Saturday, October 17, 2009
A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another. Going by that definition, ‘business orientation of HR’ qualifies as a paradox.
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'.
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 to the limits fighting for the survival of the company, how can we risk annoying them at this point').
This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible arguments/conflicts between HR and business leaders on these issues and the associated investment of time and emotional energy, leading to faster decision making and smoother relationships. In this case, business leaders will ‘like’ HR and hence they will 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 sub-optimal decisions (see 'Training the victim' for an example).
The other option is to develop and articulate an independent point of view – based on the HR philosophy of the organization (see ‘Towards a philosophy of HR’ for more details), HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation.
This might turn out to be different from what the business leaders have in mind/are comfortable with and hence this can create conflicts and lengthy discussions/arguments and possibly delays in decision making. The business leaders might feel that ‘HR does not understand the problems that the business is facing’, ‘HR is becoming a pain in the neck’ or that ‘HR is being too idealistic’. This might lead to a situation where business leaders become very demanding – questioning the rationale behind each of the initiatives that HR comes up with. Thus this option can make life more difficult for both the parties involved. But if the conflict (of opinions between HR and business leaders) can be managed constructively, this option can lead to superior decisions and also to the development of mutual respect and trust. However, there is no guarantee that this can be achieved in all the situations.
So, which is the ‘better’ option?
It is possible that the business leaders were more open than what the HR professional had guessed. May be, they wanted HR to make an independent recommendation. Again, it is possible that the HR professional’s ‘independent assessment’ of the business needs/constraints was totally off the mark, making his/her point of view completely unrealistic. May be, the context is such that the conflict of opinion can’t be resolved successfully quickly enough for the matter at hand. Thus there are many possibilities here.
It can be said that if we take a long term perspective, if both the parties are competent and sincere and if the conflict can be managed constructively and quickly enough, the second option might give better results. But that is too many ‘ifs’ (3 in the last sentence!). It can also be argued that the two options mentioned above are just two extremes and that reality lies somewhere in between. For example, a particular HR leader might adopt option 1 in the case of some issues and option 2 in the case of other issues – depending on the context/nature of the issues. After all, ‘picking and choosing one’s battles’ is supposed to be a key requirement for survival in the corporate world!
An important factor here is the nature of the relationship between HR and business leaders. Often, HR does not pay sufficient attention to the relationship management aspect (positioning of the HR function appropriately, establishing the relationship, managing/shaping expectations, building capability and consistently meeting commitments/delivering value, enhancing the levels of mutual respect and trust etc.). See 'Nature abhors vacuum' for an example. This can be problematic as effectively managing the relationships with the business leaders can turn out to be the most significant enabler for demonstrating and sustaining 'business orientation'.
Of course, in this discussion about 'business orientation' we should not forget the other customers of HR- like the employees and first-line managers. There is an increasing tendency on the part of HR to give less emphasis to the ‘employee champion’ role because of the increasing importance given to the ‘strategic business partner role’ (see 'In praise of HR generalists' , 'Of specialists and business-alignment', and 'In the wonderland of HR Business Partners'). This can easily lead to situations where there is not enough focus on ‘employee engagement’ (other than the cosmetic efforts/peripheral initiatives – see 'Employee engagement and the story of the Sky maiden’ for details). As it is widely known, employee engagement is a good predictor/lead indicator of business results. Thus, if this 'business orientation' (and being the 'strategic business partner') is achieved at the expense of 'employee' engagement, the result might be 'strategic (long-term) harm' to the business.
It is also interesting to model this situation using the concepts of 'static' and 'dynamic' equilibrium (A chair has static equilibrium. A bicycle in motion has dynamic equilibrium. In a state of static equilibrium there is balance, but no change or movement - that exists in the case of dynamic equilibrium). A 'live and let live' kind of arrangement between HR and business leaders (that avoids conflict) is similar to 'static equilibrium'. But a scenario in which HR and business leaders openly & clearly state their independent opinions, followed by constructive debate/conflict leading to decisions that both the parties are comfortable with is similar to 'dynamic equilibrium'. This does not mean that the parties can't be passionate about their points of view/express 'strong' opinions. The requirement is just that they should not get too much attached to their opinions (see 'Passion for work and anasakti' for a related discussion).
I feel that, in general, dynamic equilibrium provides richer possibilities (sitting on a bicycle allows you to do things that you can't do sitting on a chair). But, establishing dynamic equilibrium might not be required or feasible in all the cases. It requires more time, effort and skill (as the equilibrium needs to be constantly reestablished) . It is also more risky (you are more likely to have a fall from a bicycle as compared to that from a chair - especially when you are learning to ride - which can be compared to the 'establishing the relationship' part/phase of the 'relationship management' that we had discussed earlier!).
Monday, August 17, 2009
The objective of this post is not to recommend or to praise the ‘carrot and stick method’. It is just to examine the actual situation in this domain (in terms of both theory and practice) and to explore the possible reasons for the 'power of carrot and stick'. We will also look at possible responses to this situation - from both the employee's and the employer's points of view.
While today's organizations are unlikely to talk about the 'carrot and stick method', if we analyze the methods that are actually being used by organizations to 'motivate' their employees, we are likely to find a high amount of ‘carrot and stick’ element in them. Of course, the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ have become more sophisticated. But, in time of ‘organization stress’ (e.g. the recent economic downturn) some of this sophistication often disappears and more crude forms of ‘carrot and stick’ (that were thought to have become extinct) reappear!
Let us come back to Herzberg. Technically speaking, the ‘two factor’ theory of Herzberg is primarily about ‘satisfaction and dissatisfaction’ – and not exactly about motivation (as job satisfaction might not necessarily lead to motivation or productivity). So it seems possible that the ‘carrot and stick’ method of 'motivation' might be very much alive – both ‘in theory' (more about this later in this post) and ‘in practice'.
Now, let us examine why the 'carrot and stick method' works so well. I think that the power of ‘carrot and stick’ emanates mainly from the fact that it takes advantage of two of the most basic human emotions -‘desire’ and ‘fear’. To be more explicit, ‘carrot’ scores a direct hit on ‘desire’ and ‘stick’ does the same on ‘fear’. It can be argued that if we use the terms ‘desire’ and ‘fear’ in a broad sense, most of the human emotions (and hence most of the human behavior and motivation!) can be ‘modeled’ in terms of these two (and the human responses to them).
If we push the above argument a little further, it can be deduced that the so called ‘content theories’ of motivation (especially those that talk about fulfillment of ‘needs’ – e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ERG theory, McClelland’s theory of needs etc.) can’t distance themselves too much from ‘desire’ element (and hence from ‘carrot and stick’). Similarly, if we take a close look at some of the ‘process theories’ of motivation (e.g. Expectancy theory) we might be able to detect elements of ‘carrot and stick' in them also (e.g. especially in the 'valance' part of the 'expectancy - instrumentality - valance' chain/of the cognitive process that leads to motivation, as per the Expectancy theory).
If we consider motivation as a 'state of mind' (i.e. something that happens in the mind of a person), 'carrot and stick' (or anything external to that person, like what the manager/ employer does) can't directly cause motivation to occur - it can only create a situation where motivation is likely to be 'triggered'. Again, the method for applying carrots and/or sticks for maximum effectiveness (especially if we take the sustainability of the effectiveness account), can become quite complex. There have been quite a few studies on the effectiveness of various types of positive and/or negative reinforcement strategies to elicit desired responses. So the 'power' of 'carrot and stick' does not imply that the application (of 'carrot and stick') is always easy!
Now, let us look at this situation from the other side – from the point of view of the employee who is at the ‘receiving end’ of these motivation strategies. From the above discussion, it can be seen that if an employee wants to be immune from the power of ‘carrot and stick’, he/she should develop immunity from ‘desire and fear’ – at least those types of desires and fears that can be leveraged/manipulated by the employer. Easier said than done – I must admit - for most of the 'real' people in 'real' organizations! By the way, in the novel 'Siddartha' by Hermann Hesse, there is a beautiful description of how this method of motivation (implemented through an incentive scheme - with a significant upside and downside for the employee) attempted by an employer (Kamaswami, the rich merchant) fails to have any impact on an employee (Siddartha) who had transcended 'desire and fear' ("Siddartha can think, Siddartha can wait, Siddartha can fast"). It is also interesting to note that this novel was first published in 1922 - much before 'HRD' (in the current sense of the term) came into existence.
My point is not that most of the human beings are nothing more than bundles of ‘desires and fears’. We are capable of other emotions (like love, sense of pride, sense of duty, quest for purpose/meaning etc.) that might go beyond ‘fear and desire’. So it should be possible to find ways of motivation based on these 'higher' emotions. However, these higher emotions might not be very easy to ‘manipulate’ in an organization setting. Please see 'Passion for work and anasakti' for a more detailed discussion on this.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about incident that triggered the thought process that resulted in this post. One of my friends asked me to comment on an article which argued that ‘Leaders should inspire people as opposed to motivating them’. When I thought about this, I felt that the situation was a bit more complex than what it appeared to be – when we look at what really happens in many organizations. Most of the organizations have an essentially top-down goal setting/goal cascade process. While individuals might have some degree of freedom to shape their roles/deliverables, individual goals must add up to the corporate goals. Also, organizations usually hire people to do a particular job (which might even have a formal job description that details the job responsibilities). These factors can lead to a situation where a large part of what needs to be done by a particular employee has been 'fixed'/‘mandated’ or even 'imposed'. If what you need to do is fixed, then whether the leader ‘inspires you’ or ‘motivates you’ to get the same thing done can become essentially a matter of semantics!
I also feel that ‘inspiring someone’ (creating a situation where someone might become inspired- to be precise) is a more unpredictable process (in terms of outcomes) as compared to 'motivating someone' (to do a particular task – say through carefully applied positive and/or negative reinforcement - including the promise/threat of applying/withdrawing positive and negative reinforcement or ‘carrots and sticks’ !). No, I am not endorsing the 'morality' of these 'motivation' techniques. I am just saying that they are possible. I must also mention that there could be situations where these techniques might fail. For example, it is easy to create 'incentives' (financial and non financial) for someone to write a book. But, whether this can result in a 'great book' (if the author is not really inspired to write the book) is debatable. However, the fact still remains that 'inspiration' is often a complex (and elusive!) phenomenon.
While, your manager can 'inspire' you, what you will end up doing based on (triggered by) that inspiration can’t always be predicted accurately. So, if the objective is to get you to do a particular task, I am not sure if the pure inspiration route will always work. Any attempt to make the inspiration more controlled, will bring in the element of manipulation that this inspiration approach is trying to avoid. Of course, if we are talking about a community with no predefined goals (as opposed to organizations that usually have predefined/ mandated goals) then this inspiration approach might work – though no one can predict what will exactly will the outcome be (at the individual and at the community level – considering ‘interaction effects’ and ‘emergence’)!!
Well, it can be seen that the post that I ended up writing (based on the above trigger) went much beyond a response to the immediate ‘provocation’. May be I was inspired (as opposed to just being motivated)!!!
Now, over to you for your comments!
Note 1: It might be possible to make a distinction between actions that we take because of some sort of compulsion and those we take because we really want to do so (e.g. between compliance and commitment). The problem here is that compulsion does not necessarily mean coercion (at least not in the usual meaning of the term 'coercion') - any sort of 'inducement' can also imply compulsion. In a way, all we can observe is the action and the reason behind the action is some thing that we infer - especially in the case of other people. Even if we are talking about our own actions and the reasons for those actions there is the problem of rationalization (e.g. we can attribute the 'good' actions to intrinsic motivation and the 'not so good' actions to external compulsions). Hence the distinction between the two types of actions can get blurred.
Note 2: In this post, the term 'desire' has been used in a broad sense. This makes it easy to link 'needs' and 'carrots' to this term. But it can also be argued that if we use broad definitions for fear and desire, even the 'higher order' emotions mentioned above (like love, sense of pride/ duty/ purpose/ meaning etc.) can be mapped to/'reduced to' (at least, in the 'factor analysis' sense) the core emotions of fear and desire. To deal with this, we need to define these terms (terms like desire, fear, love, sense of purpose and of course the terms action/ motion/ movement, motivation, and inspiration) more precisely and in a manner that has internally consistency/ coherence (at least 'arbitrary coherence' -as Dan Ariely says in his book 'Predictably Irrational') . But that involves too much work (may be even a lifetime of work!) which is beyond the scope of this post.
Note 3: Now, that I have mentioned the name of Dan Ariely, I must also say that I am fascinated by the work that behavioral economists (like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler & Dan Ariely) have done in exploring the domain of human motivation and decision-making - and the predictable irrationalities in the same. Their studies have also shown that 'relational rewards' work better than 'monetary rewards' in many circumstances, though relational rewards have the disadvantage of raising relational expectations. Please note that this does not negate the 'power of carrot and stick' . We can always say that while relational rewards ('relational carrots') and different from 'monetary/transactional rewards' ('transactional carrots') - they are still 'carrots' - carrots that appeal to higher order needs (say in Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Again, it has been suggested that monetary incentives work best in the case of simple tasks (tasks involving straight forward physical or mental activity; i.e. tasks that don't require creativity) where higher performance is just a matter of trying harder and where the performance can be measured accurately. This also need not necessarily create problems for the 'power of carrot and stick theory' as this is more about the relative effectiveness of carrots. We must also note that there is an intense debate going in between 'rational choice economists' and 'behavioral economists' - regarding the applicability of the findings from behavioral economics experiments. It has been argued that we are quite rational in most circumstances (i.e. in our natural habitat/ in familiar situations) and these predictable irrationalities surface mainly in in unfamiliar circumstances and that the conditions created in some of the behavioral economics experiments are quite unnatural (i.e. not representative of the conditions faced by most people most of time in the real world). Even the very definition of rationality is open to debate (e.g. rationality can be defined narrowly - just as a consistent system of preferences/consistent response to incentives - even if these preferences might not be 'good' for the decision maker - as judged by the society)!
Note 4: It can be argued that all the leadership/management actions involve influencing and hence some element of manipulation (as it involves getting a person to do something that he/she would not have done otherwise). Now, whether this manipulation is for a ‘good’ cause (and for whose ‘good’) will bring us close to the domain of ethics (and the tricky terrains of situational ethics vs. code ethics, individual good vs. collective good, good of one collective vs. good of another collective etc.). For example, if my manager gives me some information that opens my mind (e.g. by enabling me to see some possibilities that I was not able to see before), I might get inspired (and do something that I might not have done otherwise). But if my manger gives me the additional information selectively, so that I will see only those new possibilities that he/she wants me to see (e.g. so that I will take some particular action) then the element of manipulation creeps in. Yes, the line between 'management and manipulation' or that between 'influencing and manipulation' can be a very fuzzy one!
Sunday, April 19, 2009
The trigger for this post came from some of the conversations that I have been having with my son (the same guy who was the main character in my earlier post called 'Research and a three-year-old' - though he is now seven years old!). During the last academic year, he got his first taste of 'being a leader' - when he was made the 'leader' of his group/class on certain occasions/ for certain events and he has been sharing his experiences as a 'leader' - both good and bad -with me. These discussions about the 'leadership experiences' of a seven-year-old, made me remember a curious thing that I had noticed about the roles and designations - especially in IT/ITES organizations.
In these organizations, often there is a level called 'Team Leader' that appears - just above that of a Team Member - but below that of a 'Team Manager' or 'Project Manager'. Beginning with the Team Manager/Project Manager level, there are multiple levels of 'Managers'. But after these 'managerial levels', 'Leaders' (e.g. Business Leaders) again make an appearance. So we have a curious situation - we have managers 'sandwiched' by leaders. Hence the 'leadership sandwich' which forms the title of this post.
Now let me come back to the 'thinking aloud' part. I was wondering why this 'leadership sandwich' occurs. Why do we have levels/roles with the term 'Leader' in the title on both the sides of the levels/roles with the term 'Manager' in the title? Since too much have already been written about the 'Leaders Vs. Managers debate', I have no intention to get too deep into that tricky territory. But these kind of 'sandwich' situations interest me immensely - because I feel that some phenomenon similar to that of the 'U-curve' (which I have often written about and which is very close to the basic theme of this blog) might be operating here. In such cases something starts in one state - moves to the opposite state - and then comes back to the original state at a higher plane (creating a 'U' - shaped pattern). So I was wondering if 'Leadership' also follows such a 'U' - shaped pattern!
May be we can get a clue to the (leadership sandwich) puzzle if we compare the role of a Team Leader with that of a Team Manager. Typically, a Team Leader does not have formal authority (e.g. to hire, fire, evaluate and reward staff). So a Team Leader is forced to influence (get the work done) without formal authority. Team Managers (and the multiple levels of Managers above them) do have formal authority. Of course, the 'Leaders' who are at higher levels as compared to these 'Managers' also have formal authority - much more than what these 'Managers' have. But may be these senior 'Leaders' are supposed to influence (get the work done) without exercising their formal authority, though they do have a lot of formal authority. May be they are supposed to do the influencing in 'better/higher ways' (e.g. by creating an inspiring vision, by building a high performance culture etc.). So if we can say that "Team Leaders influence without formal authority because they don't have any formal authority and Business Leaders influence without formal authority because they choose not to exercise their formal authority" - then we have the description of a phenomenon that follows the U-curve - that too perfectly!
Now, let us come back to the second part of what Alan Watts said - the part which says that 'a man cannot think rightly alone and that he should publish his thought to to learn from criticism'. I have done the publishing! Over to you for your criticism!!
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Career – pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility, complexity & contribution
Sublimation - change directly from the solid to the gaseous state without becoming liquid (so we are using the 'Chemistry' meaning of 'sublimation' - as opposed that in 'Psychology')
Now that we have got the definitions out of the way, let us come back to the issue at hand. These days, it is quite common for people to skip some of the steps in (what used to be) the 'typical career path'. That is, they jump from a particular position to another position that is more than one step away/higher. So they transition directly ('sublimate') to a significantly 'higher' position without going through (what were considered to be necessary) intermediate positions.
These kind of career moves make a lot of sense in today's scenario - where many organizations are in state of flux - making traditional 'career paths' and 'career ladders' less relevant. Again, organizations are more open to this kind of career moves these days, especially where this results in cost saving and lower time to fill a vacancy. Of course, it makes eminent sense also from the individual's point of view - in terms of faster career growth.
So, if this 'sublimation' seem to make sense - from the points of view of both the individual and the organization - what is the issue? I think that this 'sublimation' can create problems - for the individual and for the organization.
For the individual, skipping intermediate positions in the career path can result in loss of learning opportunities - and some of these 'missed learnings' can prove costly - in terms of the adverse impact on long term career success and on personal effectiveness at work. Some of the intermediate positions might be key from a 'career & professional maturity' and perspective building (and wisdom development!) points of view. While the 'higher' positions will also provide valuable learning opportunities (may be even learning opportunities at a broader/'higher' level), they can't always substitute for the learnings provided by the intermediate positions. I would even speculate that time spent in the intermediate roles might have a positive impact on the 'ability to learn' - including the ability to learn from opportunities at a broader/'higher' level. The situation is not dissimilar to that of children who are 'forced' (e.g. by life situations) to grow up too fast. They manage to act like grownups - but often they have hidden flaws in their (psychological) development.
Often, after one has taken up a 'higher role' (in terms of organization hierarchy) it becomes difficult* (see the note below) to take up these intermediate roles - unless one moves to another ('bigger'/'more reputed') organization. So it is possible that these necessary learning opportunities are lost forever for the particular individual. Let me give a personal example. I moved to a global/corporate role in the Learning and Organization Effectiveness (L&OE) domain without spending time in a role that involves handling complete operational responsibility for the L&OE function/team at the business unit/country level. At this point, I don't really know what exactly have I missed because of this 'sublimation'. While I have tried to find this out by speaking to people who have handled such jobs (some sort of 'knowledge engineering'), I do feel that there could be significant gaps in my understanding! After all, there is a difference between understanding/wisdom (that is developed from actual experience) and knowledge.
This brings us to the problem of 'unknown unknowns' -a key side effect of 'sublimation' - which can create problems for both the individual and for the organization. Usually, 'unknown unknowns' are more dangerous than 'known unknowns'. Based on our discussion above, it can be seen that the 'sublimated individuals' can create serious risks for the organization. While the 'sublimated individuals' are usually very confident, their confidence often stem from 'simplicity on this side of complexity' as opposed to 'simplicity on the other side of complexity'. These 'unknown unknowns' can seriously undermine the quality of decision making. This becomes a major cause for concern when these individuals are in positions where their decisions can have high organizational impact. From the individual's point of view, a key risk is that of self-destructing their fast track careers! Other risks for the individuals include becoming too big for most of the roles available in their domain too early in their careers (limiting their options for changing jobs - see here for a related HR specific discussion) and of course that of 'reaching their level of incompetence' too fast/too early in their careers!!
So there can be problems/costs involved with 'sublimation'. But there are also potential benefits (as we have seen earlier). In addition to this, we should keep in mind that there are approaches like job rotations, stretch assignments and action learning projects that can provide accelerated career development while avoiding some of the problems associated with 'sublimation' - at least to a large extent. Hence it comes down to a cost benefit analysis - which can be highly context specific - both for the particular individual and for the particular organization - making a standard solution/recommendation difficult. But the awareness of the options and the possible problems/benefits can facilitate better cost benefit analysis and more informed decision making.
*Note: The difficulty in moving into a role that is 'lower' in the organizational hierarchy could be in terms of the possible adverse impact on salary, organization level etc. I do feel that the degree to which the difficulty is felt by an individual also depends on his/her outlook towards salary and career growth. The two extremes here are 'shape approach' and 'area under the curve approach'. It is essentially a matter of what one is trying to optimise - 'shape of the graph' or 'area under the graph'. Let me explain using salary progression as an example. Let us visualize a diagram ('salary graph') with salary on the y-axis and time on the x- axis.
Those who take a 'shape of the graph' approach/philosophy want to ensure that their salary goes up each time they make a job change (either within an organization or across organizations). So they want the salary graph to have a nice shape - with a positive 'slope' at all times. These kind of people will not want to take up a very high paying job if they feel that the salary growth is not sustainable and that they might have to take a pay cut later when they move from the very high paying job.
If we go back to our salary diagram (with salary on the y-axis and time on the x- axis), the area under the graph signifies the total earnings over a period of time/over the span of the career. It is apparent that what the people who take a 'area under the graph' approach/philosophy are trying to maximise is their total earnings/salary. These kind of people will take up a very high paying job even if they feel that the salary growth is not sustainable - so long as their total earnings (over the span of their career) are likely to be higher.Of course, the above approaches ('shape of the graph' and 'area under the graph') apply not only in the case of salary but also in the case of other dimensions of career growth like 'size of the role' , 'position of the role in the organization hierarchy' and 'learning experiences provided by the role'. It is interesting to note that 'shape of the graph' approach/philosophy is reflected in many of the typical definitions of the term 'career' (even in the one that is given at the beginning of this post - as it talks about ' pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement' and about 'taking up positions of increasing responsibility'). But we have seen that this not the only approach possible or even the most effective one in today's environment. So if one takes the 'area under the graph' approach(which is more attuned to today's scenario), the 'difficulty' mentioned above can become much less significant.
Now over to you for your comments and suggestions!