Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Appropriate metaphors for Organizational Commitment

"We need more commitment in this organization. Employees should just trust their managers and the organization and do what they are asked to do. Instead, they get confused and start asking questions", said the senior HR professional. It was my second encounter with this person (See 'Passion for work and anasakti', for the details of the first encounter that happened many years ago). Like what happened last time, this statement set me thinking. I have realized that interactions like this prompts me to examine my own opinions/assumptions and hence enrich my understanding. That is why I treasure these encounters!

For the purpose of our discussion here, let us define Organizational Commitment as the psychological attachment or affinity that employees have to the organization they work for. It is highly useful for the organization/employer as organizational commitment (or certain types of organization commitment - to be more precise) can have a positive impact on important workplace outcomes like employee retention, attendance, performance and extra-role behavior. There exists a significant volume of literature on organization commitment (e.g. affective commitment, continuous commitment, normative commitment etc.), its antecedents and its outcomes.

Now, let us come back to the statement made by our senior HR professional. What intrigued me the most was the likely underlying assumptions in his statement about the behavioral manifestations of commitment and trust. My objective is not to prove that these assumptions are wrong. Having been a people manager for more than a decade, there have been many situations where I felt that it would be so much better for everyone if my team members just did what I asked them to do without forcing me explain everything. Different assumptions are valid to different extents in different contexts. The objective here is just to examine if there are other ways of looking at the situation.

To begin with, I am not sure if 'getting confused' or 'asking questions' necessarily indicates lack of commitment. It might just be that the employee does not have enough information/clarity on what exactly needs to be done and how. Often, this is the result of the so called ‘curse of knowledge’. As the manger might have additional information/background/big picture understanding & knowledge/expertise about the situation/task the employees don’t have, what seems so simple, clear and obvious to the manager might not be so for the employees. But since the manager does not realize this (i.e. as he burdened by the ‘curse of knowledge’) he does not feel the need to provide all this information. Hence the most reasonable response on the part of a committed employee is to seek clarifications. However, in some organizations it could be culturally more acceptable for the employee to ‘muddle through the situation’ as compared to seeking clarifications upfront. In such cases it is the organization culture (and not the employee) that needs fixing (see 'Placebos, Paradoxes & Parables for Culture Change').

Sometimes, it is possible that the employee has a different view from that of the manager. In this case also, the most effective response is to discuss the matter upfront. But if such a behavior is not permitted/feasible, it can lead to 'passive resistance', especially on the part of the 'good' employees. As we have seen ‘Paradox of passive resistance’, it is often the highly competent (and hence capable of seeing the limitations of the approach suggested by the manager) and committed (and hence caring too much about the organization to accept the suboptimal solution) employees who exhibit passive resistance in an organization context where they can’t express their disagreement directly without seriously jeopardizing their careers.

Now let us look at the ‘trust’ aspect. I think that expressing the feeling of confusion and/or seeking clarifications can actually be a sign of the employee’s trust on the manager. If this trust did not exist, the employee won’t make himself vulnerable by expressing the feeling of confusion or by seeking clarifications (and hence revealing his lack of understanding). In a way, it also demonstrates the trust the employee has on the manager’s competence (to be able to provide the clarification). Of course, expressing confusion/asking questions can also be a defensive behavior – to avoid/delay the task. It is also possible that questioning too much when there is a critical need to take urgent action is counterproductive. My point is just that expressing confusion/asking questions doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of trust. It is interesting to note that the type of trust implied by our senior HR professional (on the omniscience and infallibility of the manager/organization) boarders on trust in God. That kind of trust would be appropriate in a religious/spiritual context but not in the context of business organizations! This brings us to the topic of metaphors and the appropriate use of metaphors.

Metaphors are highly useful tools for thinking. Metaphors facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain (typically an abstract one) by relating it to another more familiar conceptual domain (typically a more concrete one). They are so much a part of our lives and thinking that often we are not fully conscious of the metaphors we use. It has also been argued that by examining the metaphors we use, we can a learn a lot about ourselves – our values and assumptions. A good metaphor is generative. It helps us to develop new ideas, perspectives and understanding about the topic that we are exploring (especially when the topic is a relatively unfamiliar one). But the use of metaphors also has its disadvantages. Since a metaphor is not an exact comparison, often inaccurate/irrelevant/misleading meanings & ideas creep in into our thought process/understanding. Since we might not be fully conscious of the use of metaphors in our thinking, this can be dangerous.

Now let us look at a couple of metaphors used to talk about (think about) the ‘employer-employee’ (employment) relationship. The most common one is that of ‘marriage’ – with sometimes a finer distinction being made between ‘arranged marriage’ and ‘love marriage’. While this metaphor help us to generate useful ideas (e.g. the importance of ensuring high degree of ‘person-organization’ and ‘person-job’ fit at the time of selection), it also brings in meanings that might not be appropriate (e.g. the requirement for making a long term commitment at the time of joining the organization – reflected in statements like ‘we should hire only those people who are willing to make a long term commitment to the organization’). As a social institution, we don’t yet have a viable alternative to marriage. But we do have viable alternatives to lifelong employment. In some societies, marriage is a sacred bond. But employment might not be so. While stability/continuity of employments is important for business, the disruption caused by employee attrition is often no way close to the trauma caused by the dissolution of marriage. Again, in the context of frequent rightsizing and reorganization, a sacred longtime employment commitment might not be feasible even from the organization’s point of view.

Another metaphor is that of the family (with the employer being the parent and the employee being the child). While this metaphor also helps us to generate useful ideas (like encouraging high degree of mutual trust & collaboration, care/benevolence towards the employees, extra-role behavior/going the extra mile etc.), it also brings in meanings that might not be appropriate (like a lopsided relationship/power balance, assumption that the employer/manager always ‘knows best’, encouraging ‘Parent-Child’ interactions as opposed to ‘Adult-Adult’ interactions– in the Transactional Analysis sense – between the employer/manager and the employee etc.)

So where are we now? We have found that two of the most common metaphors used to talk about (think about) the ‘employer-employee’ (employment) relationship have significant disadvantages. They also create avoidable complications when it comes to figuring out what kind of trust and commitment would be appropriate in an organizational context. However, metaphors have tremendous rhetorical value and hence they are highly useful for leaders/managers in the complex endeavor of ‘motivating’ or ‘inspiring’ employees (Please see ‘Power of carrot and stick’). Metaphors are also be very useful for employees to find meaning (or to make sense) in the workplace (Please see ‘Architects of meaning’). Again, it would be very difficult (or even impossible) to totally avoid the use of metaphors as they are such an integral part of our thinking process. Hence metaphors are here to stay and we need to make the best use of them.

Are there metaphors that are more appropriate for helping us understand commitment and trust in the employment relationship? May be, there is no one metaphor that is appropriate. The best course of action might be to use multiple metaphors (e.g. marriage, family, contract, partnership, citizenship, mission, journey, marketplace, channel, tribe, village, casino etc.) to generate a wide range of ideas on the various aspects/dimensions of the topic/concept, while consciously watching out for spurious meanings/ideas that are likely to come in as part of that process, so that we can select the useful ideas (and discard the irrelevant/misleading ones) enabling us to come up with richer understanding and better responses!

Any ideas/comments/metaphors?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Paradox of ‘passive resistance’

“There is too much passive resistance in this organization! When I suggest something, everyone agrees. But they go back and do whatever they wanted to do", said the frustrated business leader.

‘Passive resistance’ is a term that is heard quite often in business organizations. Let us begin by taking a look at this phenomenon from a broader perspective.

From a psychological point of view, passive resistance is a form of passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive behavior involves acting indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. It usually manifests as procrastination, resentment, sullenness, helplessness or even as deliberate failure to accomplish tasks.

From a sociopolitical perspective, passive resistance is a method of nonviolent protest against laws or policies in order to force a change or secure concessions. This involves methods like economic or political noncooperation, hunger strikes/fasting, mass demonstrations, refusal to obey or carry out a law or to pay taxes, economic boycotts, symbolic protests etc.

Keeping these in mind, let us come back to passive resistance in the context of business organizations. Employees exhibiting ‘active resistance’ are vocal in their criticism and they might even make efforts to cause the change to fail. Employees showing ‘passive resistance’ exhibit little visible resistance. They will outwardly agree with the change that is being proposed, but then act as if they don't. Eventhough they don’t challenge the change directly, they will continue doing things their own way.

The typical behavioral manifestations of passive resistance in organizations include
  • not taking ownership while appearing to agree with the proposed change
  • diminished enthusiasm/ withdrawal/ sulkiness/ apathy/cynicism/hopelessness
  • complaining without offering solutions
  • blaming others
  • indecisiveness/ procrastination
  • excessive adherence to procedures/guidelines
  • working inefficiently/making half-hearted efforts  
  • withholding information
  • 'forgetting' obligations/commitments
  • repeatedly making excuses to avoid assigned tasks/ working on unwanted tasks
  • over-complicating the new way of working
  • propagating rumors
From these it appears that passive resistance is clearly something 'bad'. So, what is paradoxical about passive resistance? As we have seen earlier, 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. Now, let us look at some of the opinions about passive resistance
  • Passive resistance is more dangerous than active resistance as it is a ‘silent killer’ (that goes undetected and hence unresolved). 
  • People who display passive resistance lack the courage to stand up for what they believe in. 
  • People resort to passive resistance to hide their incompetence.
  • The primary reason for passive resistance is an environment where the direct expression of disagreement is discouraged. When employees feel that they cannot express their opinions and emotions openly, they might resort to more indirect methods of expressing the same.
  • Passive resistance can be a very ‘logical response’ in a hierarchical organization where it is culturally unacceptable to oppose the views of the superiors directly.
  • It is often the ‘good’ employees (highly independent, highly competent and highly committed to their work/organization) who exhibit passive resistance. They are the people who can operate with a high degree of independence (a very valuable capability in rapidly evolving business organizations). Their high degree of competence enable them to realize that the plan of action suggested by the superiors might not always be correct or in the best interest of the organization. They also care too much about their work and the organization to just 'go along'. Again, they are intelligent enough to realize that they can’t express their views/disagreement directly without seriously jeopardizing their careers. Hence they respond with passive resistance!
  • Sometimes, passive resistance can be a ‘rational’ behavior which lets an employee dodge unnecessary tasks while avoiding confrontation. Employees often resort to passive resistance when the assigned task/imposed view does not 'make sense' to them. It helps the employee to gain a sense of control. Passive resistance becomes problematic only when it becomes a habitual and indiscriminate response.
  • An employee might not always be consciously aware of his/her passive-aggressive behavior.
  • The basic 'animal response’ in a stressful situation is ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. 'Fight' is similar to active resistance and a fight response (in its basic form) might not be a possible (without serious repercussions) in many situations that employees face in business organizations. Similarly, a 'flight response' in its basic form (e.g. getting out of the situation by changing roles, changing jobs etc.) might not also be feasible. Hence ‘passive resistance’ (which can be conceptualized as a 'creative' combination of 'fight and flight') becomes a 'natural response' to cope with the brutal realities of organizational life. By the way, it has been argued that insanity is a perfectly sane response to an insane environment! 
Please note that the attempt here is not to glorify (or even to justify) passive resistance. The idea (like what we did when we explored the ‘Power of carrot and stick’) is to develop a richer understanding of the complex reality that underlies the phenomenon of passive resistance which in turn will help us to respond to passive resistance more effectively.  

So, how should we deal with passive resistance- in ourselves and in others? A good place to start is to examine some of the causes of the passive resistance mentioned above.
  • If the cause for passive resistance is an environment where the direct expression of disagreement is discouraged, the logical first step should be to make it more safe/acceptable to express opinions/disagreement more directly/openly. Of course, this is easier said than done, changing (hierarchical) cultures often requires significant amount of time and effort (see 'Placebos, Paradoxes and Parables for Culture Change' )
  • If the passive resistance is based upon the belief that past practices have been sufficient and there is no need to change, then placing more emphasis on creating and communicating the ‘business case’ for the change becomes critical. This is especially important in those situations where employees go into passive resistance as a means of retaliation for some decision or action they perceive to be unfair or unjustified.
  • If the key contributing factor is lack of lack of competence or lack of confidence in their ability to execute, then capability building & coaching should be looked at.
  • If the problem is primarily with the loss of control/independence, getting the employees more involved in the change process, giving them more freedom in determining how to carry out the task and reducing the amount of micromanagement (while ensuring accountability) will help.
  • If the main contributing factor is some sort of ‘learned helplessness’, enabling people to examine their thought processes (and the inferences/attribution errors they are making) along with enabling them to build the requisite skills to operate in the new environment will help. If the transition from 'learned helplessness' to ‘learned optimism’ can be facilitated, it would provide a significant advantage when it comes to dealing with the next wave of change.   
Hence, the primary strategy to deal with passive resistance is to surface it so that it can be addressed in a reasonable manner. However, if there are issues at the structure level (e.g. administrative and functional managers of an employee driving conflicting priorities in a matrix organization), at the group level (e.g. inter-group conflict) or at the interpersonal level (e.g. power/political struggle with the person driving the change, lack of trust, emotional baggage from previous interactions etc.) that lead to passive resistance down the line, they need to be addressed at the appropriate level. Of course, basics of good change management like articulating the vision, communicating the business case for the proposed change and the ‘What is in it for me’ for the impacted individuals, creating forums to raise and address issues, demonstrating top management commitment and helping employees to improve their change resilience are very much relevant here also. 

So, these are some of my ‘thought fragments’. Now, over to you for your comments so that we can convert these thought fragments to something more useful in understanding and dealing with passive resistance!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Do we need a new ‘defining myth’ for HR?

This post is an attempt to explore the intersection of two of the key themes of this blog - the nature of the HR function (see 'Philosophy of HR') and creating meaning as HR professionals (see 'Architects of Meaning - From CHRO to CMO').
Meaning (finding meaning in work) is becoming an increasingly critical issue at the workplace. Hence, 'facilitating creation of meaning' becomes an important opportunity and challenge for HR professionals. While 'Architects of Meaning' touched upon HR interventions to enable leaders and employees to create meaning at the workplace, it did not focus specifically on enabling HR professionals to find meaning in their roles.  This is where a ‘defining myth’ becomes relevant.
A myth is a story that embodies a powerful truth. We create stories about our experiences to give meaning to them. Once we internalize a myth (created by others) it helps us to find (create) meaning in our experiences and in our roles. So myths are useful for HR professionals to find meaning in their roles.
In any domain of human endeavor that encompasses a wide range of experiences and dilemmas, multiple myths are required (to facilitate the meaning creation/sense-making process). However, there is usually a 'central myth' or 'defining myth' that lies at the core of the meaning creation process. This defining myth provides the essence of meaning and the other myths add to this meaning (in terms of details and finer nuances in various contexts).  In this post, we will look at a couple of candidates for being the 'defining myth' for HR.   
The nature of the tasks carried out by most of the HR professionals most of the time makes 'finding meaning' a difficult endeavor (Please see 'HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder' and 'In praise of HR Generalists'). This vacuum in meaning prompts HR professionals to ask ‘existential questions’ about their roles (What am I doing? Does it make sense? Does it add value? etc.). To answer these questions multiple myths have been developed regarding the mandate of the HR function, the roles in HR and the significance(value) of these roles. Often, these come in the form of 'new models of the HR function' and/or ‘new set of roles for HR professionals’.
Let us digress a little. Many years ago, when I was exploring thought leadership in HR (see 'Thought leadership in HR in India'); I could not find any consensus (among the group of senior HR professionals that I had surveyed) on the names of the thought leaders in HR in India.  But the moment I expanded the scope of my question to cover ‘thought leaders in HR anywhere in the world’, almost all the people came up with the name of Dave Ulrich - that too as the first choice. I have often wondered why Dave Ulrich's ideas became so popular among HR professionals. Now I feel that it is partly because he created (through his ideas on roles for HR professionals) narratives/stories (myths!) about roles in HR - myths that enabled HR professionals to find meaning in their roles and in their careers. I feel that Dave Ulrich created some sort of a ‘professional mythology’ for HR – tapping into the deep-rooted desires and fears of HR professionals  - and through that he redefined the HR domain -  in a way that the HR professionals found meaningful and hence acceptable!!!  
Now let us come back to the myths in HR. While there are many of these myths, the one that has come closest to being a 'defining myth' is that of the 'HR Business Partner'. Usually a myth consists of a story and a truth/meaning embedded in the story (some sort of a 'moral of the story'). Here the story was about the heroic HR professional who evolved from doing mainly low skilled administrative activities that were  not core to the business  to become a strategic partner to the business, creating a huge impact on the business,  gaining respect from the CEO and the function heads and earning the much desired 'seat at the table'. The truth/moral was that HR professionals could  evolve from their earthly  administrative activities and fly in the exalted realm of true business partners - almost like the human beings realizing their divine potential from their earthly nature as outlined in the myth of a dragon (see ‘Too true to be real’)
This was a very valuable myth. It enabled many HR professionals to feel better about the HR domain and the opportunities for themselves in the domain. Also some people actually become business partners - at least to some extent. However, I feel that this myth (or the truth implied by the myth) has many practical difficulties in many organization contexts. Please see ‘In the wonderland of HR Business Partners’, ‘Nature abhors vacuum’ and 'Paradox of business orientation of HR' for more details. More importantly, as the context changes, new meanings are required – just like we need a new map when the terrain changes. This would mean that we need myths held together by a new defining myth. Of course this does not mean that the previous ‘defining myth’ becomes irrelevant. It can continue as one of the supporting myths. It is just that it is no longer the central theme (‘defining myth’).
In a new terrain (organization context) characterized by rapid/disruptive changes, complex challenges and paradoxes, being ‘Architects of meaning' might be more appropriate as the defining myth for HR professionals. Of course, the myth of the ‘HR Business Partner’ needs to continue as one of the supporting myths. But it will no longer be the central theme (‘defining myth’) as some of the basic underlying assumptions about ‘the nature of the business’ and the ‘nature of the partnership between  business leaders and HR professionals’  will get revisited.   The story that contains the new myth can be about the wise HR professional  who helped the business leaders and employees to examine their sense-making process  in the organization context and hence  enabled them to create meaning (and sometimes ‘new meanings’) for themselves and the people they lead in the face of gut-wrenching changes.  Also, the truth embedded in this story takes HR closer to its behavior science foundations. Behavior science was supposed to be about understanding, predicting and influencing behavior (and the underlying sense-making processes!)  
What do you think?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Do regional and global roles always make sense?

