'at the right place at the right time', it is often a matter of pure chance! Depending on one's belief system/'sense-making process', supernatural explanations are also possible. This brings to mind a famous poem in Malayalam that (while referring to the divine) says something like "It is you who makes someone rich and famous in a matter of days; and it is you who makes a king who is living in a place, a rag-picker"!  
So where do these leave us? Waxing an waning of fortunes of employees (including large fluctuations in fortunes that can qualify as 'Magical Transformation of Talent') are very much possible. It can be because of organization and/or individual related factors; and sometimes, even because of plain luck. An awareness of these factors can help the employees to increase their readiness and to manage their careers better, even if many of the career moves they make turn out to be based on emergent opportunities and risks (and not planned in advance). This is even more important these days keeping in mind the disruptive nature of the changes that many organizations are going through! 

I do wonder whether 'top talent  becomes successful in organizations' or 'we are just calling successful employees top talent'! If it is the latter, then the waxing and waning of employee fortunes can definitely impact the talent classification!

Any comments/ideas? 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Part 11 – The 'IR mindset'

In this post, let's continue our exploration of Unorthodox concepts in Human Resources/People Management. We have been exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements' , 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’, 'Herophobia', 'Type N and Type O organizations', ‘The plus one problem’ and ‘Exporting your problems’ for the previous posts in this series).

“You need to be careful when you interact with him. He has an IR mindset!” I was given this cryptic piece of advice by a friend many years ago. This led to an interesting discussion on what he meant by the term  ‘IR (Industrial Relations) mindset’. After that, I have heard similar ideas being talked about in many other organization contexts.  This prompted me to think more about the common themes emerging from those discussions, and this post is the result!

Let me begin by saying that this 'IR mindset' need not necessarily have anything to do with the way ‘Industrial Relations’ is being managed in most of the organizations. The similarities (if any) are with a ‘caricature’ of IR as opposed to the actual practice of IR. See 'Integrating Industrial Relations and Organization Development' for more details. 

A 'mindset' is a fixed mental attitude or disposition, that predetermines a person's responses to/ interpretations of situations. So, the ‘IR mindset’ that we are talking about here is more of a ‘personality orientation’ and a 'world view' that leads to a peculiar way of looking at and influencing the world/interacting with others. In a way, 'IR mindset' (like any other mindset), influences the 'sense-making process' (see 'Architects of meaning') of the individuals who have the mindset. 

So, how do we recognize the 'IR mindset'? The following are 12 defining features (‘signature themes’) of  the ‘IR mindset’ that I have come across:
  1. Focusing on dominating as opposed to collaborating (Follows the 'attack is the best form of defense' policy, even when no defense or attack is required!)
  2. Making a threat with no real intention to carry it out
  3. An obsession with tactics to gain minor advantages/to prove a point,  even at the risk of jeopardizing relationships/long-term credibility
  4. Taking an indirect approach where a  more direct approach would have been equally effective
  5. Viewing work (and people management) as a ‘Chess game’ or even as a ‘Billiards game’
  6. Using information as a source of power/withholding information
  7. Focusing on ‘ends’ as opposed to ‘means’ /‘results’ as opposed to ‘processes’/‘hunting as opposed to farming’
  8. Seeing each interaction as a ‘negotiation’ (or as 'build up to a negotiation'), attempting to 'soften up' the other party (e.g. by criticizing the other party on an unrelated matter) so as to gain a psychological advantage in the negotiation
  9. Tendency to make 'Theory X' assumptions as opposed to 'Theory Y' assumptions
  10. Using feedback as a ‘message’ and not as ‘information’ (i.e. the primary focus is on creating the right impact on the individual as opposed to conveying accurate information)
  11. Planting 'poison trees' (negative thoughts that grow and take charge of the mind) in the minds of impressionable people to confuse them and to incite them against others; divide and rule!
  12. Leveraging the 'drama triangle' - get the other person into the 'victim' position and then act as the 'rescuer' to influence the person
It is not necessary that all the features of the 'IR mindset'  are always wrong/inappropriate. It becomes problematic mainly when it becomes an indiscriminate/habitual response. Usually, the trouble starts when the thin line between ‘management’ and ‘manipulation’ is crossed!

During the initial phases of the interaction, people with 'IR mindset' often manage to 'get their way' or gain advantage over the others. However, over a period of time, others figure out what is happening and take necessary precautions to protect their interests. They might also lose their trust in and respect for the people with 'IR mindset'. It is interesting to note that people with 'IR mindset' often have a tendency to underestimate the intelligence of others. It can lead to situations where they persist with the 'IR approach' even after it has lost its effectiveness in a relationship.

