Tuesday, December 31, 2019

On what good looks like : HR policies and processes

This post is an attempt to come back to a topic that we had explored here 7 years ago. The topic is the implications of the unstated assumptions that organizations and individuals have on 'what good looks like'. 

In the the previous post (See 'On what good looks like') we had explored this mainly from the point of view of selection decisions and 'person-organization fit'. In this post, let's look at it from the point of view of the different options for running the HR function, especially from the point of view of HR policies and processes.  

Now, if you were to ask me what is the significance of 7 years, I can only say that the number 7 is considered to be a 'perfect number' in many cultures and that some even associate mystical qualities to it!
When it comes to the underlying (unstated) definition of 'what good looks like' we had identified two themes that can be conceptualized as two ends of a continuum. They were 'absence of variation'  and 'presence of value' . Let's see what this means from the point of HR policies and processes.

In 'absence of variation' kind of organizations (where the definition of quality is similar to the 'Six Sigma' definition of quality), consistency of implementation of HR processes/policies is of paramount importance. This ensures ‘procedural justice’. This is also largely in line with HR models that emphasize process stability and maturity. This would mean very few or no exceptions! The essential message to the employees in this way of working is something like  "If you are eligible for something you don't have to ask for it (because you will get it without asking). If you are not eligible for something, then also you don't have to ask for it (because you won't get it even if you ask)."

In 'presence of value' kind if organizations(where the definition of quality is more like 'fitness for purpose'), the emphasis is on what makes most sense (adds most value) in a particular situation. This approach leads to a lot of flexibility in running HR (subject to some broad principles/HR philosophy and the laws of the land, of course). But it also can lead to a lot of exceptions. This, in turn, can lead to perceived inconsistency unless the HR and Business leaders have deeply understood 
the broad principles/HR philosophy and also have extensively communicated the same to the employees. 

Most of the companies find their equilibrium point somewhere in the continuum between the two polar opposites. The state of evolution of the company, the state of evolution of the HR function in the company, the industry in which the company operates, the culture of the company and the personal preferences of the leaders are often the factors that impact the choice of the equilibrium point. 

It can be argued that when the size a company becomes very large, it tends to gravitate towards the 'absence of variation' kind of underlying definition of quality (See 'Paradox of HR systems' for a related discussion). 

It can also be said that in those contexts where 'the owner and the manager are the same person' (e.g. in the case of partnership firms and proprietor-driven companies) there is often an affinity towards the 'fitness for purpose' kind of underlying definition of quality (See 'HRM in partnership firms' and 'Of owning and belonging' for more details)

Again, it can be argued that as the HR function in a company evolves, the underlying definition of 'what good looks like' often follows a U-curve kind of pattern - starting with 'fitness of purpose' kind of definition (as HR policies and processes are yet to take root). moving towards the 'absence of variation kind of definition' (when there are very detailed policies and procedures in place) and then coming back to 'presence of value'  kind of definition (when the policies and procedures are perceived to be too restrictive/bureaucratic). This is especially significant in companies that are operating in rapidly changing industries, and hence requiring more agility in terms of people management also. By the way, this 'U-curve' is a concept is found in many of the social sciences (See 'U-curve and Simplicity @  the other side of Complexity' for more details). A similar argument can be made in the case of some of the key enablers in HR, like behavioral competency frameworks, that assume that 'there is one right way of doing things' and hence comes very close to the 'absence of variation' kind of underlying definition (See 'Competency frameworks : An intermediate stage?' for more details).  

It is also possible to create some sort of a ‘synthesis’ of these two definitions of 'what good looks like' ('absence of variation' and 'presence of value') that act like the 'thesis' and the  'antithesis'. One pragmatic option could be to define the policies/procedures very clearly/in detail, and also define an exception process that is very tough!

Any comments/ideas? 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Before you call him a man...

My son (the same guy who featured in posts like 'Research and a three-year-old', "The leadership sandwich" and 'A mathematical approach to HR?') turned 18 (and hence a 'legal adult' in India) recently. While it was an important moment for both of us, somehow it seemed a bit less 'psychologically significant' to him as compared to what happened a year ago when he became taller than me. Turning 18 did lead to some discussions on whether he has lost the privilege to act like a child (especially with us, his parents) when he wants to do so. Can a boy, all of a sudden, magically transform into a man? 

Even if we look at the situation purely from a legal point of view, there are complications. In India, while an 18-year old boy can vote and enter into a legal contract as an adult, he can't get married until he is 21 and he can't be an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly)/MP (Member of Parliament) till he is 25. So, is he a 'full adult member' or the society? By the way, does it make sense that at 18, he can choose the government (as he can legally vote) but he can't choose his wife (as he can't legally marry)? 

All this also made me think about another aspect - why there is so much more talk about 'becoming a man' as compared to 'becoming a woman'. You might remember Rudyard Kipling's famous poem 'IF' that ends with " And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!" or the Bob Dylan's song Blowin' in the Wind that starts with "How many roads must a man walk down Before you call him a man?" Also, "Be a man" or "Act like a man" are very commonly used phrases in day to day life. You might also hear questions like "Where have all the real men gone?" Again, in many tribal societies, there are very demanding initiation rites, before a boy is accepted as an adult. 

Of course, some of this is just gender bias that makes 'becoming a man' something 'bigger' than 'becoming a woman'. Also, there are initiation rites for both boys and girls. 

I was wondering if there is anything more to it. May be, it is because there are no clear biological markers (like starting of menstruation in females) for males. So, becoming a man needs psychological markers. May be, it can even be said that a psychological transition needs to happen for a boy to become a man. If that is true, then the very demanding (even 'brutal') initiation rites in tribal societies can be viewed as an effort to 'engineer' this transition. In a way, the initiation rites can also be viewed as an effort to pass on the values and 'worldview' of the society including those related to what a man is supposed to do (and also to communicate the profoundness of the transition from a boy to a man). By the way, even in a modern society, we often hear people saying that having to cope with a stressful (even traumatic) event made them (forced them to!) transition from a boy to a man. 

Another perspective is to relate this (emphasizing the significance of becoming a man) to the transition from  'being a dependent' to  'being a provider'. A child is dependent on the family/tribe/society for nourishment and protection whereas an adult provides food and protection to the dependents. The fact that many of the tribal initiation rites involves demonstrating the mastery of skill that is very useful to the tribe (e.g. hunting a big animal, being able to function even under pain etc.)  could support this perspective. Yes, here also gender stereotypes, that are no longer valid, could be in operation (e.g. viewing men as providers and viewing women and children as dependents). 

It is interesting to note that in India, a girl can legally get married at 18 years of age whereas a boy needs to wait till 21 years of age. Whether this is based just on gender stereotypes or not, is a discussion that merits a separate post! It does raise philosophical questions like 'If one is not old enough to choose his wife, shouldn't he be considered as a boy and not as a man?'

Now, let's come back to the core issue of what exactly does 'becoming a man' mean? One way to figure out 'what makes a man' is to 'reverse-engineer' it from what a man is allowed to (and expected to do) that a boy is not. For example, being able to vote, to enter into a legal contract or to start working etc. might suggest that the person has developed the ability to make an informed choice, to live up to commitments, be a productive member of the society, to fend for himself, to know and live according to the laws of the land etc. 

Of course, there are also social stereotypes about what is 'accepted male behavior' (e.g. independence, dominance, control over emotions, pain tolerance, risk-taking etc.). We must remember that 'what it means to be a man' varies across time and societies.  For example, these days, the image of 'the ideal man who does't have any vulnerability' is being replaced by that of 'the ideal man who can make a vulnerable connection and manage his vulnerabilities well enough to be effective'. 

This brings us to an important point. The reality of 'becoming a man' is as much 'socially constructed' as it is 'psychologically constructed' and 'biologically constructed'. So, in a way, a boy becomes an adult when he is accepted as an adult by the society! It can also be argued that, to be effective, the initiation to adulthood and welcoming of the boy to the adult society has to be done by adults and not by other boys (and that this has become a problem in modern societies)!

There are deeper questions that we can consider. Is 'becoming a man' a  'one-time event'? Isn't it more of a 'state of the soul' than a one-time achievement (certification)? Isn't it more of case of being and not becoming? Can the transition from a boy to a man happen without some sort of acknowledgement from the women in the society?  

The last question can lead us to another intriguing (and more pragmatic) question - Why do so many wives think that their husbands haven't grown up (i.e. that they are just boys masquerading as men)? 

Now, let's come back to the aspect of initiation rituals (and that of rituals in general). We must be careful not to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater'. Yes, we must remove rituals that reinforce gender stereotypes. Yes, we should stop (initiation) rituals that can cause physical or mental harm. But we must not 'de-ritualize' our society. Rituals can bring in a 'sense of the sacred' and that of profoundness to our lives, apart from facilitating psychological transitions. Rituals can even be useful in business organizations (see 'Accelerated learning and Rites of Passage' for an example). 'De-ritualization' is a move towards 'de-spiritualization' and hence towards alienation (from life and work)!  

Postscript: When I shared this post with my son, his first reaction was "How did you manage to think so much about this?  I didn't think so much when I turned 18!". This highlights another important possibility. May be, the transition from being a boy to being a man, is as significant (or perhaps more significant) for the parents of the boy as it is to the boy himself. When a boy becomes a man, the role of the parents (and part of the 'self image' of the parents) changes. So, making the transition is critical for both the boy and his parents! Some degree of 'letting go' by the parents and establishing a new 'relationship equilibrium' between the parents and the boy are essential for a boy to become a man! Unlike what used to happen in ancient societies, no one 'takes away the child from his parents' for initiation now.  Hence, this 'letting go' is even more important in a modern society.

What do you think? 

Monday, April 22, 2019

Magical and not so marginal!

Management Consultants are often seen as magical outsiders who possess powers that the employees in the organization lack. I have often wondered why this happens!
Some of the reasons are very much rational. Consultants often have specialized  skill-sets that the employees don't have. Consultants also have better access to databases, industry benchmark information and to best practices. In some domains (e.g. Job Evaluation) consultants do bring in proprietary methodologies.
But there are other (not so rational) factors also. Many 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. This can make it very easy for an external consultant to walk into an organization, do a diagnosis and find many areas where there was potential for significant improvement. While the fresh eyes’, specialized diagnostic tools and 'learning from other contexts' that the external consultant brings in are indeed helpful in doing this, one key advantage the external consultants have over the employees is the very fact that the consultants are 'outsiders' - who have not been part of the system and hence the problems that it is trying to solve.
Just having been part of the organization can become a liability as that can get the employees perceived as ‘part of the problem to be solved’ (even if they haven’t contributed to it). Sometimes, not disturbing the ‘convenient collective delusions’ in the organization becomes an unstated expectation for being an ‘insider’. ‘Remaining some sort of an outsider while being a full member of the organization’ is what can help internal consultants to  avoid this unfortunate situation. This is a tricky 'tightrope walk' and it might need somewhat unorthodox approaches (see ‘Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters’ for an example).
Another key factor here is that the external consultants can afford to sell/promise more ambitious possibilities (as compared to what the employees of the organization can) because what is at risk for the external consultant is an occasional success fee and not their jobs. Employees have more skin in the game. This can make the employees look ‘less ambitious’, ‘lacking in vision’, ‘change resistant’’ etc. Of course, this becomes a double whammy for the employees if they (and not the consultants) have to implement the over-ambitious plans that the consultants have sold.
Quite a bit of the consultant credibility falls into the ‘presumed credibility’ category which is based on the assumptions others hold about them (say, based on the consulting firm they work for and their educational qualifications). This can also lead to situations where consultants project expertise that they don’t really have.This is done by being deliberately vague, use of jargon, somber expressions, hiding behind proprietary tools and methodologies, making open-ended statements, doing name-dropping, using great-looking analysis and presentation templates, 'casual benchmarking'* etc. The risks arising from presumed credibility are more when one is working with a large consulting firm (as the consulting firms might deploy not so competent consultants especially if the client has negotiated hard on the consulting fee and/or the client is not too 'prestigious' for the consulting firm). Yes, this is also qualifies as magic - in the sense of 'creating an illusion' (of competence)!

Many of the consultants have also this great skill to see only the 'possibilities' during the proposal stage and to see only the 'limitations' after the assignment starts(till they start seeing possibilities that can lead to the next assignment)

Of course, not all consultants do any of this. I have also come across consultants (e.g. some very senior OD consultants) who have refused to take up the consulting assignment and by doing so forced the client to rethink the way they are looking at the 'problem'. SeeTruth and Beauty : Motivations and Elegance in HR’ for one such example. 
So there are both rational and not so rational aspects to the alchemy of the magic of external consultants! Now, let’s look at the 'marginality' dimension!
From a process consulting perspective, external consultants are supposed to remain marginal so that the clients can play the central role in solving their own problems. Of course, in content/expertise heavy consulting assignments the consultants have to play a more direct role. The problem happens when the clients ‘outsource’ all the thinking to the consultants and become dependent on the consultants for a long period of time.

Sometimes, the consultants become so central and influential that the business leaders will listen only to the consultants. Some consultants are very effective in creating some sort of 'learned helplessness' among the business leaders by making them believe that only the consultants would be able to convince the CEO. This situation becomes more unfortunate when the consultants (after establishing the dire need for consulting help at the diagnosis stage) gravitate towards telling the business leaders what they want to hear as the solution (typically something that minimizes the discomfort to the business leaders and places the most of the change requirement on the rest of the organization)! Yes, this can prove to be the royal road to influence and to more consulting assignments!
So, where does this leave us? There are right reasons (e.g. expertise, internal capability building, as an additional pair of hands etc.) and wrong reasons (e.g. to avoid blame, for the trophy value, based on unrealistic expectations on what a consultant can do etc) to hire external consultants. If one hires the right consultant for the right reason they can add a lot of valueEmployees also can learn a lot from the consultants – especially in terms of enhancing their skills, establishing credibility and projecting their expertise. It is most important that the clients shouldn’t relinquish their central role in solving their own problems and they should remain in charge. If the clients look to the consultants for salvation and allow the consultants to dictate the consulting agenda (instead of the clients choosing when to bring in a consultant, which consultant to bring in and what should be the mandate given to the consultant), trouble can’t be too far behind!
Any comments/observations? 

*Note: 'Casual benchmarking' refers to the practice of doing comparisons across organizations (on select parameters of interest) without paying adequate attention to the underlying differences between the contexts. This can lead to misleading inferences. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

When age is not just a number!

“Though it is not written in the job specifications, we have been asked by the client to look for a candidate below 45 years of age for the CHRO role”, said the executive search consultant who was asking for a reference.

“We decided to make the job offer to this particular candidate mainly because she was younger as compared to the other equally good candidates. We wanted to hire someone who can be developed into more senior level leadership roles. We want to be able to see the ‘next to next role’ for the candidate before we make a hiring decision.”, said the business leader.

These days, it not so rare to come across statements like ones above.  They make me wonder if they demonstrate some sort of ‘ageism’ at the workplace or if there are other more ‘rational’ reasons involved! Is age the issue or is it being used as a (convenient) ‘proxy’ for other factors?

The typical 'reasons' why someone comes up with a statement like the first one (the one made by the executive search consultant)  include things like ‘decision to bring in younger candidates at the CXO level as part of a business transformation exercise’ , ‘the other CXOs being in the same age bracket’ , ‘a workforce that is predominantly Gen Y’, ‘the need to bring in fresh thinking at senior levels’ etc.  It is true that the experience range specified for many roles is coming down. Now there is a greater emphasis on learning agility as opposed to experience. Also, knowledge can be acquired much faster these days.  It is also possible that the older (more experienced) candidates are more costly. Yes, there could also be cases where long years of experience is assumed to create some sort of rigidity and lack of flexibility/appetite for risk taking/creativity/tech-savviness.

One is more likely to come across statements similar to the second one (the one made by the business leader) in MNCs. Having greater runway left for the career is indeed valued especially in those cases where there is a fixed retirement age. Yes, there are still some traditional companies where higher number of years of experience is an advantage. This brings up an interesting question – Isn’t the very concept of a ‘mandatory retirement age’ (which is the norm in both private and government organizations in countries like India) a clear sign of ageism?

In domains like HR, there is an even more basic question that we need to look at – ‘’Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop?”. If the answer is “No”, then it creates a fundamental issue for the bulk of the HR professionals who are in the 20+ years’ experience range.  Of course, there would be many senior HR professionals would continue to grow in their career within business organizations. But, here we are talking about career options available to bulk of the population - HR professionals with 20+ years’ of experience  within business organizations. There is also the dimension of motivation and meaning, apart from that of just being employed (Please see ‘Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR’ and ‘If you hang around in HR for too long’ for more details).  

I do wonder what this means for mid-career professionals. There is always the risk that one can get replaced with someone who is more in line with the evolving requirement of the job and/or at a lower cost. The text book answer to this kind of a problem is that one constantly learns(keep the skill set relevant), takes up roles of increasing responsibility (where the experience adds value) and ensures that one’s contribution to the organization is much higher than one’s salary cost. This is a must especially in those  situations where the company can bill a person in particular role only at a particular rate and hence there is no economic sense in employing a person unless the loaded salary cost is significantly lower than the billing rate.  There is merit in the advice that one should try to revise one’s resume once in six months and if one is unable to make significant additions to the resume in two such cycles, one should look for a role change internally or externally. Of course, all these are easier said than done!

We do see an increasing number of mid-career professionals taking up consulting/freelancing kind of options. The trouble is just that majority of those mid-career professionals are unlikely to earn at least as much as they were earning in their regular job. Yes, there are a few who make it really big. There are also quite a few who use this opportunity to reinvent themselves and configure some sort of ‘portfolio life and career’ that is more aligned to their higher calling or more conducive to their self-actualization journey.

Any thoughts/comments?