Sunday, August 8, 2021

The paradox of 'manager as coach'

Coaching the team members is one of the basic responsibilities of a people manager. It is difficult to find an individual development plan that doesn't include 'coaching by the manager' as a key development action. So, what is paradoxical about 'manager-as-coach'? 

A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives about something, each of them are true, but they seem to contradict one another. Let's look at some of those perspectives on 'manager as coach'

  • Every manager should be a coach and every conversation should be a coaching conversation
  • Managers are supposed to achieve predefined results through their team members. Since coaching in its true sense is supposed to be non-directive, there is a fundamental contradiction in managers trying to act as coaches. 
  • Because they work with the team members very closely, managers are in the best position to coach their team members.
  • Coaching is essentially future-focused, having too much knowledge about the coachee's past behavior can make it difficult to start the coaching with a 'clean slate'
  • Coaching by the manager can significantly improve the performance of the team member, that too very quickly
  • Coaching is a time-consuming activity. Coaching is often 'hard work' for both the manager and the employee. Sometimes, there are faster or more effective ways to improve employee performance (like giving direct advice, training, shadowing a high-performer etc.) 
  • Coaching is a natural part of the manager's role
  • Coaching requires skills that many of the managers haven't developed (though the managers might not be aware of this/might consider themselves to be excellent coaches)
  • Coaching can be a great way to increase employee connect and trust
  • For coaching to work, there should be a very high level of trust and psychological safety. This could be an unrealistic expectation in many contexts.    
So, how do we resolve this? One possibility is to look at the tacit definitions of coaching that underlie these varying perspectives. There are indeed a wide range of interpretations possible when it comes to 'coaching' (see 'metaphors for coaching' for some of the interpretations of coaching). Coaching is an 'unregulated industry' - there can be as many interpretations of coaching as there are coaches. 

The ICF (International Coaching Federation) interpretation of coaching is perhaps the most widely accepted one. ICF defines coaching as 'a partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential'. Yes, if one explores the ICF coaching competencies in detail, it becomes clear that coaching is meant to be 'non-directive' endeavor.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, there are interpretations of coaching that looks at coaching essentially as a 'feedback and insights sharing process'. Of course, there are many other definitions of coaching that lie in between these two extremes.  

It is indeed true that the manager-employee interactions (including the coaching interactions) are  happening in the context of the organization hierarchy and the work related goals/deliverables. It is also true that coaching works best when there is no power imbalance in the coaching relationship. However, to what extent the power-hierarchy seeps into particular interactions between particular sets of managers and employees can vary significantly. The organization culture can also be a key factor here, apart from individual-specific factors.  

Yes, it can be argued that 'while the manager is paid to get defined work outcomes through the employees, this doesn't mean that the manager can't take a non-directive approach'. On the other hand, it can also be argued that so long as outcomes are defined by the manager/organization (and not by the employees), it is only a matter of semantics whether the manager is 'inspiring the employee' or just 'motivating the employee through rewards and punishment' (see 'the power of  carrot and stick' for more details) to achieve those defined goals/outcomes. 

Non-directive coaching is an invitation to explore and not a compulsion to do a particular thing. Since the managers are accountable for the results (even when they have delegated the task to their team member), if the employee fails to achieve the desired results it will be viewed as failure on the part of the manager also. So, the managers often have more 'skin in the game' (as compared to an external coach) and this might prompt them to switch to more directive ways of functioning when the non-directive ways don't seem to be working well enough (or fast enough).  

Yes, helping the employee to arrive at his/her own solutions is better from the point of view of building ownership and building capability. Sometimes, this can also lead to better solutions. This works best when the employee has the necessary expertise/can arrive at an effective solution within the constraints imposed by the situation.

However, sometimes, the employee needs 'direct advice' and it is much simpler (and easier on both the manager and the employee) if the manager makes a suggestion to the employee that he/she can consider a particular course of action, as opposed to facilitating a long process of  exploration that leads the employee to the same answer!  Similarly, there could be crisis situations that require immediate response and such situations might force a manager to switch from a more facilitative style to a more directive style.

Also, if the employee lacks specific skills or resources to do the job effectively, attempting to fix it through coaching is guaranteed to fail. Yes, helping the employee to develop the skills and get the resources required to be effective on the job is very much part of the manager's job. The point here is just that coaching is not the right way to make this happen! Coaching is no 'silver bullet' and it is not the panacea for all problems!

