Friday, December 30, 2011

Decoding the 'IR mindset'

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

Let me begin by saying that this 'IR mindset' need not necessarily have anything to do with the way ‘Industrial Relations’ is being managed in most organizations. The similarities (if any) are with a ‘caricature’ of IR as opposed to the actual practice of IR. A 'mindset' is a fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person's responses to and interpretations of situations. So the ‘IR mindset’ that we are talking about here is more of a ‘personality orientation’ or a ‘preferred pattern of behavior’. There is nothing inherently evil with this ‘IR mindset’ – it is just a distinct (peculiar!) way of ‘looking at and influencing the world’ (or of ‘interacting with others’). I also feel that the 'IR mindset' (like any other mindset), influences the 'sense-making process' (see 'Architects of meaning') of the individuals who have the mindset. 

So, how do we recognize the 'IR mindset'? The following are 12 defining features (‘signature themes’) of  the ‘IR mindset’ that I have come across:

(1) Focus on dominating as opposed to collaborating (Follows the 'attack is the best form of defense' policy - even when no defense or attack is required!)
(2) Making a threat with no real intention to carry out the same
(3) Disproportionate focus on ‘tactics’ as opposed to ‘strategy’; an obsession with tactics or indiscriminate use of tactics - to gain minor advantages/to prove a point (even at the risk of jeopardizing relationships or long-term credibility)
(4) Taking an indirect approach where a  more direct approach would have been equally effective
(5) Viewing work (and people management) as a ‘Chess game’ or even as a ‘Billiards game’
(6) Using information as a source of power/withholding information
(7) Focus on ‘ends’ as opposed to ‘means’  - ‘results’ as opposed to ‘processes’ - ‘hunting as opposed to farming’
(8) Seeing each interaction as a ‘negotiation’ (or as 'buildup to a negotiation'); attempting to 'soften up' the other party (by criticizing the other party - fairly or unfairly - on an unrelated matter) so as to gain a psychological advantage in the negotiation
(9) 'Theory X' as opposed to 'Theory Y'
(10) Using feedback as a ‘message’ and not as ‘information’ (i.e. the primary focus is on creating the right impact on the individual as opposed to conveying accurate information)
(11) Planting 'poison trees' (negative thoughts that grow and take charge of the mind) in the minds of impressionable people to confuse them & to incite them against others; divide and rule!
(12) Leveraging the 'drama triangle' - get the other person into the 'victim' position & then act as the 'rescuer' to influence the person

The above list uses many ‘metaphors’. As we have seen in ‘Appropriate metaphors for organization commitment’, metaphors can be generative (i.e. they can help us to generate new ideas/understandings about a relatively unfamiliar/abstract topic) and that is the primary reason for using them here. Since a metaphor is not an exact comparison, they can also generate inaccurate/irrelevant/misleading meanings & ideas and we need to make a conscious effort to screen them out. 

As I have mentioned earlier, there is nothing inherently wrong with the ‘IR mindset’. In some situations, the ‘IR approach/mindset’ is the most appropriate one. As in the case of ‘passive resistance’ (See 'Paradox of passive resistance'), the ‘IR approach’ is problematic only when it becomes an indiscriminate/habitual response. Usually, the trouble starts when the thin line between ‘management’ and ‘manipulation’ is crossed!

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

Now let us do some pure speculation. Are there are a set of conditions/factors that might increase the possibility of someone developing the IR mindset? I haven’t yet come to any firm conclusion on this. For the time being let me note down a couple of hypotheses.

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

Have you seen this ‘IR mindset’ in action? Can you think of any other defining features of the ‘IR mindset’? Do you have any thoughts on the factors that might  lead to the development of the ‘IR mindset’?

No comments: