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?