Maybe, we can take some sort of a 'situational leadership' kind of perspective and say that managers need to adopt various styles/definitions of coaching depending on the context. Maybe, what is required is to find the right dynamic equilibrium between polarities like ''telling and exploring', 'directing and facilitating', 'interests of the organization and interests of the employee', 'authority and partnership', 'defined outcomes and possibilities', 'performance and development' etc. 

However, all these require a very high level of skill and awareness on the part of the managers. It also calls for a very high degree of trust and openness on the part of the employees. Else, this can be highly confusing and frustrating for both the parties involved. Of course, if the employees perceive the 'facilitative' approach of the manager to be a tool for manipulation, it can lead to loss of trust!

Coaching is indeed a learnable skill though it requires a significant amount of effort/practice. It makes sense for the organization to adopt a particular model/framework for manager-as-coach and train the managers on it. These manager coaches should also be provided mentoring by experienced coaches so that they can improve their awareness and coaching skill and also develop the flexibility to switch between the various styles of coaching based on the context. Yes, creating positive examples for the managers, that will convince them that there could be alternatives to the more directive ways of functioning, can put the managers in the right frame of mind that will make the manager training and mentoring efforts mentioned above more effective!  

'Pure' non-directive kind of coaching is easier to do for an external coach as compared to a people manager. Even in the case of external coaches, it is important to clarify and agree on what can and what can't be expected from the coach. The need the employee has might not neatly fit into what can be fully addressed within the domain of coaching. Hence there is always the risk of the coaching conversation drifting into the domains of mentoring, teaching or even therapy. This is not necessarily bad so long as it is not 'disguised as coaching'.  

Employees tend to put the coaches (including managers in the coaching hat) on a pedestal. They might even want the coach to do the thinking for them. While many of the people managers might be very happy to fulfill such roles/expectations, it might take them further away from the 'facilitative' nature of coaching!

Any ideas/comments? 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Of trophies and battle-scars

This post was triggered by the conversations that I have had with Human Resources (HR) leaders who had played a leading role in 'workforce restructuring'/'workforce right-sizing' efforts in their respective companies. What struck me the most was the wide variation in the manner in which those restructuring efforts impacted these leaders. This was most evident in the way those leaders remembered those experiences, in the way talked about their role in those restructuring efforts and in the marks (residual emotions) it seems to have left on them as individuals. 

On one end of the spectrum were leaders who were 'deeply scarred' by those experiences. It was quite painful for them even to speak about it. On the other end were leaders who proudly displayed those experiences as 'trophies'.  Most of the HR leaders fall somewhere in between these two extremes. 

After the restructuring was done, there were leaders who organized lavish 'victory celebrations' for the restructuring team and there were leaders who found a way to avoid such celebrations. Some of them immediately updated their CVs/LinkedIn profiles to highlight this expertise (or even positioned themselves as 'restructuring experts') while the other leaders didn't do anything of that sort. 

The interesting thing was that the above variations were not really a matter of how successful those restructuring efforts were or how significant/effective were the roles of the leaders in those restructuring efforts! 

One of the factors that makes this issue complex is the dual role played by HR leaders - as they are both the facilitators and the survivors of restructuring!

Survivors of restructuring/downsizing exercises often suffer from the so called ‘workplace survivor syndrome’ with symptoms like anxiety, depression, decrease in performance, poor morale and increased propensity to leave. At the heart of the survivor syndrome lies two emotions- guilt (“I didn't deserve to survive when my friends didn't”) and fear (“Next time, it could be my turn”). Being employees (and human beings) themselves, the HR leaders are not immune to these emotions/reactions!

In the case of the HR leaders, since they were also facilitators of restructuring, the feeling of guilt can get accentuated. This usually happens in those cases where the HR leaders take their 'employee champion' role as seriously as their 'business partner role' and for some reason they feel that they haven't done all they should have done in the given context. 

Usually, the HR leaders are not the final decision-makers on whether to initiate restructuring/whether restructuring is the best option to enhance organization effectiveness in a given context. Being part of the leadership team they are expected to contribute to/influence the decision-making process and to implement the decision once the decision has made. Yes, how early they get involved in the decision-making process and the degree of influence they have on the same will have a bearing on the level of conviction and ownership they feel. 

Also, the HR leaders often play a very important part in deciding how exactly the restructuring should be carried out, how to balance the organization and employee interests/perspectives, how to ensure fairness and how to minimize possible adverse impact on the employer brand, employee engagement and productivity. Yes, they do understand that sometimes 'surgery' is required. Even in those situations, they feel the responsibility to use a 'surgeon's blade' (not a 'butcher's knife') and to provide sufficient post-operative care!

Depending on how true the HR leaders have been to their own convictions during these actions, the level of guilt or satisfaction can vary significantly. Yes, it also depends on the personality of the HR leaders involved - some of them tend to assume too much responsibility and some of them tend to assume too little responsibility (or even psychologically distance themselves from the actions, sometimes using humor for doing so). 

Some of the HR leaders look at restructuring as 'just another task to be done' (something that 'comes with the terrain') and some of the HR leaders look at look at restructuring as something that can potentially create a conflict with their personal values or their belief systems (one HR leader told me that 'he accumulated a lot of bad karma' through his involvement in a particular restructuring exercise!) or with their motivations for a career in HR. From a larger perspective, it can be said that the very topic of 'business-orientation of HR' is indeed a paradoxical one.

Many of the HR leaders felt that communicating the job loss to the impacted employees individually was the most difficult part. Here also, the degree of conviction the HR leaders had about the need for the restructuring, the fairness of the process followed and the adequacy of the transition support provided to the impacted employees, drove the psychological impact on the HR leaders. Another important factor here (for the psychological impact on HR leaders) was whether these difficult conversations with the impacted employees were entirely 'outsourced' to HR or it was jointly owned and carried out by the line managers and the HR leaders. Yes, the 'axe-man' or 'executioner' personas are difficult to integrate for most of the people!  

It is also interesting to look at the sense-making process in the context of restructuring. Often, the restructuring process is interpreted/positioned as an important enabler for organization transformation and it is referred to by highly positive-sounding terms like 'organization renewal', 'workforce refresh' and 'top-grading'. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with these terms (the organization reality is socially constructed to large extent and these terms can serve as 'generative metaphors' in that social construction of reality) so long as they mirror the true intent. Also, from the point of view of the psychological impact on the HR leaders who are facilitating the change, this kind of positive positioning of the change can be very beneficial, if they are convinced about the positioning.  Yes, whether or not these actions/changes make a net positive difference to the organization is often difficult to determine in the short-term. It can be very much psychologically damaging for the HR leaders to feel that they are in some sort of a 'Sisyphus-like' situation where the years of work they have done in the organization to build employee engagement and the employer brand is getting ruined because of the restructuring!  

So, where does this leave us? Whether their involvement in facilitating a restructuring/downsizing effort becomes more of a 'trophy' or more of a 'battle-scar' for the HR leaders involved depends on a wide range of factors that go beyond the 'success' of the restructuring effort (seen in the context of its stated objectives). Yes, these two (trophies and battle-scars) need not necessarily be mutually exclusive. It can also be said that while our discussion here focused on the HR leaders, most of it applies to the Business Leaders also (i.e. the psychological impact of leading restructuring efforts in the case of business leaders).

'Battle-scars' need not necessarily be a bad thing. In a way, they make us 'battle-hardened' and more ready for future battles! By the way, it has been said that in some of the ancient societies 'counting the number of battle-scars' was used as the method for selecting leaders!!

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The tale of two SMEs

The stream of thoughts that resulted in this post was triggered by the interactions that I have had with a number of Subject Matter Experts(SMEs) across companies some time ago, when we were trying to put together a set of capability building solutions in a particular domain. 

All these SMEs were highly valued and respected in their respective organizations. Yet, I found them to be different in their orientation and their approach. Two of those SMEs represented the two ends of a spectrum (hence the title of this post!). The other SMEs were in between these two 'poles' in terms of their orientation. 

One of the SMEs had a deep understanding of the theories and principles underlying the domain, in addition to the knowledge of the models, best practices and tools. He had done a PhD in that domain and had worked in other reputed companies before he joined this organization. While he also had good understanding of the business, he tended to look at the business problems primarily through the lens of his expertise in the domain.

The other SME had a very good understanding of how things work in that domain in that particular organization. This was gained through working very closely with a wide range of people in that organization (including senior business leaders) for many years. While he was knowledgeable about the models and tools in the domain, it was mostly learned on the job. He had spent most of career in that particular organization and  had grown rapidly in his career in the organization. While he was aware of the underlying theories and principles, he tended to consider them as a bit 'theoretical'!   

Now, both of them were considered to be high performers in their organizations (i.e. both of them were effective in their own way) and hence it was apparent that there were many ways to be an SME. In a way, these two SMEs represented what Robert Pirsig refers to as the the 'classical understanding' (looking at things in terms of their underlying form) and 'romantic understanding' (looking at things in terms of their immediate appearance). Of course, both of these ways of understanding are valuable. 

We must also remember that 'value' is defined by the customer (the business leaders in this case). The fact that both these SMEs were highly valued by the business leaders in their respective organizations was also a reflection of the organization culture (or at least their definitions of 'what good looks like' in the case of SMEs) to a large extent. Yes, it is very much possible that the first SME might not be considered to be so valuable in an organization that worships speed of response and prefers 'trial and error' method of working. Similarly, it is very much possible that the second SME might not be as effective if he moves to another organization (till he develops deep contextual understanding and great working relationships). 

Yes, from the point of view of developing capability building solutions that can work across organizations, the first SME was more helpful - as he could easily take a step back and look at look at the challenges/problems in the domain through a more abstract lens and hence could come up with useful generalizations that can hold good across situations. But, in terms of helping new employees in that domain to be successful in his particular organization, the second SME was very effective (especially in terms of providing success tips and dos and don'ts). There was also another interesting difference. In terms of identifying key areas for capability building, the first SME tended to focus more on functional/technical skills whereas the second SME tended to focus more on behavioral skills. 

Typically, an SME (or a 'deep-specialist') is defined as a person with deep understanding of a particular domain(area/subject) who can help others to develop expertise in that domain and to solve complex problems in that domain. Usually, the SMEs have developed their expertise over a long period of time though a combination of advanced studies and professional experience. Many of the SMEs contribute to advancing the knowledge in the domain through publishing articles/books.  For being effective as an SME, being able to share their knowledge with others, being able to work/collaborate with others and being able to coach/mentor others are very important, in addition to possessing deep expertise in that domain. 

Now, if we look at our two SMEs, both of them match many of the aspects of being an SME mentioned above, with the first SME coming a bit more closer to the 'text book definition' of an SME. However, as we have seen above, both of the SMEs have been very effective (and considered to be valuable) in their respective organizations. 

Yes, the ideal SME should have a perfect mix of these two orientations (hence achieving the most effective 'integration of theory and practice' and combining the 'top down and bottom up' perspectives). But, we (and the SMEs!) live in the real world and such perfection should be looked at as a 'vision' and not necessarily as a 'target'. It is very difficult to find such a species of 'perfectly balanced SMEs'.

In real life, some combinations tend to be 'unstable'. Maybe, they call for different orientations that find difficult 'peacefully coexist' at high levels of intensity. We find such impossible/unstable combinations in role-specific competency frameworks also! The other option is to develop some sort of 'split-personality' and switch back and forth between the two orientations!

There are indeed many ways of being successful in business organizations. Yes, an awareness and appreciation of the 'other style' can make the SMEs more effective!

Any comments/ideas? 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The paradox of 'free time'

'Free time' is something that all of us are very keen to have. So, what is paradoxical about it? 

A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives about something, each of them are true, but they seem to contradict one another. Let's look at some of those perspectives on 'free time'

  • We should actively try to find 'free time'
  • There is nothing really like 'free time'; activities or even 'work expands to fill the time (as per the famous Parkinson's law)
  • 'Free time' is essential for creativity and for recharging mentally
  • 'Free time' is just a waste of time
  • 'Free time' is 'me' time
  • 'Free time' doesn't have to be 'me' time - it is better to spend it with people you cherish being with
  • Free time is enjoyable. It gives also us something to look forward to after work. 
  • Different people react to 'free time' differently. 'Free time' makes many people uncomfortable - they get very jittery . Yes, there is indeed something like the 'fear of freedom'. 
  • 'Free time' gives us the much needed flexibility - especially when unexpected things come up
  • We can get possessive about our 'free time'. We might feel resentful if there is an unexpected demand on our 'free time'. 
How do we resolve this? Since 'free time' is difficult to define, let's look at some of the possible synonyms for 'free time'. Synonyms for free time include spare time, leisure time, time off, rest time, idle time, one's own time, 'unstructured time',  recreation, leisure, downtime, recess, interlude, intermission, let up and break. It is interesting to note that many of these synonyms convey different (or even conflicting) meanings - somewhat similar to the different perspectives on 'free time' that we saw earlier.  