"Do you know why am I staying on in this organization? It is because if I hang around here for another ten years, I will be in a global role where I can make 25 people in 20 different countries run around doing absolutely meaningless work", said the frustrated HR professional.

I had heard this statement about 7 years ago. It popped up in mind recently, possibly because of my current 'obsession' with 'sense-making'/'meaning creation' process in organizations (see 'Architects of Meaning - From CHRO to CMO' for details).

This post is primarily about regional and global roles in the context of careers in HR. Similar to what we did in 'Career Development and Sublimation' let us define 'career' as 'pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement where one takes up positions of increasing responsibility, complexity & contribution'. Going by this definition, regional and global roles seem to make 'career-sense' for HR professionals as they can provide a natural progression from country level roles in terms of geographical scope of the responsibilities. These roles also make 'organization-sense' as the HR structure that includes regional and global roles often mirrors the organization structure of the business.

So what (if any) can be the possible problems with moving on to regional and global roles in HR?

The first is that while comparable regional and global roles are usually at a higher organization level as compared to country level roles, they might not necessarily be more complex. Also if there are basic problems with the HR operating model of the company (e.g. in terms of definition of roles, nature of the responsibilities, feasibility of carrying out those responsibilities, buy-in from business leaders at various levels etc.) progressing from country to regional roles might not enable the HR professional to solve (or even to 'grow out of') the problems' that he/she has been struggling with at the country level.

Another set of problems arise because of the nature of regional and global roles. Because of the large geographical scope, role holders in these roles will have to influence indirectly and/or focus very narrowly. This might lead to 'diffusion' of responsibility and/or 'marginalization of the role' (in terms of not being able to create a tangible impact on the business). This create difficulties with the 'taking up roles with increasing contribution' part in our definition of the term 'career'. This bring us to another type of 'sense' - in terms of the role change being 'personally meaningful' for the HR professional concerned (the 'sense-making' or 'meaning-creation' process that was mentioned in the second paragraph in this post).

Again, since these roles have to look at multiple territories each with different contexts, the role holders will have to work mainly at the level of guiding principles, guidelines and targets that will have varying degrees of relevance in particular territories (and to the HR professionals who are implementing them in those territories). The impact will depend on the extent of centralization/ monitoring/ enforcement, degree of detail and the flexibility (or lack of it) to make modifications at a territory level. This can create situations where HR professionals at local level get frustrated (as these inputs/interventions/demands from the role holders in regional/global roles do not make sense to them)- leading to statements like the one with which we started this discussion/post. May be one of the key responsibilities of regional/global HR roles should be to actively help in (influence!?) the sense-making process in the minds of the HR professionals at the country level!

This inference is not without irony. Earlier in this discussion, reference was made to a previous post which said that HR professionals should become 'Architects of Meaning' (and even that the 'Chief Human Resources Officer' should become the 'Chief Meaning Officer'). Now we are saying that HR professionals need a dose of their own medicine. May be, there is no irony. It might just be that Human Resource professionals are also human!!!

Over to you for your comments/ideas!!!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Daydreams of an OD Mechanic

After making a living in the Organization Development (OD) field for more than a decade, I have realized that my primary role so far has been that of an 'OD Mechanic'. There is nothing inherently wrong with being an 'OD Mechanic'. Every field requires skilled technicians. It is just that it was very different from what I had set out to become.

Having started my career as an Aerospace Engineer, my objective while making the quantum jump into the Behavioral Science domain, was to become a 'Scientist' in that domain. I must admit that I had very limited understanding of what my ‘Picture of Success’ looks like (as a scientist in the HR/OD domain) – some sort of a 'Corporate Anthropologist' was my best guess!

Once I started handling real life roles in HR and OD, I more or less forgot about this. I did get fascinated by the idea of 'thought leadership' and investigated ‘Thought Leadership in HR in India’ I have also been aware of the importance of (and the difficulties in) maintaining the link between theory and practice (see 'HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder') and I feel that this ‘OD Mechanic’ might have emerged as a result of my attempt to avoid that ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ (talking about behavior science theories/principles in meetings/seminars but carrying out the day-to-day work without applying any of those theories/principles). I do wonder if it has been more of a convenient compromise as opposed to being an optimal solution that emerges from constantly living in the creative tension between the two polarities. You see, creating and using tools allows me to feel that I am applying behavioral science knowledge/principles though the creation/use of tools might not necessarily need a lot of behavioral science knowledge!

Now let us take a closer look at the terms ‘Mechanic’ and ‘Scientist’. We will also look at another related term - ‘Engineer’. A Mechanic is a skilled worker who practices some trade or craft. The defining feature of a Mechanic is the high degree of skill in the use of tools. A Scientist is a person who studies any of the sciences, uses scientific methods and develops deep expertise. What characterizes the work of a Scientist is the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena. An Engineer is a person who uses scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. As Randy Pausch says, Engineering is not about perfect solutions; it is about optimizing within constraints. Engineering also has the connotation of shrewdly managing an enterprise/task (as in the phrase 'he engineered the election campaign beautifully').

Over the last decade, I have learned and applied a large number of tools and techniques in the HR/OD domain – tools and techniques for diagnosis, process facilitation, solution design, action planning, program management etc - that too in various contexts like increasing individual and team effectiveness, managing change, employee engagement/culture building, organization design, development of frameworks/systems/processes, capability building, career development etc. I have also learned to select the most appropriate tools for a particular problem, customize tools/techniques/approaches, and also to create my own tools (remember: ‘Man is a tool-making animal’!).

Of course, these tools were required and useful. Unless people saw value in what was accomplished through the use of those tools and techniques I wouldn’t have been able to survive in the field. I have also done significant amount of 'optimizing within constraints' -that is the essence of the work of an Engineer (and this activity is of at most importance in adding value in the context of business organizations). The problem is just that I haven’t done enough of ‘observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena’ that characterizes the work of a Scientist. Yes, I have done these sporadically (as reflected in some of the posts that I have written in this blog over the last 4 years). But the extent of manifestation of my 'OD Scientist self' has been significantly less as compared to my 'OD Engineer self' or 'OD Mechanic self'!!!

Considering that OD is a planned, organization-wide effort using behavioral science principles to increase an organization's effectiveness, real life OD initiatives and OD roles are likely to require a mix of Mechanic, Engineer & Scientist. My daydreams were about my attempts (and their outcomes) to significantly increase the percentage of ‘Scientist’ in the mix as I progress in my career as an OD professional.

Daydreams apart, one key part of this endeavor is to be more ‘mindful’ (in general, even while doing the 'OD Mechanic's job'!) so that I will do a better job of observing and then later reflecting on the behavior of individuals and groups in organizations. Another key part is focusing more on 'why' questions ('hypothesis generation and testing') and 'what if' questions ('thought experiments')as opposed to 'how' questions (which are the primary focus of the Mechanic). In a way, I am more clear about mission as an OD professional - to stand at the intersection of theory and practice and inform both by deriving theory from practice and practice from theory. I have discovered that this is somewhat similar to the work of (what Edgar Schein refers to as) the 'scholar practitioner' (who is more concerned about 'middle-level theory'). On a more fundamental level, I have also understood that one can't truly do OD unless one takes it as a calling and not just as a profession.

I do think that these insights might help me to identify 'leverage points' in the system and even to do 'Wisdom level consulting' (another daydream, I must say!). I feel that identifying and acting on leverage points (where a small change can create big impact on the overall system) is critical for OD professionals in order to make a tangible/significant impact on the system/organization (as opposed to doing isolated 'OD interventions' here and there!). You see, one of the 'occupational hazards' of handling a Corporate OD role is to land up in a 'mouse in a maze' kind of situation - 'running here and there (doing OD interventions here and there !), feeling extremely busy, but getting nowhere -in terms of creating a significant and lasting impact at the level of the entire organization! (Please see 'OD Managers and Court Jesters' for a detailed discussion on the occupational hazards of internal OD consultants). Considering the above discussion, my initial idea of becoming a ‘Corporate Anthropologist’ might not have been too far off the mark! May be I was right for the wrong reason!!!

Now, let us come back to daydreams. Dreams (including daydreams) are in a way 'stories that we tell ourselves'. Similar to what I had mentioned in 'Architects of meaning', I think that by analyzing my OD daydreams (stories)and by consciously introducing subtle changes to the stories (and the truths/meanings embedded in those the stories)I might be able to improve my effectiveness as an OD professional. I also think that daydreams (and 'lucid dreams') have great potential in serving as effective methods for conducting 'thought experiments' in OD. But that is another story (or shall I say, another post)!!!

Any comments/ideas?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Placebos, Paradoxes and Parables for Culture Change

These days, I find myself thinking a lot about ‘culture change’. In my previous post (The Culture Lizard), I mentioned that just by changing the way people address one another in office (e.g. calling people by their first names instead of ‘Sir’, ‘Boss’ etc.) the underlying (hierarchical) culture is unlikely to change. I also said that in general such attempts might do more harm than good (e.g. by creating cognitive dissonance – especially for new entrants). But there are exceptions to this and let us begin this post by looking at one such scenario.

From my experience across organizations, I have found that new entrants often make incorrect judgments about the ‘culture of the organization’ and ‘what is required to be successful in that culture’. Sometimes, they also ‘project’ their ‘assumptions’, ‘preferences’ and ‘fears’ into these conclusions. Going back to our discussion above, there could be situations where new entrants (because of their assumptions about culture) misjudge the culture to be ‘hierarchical’ (where it is not actually so). They might also start addressing people as ‘Sir’ or ‘Boss’ (where it is not really required).

That is where the ‘placebo effect’ comes in. Placebo effect is the beneficial effect in a patient following a particular treatment that arises from the patient's expectations concerning the treatment rather than from the treatment itself. In a situation where the new entrants have misjudged the culture to be hierarchical and hence started addressing people as ‘Sir’ or ‘Boss’, the above intervention (of stipulating that everyone is addressed by their first names in the office) might do the trick. Of course, here the problem was essentially in the minds of the new entrants and that was the primary reason why the placebo (intervention) worked.

In reality, a particular culture is not really ‘black’ or ‘white’ (i.e. hierarchical or non-hierarchical) – it is more like ‘shades of gray’ (i.e. ranging from ‘very hierarchical’ to ‘very non-hierarchical’). Since placebos often have useful physiological effects, I would speculate that our placebo (i.e. our intervention) might even cure mild cases of ‘hierarchical culture’. This happens when the new entrants feel ‘empowered’ by the intervention and if there are a ‘critical mass’ of new entrants they might actually end up changing (‘curing’) mild cases of hierarchical culture!*

This brings in another important issue. One of the methods advocated for culture change is to hire the right people who would help in creating the desired culture. However, as I have mentioned in my post ‘Paradox of hiring good people and letting them decide’ that implementation of such an approach might be more difficult that what it appears to be (as definition of ‘good’ might get colored by the limitations of the current organization in figuring out ‘what good looks like’). It is also possible that if an organization hires someone who is aligned to the desired culture and if the desired culture is very different from the current culture the ‘system’ (the current organization) might ‘reject’ the new entrant just like the human body tries to reject a newly transplanted organ. May be, the solution is to hire someone who does not disrespect current way of doing things (and hence someone who would not evoke too strong an ‘immune response’/rejection from the existing organization) – but who is committed to the new way of doing things (the desired culture) – and changes the culture in subtle ways – say by introducing subtle modifications to the stories (parables) and the meanings derived/messages conveyed by the stories – by changing the daily conversations among the members of the organization through which they derive/agree on/make sense of the events in the organization (see ‘Architects of meaning’ for more details)!

*Note: Another scenario where such an intervention might be useful occurs when these words ('Boss', 'Sir' etc.) have strong associations (especially negative ones - say with 'autocratic behavior', with 'highly formal relationships' or with 'distant authority figures') in the minds of the new entrants. These associations (formed based on their previous work/life experiences) might trigger corresponding emotional responses in the new entrants and this might cause them to feel/think and act differently when interacting with their managers. For example, it might make it difficult for the new entrants to interact in a natural/creative/uninhibited manner with their managers. It is possible that such associations exist (at least to some extent) in the minds of managers also and this in turn might affect their feelings/thoughts and hence their behavior towards their team members. In such scenarios, this kind of an intervention (calling people by their first names instead of ‘Sir’, ‘Boss’ etc.) is useful as it prevents these unwanted emotional responses from getting triggered.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Culture Lizard

“We need to change the hierarchical culture here. So let us stipulate that everyone should be addressed by their first name in the office”, said the young HR professional. When I hear a statement like this, an image comes to my mind – image of the detached tail of a lizard!

It is said that when lizards are attacked (or when they are captured by the tail), they are likely to shed part of their tail and flee. The detached tail will continue to wiggle, creating a deceptive sense of continued struggle and distracting the attacker’s attention from the fleeing lizard. The lizard can partially regenerate its tail over a period of weeks.

Now, let us come back to our young HR professional. As far as I could figure out, the real problem that she was trying to address was the hierarchical culture. While I don’t think that there is anything inherently evil with a hierarchical culture (especially in the context of a larger society that has high ‘power distance’), I do agree with her that such a culture can be an impediment when an organization is trying to ‘empower’ the employees.

However, the source of my ‘disconnect’ with the young HR professional here was something very different. It was because I felt that the terms people use to address each other in the office (‘Sir’, ‘Boss’, ‘first name’ etc.) seemed to be just a symptom (or just one of the manifestations - that too a rather peripheral one) of the underlying hierarchical culture. I also felt that the manner in which people address each other in office was like the tail of the lizard (the 'hierarchical culture lizard!).

Hence my fear was that if our young HR professional tries to catch the culture lizard by its tail, it will just shed the tail and flee. Again, the distraction caused by the wiggling tail (the change that is happening in the way people address each other) might dilute the focus and adversely affect the chances our young HR professional might have had to bring about real culture change. So we might have a situation where people address each other by their first names but the underlying hierarchical culture remains very much intact. In my opinion, this is a more damaging situation as it creates cognitive dissonance and it can be very confusing – especially for new entrants.

In such hierarchical companies, newcomers might find it difficult to read the situation correctly when it comes to the degree of empowerment they actually have and how much innovation/creativity they should exhibit. For example, let us look at the following situation.

Your manager gives you the feedback that you need to be more innovative. You take it very seriously and you come up with many innovative/creative ideas during the next year. However, these ideas get promptly shot down by the manager. You detail out your ideas and try to convince manager that they are likely to work. However, the result remains the same and you also sense that the manager is becoming impatient and annoyed. At the end of the year, you again get the feedback that you need to be more innovative. Here what really happened was that that when the boss asked you to be more innovative, the boss was not really expecting you to come up with something very innovative/creative. The real expectation was that you should show more enthusiasm for the innovative ideas that the boss comes up with!!

In hierarchical organizations, it is often assumed that the bosses are the source of all good ideas and that the ideas from people down in the reporting chain (lower forms of evolution!) are unlikely to work as they won’t have sufficient understanding of the business/organization. It also follows that the best way to get the organization to implement your innovative idea is to create it twice - first in your mind and then in your boss's mind. The 'second creation' has to be done in a subtle manner - by 'triggering' or 'planting' it in your boss's mind without letting him/her know - so that the boss considers it to be his/her innovative idea. This might not be such a difficult task if the boss is prone to a bit of megalomania and/or self-delusion. This assumes that your primary motivation is to get your idea implemented and not to get credit for generating the idea. However, you might get 'indirect credit' - for implementing the idea - which has now become the innovative idea the boss has come up with. Not such a bad deal - considering that you managed to get your idea implemented and also received some sort of recognition (even if it was not for generating the idea)!

I am in favor of intervening simultaneously at multiple levels of culture to bring about culture change. Again, interventions/changes at a particular level of culture can sometimes have useful 'ripple effects' at the other levels of culture. Hence I do see value in making changes at the ‘outer layers’ of culture (like artifacts, norms etc.). But if we make changes at these levels without touching the inner/core layers of culture (like values, basic underlying assumptions etc.), the culture change is unlikely to work. Depending solely on the 'ripple effects' mentioned above is too much of a risk (especially since the ripple effects are often unpredictable). Also, as we have seen earlier, the lizard can regenerate its tail fairly quickly. Similarly, if the culture lizard is alive and kicking despite the loss of its tail (i.e. if the underlying hierarchical culture remains intact even after the change in the way people address each other), it might regenerate its tail without much delay!

Have you encountered any such ‘culture lizards’? If yes, what happened to the tail?

Note: Please see 'Placebos, Paradoxes and Parables for Culture Change' for further exploration of this theme.