Thursday, March 8, 2012

On what ‘good’ looks like…

“I am leaving this organization because my manager and I have very different ideas on what ‘good’ looks like in my domain and we have agreed to disagree. It was not a matter of lack of clarity on the performance objectives and targets. The issue was a fundamental disconnect on what those objectives and targets should be and how they should be achieved – on what ‘excellence’ means in my role and in my domain”, said the Function Leader during his exit interview.
In my career so far, I have had the good fortune of experiencing many organization contexts – either as an external consultant or as an employee. Based on these experiences, I have come to realize that organizations often have different definitions of the ‘picture of success at an individual level’ (i.e. what good individual performance looks like). While the tasks/deliverable will vary from one job to the other within the organization, there are common patterns that hold good across jobs in an organization on what good performance (or ‘excellence’ or ‘quality’) looks like. But, these patterns can vary a lot from one organization to the other. When people move from one organization to the other this can create ‘rude shocks’ – for both the employee and the organization – especially when an employee who has been successful in one  organization joins another organization that has a different definition of excellence.
Let us take a closer look at these underlying(tacit) definitions of quality (or excellence). While each organization has its own underlying definitions (assumptions), it can be useful to conceptualize some of them in terms of a continuum with the following as the two end points.
At one end we have organizations where the underlying definition of quality is very much similar to the ‘six sigma definition’ – ‘absence of variation’. In these organizations, the performance of an employee considered to the excellent, if he/she thinks through the goals before agreeing to the same, creates a detailed plan to work towards the goals in a systematic manner, archives goals even if there were changes in the environment (through scenario planning, risk analysis & mitigation and sheer focus). These organizations also tend to value and invest in building capability/expertise – at both people and process level. Hence the premium is on good design, deep expertise, meticulous planning, reliability, consistency, coherence and congruence. In extreme cases this can lead to rigidity.  
At the other end of the continuum we have organizations where the definition is more like ‘fitness for purpose’ (with the ‘purpose’ changing quite often). Here the focus is on ‘trial and error’. Muddling through things is acceptable and even preferred (over thinking through things and seeking clarity before starting work). People who insist on planning and consistency are considered to be ‘risk-averse’ (or even to be 'lacking in courage'). Operating with contradictions (and lack of coherence & consistency) is considered to be ‘heroic’. A lot of emphasis is placed on pragmatism (as opposed to expertise) and on workarounds.  Hence the premium is on ‘flexibility’ and ‘crisis handling’. In extreme cases it can lead to an organization that jumps from one idea (goal or fad) to another on a frequent basis.
Of course, there are many other dimensions (for the variation in the underlying definitions on what good performance looks like) in addition to dimension represented by the continuum between the two end points mentioned above. There is nothing inherently 'good' or 'bad' about these underlying definitions - they are just different (equally valid) ways of looking at the world. The point is that these variations exist across organizations and it could have a significant bearing on performance, employee satisfaction, engagement and retention.
To some extent, these assumptions are related to the environment in which the organization is operating in. But it is often it is a matter of the preferred way of responding to the environment. These assumptions are also closely related to the culture of the organization- especially the deeper levels of culture – values and basic underlying assumptions. Theoretically speaking, the match between the employees’ and the organizations’ definitions of ‘what good performance looks like’, is represented by some dimensions of ‘person-organization’ fit. However, an intellectual discussion on the low scores on some dimensions of ‘person-organization’ fit might not fully bring out the reality (trauma!) of the ‘rude shocks’ for the employee and for the organization (mentioned earlier in our discussion).
This brings us to the question of adaptation. Employees can adjust. Organizations can change too – though usually it is a very slow process and require a ‘critical mass of new employees with different preferences’. The individual’s definition of ‘good’ can also change. However,  the individual’s definition of ‘good’ is shaped mainly by his/her personality and his/her ‘early career experiences’ (see 'Influence of early career experiences') and a change in the same requires lot of time and a critical mass of high impact (profound or traumatic) new (different) experiences. Hence, for the time being, let us focus on the issue of new employees attempting to align with the organization’s definition of ‘good performance’.
Yes, employees do realize that they are unlikely to find an organization that provides a 100% match to their preferences and that they need to adjust. But if an employee needs to constantly act outside his/her preferences it can lead to stress.  This can also lead to mediocrity as the individuals are not able to play to their strengths. Excellence and engagement at individual level requires the opportunity ‘to bring more of who you are into what you do’ (see 'Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden'). It is critical for those employees for who looks at work as one of avenues for self-expression. Similarly, when organizations talk about connecting with employees at higher levels of the needs hierarchy, this becomes important for the organizations also.
Now let us come back to the exit case that we saw in the beginning of this post. Ideally, the employee and his manager should have been able to arrive at a higher ground that integrates their conflicting points of view (like the struggle between thesis and antithesis results in a higher more truthful synthesis of the two - in Hegelian Metaphysics).But this ideal state is often not possible within the constraints of the organization context and the individuals involved. Sometimes (as the existentialist philosopher Kierkegaard says), people will have to make ‘either/or’ decisions (and the seductive beauty of Hegelian ‘and/both’ turns out to be an illusion).
One of my all time favorite books is ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig. This book begins with the lines “And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good, Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?" In the context of our discussion (for a person who is trying to join a new organization or for an organization trying to hire someone), the answer should be a loud ‘YES’.  Yes, it is worthwhile to ask this explicitly, listen carefully, ‘read’ between the lines and to be very careful about what is left unsaid!!!