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’?!!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Of Organization Development Managers and Court Jesters

“Can I request you to give me an additional role?”, the Organization Development Manager asked the CEO. Noticing that the CEO was looking a bit confused and apprehensive, the Organization Development (OD) Manager continued;  “No, I am not asking you to add me to the senior leadership team. I am also not asking for any role that someone else is doing in our company. The additional role that I am asking for is that of a court jester – in the business context”!

Prima facie, roles of OD Managers and Court Jesters appear to be ‘strange bedfellows’. However, based on my 15 years of experience in OD (10 years of which in internal HR), I am increasingly realizing that one of the roles that an internal OD consultant (OD Manager in a business organization) needs to play is that of a ‘court jester’. 

Though the word 'jester' is often (incorrectly) interpreted to mean 'a fool', a jester (like Tenali Rama in the court of King Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara empire in India or William Sommers in the court of King Henry VIII in England) is a much more profound creature than a fool. At a superficial level, both a fool and a jester might appear quite similar. When we look at them more deeply, these similarities vanish.
While a fool entertains others by 'making a fool of himself', a jester enables others to laugh at themselves. While the techniques of a fool focuses mainly on the physical plane (doing funny things, acting in a funny manner etc.), jester operates mainly in the mental and/or spiritual plane (generating insights). We can also say that fools represent ‘simplicity on this side of complexity' (or simplicity that ignores the complexity) while jesters represent ‘simplicity on the other side of complexity’ (simplicity after working through the complexity). In terms of impact, a fool leaves his audience 'entertained' while the jester leaves his audience 'enlightened'. In terms of their influence, fools are quite 'peripheral' while jesters are quite 'central'. Jesters had the right (or even the 'duty') to criticize the king and get away with that (or even get rewarded for that!). Often, Jesters possess 'shibumi' (great refinement underlying commonplace appearances).

An OD professional is supposed to facilitate change. This change also involves ‘mindset change’ and ‘questioning deeply-held assumptions’. Again (with due respect to the ‘good press’ that ‘bottom up culture change’ enjoys), change often needs to begin 'at the top of the pyramid’ in business organizations because the role modeling behavior of the leaders is the most important factor that drives and sustains behavioral/culture change. So, one of the key requirements for OD professionals is to enable very senior people to change their mindsets and deeply held assumptions.
Sometimes, these mindsets and assumptions are very change resistant – even to the extent of being funny. For example, once I was invited by a business leader to transform the mindsets of the leaders in his organization. During the diagnosis when it was becoming increasingly clear that he was a major contributor to the problem and that he would need to make significant changes to his pattern of behavior, he made himself unavailable for the intervention saying that he was very busy and that it was his team members who needs to change. In another context, the HR head came to me and suggested that as the business leader can’t change his behavior (and as he won’t move out of the organization for the next few years), we need to train his team to enable them to work with him better. While it is an interesting idea ( to train the team to be better followers if the leader is immune to any leadership development efforts) it highlights two problems that are important for us here – the difficulty in getting the senior leaders to change and the high degree of fear that many of the HR leaders have when it comes to attempting any ‘change interventions on the business leaders’. Hence, OD professionals need to find ways to encourage business leaders to examine their decisions and their behavior/mindsets/deeply-held assumptions without offending them and without making the HR leaders too jittery.

This becomes even more important for an internal OD consultant (OD Manager in a business organization), as these senior people he needs to influence are higher up in the reporting chain (food chain!) of the organization. Often, there is an organization layer between the OD Manager and the business leaders (i.e. the OD Manager reports to the HR Head who in turn reports into the CEO). This makes influencing the business leaders on their mindsets and deeply held assumptions  very difficult (if not impossible) for the OD Manager, as it would require a lot of deep interactions with the business leaders that too over a long period of time. The OD managers might not get such an opportunity because of the way of functioning of the organization (‘organization culture’)  and as the HR Head might get threatened by such direct connection efforts!  Again, one of the de facto expectations from the layer below the CEO (e.g. in HR Head in this case) might be to protect the CEO from unpleasant information/interactions and even to maintain convenient collective delusions . If this is the case, it becomes very difficult for the HR Head to allow this kind of interactions between the OD Manager and the CEO as the HR Head (and may be the entire HR function) might have to suffer the possible ripple effects of such interactions!  
This is where the role of the jester comes in.  Jesters can draw attention to the blinds pots without making people defensive. Humor can go through the emotional defenses more easily as compared logic. Jesters can help the leaders to laugh at themselves. Jesters are less threatening because what the they say can be taken as a joke if the leader is not yet ready to accept the truth (and hence the jesters' 'intervention’ is an 'invitation to change' that does not ‘put the leader in a spot’).

Now, let us explore how we can make the role of the jester work in the context of business organizations. The way of the jester requires a high level of wisdom and refinement as the jesters need to walk a very thin line between causing enlightenment and causing offense. Also, this line is a dynamic one and walking it requires a very high degree of situational and interpersonal awareness. To avoid becoming a threat to other functionaries in the court (read the direct reports of the CEO -including the HR Head) the jester should always remain as some sort of an underdog or a wild card and should also remain detached from the office politics. Some of the concepts outlined in ‘Wisdom-level consulting' and ‘A political paradox for OD and HR' might be useful in this endeavor.
From a sustainability point of view, it would be best to create some sort of a formal mandate for the role  of the jester and provide it some sort of ‘diplomatic immunity’(so that the messenger does not get shot). Unless the OD Manager is mandated to be a ‘full-time jester’ (which might not be feasible as there are many other roles that the OD Managers play), we would also need some sort of  a signaling mechanism (corporate equivalent to the costume of the medieval jester) to indicate when the OD Manager is in the jester role.  Since elaborate costumes are not easy to put on and take off, maybe we can settle for a simple cap! If the organization is not willing to let the jester intervene whenever he wants to do so, there can be a designated 15 minutes ‘jester time’ in the middle of a business review meeting (where the jester gets to be an observer/'fly on the wall')!

If the business leader is not open to the interventions from the jester in the context of a meeting (where his direct reports are also present), this can be done on a one-to-one basis (at least to begin with). To be sustainable, the jester has to become a cherished rather than a tolerated presence. This can be accomplished by helping the business leaders to realize their mistakes by allowing them to see it for themselves. Rather than directly contradicting/confronting the business leader, the jester can encourage the business leader (by showing enthusiasm for the idea that the business leader has come up with) to think through the idea to its logical conclusion, so that the business leader herself/himself can realize its absurdity.  To make this happen, the jester should have high degree of business understanding (insight to the organizational truth) in addition to perceptiveness, wit and interpersonal sensitivity/awareness.

 It has to be noted that the jester is not just for the CEO. The jester is for the entire company. This role is relevant for facilitating change at all levels. Jesters can also facilitate creative problem solving – as creative problem solving requires questioning basic assumptions and exploring new (unusual) ways to look at old problems. Since these need to be facilitated across the organization, we might have to create 'jesters at all levels' or enable the employees to 'discover the jesters in themselves'!!   
So my fellow OD professionals, what do you think about this? Can the ‘jester role’ be made a part of the OD Manager’s job description?  Is it likely to work?  Do you want to explore the art of being a jester?