Scheduling 'free time' in our calendar can have many 'profound side effects'. In a way, scheduling 'free time' it is an act of independence and it allows us to feel more in control of our lives (it sets us free!). Also, it is much easier to say no to unwanted requests on our time when we have something else scheduled.  Scheduling 'free time'  allows us to be more intentional in living our life and to put the various activities we do in perspective. Feeling busy all the time is not conducive to mental health. 

Yes, 'nature abhors vacuum' and it is very difficult to keep 'free time' free. What is indeed possible is to proactively fill some part our 'free time' with activities that we enjoy doing so that other activities or work can't expand into that. Yes, 'sitting alone quietly' or even 'thinking six impossible things before breakfast' qualifies as activities. 

Of course, we can invest our 'free time' to create a 'pocket of excellence' in some aspect of our life. Experiencing excellence (as per our own definition of excellence) in at least one aspect of our life can significantly enhance our 'self-image' and even the manner in which we respond to life in general. It can be argued that what we remember are the key moments in our lives and that having more such remarkable moments during a given period of time (e.g. by experiencing excellence) can make us perceive that period of time to be 'fuller' and even 'longer'. So, invested wisely, 'free time' can 'create' more time for us, apart from making our lives richer! 

Any comments/ideas?

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 'paradoxical importance' of people

 "Show me whom should I fire", said the global business leader to the HR Head. The global business leader and the HR Head were reviewing the performance of the company operations in the country they were visiting. During the review, some complex issues were highlighted and that was when the global business leader made the above statement.
After two decades in the domain of people management, if there is one thing I have understood about the domain, it is that the domain of people management is inherently paradoxical. While the above statement made by the business leader seemed like a knee-jerk reaction (and reflecting a 'not so people-friendly' philosophy), it also highlighted the underlying belief that people make all the difference (and that just by changing some of the people the company performance issues can be fixed). 

Yes, in some cases, the cause of business performance issues can be traced back to particular individuals. But, in many cases the main problem might not be related to the capability level of the individual employees at all. The problem could mainly be at the strategy, structure, policies or processes level. However, it is relatively difficult/inconvenient for the business leaders to address the issues/make changes at those levels. So, there is a temptation to jump to the conclusion that it is an employee capability issue that can be fixed just by replacing the people involved.

Yes, it is highly tempting to 'throw people at problems'. This becomes even more of a concern in organizations that worship 'newness'. These organizations go through repeated cycles of trying to improve company performance by firing a large number of employees and replacing them with new employees. Even when there is no evidence to prove that the newly hired employees did any better than the employees they replaced, this gives the leaders the satisfaction that they took quick and decisive action. It can also create an illusion of progress, by wrongly equating 'change' with 'progress'

Sometimes, these people changes can trigger a chain reaction. There is often explicit or implicit pressure on the newly hired leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the change agenda by replacing the team members they have inherited. 'Infusing new talent from outside' appears to be much more progressive and decisive as compared to just 'recycling the existing talent'. This can snowball into large number of people changes with the associated disruption/ripple effects (and an absolute bonanza for recruitment consultants)!

In a way, what we have here is an 'irony'. Irony is the paradox of consequences. Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what was intended. In the particular example that we started this post with, an action that was based on the belief in the importance of people and the impact people can create, led to a consequence that was not at all people-friendly!  

Another paradox here is that the global business leader asked the HR Head to show him the people to be fired. While HR is very much expected to 'know the pulse of the organization', line managers are often in a much better position to diagnose and address business performance issues. This also raises interesting questions on the role of the HR function and what exactly should be the right type of 'business-orientation' that HR function should demonstrate

The domain of people management is rich in paradoxes, dilemmas and ironies. My new book 'Life in organizations - Paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities' explores many of those paradoxes, dilemmas and ironies in more detail. The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions.. 

Would love to to hear your comments/thoughts!!!


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stuck at the right level?!