Now, let us do some speculation. Are there are a set of conditions that might increase the possibility of someone developing the 'IR mindset' (apart from any inherent personality related factors)? Let's take a look at a couple of hypotheses:

(1) Certain types of ‘early career experiences’ : Like we have seen in ‘Influence of early career experiences’, experiences at the beginning of one’s career (e.g. on the first job) can have a profound impact on a person’s thinking/approach/worldview as they can shape the person definition of ‘what good looks like’ (i.e. what is an appropriate response). An example  in our case could be that of working with  bosses (or ‘significant others’) who have the IR mindset  at an impressionable stage in one's career.
(2) Being forced to grow up too fast : This (being forced to grow up too fast) can happen in life (e.g. being sent to a hostel at a very young age) or in the workplace (e.g. being thrust into a role way beyond he person’s current capabilities – please see ‘Career Development and Sublimation’ for more details)

Now, two questions for you:
  • Have you seen this ‘IR mindset’ in action? 
  • Do you have any thoughts on other factors that might  lead to the development of the ‘IR mindset’?

Monday, March 16, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Part 10 – Exporting your problems

In this post, we will continue our exploration of Unorthodox concepts in Human Resources/People Management. We are exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements' , 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’, 'Herophobia', 'Type N and Type O organizations' and ‘The plus one problem’ for the previous posts in this series).

'Exporting the problems' is one of the most common ‘crimes’ in the domain of Talent Management. This refers to attempts by people managers to move the 'low-performing' and/or 'difficult to manage' members in their team to other teams in the organization. Since no people manager would want to accept a low performer into his/her team, this ‘crime’ often involves some degree of ‘deception’. This could include tactics like not giving an accurate picture of the performance of the employee (e.g. if the performance ratings are yet to be assigned) or even artificially inflating the performance rating of a poor-performing employee so that he/she comes into the ‘good performance’ category for the next one year.

An effective way to prevent this ‘crime’ (apart from calibrating performance ratings to ensure accuracy and/or having the process of the new manager thoroughly evaluating the employee before accepting the transfer) is to stipulate that unless the performance of an employee is good, he/she won’t be eligible for any role changes. This would encourage the managers to focus on helping the employee to improve his/her performance before recommending any transfer to other teams, and if the performance improvement efforts fail, to initiate the exit process for that employee. An exception to this rule can be made in the case of employees who were very good performers in their previous roles in the organization. In those cases, the current low-performance is likely to be a ‘person-role’ fit issue and they can be moved to roles similar to their previous role if possible.

An extreme form of ‘exporting the problems’ involves recommending an employee for a promotion with the condition that he/she should be moved to other teams. The rationale given by the manager could include things like the next level jobs in the current team being too complex, the concerns existing team members would have if their peer becomes their manager etc. Here also, the solution could be to specify that unless the manager is willing to move the employee into a next level role within the his/her team (if and when such an opportunity comes up) the manager can’t recommend a promotion for that employee.
There is another interesting (but very unfortunate) possible fallout these attempts by managers to 'export their problems'. Over a period of time, managers in the organization lose trust in the recommendations of other managers when it comes to talent moves. This makes it difficult for managers to export low-performers. Since many of the managers might not want to let go of their best performers (some sort of ‘talent hugging’ behavior) and since they can’t export the low performers any more, they tend to recommend the average performers in their team as an when new opportunities come up. This can create a situation where the best talent loses out on career opportunities and the average talent gets those opportunities. This can lead to the average talent progressing faster from career development point of view (as compared to the best talent), and this in turn can lead to the exit of the best talent from the organization. So, mediocrity triumphs!  

An effective talent management system that ensures accurate visibility of the performance of employees to the key stakeholders beyond the immediate manager is the first step in preventing the kind of problems mentioned above. Of course, clearly articulating the talent philosophy, building people manager capability and having the right performance measures for people managers would be of immense help. Ideally, the talent moves should be based on detailed talent management calibration discussions (involving the other key stakeholders also, in addition to the manager) that matches the employee aspirations, strengths, performance and potential with the emerging requirements of the organization (and also provides structured feedback to the employees)! 

It is a bit funny to hear people managers speaking about their willingness (or lack of it) to 'release' talent from their team. The term 'release' is more appropriate in situations like  releasing someone from a prison or from a lunatic asylum. Yes, managers need to get the work done and they need good quality talent to accomplish that. So the people management system should ensure timely availability of high quality talent (leveraging strategic workforce planning and outcomes of talent management calibration discussions) to replace the high-performers who are moving to other teams. However, speaking about 'releasing talent' might be an indication that people managers have 'inappropriate mental models' about talent and talent mobility! 

Any comments/ideas? 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Part 9 - The plus one problem

In this post, we will continue our exploration of Unorthodox concepts in Human Resources/People Management. We are exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements' , 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’, 'Herophobia' and 'Type N and Type O organizations' for the previous posts in this series).

"I am as competent as my boss. The only difference between the two of us is that he speaks slightly better English!", said the sales team leader during a Focus Group Discussion(FGD) based on the employee engagement survey results. I have heard statements like this quite frequently across organizations. This made me think more deeply about the 'plus one problem'!

So, what exactly is this 'plus one problem'? It is very simple. Each reporting layer in an organization tends to think that the level immediately above it is useless, or, at least highly overpaid!

There could be many reasons that lead to the 'plus one problem'. Let's look at five of the most  common ones!

  1. The  unique value addition from each reporting layer is not clearly specified: For example, sales volume target might appear in the Key Result Areas (KRAs) of a Front-line Sales person, that of a Sales Team Leader and that of a Sales Manager. If the unique value addition from each level (e.g. the Sales Manager sets the sales strategy and decides on resource allocation, the Sales Team Leader creates the optimum route plan and provides coaching/problem solving support to the Front-line Sales people etc.) is not specified, it can appear that the bosses are just adding up the targets of their direct reports and taking (stealing!) the credit!
  2. Too many reporting layers : This can exacerbate the problem mentioned in (1) above. It is also possible that some roles in the structure don't make logical sense (See 'Do regional and global roles always make sense?' for a detailed discussion). In a broad-banded structure the 'plus one problem' is less likely to happen. 
  3. Behavior of the bosses : If the bosses take their 'right to lead' for granted and don't ask themselves the question 'What exactly is the value that I am adding to each of the team members?' and take sincere action based on that, the 'plus one problem' is highly likely to happen. Of course, if the bosses are not fully competent or if they have reached their level of incompetence (see 'Career Development and sublimation') it definitely adds to the problem.  
  4. Lack of developmental feedback: Development feedback (e.g. what do I need to develop/improve to develop readiness for the next level jobs) is rare as compared to performance feedback(e.g. how well am I doing in my current job). Sometimes, this happens because managers are reluctant to get into such a discussion (on what are the skill gaps the employee has as compared to the requirements for the next level jobs) - especially in the case of high-performers - because they don't want to distract/annoy the employees. While this buys short-term peace, the employee feels cheated in the long term (as he/she is not getting promoted despite great performance and apparently no skill gaps). Sometimes, this happens because the organization doesn't have a career framework (that specifies what exactly is required to be ready for each of the roles in the organization and how to work towards that) and/or because the organization hasn't invested enough in the career development of the employees. 
  5. Superiority IllusionIllusory superiority is a cognitive bias wherein a person overestimates his own abilities and contribution, in relation to the abilities and contributions of other people. See 'Performance ratings and the above-average effect' for a detailed discussion on this cognitive bias and how to deal with it. Lack of accurate development feedback mentioned in (4) above is often a very significant contributing factor to the unhindered existence of the superiority illusion that leads to the 'plus one problem'.
If the above actors are addressed, the 'plus one problem' can be mitigated to a large extent. Deep psychological factors (like the 'superiority illusion' mentioned above) don't completely disappear and hence a total victory over the 'plus one problem' is unlikely! By the way, there could another interesting principle operating here. As per 'tournament theory', the boss is paid much more because it would make everyone else aspire to be the boss and hence they will work harder even without additional payment (and hence overpaying the boss economically efficient)!

Any comments/ideas?

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Unorthodox concepts in HR : Part 8 - ‘Type N’ and ‘Type O’ organizations!

In this post, we will continue our exploration of Unorthodox concepts in Human Resources/People Management. Here we are exploring concepts that are unlikely to be found in ‘respectable’ text books (and also not taught in ‘premier’ business schools) but are very much real in the paradoxical world of people management (See ‘The attrition principle,  'In the valley of attrition' , 'Sublimation of vision statements' , 'Computer-controlled Manager Empowerment', ‘Training the Victim’ ,‘Two plus Two personality profiling’ and 'Herophobia' for the previous posts in this series).

Based on my experience as an employee and as a management consultant, I have noticed an interesting pattern. Some organizations are optimized for newly hired employees (‘Type N’ organizations) whereas some organizations are optimized for tenured/'old' employees(‘Type O’ organizations). Of course, there are organizations that are equally good (or equally bad!) for all the employees! However, ‘Type N’ and ‘Type O’ organizations are quite common!

One easy way to determine the type of the organization is to see how employee engagement scores vary with tenure. Yes, the dividing line between ‘new’ and ‘old’ varies across organizations  I have seen organizations where you become an ‘old employee’ as soon as you complete one year and I have seen organizations where you will be considered to be a ‘new employee’ till you complete about five years. While the median tenure of employees in the organization has some impact on this ‘new-old dividing line’, it is usually a matter of organization psychology and is not directly derived statistically!

In ‘Type N’ organizations, 'not being burdened by the past' is a great advantage. So, the new hires, especially new leaders, have the advantage. These tend to be organizations that believe that new employees are hired to solve particular problems or to seize particular opportunities that the existing employees have failed to do. In these organizations, ‘tenure’ seems to have psychological association with ‘inability to drive change’. They might even consider many of the existing employees to be part of the problem! Hence, new hire has an advantage, so long as he/she is considered ‘new’. The difficulty is that the ‘new’ employee can move to the ‘old’ category quite quickly (and even get fired fairly quickly). If this happens mainly because of an underlying/unstated assumption that ‘new is good’, this ‘new-old-out-new’ cycle can repeat!  

'Type O' organizations tend to believe that one needs to understand the organization context deeply before one can really contribute, especially at senior levels. So, tenure is valued. These also tend to be organizations where it takes quite a bit of time for a newcomer to figure out how the organization really works. In these organizations, often the effective style of influencing tends to be ‘indirect’ (almost like billiards- you hit something so that it goes and hits the target as compared to hitting the target directly)! This doesn’t mean that ‘Type O’ organizations don’t value performance. It is more matter of a newcomer taking time to figure out how to perform better. Things get progressively easier as you spend more time in the organization. In a way, it is like batting on a difficult wicket. It takes time to ‘get your eye in’ but things become much easier after that. It becomes so wasteful to 'throw your wicket away' (leave the organization) after having done all the hard work to 'get your eye in'.  

Now, let’s look at an interesting question :  “Can the organization type change?” The answer is ‘Yes’. This happens mostly when there is a leadership change at the CEO level and sometimes at CXO level. A new leader, hired with a transformation agenda, can view most of the tenured employees as ‘part of the problem to be solved’ and hence might replace them with external hires. If a critical mass of ‘new people’ are brought in (and ‘old people are vilified), the organization can move from Type O to Type N. Now, two scenarios can happen. The first one is that newly hired people and the CEO/CXO stays on for a long time and the organization starts drifting towards Type O. The second scenario is that the new CEO/CXO keeps on replacing may of the people (including many of the newly hired people) as soon as they become ‘old’ (e.g. after 1-2 years) and hence the organization continues to be Type N.

In 'Type O' organizations, the leadership (especially at CEO/CXO levels) tend to remain remarkably stable  and that increases the probability that the organization continues to be 'Type O'. It is when a 'Type O' organization under-performs for a long time that a 'Type N' CEO is brought in, and the possible shift to being a 'Type N' begins. If the new 'Type N' CEO doesn’t have sufficient powers, he/she can easily get lost in the system or the system might even reject him/her. This ‘reaction’ of the system can be one of the reasons why the new CEO might be tempted to make a lot of people changes. Of course, there are indeed wise 'Type N' CEOs who are very selective and fact-based about the people changes!

So what does this mean? It definitely makes sense to figure out if you are joining a 'Type N' or 'Type O' organization. It is part of the psychological alignment required on what good looks like! Obviously, it makes sense to join a Type O organizations only if you are willing to sweat it out for a long period – significantly beyond the 'new-old dividing line' in the organization. Since they are optimized for new people, it is easier to join type N and to come up to speed faster. But the danger is that of the transition from ‘new’ to ‘old’. So, one must join for the right reasons (beyond the organization being 'Type N'). Remaining a bit of an outsider can definitely help,  especially in driving change.  Of course, being a bit of an outsider while being a full member of the organisation is a delicate balancing act!

Any comments/ideas?