Monday, February 18, 2013

Of reasons, rationalizations and collective delusions!

"Why don't you just trust my judgment? If you question me like this, I will come in the way of your performance appraisal next year", said the business leader. "I have utmost respect for your capability. I also understand that I get paid to support the business. But, I won't be earning my salary if I don't put forward my professional opinion. If you want someone who will just execute whatever you ask without discussion, you can hire such a person at a much lower salary than what I am paid", replied the HR manager.

I spent the first five years of my career in HR in HR consulting. One of the things that has amazed me is how easy it was to walk an organization, do a diagnosis and find areas where there was potential for significant improvement. Why would internal HR leaders (who were much more experienced than me) fail to identify and act on those areas? Initially, I thought that this was mainly because of the ‘fresh eyes’, specialized diagnostic tools and 'learning from other contexts' that the external consultant brings in. After having spent the next 10 years in internal HR, I am convinced that that there is much more to this.

Most of the organizations are not optimized for effectiveness. Organizations tend to gravitate towards a way of working that is most comfortable for the people who run it – even if it takes away from the effectiveness and efficiency. Of course, the leaders would like to believe (and make others believe) that what they are doing is the best way of functioning. Perpetuating this ‘convenient collective delusion’ (or at least not disturbing it) is often one of the unstated expectations the leaders have from the HR Business Partners. This works even better if there HR leader is someone with impressive credentials – with best of the qualifications and prior experience in reputed MNCs and with a reputation for having done transformational work in those organizations. If such a person is the HR leader and he/she is not doing any transformation in the current organization, then the organization must be perfect – without any need to change!!!!


While it might appear that ‘collective delusion’ is too strong a term to be used in the context of business organizations, it has to be noted that the well-documented phenomenon of ‘group think’ is a form of collective delusion. The key ‘ingredients’ for collective delusions include cultural biases & prejudices, wishful thinking, denial of bad news, malleable memory and forced manufacture of consent/punishing the dissenters. Some of these tendencies  are highly contagious – especially when the people involved have worked together for a long time (enabling ‘mutually assured delusions’) – a common situation in hierarchical organizations, where the leaders often have a core group of people around them who stick on with the leader when the leader changes roles or even when the leader moves to a new organization.  It can also be said that the leaders play a key role in the process of ‘sense-making’ in organizations (see ‘Architects of meaning’) and hence delusions tend to trickle down from (or 'inspired by')the leaders.

As, I had mentioned in ‘Paradox of business orientation of HR’, while there is no doubt that the HR function exists to support the business, the exact nature of the ‘business orientation’ that is required to support the business most effectively is a complex one. This becomes especially important, if HRM has to mean something more than ‘making people do more work without paying them too much and without risking disruptions to the business operations’.

Another way to look incident that we saw in the beginning of this post is to view it as a reflection of the hierarchical nature of the organization. As we had seen in ‘Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment’, in hierarchical organizations if someone asks the leader for a clarification, it can very easily get misinterpreted as a ‘lack of competence on the part of the person asking the question’ or even as ‘lack of trust in the judgment of the leader’. The logical consequence of this is the phenomenon of ‘passive resistance’ which is rampant in hierarchical organizations (see ‘Paradox of passive resistance’).

Of course, such situations can occur in the case of HR leaders also and not just in the case of business leaders. But as I have said in 'In praise of HR generalists', they are often more 'sinned against than sinned". This is especially true because of their de facto role as scavengers in organizations – they are expected to clean up the mess that the business leaders have created. As an example, let us look at the so called ‘change management’ initiatives undertaken by HR Managers. Often the HR Leaders (are allowed to) get involved too late in the change process. By that time the wounds have already been created and the best that can be done is to dress the wounds. Change management turns into a ‘communication program’ at best or it might even generate into a ‘con job’. In such a case, HR Managers are forced to reverse-engineer a nice ‘why’ for what has been done so far and this is when reasons become rationalizations!

Talking of hierarchical organizations (see ‘The Culture Lizard’ for more), I have often wondered how do they manage to sustain their way of functioning over long periods of time without too much trouble from the employees (even with the significant in changes in workforce demographics) – apart from the obvious use of ‘carrot and stick’. I might now have a partial answer to this.

I arrived at this hypothesis based on an analogy. Recently, I read a book (in Malayalam) titled ‘vedangalude nadu’ (The land of the Vedas) by EMS Namboothiripadu. In this book (on the Indian History and Culture), EMS describes how the caste system in India managed to sustain itself over many centuries – without any major upheavals/social revolutions to overthrow the same.

It works something like this. The caste system has an elaborate hierarchical structure – with the 4 basic castes being divided into sub-castes and sub-sub-castes with the hierarchy among the sub-castes and sub-sub-castes also clearly defined. What makes this structure sustainable is that while a caste higher in the hierarchy (say, caste 1) can oppress any other cast lower in the hierarchy (say, caste 2); they also allow the latter to oppress all the other castes lower than the latter in the hierarchy (say, castes 3 to 100). Because of the large number of layers in the hierarchy (because of the fine division into numerous sub-castes and sub-sub-castes), the number of people in the lowest rung of the structure (i.e. who is oppressed by everyone else without having the opportunity to oppress someone lower than them in the hierarchy), is often too low – lower than the critical mass required for a social revolution.

My hypothesis is that something similar might be at work in sustaining the hierarchical cultures in organizations. Is it not too much of a coincidence that hierarchical organizations usually have a large number of organization levels/grades? Another phenomenon that supports this hypothesis is the Janus-faced behavior pattern that is often observed among the leaders in hierarchical organizations, in which there is a huge difference between the way the leaders behave in the presence of their seniors (people higher than them in the organizational hierarchy/'food chain') and the way they behave in the presence of their juniors - like the two different  faces of Janus looking in opposite directions (Please see 'Followership Behaviors of Leaders' for a related discussion).

Now, let us look at the options available to an employee who finds himself/herself in an organization that is suffering from collective delusions. The obvious option is to leave and find another organization that is a bit more sane (psychologically healthy). However, organizations are often quite effective in not revealing their collective delusions to outsiders and the collective delusions become apparent only when one starts working in those organizations. Hence, a better strategy might be to find a middle path by creating a 'pocket of sanity' within one's circle of influence. One can also try using creative approaches for breaking collective delusions - by enabling the people to examine their deeply-held assumptions  - in a manner that does not trigger their psychological defenses. See 'Of Organization Development Managers and Court Jesters' for an example.

So, what do you think – about the Reasons, Rationalizations, Collective Delusions & the contribution of HR in cleaning up the Organizational ecosystem’?!!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another good one Prasad. Thanks for posting!

I think hierarchy driven organizations are operating in simplicity on this side of the complexity and HR's role is to take them to the other side of complexity through the process of cleaning, scavenging, intervening, etc.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you!

Siddharth said...

I think the assumption of having each level lord over the lower one is not correct for today's organizations especially software companies. Why do I think so? Because I have been working in this industry for the last 11 years. I have been both at the lowest level and also have been a manager. Usually the technical folks ALWAYS report to the management irrespective of grade. Technical folks are least interested in acting 'boss' that is why they remained in the technical-line. Also, a lot of managers don't like to play 'boss' since they have come from the technical side but were pushed into management.

There is no question of uprising - what that means for a software engineer or a bank clerk is not even known! Is it standing on top of the building burning something?

Every person whom I have talked to about this has said that the monthly pay-check is what makes everything seem bearable; no they don't like to exploit the lower rungs, they just want to go home and watch TV or YouTube.

I do have another reason - we have not seen the 'good guys winning' for a long time. Anna Hazare and team was a hope for many a common man, but what happened? Not much. We still pay bribes to almost everyone. Everyday we get hear of bigger scams, people getting killed by the police in lockup and many more. In such a society there is no hope for winning, really.

Just not having to sell your soul and getting a monthly paycheck is heaven'. We are living in the KaliYug aren't we?

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Siddharth. I didn’t mean that all organizations(or all managers) are hierarchical. The point was just that there are quite a few such managers and organizations (especially in a country/society that has a high ‘power-distance’). Again, there was no intention to suggest that all employees resent managers with a hierarchical mindset. In a project based organization, where an employee has both a ‘project manager’ and a ‘people manager’ (with the project manager changing when the employee moves from one project to the other and with the functional manager not having day to day interaction with the employee), there is a fundamental difference in the dynamics of the manager-employee relationship. By the way, there are multiple ways in which employees can show resistance – ranging from showing ‘passive resistance’ to ‘leaving the organization’. Yes, in a sector where many of the employees change jobs frequently (and hence they have no compulsion to stay and fight it out) the preferred form of protest/revolt might be to leave the organization! While getting a monthly paycheck (without having to sell one’s soul) can feel like heaven for some time, it can become boring and then intolerable when deeper human urges like that for ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ reemerge!!!