 "But, you are stuck at the right level", protested the direct report to the CXO.  The direct report was having a conversation with the CXO on the career progression opportunities (or the lack of it, to be more precise). During the conversation, the CXO had claimed that he was in the same boat as he was also stuck in his role (because he had no real chance of becoming the CEO). That was when the direct report came up with the statement that we started this post with. It did prompt me to think more deeply about if there is really something like 'being stuck at the right level'.

There is indeed some merit in the argument that if one has to get stuck in one's career, it is better to get stuck at as high a level as possible, because it implies a higher salary and the associated benefits and perquisites. The problem is just that all these money and other advantages of being at a senior level might not eliminate the psychological feeling of being stuck. I guess, there is something in the human psyche that 'demands' progress! Yes, this 'progress' need not necessarily be only in terms of climbing the corporate ladder. However, if one has spent so many years climbing the corporate ladder, it is highly probable that one's (unstated) definition of 'progress' got colored by all that climbing!

Of course, one can try to become unstuck by moving to a 'bigger' role in another organization. However, narrowing of the organization pyramid when one moves to more senior levels is a reality and a lot of people will get stuck sooner or later. So, this problem can't be wished away and finding an opportunity to get stuck at the right level might not be such a bad idea!!!

We do see an increasing number of mid-career professionals taking up consulting/freelancing kind of options. The trouble is 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. Based on my interaction with a large number of people who have transitioned from corporate careers to coaching/consulting/freelancing, I can confidently say that making such transitions for the right reasons and with the right expectations is very important for personal happiness, professional effectiveness and and indeed for experiencing a sense of freedom and progress!

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.  Yes, there will be many senior HR professionals who will 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 working in business organizations. 

In this context there are also dimensions like motivation and meaning, apart from that of just being gainfully employed (Please see ‘Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR’ and ‘If you hang around in HR for too long’ for more details). After all, work is as much about finding the daily meaning as it is about finding the daily bread!

Any comments/ideas?

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Problems that refuse to remain solved : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

After my book on 'Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities' got published, I received multiple queries on how to correctly identify paradoxes in business organizations. This is a very important question, as not all the problems that we face in organizational life are paradoxes.

Many of the problems that we find in organizational life can be solved using regular problem-solving methods. Categorizing a simple problem as a paradox can complicate our lives unnecessarily. Some problems are to be solved, some problems are to be swamped out (by putting them in the broader context) and some problems are to be approached through paradoxical thinking. 

To me, the easiest way to spot a paradox is to look for problems that refuse remain solved. If an organizational problem is indeed a paradox, it cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems. There are many fundamental problems in management that have not yet been ‘permanently solved’ - even after decades of efforts by managers, consultants and management gurus. So, when you encounter such a problem that refuse to remain solved, you are likely to be in the presence of a paradox. 

The domain of people management is rich in such paradoxes. 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. That is why basic aspects of people management like hiring, employee engagement, performance management and rewards have become renewable resources, where solutions to the problems will create new problems to solve, and they will continue to provide opportunities for 'management' and  'thought leadership'. The good thing is that this phenomenon has sustained an entire ecosystem of ‘HR Professionals, People Managers, Consultants and Thought Leaders’ for many decades!

Paradoxical thinking is not about about endless analysis. In organizational life, decisions have to be taken, and often quickly. Paradoxical thinking is just about enabling better decisions - by developing a more nuanced understanding of the conflicting perspectives, wrestling with them for a while and taking a decision based on that higher level of awareness. Yes, it is highly context-specific, as the attempt is essentially to find the best possible equilibrium point of the conflicting forces(pushes and pulls) acting on us at that moment in the given context!

Yes, managers are paid to manage, and paradoxes can indeed be managed, if we use the term 'manage' the sense of 'to cope with effectively' instead of 'to fix it permanently'. If we approach paradoxes with the respect they deserve, they can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life.  Yes, it is this very process of identifying, understanding, wrestling with and responding to the paradoxes that opens up possibilities for creative living at the workplace (and in life)!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Judging a Book by its Cover : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

One of the most frequent questions that I have received on the book is related to the image of a gyroscope on its front cover.  What is a rather scientific looking image doing on the cover of a book about the paradoxes, dilemmas and possibilities in organization life?

Let me make an attempt to explain the thought process that led to this. 

Managing paradoxes in organizational life is more about achieving the right dynamic equilibrium or
'dynamic balance' between the conflicting forces (the opposing pushes and pulls acting on us at that point in that particular context) as opposed to regular problem solving. A gyroscope is an example of dynamic equilibrium and it was further  shown to be balanced on a person's finger to bring in the human element.

The primary attempt in this book is to take a closer look at the some of the key paradoxes, dilemmas and polarities that we encounter in business organizations, and, to wrestle with them for a while. This can help us to reach a higher level of awareness that makes it possible for us to respond creatively to the contradictions in our specific context and to actualize the possibilities for living a more fulfilling and effective life in business organizations.

Paradoxes are divergent problems. While convergent problems should be broken into pieces and solved, divergent problems should be approached differently. They should be transcended using a higher awareness and scope.  This often involves arriving at a higher plane where the diverging forces converge. While this is indeed more challenging, wresting with divergent problems often lead to breakthroughs. Creative leaps and integration are made possible by the presence of divergent problems and simultaneous opposites.


Without the ability to hold competing perspectives in mind simultaneously, we risk losing sight of the wisdom and opportunities that emerge when we pursue paradoxical thinking. Holding contradictory ideas in the mind is not easy, as it creates cognitive dissonance, stress and anxiety. However, it is a very valuable skill in a world full of contradictions. While it is said that eastern cultures more naturally embrace opposites, it is indeed a learnable skill. It will also help us to resist the temptation to oversimplify the situation and to wish away the paradox. As organizations and individuals work though higher and higher levels of uncertainty and change, paradoxical thinking can enable us to differentiate ourselves


Dealing with paradoxes need a high degree of openness, mental flexibility, intellectual honesty and humility. It also calls for some sort of ambidexterity and tolerance for ambiguity at the organizational level, to live with conflicting perspectives. This is what differentiates paradoxical thinking from the typical management approaches that worship clarity, predictability and control. 

A paradox cannot be solved in an algorithmic or prescriptive manner. If such a solution is attempted, it will create new problems and do more harm than good. This is the reason why many of the fundamental problems in management have not been ‘permanently solved’, even after decades of efforts by managers and consultants. However, if we approach them with the respect they deserve, paradoxes can reveal profound truths, spur creativity and help us to actualize the immense possibilities that come along with the inherent contradictions in organizational life!   

Now let us come back to the image the gyroscope that was used to represent the concept of dynamic equilibrium or dynamic balance. While a gyroscope is indeed an excellent example of dynamic balance. a bicycle in motion could also have conveyed the same idea.  But, the gyroscope looked like a more profound metaphor!

I guess, I have a soft corner for gyroscopes as they are also used to stabilize/orient satellites in space, and I started my career with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as an engineer. Yes. this is a rather curious mix of rationality and emotions! Maybe, that is the way most of the human decisions are!!

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

The Why of a Book : Life in Organizations - Paradoxes, Dilemmas and Possibilities

I started my career as an Aerospace Engineer at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre of the Indian Space Research Organization. Engineering is essentially about problem solving. Yes, it also involves creativity, optimizing within constraints and making design trade-offs. However, the core reality remains that the problems in engineering are meant to be solved. After I made the ‘quantum jump’ from engineering to management, I started becoming more aware of another type of ‘problems’ – problems that cannot be, and even should not be, ‘solved’ in the engineering sense.

Slowly, it occurred to me that these kinds of  problems are probably the norm, as opposed to being exceptions, when it comes to life in business organizations, especially in matters related to people and people management. 

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. This implies that that 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. These responses are not necessarily solutions in the normal sense of the word ‘solution’. Sometimes, these are effective ways of coping with the situation. Sometimes, these responses involve totally reframing the situation and opening up radically new possibilities.

Here, we are using the term paradox and paradoxical thinking in a broad manner. Therefore, it will also involve dilemmas, polarities and dialectic, though strictly speaking, they are not necessarily paradoxes. A dilemma occurs when one has to make a choice between two mutually exclusive options, neither of which is clearly better than the other one. If these options are polar opposites, then we have a polarity. 

A dialectic is a pattern that begins with a thesis followed by an antithesis and resolved by a higher synthesis. This synthesis can be followed by another antithesis and the pattern can repeat, though at a higher level, as one point of view teaches the other point of view instead of invalidating it!  Another term that is relevant here irony. