Saturday, May 11, 2024

Defense against the ‘Dark Arts’ of Job Evaluation: A Crash Course!

Let me start with a confession. I have made a living out of job evaluation – both as an external consultant (who conducts job evaluation and trains/certifies the client team on job evaluation) and as an internal process owner. I have had the opportunity to get trained/certified in three different job evaluation methodologies and practice two of them extensively. Job Evaluation can be a very useful tool to establish the relative size of jobs in a systematic manner and this can serve as an input to various processes like organization design, job banding, rewards, career pathing, talent movements etc.

Now, the question is “why would anyone need to defend against such a useful thing?”. It is because job evaluation requires the investment of time and money and because one can be at the ‘receiving end’ of job evaluation as a Business Leader, HR Business Partner, People Manager or as an employee – when job evaluation becomes more of a hassle than a help. For a Business Leader who values flexibility job evaluation can comes an unnecessary hurdle to pass (See Paradox of HR Systems for a related discussion). In such a case, the business leader might just take a decision on the grade fitment of an employee and ask the HR Business Partner to ‘push it through the HR system’ somehow. Similarly, for a manager (who is trying to keep an employee motivated by providing vertical career growth) or for an employee (who looking for a promotion), job evaluation can become a serious impediment to what one wants to achieve.

Job evaluation is not an exact science. While the job evaluation providers might claim that their methodology has been successfully applied across countries and industry sectors, it is indeed possible that a particular methodology (especially one with fixed factors and factor weightages - most of the popular job evaluation methodologies fall into this category) favors certain types of jobs. This can lead to situations where the job evaluation scores don't accurately reflect the contribution various jobs make to a particular organization. It has been argued that job evaluation is a 'rationalized institutional myth' - 'rationalized' because it has a clearly articulated methodology and a 'myth' because it is accepted as true because it is believed.

Job evaluation involves a significant amount of judgement (which can be subjective, even when guided by a well-defined framework and quality checks). In a way, job evaluation is more of a ‘negotiated agreement’. In such a situation, if one doesn’t have political power, one might be at a significant disadvantage as compared to people who have such power. In extreme circumstances, job evaluation can become a tool for ‘powerplay’. Yes, there are also situations where the job evaluation process owner gets a bad name even when he/she hasn’t done anything wrong.

So, what are some of the options for defending against job evaluation? The following discussion can give you some ideas.

Avoid it if possible

 Job Evaluation takes significant time and resources. Job Evaluation makes practical sense only if the jobs are relatively stable. So, if the jobs in your unit haven’t yet stabilized, you have a good case for arguing that job evaluation shouldn’t be applied to your unit at this stage. A similar argument can be made if your operating strategy involves recasting jobs frequently (requiring frequent reevaluation of jobs which can be expensive and time consuming). Also, if job evaluation is not very commonly used by the companies in your industry segment, that can give you a good argument against the applicability of job evaluation.

 There are indeed ways to implement job evaluation in the above-mentioned contexts. It is just that it is a bit more difficult to do so and that the case is less compelling.

Create a lot of exceptions when you can

Here the idea is to be a bit generous with the grade-fitment of the employees before job evaluation becomes applicable to your unit. Sometimes, this happens automatically. For example, for a new unit that is doing a lot of hiring, this helps to attract better talent.  Once job evaluation takes place, these employees will become ‘red circled’ (exceptions where the jobholder's grade is higher than what the job is evaluated at). However, it is very unlikely that the organization will reduce the grade of an existing employee in such cases. Therefore, it continues till the employee continues on the same job. Another option here is to get a ‘powerful leader’ (competent authority) to grant exceptions – to allow an employee to be hired/fitted at a level that is higher than that indicated by the job evaluation results.  If there are a very large percentage of exceptions, it adversely impacts the credibility of job evaluation process.

Of course, these kinds of strategies can create long-term issues and inefficiencies for the unit and hence they can backfire from a long-term point of view.

Rob Peter to pay Paul but do pay Peter back with interest when Peter’s job is being evaluated

This involves shifting some of the responsibilities handled by one employee to another employee when the latter’s job is being evaluated and then more than reversing the process (by moving even more responsibilities back to the former employee) when the former’s job is being evaluated!  Yes, this can be a complicated process and lead to ‘red-circled’ employees if the job evaluation is practiced in the company in a strict manner (which involves reevaluating all the impacted jobs when there is a change in responsibilities of a particular job/when a new job is created necessitating the job evaluation). However, this takes a lot of effort to track changes and reevaluate on an ongoing basis – especially if these changes are done carefully over a period of time.

Such a complicated process is required as ‘simply inflating the responsibilities’ is unlikely to work. Job evaluation supposed to be done based on approved job descriptions and hence just being creative about the job responsibilities won’t do -unless there is no such validation/approval process for job descriptions in place. Also, job evaluation is done to-down and a job is evaluated in the context of the constellation of jobs surrounding it (especially the job of the reporting manager) and hence inflating the job responsibilities can lead to easily noticeable overlaps that serve as a red flag to the person evaluating the job. 

If you can't convince them confuse them

If the person doing the job evaluation doesn’t put in enough effort to understand the organization context and the responsibilities of the other jobs around the role being evaluated, one might have a decent chance of getting a higher job evaluation by confusing the job evaluator!

Other tricks of the trade

Positioning the job as a clear successor position to the manager’s job and arguing that the overlaps with the manager’s role are by design (because of the requirements of the particular context) might work in some cases! In most of the job evaluation methodologies, some of the factors tend to be hierarchical and hence the evaluations on those factors are constrained by the evaluation of the manager's job on the same factors). Hence, this approach is not always so easy. 

Most of the job evaluation systems work in such a way that ‘stealing responsibilities from the jobs of one’s subordinates’ won’t have any beneficial impact on the job evaluation score of one's job. Hence the attempt to steal responsibilities from one’s peers and one’s manager!

Being in the good books of the ‘job evaluation overlord’ can also be highly beneficial because of the judgement and discretion involved in job evaluation.

In lieu of a conclusion

So, where does this discussion leave us? Job evaluation, like most things in life and work-life is a mixed blessing. Job evaluation not an exact science (it is both a science and an art). It is resource intensive and can introduce rigidity into the system. However, job evaluation can serve as a very valuable input to organization design, job banding, rewards, career pathing and inter-unit talent movements.  

As we have seen above, it has been argued that job evaluation is a rationalized institutional myth. One of the key functions served by a myth is the maintenance of social order (order in the social system called the organization, in this case). In this sense, job evaluation elevates the decisions on aspects like band-fitment from the realm of 'common sense' to the realm of the ‘scientific'. It provides an explanation and justification for an organizational hierarchy that might otherwise have been difficult to explain. Job evaluation signals to the employees the notion that the current structure of inequality is right and just! Yes, organization reality is socially constructed to a large extent and maintenance of social order is very important in business organizations too!

Therefore, for an organization the key question is whether it adds net value in the particular context – considering the benefits, the cost, the effort required and the possible side effects. Of course, for an individual it is essentially a matter of whether it is a help or a hassle for him/her and hence the decision on ‘whether or not to attempt a defense against job evaluation’ is likely to depend on that (moderated by altruistic and masochistic tendencies)!

 Any comments/thoughts?

Monday, April 29, 2024

Of leadership development and articulating the unarticulated

It was Carl Jung who said, "Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate". Something similar holds true in the case of leaders and leadership development also. 

The tacit definitions of leadership in the minds of the leaders influence how they lead. This implies that one of the important ways to enhance the effectiveness of the leaders is to enable them to identify the tacit definition of leadership they have in their minds and the impact of that definition on their actions and effectiveness as a leader. This is an aspect that doesn't get adequate attention in leadership development initiatives and hence it significantly takes away from the potential impact of initiatives like leadership development programs and leadership coaching. 

It is also useful to help the leaders understand how the idea of leadership has evolved and the possibilities offered by the newer definitions of leadership. Over the last few decades, the definition of leadership has gravitated towards a 'meaning making oriented one', as the process whereby one motivates others to contribute to the achievement of collective goals by shaping beliefs, values, and understandings rather than by controlling the behaviors through rewards and punishment. 

Humans are meaning-seeking creatures and leaders are architects or even merchants of meaning. This also means that the leaders' ability to facilitate meaning-making for their followers is a pivotal contributor to leadership effectiveness. Hence, there is a need to help the leaders to 'articulate the unarticulated definitions of leadership' that they around in their heads and to update them if required.

This also has a direct impact on leadership development. It is a good idea to have a clear understanding of what exactly one is trying to develop through leadership development! If the leadership development is attempted without paying adequate attention to the underlying definition of leadership, it can easily miss the mark. Leadership development programs often focus on the shiny surface of leadership—the concepts, models and behaviors that look great on paper—but they rarely dig into the messy, sticky, psychological goo where those tacit definitions in the minds of the leaders live. As a result, we end up with leaders who 'talk the talk' about enabling meaningfulness but 'walk the walk' of someone who's just looking for the next opportunity to dangle a carrot or wield a stick. This will make 'meaning based leadership' some sort of a 'con game'! This can also push leadership development efforts further into the realm of 'corporate rain dances'.  

Let's take a closer look at these tacit definitions. Tacit definitions of leadership are the deeply ingrained beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions that individuals hold about what constitutes good leadership - 'on what good looks like'. These definitions are often shaped by personal experiences, cultural backgrounds, organization context and even collective delusions. They can significantly influence how leaders perceive their roles, interact with their teams, and make decisions. While tacit definitions of leadership can provide a valuable foundation for leaders, they can also act as blind spots, limiting their effectiveness in a changing world.  

However, surfacing, examining and modifying these tacit definitions can very difficult. This process involves reflecting on one's beliefs and assumptions, seeking feedback from others, and staying open to new ideas and perspectives. Leadership development programs can play a crucial role in helping the leaders to surface and examine their tacit definitions of leadership. 

So how exactly do we accomplish this? Leadership development needs to get more personal, delving into the shadowy recesses of leaders' minds. We need to coax out those ancient definitions, hold them up to the light, and ask, "Is this really the best we've got?" Facilitating deep self-reflection during leadership development programs and providing personalized support in terms of leadership coaching can be very helpful! Seeking feedback from the significant others at work (including the team members), who have a ringside seat to see the tacit definition of leadership playing out in terms of leadership behaviors, and, using that feedback as an input to coaching can also be very useful.

To be able to lead through meaning-making, leaders should be able to imbue goals with meanings. They should be able to provide the followers with a sense of coherence (feeling of comprehension or that actions/events fit into a pattern/make sense), purpose (feeling that the proposed actions are in line with the pursuit of larger goals that the employees consider to be valuable) and significance (the feeling that the employees and their action matter/make a difference). This requires leadership development programs to focus more on aspects like visionary leadership, leading through purpose, corporate storytelling, use of generative metaphors, social construction of reality, empathy, authentic leadership etc.  

In short, while the explicit definitions of leadership in the leadership research/leadership discourse have evolved into something that is meaning-oriented, many leaders are still unconsciously clinging to the 'carrots and sticks' of rewards and punishments to shape employee behavior at the workplace. It's time to bring those tacit definitions into the 21st century, dust them off, and maybe, replace them with something a little more enlightened. Yes, we also need to develop the enabling skills in the leaders to help them to reflect the new definitions of leadership in their behavior at the workplace. With enough work, we might create a workplace where leaders are as good at sculpting minds as they once were at doling out carrots and brandishing sticks.

Any comments?

Monday, July 24, 2023

Of Leadership Development, Business Schools and Consulting Firms

“Our professors bring in the latest academic research to the program delivery. Based on their deep understanding of the topic, they can facilitate first principles thinking which can lead to profound insights. We don't want our faculty members to become trainers!", remarked the executive education lead in a reputed business school.

“To what extent the professors are able to bring in actionable insights for the practitioners based on academic research is debatable. The professors who have a teaching style that is similar that of trainers often get the best feedback scores from the participants. Deep expertise coupled with an accessible kind of program delivery facilitates skill building and makes the program content easier to understand and implement!”, observed the leadership development lead of a large firm.

“We need the leadership development programs to be customized to our context. We prefer to partner with consulting firms as they do a much better job on customization as compared to business schools. It is not that the business schools don’t do a diagnostic study. It is just that the professors often end up teaching whatever they originally wanted to teach irrespective of the findings from the diagnostic study!”, remarked the Chief Learning Officer of an Indian Business Group.

“Why should we try to customize the leadership development programs? We should partner with the best of the business schools and let them teach what they think is the best. We should even look at open programs as they help our people to get a much better exposure because they provide the opportunity to interact with leaders from other companies. Leadership development programs at the top management level are more about helping our leaders to expand their mental horizons and not about skill building!”, said a senior business leader.

I often hear statement likes these in the context of leadership development. They bring my attention to a question that people who are responsible for leadership development in organizations frequently grapple with - "when it comes to leadership development programs for senior leaders, is it better to partner with reputed business schools or with reputed leadership development consulting firms?" There are many perspectives here – that too along multiple dimensions. Let's look at some of them here.

Customization

In general, consulting firms can offer highly customized executive education programs tailored to the specific needs and challenges of an organization. They can develop bespoke content and case studies that directly address the context-specific learning needs. Business schools tend to have less flexibility in customizing their programs to meet the specific needs of an organization.

Incorporating insights from research

Business schools can bring in the most empirically validated research findings. While the consultants do have some understanding of the latest research findings, they are unlikely to have the deep understanding that can come from a systematic literature review or a meta-analysis. One key challenge in incorporating the latest research into executive education programs is that of keeping up with the pace of change in the business world. Some research findings may become outdated relatively quickly, especially in fields that are rapidly evolving. Of course, ensuring that the research is communicated in a way that is accessible and practical for executives is indeed challenging.  Business schools must work to translate the research findings into practical insights that executives can apply in their day-to-day work.

Domain expertise

 Premier business schools typically have a strong foundation in academic research and theory, which can provide a solid base for executive education. They have faculty with deep expertise in various management disciplines. Consulting firms often bring in domain expertise derived from practice. The best results are obtained when the faculty/facilitator can 'stand at the intersection of theory and practice' though it is indeed a tightrope walk (please see 'Treating the Multiple Personality Disorder of HR professionals' for a related discussion).

Industry knowledge

Consulting firms often have extensive experience working with clients in various industries, which can enable them to provide industry-specific insights and best practices. They also have a better understanding of the paradoxes and dilemmas that senior leaders face in the context of their jobs and this enables the consulting firms to be more helpful in equipping the leaders to cope with these paradoxes and dilemmas (please see 'Problems that refuse to remain solved' for a related discussion). Professors also do some amount of consulting work. Of course, if the professor has written a case study on one of the most reputed companies in the industry that the firm operates in and leverages the same for the program for the participants from the firm, it can be perceived as highly valuable.

Application focus

Consulting firms generally have a stronger focus on practical application and problem-solving. This can lead to more actionable insights and strategies that the senior leaders can implement in their organizations. Business schools, particularly premier ones, often emphasize theoretical knowledge and research-backed learning. These schools also provide case studies to practice leadership skills. Leadership training firms, alternatively, are often more focused on practical, real-world application, with a heavy emphasis on experiential learning. Consulting firms may also provide better support in facilitating transfer of learning.

Bringing in outside experts/industry leaders

Consultants often can bring in top industry leaders through their contacts. The top academic institutes can also do this to some extent. Senior business leaders tend to value the opportunity to interact with top industry leaders very much. 

'Zeitgeist'(Intellectual atmosphere)

When the programs are delivered on the business school campus, it often puts the participants in a frame of mind that is more conducive for learning as compared to what happens when the program is organized in a hotel. Many of the participants consider the professors as ‘gurus’ and that might further enhance their openness to learning – especially in those cultures that put the teachers on a pedestal. This works even in the case of participants who are senior business leaders. Facilitators from consulting firms do get the respect they deserve from the participants for their expertise. However, the participants might still look at them more as ‘service providers’ as opposed to ‘gurus’.

Prestige

Top business schools have a strong reputation and brand value. Hence the participants often attach great value to the program certificate issued by the premier business schools. A certificate from a leadership training firm may not carry the same weight, unless it is a certification based on a proprietary methodology of the consulting firm (e.g., certification on the proprietary Job Evaluation methodology). However, such certifications from consulting firms tend to be less relevant in the case of senior business leaders. 

Cost/investment

Customized executive education programs at the top business schools can be relatively more expensive. However, based on the teaching methodology used (e.g., case studies) they might be able to support larger batch sizes and thereby bring down the per participant cost. As compared to this, leadership development consulting firms tend to use a more interactive and practice-oriented methodologies that work better with relatively smaller batch sizes. Yes, it is often possible to engage the professors directly (without going through the business school). However, the institute brand/ certification won’t be available in such cases.

Best of both worlds?

 There are consulting firms that have close tie-ups with premier business schools. In those cases, the consulting firms do the business development and the diagnostic study, and they bring in the professors at the program design and delivery stage. Here the key success factor is the extent to which the data and insights from the diagnostic study are incorporated by the professors in the program design and delivery. This is often a problem area.

Business schools also have ‘Professors of Practice’ who often have significant industry experience before they moved to academics. Whether they end up bringing in the ‘best of both words’ or the ‘worst of both worlds’ or ‘something in between’ in the context of a particular leadership development program is quite unpredictable!

In lieu of a conclusion

Let’s go back to the question that we started this post with- "when it comes to leadership development programs for senior leaders, is it better to partner with reputed business schools or with reputed consulting firms who focus on leadership development?

As we can see from the discussion above, both the options have their own advantages and disadvantages and hence the answer becomes highly context specific. The best choice depends on the specific goals of the organization and the factors (e.g., from the list above) are relatively more important keeping those goals in mind. This is complicated by the fact that capability building programs (including leadership development programs) serve many purposes - including those that are not directly related to capability building (please see 'The many lives of capability building programs' for the details). Yes, the return on the learning investment is most important. The point is just that this 'return' need not be only in terms of increase in capability and change in on-the-job behavior/the business impact of the change in behavior. 

Also, all the premier business schools and all the leadership development consulting firms are not created equal. There are business schools that have a special focus on executive education. They tend to have teams that focus on diagnostic studies and instructional design in addition to the professors who focus on program design and delivery. There are also professors who invest time in doing a detailed diagnostic study. Similarly, there are specialized leadership development consulting firms that conduct primary research in the domain of leadership development. This brings in an additional set of considerations that are entity specific. In addition to the entity-specific aspects, there are also individual-specific aspects. Afterall, program delivery is a 'performance art'. There are also the aspects of the depth of the partnership between the organization and the learning partner and that of the 'chemistry' between the particular individuals involved. Having said this, we can still make a couple of general observations.

If customization is less important as compared to domain expertise, premier business schools often have an advantage over the consultants especially in the case of ‘standalone instructor-led programs'. In the case of highly customized and application-oriented programs, consultants often have an advantage especially in the case of ‘learning journey programs’ (that integrate multiple program components like instructor-led learning, executive coaching and action learning and require extensive program management and transfer of learning support).

Any comments/ideas?

Friday, June 9, 2023

Selling ice to Eskimos? - Leadership development in very successful organizations

How do we sell leadership development solutions to an organization that has been very successful without having invested in leadership development? Should we even try to do that? Wouldn’t tinkering with the leadership capability and/or style of such an organization risk ruining the 'alchemy of the magic' of the organization’s success? If an organization has been very successful, shouldn’t we be learning from it instead of trying to change it? 

These questions are very important both for external consultants and for internal learning partners. They can also be quite tricky to answer, though many answers are indeed possible. Let’s look at seven of them.

  • “What got you here won’t get you there” kind of answers – They argue that the game is changing and hence you need a different set of leadership capabilities or at least a much higher level of the current set of leadership capabilities to achieve your vision or even to sustain the current position. 
  • "Good to great" kind of answers  - This is more of a 'there is always room for improvement' kind of argument, while fully acknowledging the consistent record of success so far. While the customer is unlikely to disagree with this philosophically, it might not be compelling enough to prompt action on the part of the customer, especially when the customer is already 'great' (or quite close to it) in their own opinion.       
  • “Success sweeps a lot of things under the carpet” kind of answers – Here the basic argument is that while the organization has been successful there are still a lot of things to fix in terms of the leadership capability and/or leadership style. For example, the leadership style might not be aligned to the espoused values or the target culture of the organization. Warning : If this is not  done very skillfully, it can degenerate into an unpleasant conversation with the customer very quickly (unless the customer has a very high levels of self-awareness and humility or has masochistic tendencies)!  
  • “A few great men and women” kind of answers – They argue that the success of the organization has been because of a particular set of leaders and that the others in the organization can benefit from leadership development inputs.  If the person who buys the leadership development solution considers himself/herself to be part of the ‘a few great men and women group', it works even better!
  • "We are just making you scalable" kind of answers - In this case, the argument becomes more like 'we are just helping you to decode your own success so that it becomes scalable'. This argument works best when the organization is growing rapidly. The advantage of this answer is that it avoids the concern related to tampering with what made the organization successful. 
  • “Let good thoughts come to us from all sides” kind of answers – They argue that while the organization might not need the skill building aspect of leadership development, just listening to the latest ideas/thinking can be useful or at least entertaining. It can also give the satisfaction that “we have implemented all these ‘latest’ ideas a million years ago”!
  • “Leadership development serves many purposes” kind of answers – Here the essential argument is that leadership development interventions serve many other useful purposes in addition to building leadership capabilities. Please see ‘The many lives of capability building programs’ for a comprehensive list of the ‘alternative uses.

Of course, many more such answers are possible. The all-important question is:  How will a particular organization respond to a particular answer/a particular line of argument? To a great extent, the response will depend on 'what the organization attributes its success to' and 'if the answer is in alignment with that attribution'.

So, where do all these leave us?

It is indeed possible that an organization has got many pieces of the leadership development puzzle right, even if they haven't formalized them as 'leadership development solutions'. For example, they might be using 'action learning projects', 'crucible roles' and 'on the job coaching' even when they are not using these terms. Therefore, a bit of 'Appreciative Inquiry' won't hurt. Afterall, humility is as relevant to the learning partners (internal/external) as it is to their clients!  We must also remember that leadership development is not mainly about 'leadership training programs' though they are the most visible part. I would even say that, in some instances, leadership training efforts are more like 'corporate rain dances'!

Logically speaking, the most important aspect here is the 'perceived net value' that the leadership development solution can add - in the short term and in the long term. This perception of value need not necessarily be purely rational (See 'Of reasons, rationalizations and collective delusions' for details). However, the point remains that 'what is valuable is defined by the customer'. Similarly, unless the customer acknowledges the 'need' or the 'opportunity' the discussion on the solutions (including leadership development solutions) can't really start. Of course, while highlighting the 'net value' that the leadership development solution can add, it is equally important to anticipate/address any stated or unstated concerns the customers might have about the leadership development solution or its implementation. 

Organizations, especially the successful organizations, have a tendency to think that they are unique and that they have figured out a unique way to be successful. Yes, it is possible that an organization has been successful because of, irrespective of or even in spite of the leadership capability it has. Also, attribution errors are quite common (for example, attributing success to internal factors and attributing failures to external factors). Yes, ‘time will tell’ – but it might be too late for the people who are trying to sell leadership development solutions to a particular organization! 

Chris Argyris in his seminal article ‘Teaching smart people how to learn’, argues that people who have been consistently successful tend to become very good at ‘single-loop learning’ and that they don’t develop the capability for ‘double-loop learning’ which becomes essential when the fundamental assumptions they have been using for problem solving/responding to the environment are no longer valid. I guess, it applies to organizations too! Therefore, 'facilitating double-loop learning' kind of approaches do have their place in this context also! In the case of internal consultants, 'acting as some sort of a 'court jester in the corporate context' can also be helpful in this endeavor (See 'Organization Development Managers as Court Jesters' for details)!

Can you think of any other answers to the question that we started this post with?

Any other comments/ideas?  

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Of Atlas, Munchausen and the pursuit of relevance at the workplace

“I create problems, and then I solve them. That is my style!”, declared the department head smugly.

I heard this statement a long time ago. At that time, I didn’t take it too seriously as I thought that it was the peculiarity of one rather ‘strange’ individual. After having spent a couple of decades in business organizations, I have come to realize that this was not an isolated incident. It prompted me to think more deeply about the underlying factors and led me to the all-important topic of 'relevance in business organizations' and the various ways in which we try to achieve and maintain/enhance relevance. 

Relevance is the central theme in organizational life. Relevance comes from ‘value addition’. What is valuable and how much it should be valued is always defined by the customer. The term 'customer' includes internal customers also. The most pragmatic definition of a ‘value added activity’ that I have come across is that ‘it is an activity that the customer is willing to pay for adequately’.  Of course, the payment (especially in the case of internal customers) need not be a direct payment.  

 When we talk about value addition, it includes the ‘perceived’ value addition in addition to the ‘real’ value addition. Again, when we look at the perceived value addition, there are multiple aspects like ‘what one thinks his/her value addition is’, ‘what others think one’s value addition is’, ‘what one thinks others think to be his/her value addition’ etc. This indeed can degenerate into a ‘mind game’ and that is where characters like Atlas and Munchausen come in. 

Munchausen Syndrome is named after Baron Munchausen, who became famous for telling exaggerated tales about his exploits in the past. Munchausen syndrome refers to a mental disorder in which someone tries to get attention and sympathy by falsifying, inducing, or exaggerating an illness. This is very different from ‘hypochondria’ because a person with hypochondria really believes that he/she has a serious illness, which is not true in the case of the Munchausen Syndrome. 

Closer to our topic is the so called ‘Munchausen by proxy’, in which a caregiver exaggerates, fabricates, or induces illness in another person in order to get praise for then helping the victim. In the workplace context, this takes the form of employees creating or inventing organizational problems and then solving them, all in the hope that it would make them more important in the eyes of the leaders and coworkers. This pattern of behavior, called Munchausen at Work (MAW) does waste time and resources though it might be quite hard to detect. 

In business organizations, MAW is also employed as ‘survival tactics’ or even as ‘IR tactics'. Ultimately, this is a deliberate attempt to maintain/enhance their relevance in the organization. I have seen people trying to keep their job/highlight the importance of the job by creating problems/letting preventable problems occur and then solving them. In its milder form, MAW manifests as a tendency to 'overcomplicate' things, in an attempt to demonstrate one's expertise or to create a need that would require one's expertise. Obviously, they have no appetite for the simplicity on the other side of complexity

Of course, no one will admit that they are doing this. Skilled operators at MAW (the sort who survive in organizations) will cover their tracks well. Therefore, studying/diagnosing this and/or addressing this becomes difficult. This puts people who proactively prevent problems from occurring at a 'double disadvantage' as their efforts (and the value they have added) are not visible. The solution to MAW could be in terms of building trust, skills and psychological safety so that such behavior is not required in the first place.

Let’s look at the Atlas Complex now. The name Atlas Complex comes from the Greek myth of Atlas, who is supposed ‘to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders’. Similarly, a person with Atlas Complex tend to think that he is carrying the weight of 'his world' on his shoulders, and it will collapse unless he continues to do so. This can happen in the case of personal life ('personal world'), work life ('work world') or both. 

At the workplace, the Atlas Complex comes from the pursuit of relevance at work. A person who has the Atlas Complex tends to think that he/she is very critical to the team/organization and that if he/she is not around everything will fall apart. This leads to the person working very hard and unwilling to let others take the responsibility. This goes much beyond ‘busy-ness’ (acting busy to gain importance).  Sometimes, this does work, and the person is able to generate/maintain a sense of importance. However, sometimes it just makes him/her an object of scorn or even ridicule, even when he/she has been putting in a super-human effort at the expense of his/her health and personal life. In such cases, Atlas Complex can also lead to 'silent depression'.

Unlike MAW, Atlas Complex is quite visible to the coworkers and leaders and hence easier to diagnose. However, it might not be so easy to remedy, especially in those cases where the pattern of behavior has become deep-rooted. Addictions are hard to cure! Again, unlike that in the case of MAW, people with Atlas complex might indeed be adding significant value to the organization and to coworkers. Afterall, if someone takes extra responsibility and consistently delivers on the same, it can indeed make life easier for people around him/her.

Here, the solution could be in terms of helping the person (in a non-threatening manner) to recognize his/her pattern of behavior and its consequences and to enable him/her to gradually switch over to a more appropriate pattern of behavior. Coaching can be very helpful in this context. Of course, the most important thing in such a situation is to enable the person to feel that he/she can add sufficient value (and hence maintain relevance in the organization) without having to resort to Atlas-like behavior.  

It is interesting to note that the Atlas Complex and Munchausen at Work (MAW) have similarities with what Scott Peck refers to as the two fundamental types of 'disorders of responsibility' – ‘neuroticism’ and ‘character disorder’. People with neuroticism tend to assume too much responsibility (like people with Atlas complex) and people with character disorder tends to assume too less responsibility/look after only their self-interest (like people with MAW) in any given situation. 

Atlas Complex and MAW are dysfunctional ways to seek relevance in organizations. There are indeed functional ways to pursue relevance, like enhancing one's capability, understanding of the organization, alignment to team/organization goals and hence enhancing one's contribution (value addition). However, these dysfunctional ways are quite common. It is possible that certain organizational contexts and leadership styles increase the probability of these dysfunctional ways occurring/becoming entrenched in the organization. 

Atlas Complex and MAW are by no means the only psychological disorders found at the workplace. Workplace pathologies are quite widespread both at the individual level and at the group/organization level. It can even be argued that many groups are held together by Convenient Collective Delusions. Maybe, part of these problems come from the fact that workplaces are still not the ‘natural habitats’ for most humans!

Any comments/thoughts?

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Of writing, intellectual DNA and immortality

This post was triggered by the interaction I have had with friend of mine based on the article he had written on why we want to be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ on social media.

To begin with, it made me think more about the fundamental issue of ‘why we want to write’. It has been argued that the legitimate way of achieving 'immortality' is through children, and this includes 'intellectual children' (like posts, articles, books etc.) in addition to biological children*. Writing enables one to transcend the limitations of time and space (as one's views can be read by people on the other side of the world, that too many years after it was written). Therefore, writing allows one to spread one's ‘intellectual DNA’ far and wide, and it might persist indefinitely, especially in the digital world with increasing information storage capacity.

Human motivations are complex (see 'The power of carrot and stick'), and people indeed have different reasons for writing. There are relatively obvious ones like writing to make a living, writing to highlight one's expertise etc. There are also reasons that are a bit more subtle.  Let’s look at 15 of them:  

  1. Writing as self-expression: ‘I write to describe the world in the unique way I see it and react to it’.
  2. Writing to clarify and develop thoughts: ‘My fingers seem to have an intelligence which is different from that of my brain – writing is thinking on paper! When I try to write down my thoughts, they become much clearer – writing allows me to develop an inkling into an insight'.  
  3. Writing as sense-making: ‘Life makes more sense in retrospect – especially when I try to pin it down on paper. Writing gives me a handle to get a good grasp on life - it allows me to impose structure on the world’!
  4. Writing to create own world: ‘The real world is often a disappointment – writing allows me to construct a world of my choice. It allows me to live in world that is better than what I find myself in’!
  5. Writing as alchemy: ‘Writing allows me to transform my leaden emotions to golden ones - to transform sadness into longing and to transform solitude into remembrance’!
  6. Writing as therapy: ‘Writing serves as some sort of mental house-cleaning for me – it helps me to get stuff off my chest and to relieve stress – it has a cathartic effect on me’.
  7. Writing as a spontaneous act of generosity: ‘My writing is my special gift to the world and to the people who inhabit it.  The words I write form during those beautiful moments when life touches me deeply- like pearls get formed in an oyster when an external object hurts its skin’!
  8. Writing to be understood: ‘Writing not only helps me to understand but also to be understood’.
  9. Writing as advocacy: ‘Writing allows me to secure a hearing for things that I strongly believe in’!
  10. Writing to influence: ‘Writing is my way of try to influence the thinking of others – my attempt to shape the world’.
  11. Writing as thought experiment: “Writing enables me to create and to mentally playout/test the different possibilities - this is especially useful in those situations where the actual 'experiment' is difficult/ risky/ costly'! 
  12. Writing as shadow work: ‘Writing allows me to speak to my repressed emotions and to integrate them’!
  13. Writing as self-discovery: ‘Writing allows me to make the unconscious conscious and to discover parts of myself that I never knew existed’.
  14. Writing to be more objective: ‘Putting my thoughts in writing allows me to put some distance between me and my thoughts – it changes my relationship with my thoughts and allows me to me more objective’.  
  15. Writing as ‘exorcism’: ‘Writing allows me to exorcise the ghosts in my mind that came into existence because of thoughts/issues in my mind that were not properly processed/buried’!  

Now, let's come back to the article that triggered this post. Yes, it is true that a social media 'like' or a 'share' need not necessarily mean that the reader has understood/agreed with or will act on the content of the post. As we have seen above, writing serves many purposes. Sometimes, when one posts something on social media, one doesn't necessarily want to influence the readers (in terms of driving behavior change) - sometimes, one just wants to be heard. ‘Liking’ and ‘sharing’ can give one a sense of being ‘heard’ or ‘appreciated’. 

Sometimes, one just wants to trigger thinking/discussion on an issue- without trying to propagate a particular point of view. There are indeed people who are remembered for the questions they raised and not for the answers they provided! 'Liking' and 'sharing' can enable more reach and discussion! Again, if a reader 'likes' or 'reshares' a post (even without getting influenced by it), it might reach someone else who might resonate much more strongly with the post - a highly connected world increases the probability of serendipitous encounters! 

In a way, writing involves creating something new - it is a creative process. A creative process has its own intrinsic rewards! It can make us feel intensely alive. It is indeed possible to experience the 'flow state' while writing. Sometimes, we might even get the feeling that something is written through us and not by us. This state of 'enthusiasm' (in the original meaning of the word) also has spiritual implications/associations. Anyway, we can definitely say that writers not only shape their words - they are also shaped by their words and the process that brings about the words! 

* This does raise a question on why the quest for immortality is relevant. In a way, the quest for immortality is a very human response to the fear of death. Fear, including the fear of death, has survival value. Of course, if one believes that humans are immortals to begin with, such a quest might become superfluous for him/her!  

Any comments?

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Of learning and legitimacy

Almost all the organizations say that they ‘value’ learning. Some of them even claim to be a ‘learning organization’.  The trouble starts when we look at the extent to which this ‘proclaimed importance’ of 'learning' gets reflected in the ‘actual way of working’ or the ’decisions made’ in the organization.

The answers to the following questions can throw some light on the importance (or lack of it) of learning in an organization:

  • Is ‘learning’ supposed to be something that one should do only when one is ‘free’ (from the demands of other work activities)?
  • Are the capability building programs conducted on regular working days or on holidays/ weekends?
  • Do the senior leaders participate in capability building programs? Do they 'teach' in the capability building programs that their team members attend? Do they ensure that their team members don’t get pulled out of the capability building programs when some important work comes up? Do they demand/facilitate/track the transfer of learning/newly learned behaviors to the workplace? 
  • Is learning considered to be mainly a 'cost' or an 'investment'? Do the learning budgets get cut at the 'slightest provocation'?
  • Is ‘learning’ a ‘cherished presence’ in the organization or is it is just a ‘tolerated presence’?

Of course, the answers to these questions are not binary – they are indeed a matter of degree – with each organization finding their equilibrium point between the two polar opposites.

This choice of the equilibrium point does have implications. For example, it is one thing to make world class anytime learning (e-learning) solutions available to the employees. It is entirely a different matter to make it ‘culturally acceptable’ to do an anytime learning course during office hours. Hence, even when two organizations in the same industry make the same set of anytime learning solutions available to their employees, how the employees perceive them (and the utilization of those programs) can be very different. Similarly, if two organizations, with one working Monday to Friday and the other working Monday to Saturday, nominate their employees to a capability building program that takes place on a Saturday, the employees might perceive it quite differently.  

 I must say that I have had a very lucky start when it comes to this aspect. Before I made the ‘quantum jump’ to the management domain with my MBA, I had started my working life as an Aerospace Engineer/Scientist with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC). VSSC had very big library with books/journals/magazines on a wide range of subjects and we (the employees of VSSC) were encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the library during office hours. Since this was my first job, I assumed that this is how all organizations (at least organizations in knowledge-intensive industries) work and I was promptly proved wrong once I started my career in management. Of course, this was not the only wrong assumption I had made while I made this transition (please see 'The why of a book: Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities'). However, my 'early career experience' did have an impact of my definition of 'what good looks like'.  

Now let’s come back to the title of this post. Does the organization consider 'learning' to be a legitimate 'business activity'? 'Business activities' can be defined as activities that a business engages in for the primary purpose of making a profit. Hence, the core issue here is whether learning is considered to be an activity that adds substantial net positive value to the business and hence worth investing in. If the answer is a clear ‘yes’, then prioritizing and investing in learning should happen naturally. If not, investment in learning is more of a 'necessary evil' or a requirement for the 'license to operate' or a 'nice to do (and not a must do) thing'. 

Of course, 'learning' is not just about ‘structured capability building programs’ or ‘anytime learning’. Learning indeed happens in many ways and as per the ‘legendary’ 70:20:10 model, about 70% of the learning happens ‘on the job’ and only about 10% of the learning takes place through ‘structured learning programs'.

I do agree that most of the learning happens through job experiences. It does become problematic when this finding is used as an excuse for 'cutting capability building budgets without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences'. Since 'job experiences' are outside the traditional domain/mandate of the Learning & Development (L&D) function, it is easy (and very convenient) for the organization to jump to the conclusion that 'the entire responsibility for ensuring that this type of learning happens lies with the employees and their managers. 

Unfortunately, this type of learning (learning through job experiences) often does not happen automatically. Just doing a relevant project/activity need not necessarily lead to learning the target capability. It requires multiple cycles of ‘deliberate practice' and 'reflection' (ideally with help from a coach) to derive and assimilate learning from the on-the-job experience. Therefore, there is a need to put in place mechanisms to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning (please see ‘Truths stretched too far’ for details).

 Another interesting aspect here is that capability building programs mean different things to different people and that the alternative (unstated) purposes of the capability building programs could be very different (and much more important) from the ‘textbook’ purpose of  capability building programs -  building the targeted capabilities (please see ‘The many lives of capability building programs’ for details). For example, if the capability building programs are mainly meant to be ‘fun' or 'pleasant distractions from unpleasant work realities', then conducting them on holidays makes a lot of sense!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The many lives of capability building programs

Technically speaking, ‘capability building programs’ are meant to do exactly that – to build the targeted capabilities. However, after spending two decades in business organizations, I have come to realize that capability building programs serve different purposes in different contexts, including those that are very different from the original purpose. 

Let’s take a look at some of the 'uses' of capability building programs (starting with those that are closer to the original purpose and then moving on to those that are quite different):  

  1. Capability building programs as ‘Crossing the Rubicon’: Here the implication is that capability building programs create ‘sustainable change in behavior’ (which is the behavioral definition of ‘learning’). Of course, most capability building programs fail to achieve this.
  2. Capability building programs as ‘Invitation to learn’: This is based on the philosophy that ‘you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make it drink’.
  3. Capability building programs as ‘Training’:  Here the implication is that it is something that is done to the participants. While some people do say that ‘training is only for animals’, this philosophy is very much ‘alive and kicking’ in many organizations!
  4. Capability building programs as an element of the 'Employee Value Proposition': This typically happens when a company makes an explicit promise of 'x' days of capability building programs per year per employee as part of its Employee Value Proposition (EVP). Yes, this works best when these capability building programs are conducted on regular working days! This approach can be extended to positively impact the company branding/business development efforts also (by highlighting the investment the company is making in capability building to improve the product quality/ to serve the customers better).
  5. Capability building programs as 'Knowledge management': When an expert is leaving an organization, the organization might ask him/her to conduct a capability building program to pass on his/her knowledge, even when that knowledge is not immediately relevant to the people attending the capability building program.
  6. Capability building programs as 'Enculturation': This typically happens during new employee induction/onboarding. Another variation here is 'culture building workshops'. 
  7. Capability building programs as ‘Reward’: Some organization use capability building programs as a reward for high performance. It does raise some questions. For example, won’t the employees prefer to receive an equivalent amount of money in cash as opposed to attending an expensive training program?
  8. Capability building programs as ‘Paid holidays’: Capability building programs can provide ‘pleasant distractions from the unpleasant realities at the workplace’.
  9. Capability building programs as ‘Detox’: Some capability building programs can indeed be fun or even 'meaningful fun'. Some programs like ‘Human Process Labs’ can also provide some degree of emotional detox. Yes, this might highlight the implicit assumption that there is something toxic about the workplace. 
  10. Capability building programs as ‘Rites of passage’: This happens when training programs are linked to level transitions, Here the primary purpose is to enable the psychological transition required for the level change - in the participants and in the 'significant others' in the organization ecosystem (see ‘Accelerated learning and rites of passage’ for details)
  11. Capability building programs as ‘Team building’: Here the message is that the opportunity for facilitating interactions between the team members/cross-functional team members (and the possible increase in connect between them and to the team/organization) is more important than the program content. Yes, this could trivialize the concepts of 'teamwork' and 'employee engagement'. 
  12. Capability building programs as ‘Importance signaling’: If a capability building is positioned (formally or informally) as ‘only for the most valuable people in the organization’ (e.g., top talent, people who are being groomed to take up top management positions etc.), it can indeed serve as a way to signal the importance that the organization gives to the concerned employees. Yes, some of the participants might promptly include this in their CVs/mention this during the interviews for jobs outside the organization.    
  13. Capability building programs as ‘External benchmarking opportunities’: This works best in the case of open training programs conducted by prestigious institutes that attract participants from across the world. Quite a bit of the learning in these programs comes from interacting with the fellow participants and from knowing what the other companies are doing.
  14. Capability building programs as 'Corporate rain dance': This occurs when capability building programs are used as 'solutions' to organizational problems that are not related to capability gaps at the individual level. Yes, they do give the management the illusion that something is being done about the problems (see 'Leadership training and corporate rain dance' for details). However, they can make the participants feel 'victimized' (see 'Training the victim' for details). 
  15. Capability building programs as 'Sales hook': Here capability building programs are used as an opportunity to sell other products. 
  16. Capability building programs as 'Brainwashing': This happens when the focus of capability building is on 'unlearning and relearning'. 
  17. Capability building programs as 'Golden handcuff': Here the idea is to send the employee for an expensive long duration learning journey program and also attach a retention clause/service bond. 
  18. Capability building programs as 'Immediate profit generation': This typically happens when the monetary value of the improvements coming from the 'action learning projects' that are part of the capability building program is estimated to exceed the cost of the capability building program. While this enables the Learning & Development (L&D) function to position itself as a 'profit center' (as opposed to being a cost center), whether this 'profit' is real is often a point of disagreement between the HR function and the Finance function. Also, to maximize the 'profit generation potential' of the action learning projects, the link between the action learning projects and the learning objectives of the program gets overlooked. Yes, the capabilities built during the program can and should impact the business results (and this is very much aligned to the original purpose of capability building programs). However, they are usually more difficult to estimate/ happen over a longer period of time and therefore might not be very promising for showing immediate profit! 

I am sure that more such 'non-standard' uses of capability building programs can be found. Also, a single capability building program might serve many of the uses mentioned above. This does raise an interesting question: "why do so many alternative uses of capability building programs exist, even when they are not the most efficient ways of achieving their 'unstated' objectives?". I guess, the word 'unstated' might offer a clue. In some of the organizations, spending money on some of those alterative objectives (or even attempting to achieve them directly) might not be 'culturally acceptable'. In many cultures, learning is considered to be a 'noble' activity and hence it is put on a pedestal. Hence, by achieving some of those alternative objectives through a capability building program, they can gain more respectability! 

Of course, the above discussion was from the points of view of the organizations and/or the participants. Since there are other stakeholders involved (like the facilitators, L&D team, vendors etc.) there are additional interpretations possible from their points of view. For example, for a facilitator, capability building programs can mean multiple things like a source of income, a calling, an avenue for self-expression etc. 

Any thoughts/ideas? Any other uses of capability building programs that you have come across?

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Do the CEOs get the CHROs they deserve?

“CEOs get the CHROs they deserve!”, said the Senior HR leader when he was highly frustrated. This was my seventh ‘encounter’ with this gentleman (See 'Passion for work and anasakti ‘, 'Appropriate metaphors for organizational commitment ‘ ,‘To name or not to name, that is the question’ , ‘A Mathematical approach to HR’, OD Quest’ and ‘Of leaders and smiling depression’  for the outcomes of my previous interactions with him). Similar to what happened in the previous occasions, this comment prompted me to think deeply about the topic.

Yes, a CEO can try to get the  type of CHRO he/she wants by 'shaping' the behavior of the current CHRO, bringing in a new CHRO etc. The degree of success of this attempt will vary based on the context and the people involved. Of course, if a CEO is looking for a difficult to find set of capabilities in the CHRO and/or if the organization context is not suitable for attracting and retaining the type of CHRO the CEO is looking for, things can get complicated. The CEO-CHRO interaction is a human interaction and hence personality related factors, connect related factors and fit related factors (including that of the unstated definitions of 'what good looks like') come into play. Sometimes, the perceived lack of alignment is just a matter of perception. For example, the CEO might think that the CHRO doesn't understand the business context and the CHRO might think that the CEO is too shortsighted! It can work the other way also. The CEO and the CHRO can form a 'mutual admiration society' and ignore problems that adversely affect organization effectiveness! 

There is no doubt on the importance of the CEO-CHRO relationship, for them and for the rest of the organization. The CEO and the CHRO need to work very closely with each other on a lot of important and/or sensitive matters, and hence an effective relationship between them based on mutual respect and trust is critical. Lack of alignment between the CEO and CHRO, apart from creating a lot of frustration for both of them, can slow down decision-making, lead to suboptimal decisions, reduce response speed on critical issues and also lead to lack of commitment and passive resistance. It can also give the impression to the rest of the organization that the leadership team is like a 'house divided against itself'. 

Again, there is no doubt on whether the HR function (and the CHRO as the head of HR) should be business-oriented/business-aligned. HR exists to support the business and hence it should be aligned to the business needs/goals/strategy. ‘HR for HR’ (‘I want to do some HR interventions and I will get the business leaders to agree’) is definitely not a good idea. The problem occurs when we look at how exactly should HR demonstrate this 'business-orientation'.

There are multiple possibilities here - each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, the CHRO can agree to whatever the CEO says on people related issues ('after all, we get paid to support the business'). The CHRO can take this approach to the next level by trying to ‘guess’ what the CEO will be comfortable with and advocating that ('the CEO is our primary internal customer and we should be anticipating customer needs'). The CHRO can also avoid surfacing issues (or suggesting solutions) that he/she thinks the CEO will not be comfortable with ('business leaders are already stretched to the limits fighting for the survival of the company, how can we risk annoying them at this point ?').

This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible arguments/conflicts between the CHRO and the CEO and the associated investment of time and emotional energy, leading to faster decision-making and smoother relationships. In this case, the CEO might ‘like’ the CHRO and will be more likely to support the CHRO in the roll out of basic HR processes and less likely to come down heavily on the CHRO when the CHRO/HR team makes a mistake. Hence, conflicts are avoided - making life easier for both the parties involved. However, this can also lead to sub-optimal decisions (see 'Training the victim' for an example).

The other option is to develop and articulate an independent point of view – based on the HR philosophy of the organization, HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation.

Yes, this point of view might turn out to be different from what the CEO has in mind/is comfortable with and hence this can create conflicts and lengthy discussions/arguments and possibly delays in decision-making. The CEO might feel that ‘HR does not understand the problems that the business is facing’, ‘HR is becoming a pain in the neck’ or that ‘HR is being too idealistic’. This might lead to a situation where the CEO becomes very demanding – questioning the rationale behind each of the initiatives that HR comes up with. Therefore, this option can make life more difficult for both the parties involved. However, if the conflict can be managed constructively, this option can lead to superior decisions and also to the development of mutual respect and trust. Of course, there is no guarantee that this can be achieved in all the situations.

It is also possible that the CEO was more open than what the CHRO had guessed. Maybe, the CEO wanted the CHRO to make an independent recommendation. Again, it is possible that the CHRO’s ‘independent assessment’ of the business needs/constraints was totally off the mark, making his/her point of view completely unrealistic. Maybe, the context is such that the conflict of opinion can’t be resolved successfully quickly enough for the matter at hand. Thus, there are many possibilities here.

It can be said that if we take a long-term perspective, if both the parties are competent and open and if the conflict can be managed constructively and quickly enough, the second option will give better results. But that is too many ‘ifs’ (3 in the last sentence!). It can also be argued that the two options mentioned above are just two extremes and that reality lies somewhere in between. For example, a particular CHRO might adopt option 1 in the case of some issues and option 2 in the case of other issues – depending on the context/nature of the issues. After all, ‘picking and choosing one’s battles’ is supposed to be a key requirement for survival in the corporate world!

An important factor here is the credibility of the CHRO/nature of the relationship between the CHRO and the business leaders including the CEO. It is possible that the CHRO hasn't paid sufficient attention to positioning of the HR function appropriately, managing/shaping expectations, building capability and consistently meeting commitments/delivering value, enhancing the levels of mutual respect and trust etc. This can lead to serious problems because effectively managing the relationships with the business leaders can be the most significant enabler for demonstrating and sustaining the 'business-orientation' we have been talking about.

In this discussion about 'business-orientation' we should not forget the other customers of HR- like the employees and line managers. There is an increasing tendency on the part of HR to give less emphasis to the ‘employee champion’ role because of the increasing importance given to the ‘strategic business partner role’. This can easily lead to situations where there is not enough focus on ‘employee engagement’ (other than the cosmetic efforts/peripheral initiatives – see 'Employee engagement and the story of the Sky maiden’ for details). Of course, there are 'special-cause variations' in the focus (or lack of it) on employee engagement. For example, in response to the 'great resignation', currently there is a lot of focus (talk?) on employee engagement. 

As it is widely known, employee engagement is a good predictor/lead indicator of business results. Thus, if this 'business-orientation' (and being the 'strategic business partner') is achieved at the expense of 'employee' engagement, the result might be 'strategic (long-term) harm' to the business. This is not to say that when the business is under financial stress, the CHRO should ignore the boundary conditions set by the same. The point is just that the focus on employee engagement shouldn't be lost though the actual manifestations of this focus can be different under different circumstances (see 'Of employee engagement and the survivor syndrome' for details).  

It is also interesting to model this situation using the concepts of 'static' and 'dynamic' equilibrium (A chair has static equilibrium. A bicycle in motion has dynamic equilibrium. In a state of static equilibrium there is balance, but no change or movement that exists in the case of dynamic equilibrium). A 'live and let live' kind of arrangement between HR and business leaders (that avoids conflict) is similar to 'static equilibrium'. But, a scenario in which HR and business leaders openly and clearly state their independent opinions, followed by constructive debate/conflict leading to decisions that both the parties are comfortable with is similar to 'dynamic equilibrium'. This does not mean that the parties can't be passionate about their points of view/express 'strong' opinions. The requirement is just that they should not get too much attached to their opinions.

In general, dynamic equilibrium provides richer possibilities. However, establishing dynamic equilibrium might not be required or even feasible in all the cases. It requires more time, effort and skill (as the equilibrium needs to be constantly reestablished) . It is also more risky (you are more likely to have a fall from a bicycle as compared to that from a chair - especially when you are learning to ride - which can be compared to the 'establishing the relationship' phase that we discussed earlier!).

A key enabler for this dynamic equilibrium is for the CHRO to work with the business leaders to crystallize the HR Philosophy/the basic tenets of people management in the organization (see ‘Towards a philosophy of HR’ for details). This will also enable HR to come with quick and effective responses to various issues/situations – based on the people management philosophy of the organization, HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation.  This is not to say that the people management philosophy is cast in stone. The people management philosophy can be revisited as the organization and its environment evolves. Also, if there are extraordinary situations, extraordinary responses are required!

So, do the CEOs get the CHROs they deserve? ‘Probably, to a large extent’ – is the best answer that I can come up with at this point. After all, the CEOs hire and fire the CHROs and are their direct managers (with the associated powers of 'carrot and stick'). Also, the CEOs want the CHROs to be aligned to them. This doesn’t mean that the CHROs can’t influence the CEOs. A lot of CHROs manage to do this. Yes, this requires competence, deep business-understanding, courage to speak truth to power, and clarity on values. The CHROs won't be earning their salary if they don't put forward their professional opinion. If CEOs want someone who will just execute whatever they ask without discussion, such a person can be hired at a much lower salary than what CHROs are paid. Also, the CHROs are not trees - CHROs can move (to another organization with a different CEO)! If all these are true, why do the CEOs get the CHROs they deserve to large extent?

One possible factor here is the hierarchical nature of many of the organizations. In hierarchical organizations, if the CHRO disagrees with the CEO, it can very easily get misinterpreted as 'lack business-understanding', ‘lack of competence’ or as ‘lack of trust in the judgment of the leader’. The relatively 'fuzzy' nature of the HR domain (that makes it difficult to prove or disprove things conclusively) also contributes to this. Yes, the CHROs also realize that there are no perfect CEOs/ organizations that would exactly match their preferences and hence learn to adjust (to varying degrees).  

Of course, there are other factors. Let's look at one of them. I spent the first five years of my career in HR in HR consulting. One of the things that amazed me was how easy it was to into walk into any organization, do a diagnosis and find many areas where there was potential for significant improvement. Why would the CHROs (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. Now, I am convinced that that there is much more to this.

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. 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 CHROs. This works even better if the CHRO 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 CHRO and he/she is not doing any transformation in the current organization, then the organization must be perfect – without any need to change!!!!

Of course, there is a positive side to 'CEOs getting the CHROs they deserve'. Progressive CEOs get (hire/retain/develop) progressive CHROs. There are indeed a lot of CEOs who push their CHROs to focus on  building an effective organization that is a great place to work, and also support the CHROs in this endeavor. These CEOs also set an example by role modeling the right behaviors. Again, we have no reason to believe that there are more 'good' CHROs in the industry than 'good' CEOs! 

We must also remember that there is a larger organization ecosystem that both the CEO and the CHRO are part of and it has expectations and/or influence on the CEO, CHRO and the CEO-CHRO relationship. Also, the strength and tone of the relationship that the CHRO has with the other CXOs in the company might have an indirect influence on the CEO-CHRO relationship. In MNCs and in companies that are part of a business group, the CHRO is likely to have an additional reporting manager (apart from the CEO) and this also influences the CEO-CHRO relationship/power balance! Yes, the strength of this influence will depend on the strength/nature of this additional reporting and the personalities involved. Therefore, the power that the CEO has over the CHRO (and on the decisions related to the CHRO role) will not be an absolute one! Also, CEOs are often people who have spent many years in organizations and hence learned to live with some degree of 'imperfections' in organization life. Hence, they might not have the compulsion to get exactly the kind of CHRO they want!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Balancing our intellectual pH!

 "Listening to him for five minutes a day might help you to balance your intellectual pH", I blurted out during a conversation with a friend of mine. We were having a conversation on a topic on which my friend had a very strong point of view and I was trying to encourage him to listen to an expert who was known for having a different point of view. My friend was refusing to do so and that was when I blurted out the statement at the beginning of this post.

The above discussion with my friend was inconclusive, and it left me feeling a bit uneasy. These kind of unresolved incidents (the undigested thoughts and feelings arising from those incidents, to be precise) can create 'ghosts' in our field of thoughts that can 'haunt' us for a long time. The ideal way to exorcise these 'ghosts' is to listen to them, revisit those incidents and thoughts and deal with them adequately to ensure that those thoughts are properly digested/absorbed/integrated. In a way, it is very similar to the 'chewing the cud' behavior of some animals (called 'ruminants'). Blogging has given me the opportunity to exorcise quite a few of such ghosts (see 'Competencies and Carbohydrates' for an example) and hence I thought I will attempt the same in this case also!

After I had done some reflection on the interaction that I have had with my friend, I became increasingly aware of the paradoxical nature of this issue. A paradox is a situation with an inherent contradiction. A paradox occurs when there are multiple points of view on an issue, each of which are true and essential, but they appear to be in conflict with one another. Therefore, 
let's look at few of the perspectives on 'intellectual pH' and its implications for what we should read/view/listen to:

  • Just like a chemical pH balance is important for healthy functioning of the body, an intellectual pH balance is important for he healthy functioning of the mind and for intellectual wellness (effective participation in scholastic and community activities). Intellectual curiosity/openness and lifelong learning are essential for intellectual wellness. After all, it is our intellect that makes us different from other animals.  
  • There is nothing like  'one right pH balance'. Even in the human body, the optimal pH value differs for different parts of the body. Similarly, our intellectual equilibrium point should be different for different issues. Moreover, while the pH balance in the body is in terms of acid-base balance, the intellectual pH can have multiple dimensions (e.g. conservative-liberal, communist - capitalist etc.).  
  • It is always better to listen to multiple perspectives. It enables us to broaden our intellectual horizons and to better informed decisions and more nuanced positions on issues.
  • We have only limited time and energy. Hence, we should be selective in what we read/view/listen to. Moreover, we don't know if what we read/view/listen to is accurate/valid. 
  • If we try to be selective, the selection is likely to be influenced by our current point of view/biases. So, we might just end up confirming/strengthening our current point of view. While there is indeed a lot of 'fake news' out there, we can reduce our chance of being misled by focusing on those sources that are widely regarded to be reliable and that follow a rigorous validation process.  
  • One has to take a position and stick to it. 'If you don't stand for anything, you will fall for everything'!
  • It is very much possible to have strong opinions and to hold them loosely at the same time. Remember, the nature of 'truth' in science is always 'provisional'. 
  • Not everything is a matter of scientific truth and philosophy of science. Some things are a matter of personal values and beliefs. Also, just because something confirms to the most widely held opinion, it need not be true.  
  • Intellectual balance is essential for making good judgements which is essential for being effective individuals and effective members of  the society. While we do have personal values and opinions, 'no man is an island'. 
  • One can't look at the world (or listen to ideas/perspectives) in a truly objective manner. All observation is theory-laden, even though we might not be aware of the theories in our mind. Since each of us have our own unique ways of looking at the world, it will be impossible to be completely intellectual balanced.
  • If we are deeply aware of our point of view we can watch out for the possible biases that can creep into our thinking because of that.

Where does this leave us? We cannot resolve a paradox in the way we solve a typical problem. We cannot choose one of the options over the others without oversimplifying the situation. What is possible is to struggle with the paradoxical situation for a sufficient period of time so that we can reach a higher level of awareness and deeper understanding of the context and the issue, that will enable us to come up with the most effective response at a given moment. I guess, that is direction we should go on this particular issue also.

Yes, being 'intellectually honest' (in terms of honesty in the acquisition, analysis and expression of facts/ideas and in terms of the willingness to accept the possible limitations of one's point of view) is very important to have a fair conversation (with others and with oneself). It is often possible that being open to other perspectives might enable one to better understand ones' perspective better (or make it more nuanced) even if one doesn't change it ("We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time" - in the words of  T S Eliot). 

Humans are 'territorial' like many other animals and in our case the 'territory' includes our 'intellectual territory' and 'psychological territory' in addition to 'geographical territory'. Hence, we do have a tendency to get defensive when someone criticizes us or our points of view (as we tend to perceive it as a violation of our psychological/intellectual territory. One can (and should) definitely have personal beliefs and points of view. The requirement is just to ensure that one's personal beliefs don't interfere with one's pursuit of truth and with the quality of one's interactions with others! Yes, we look at the world (and ideas/opinions) through our own lenses. But, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to clean those lenses and to keep them as distortion-free as possible! 

Any comments/ideas?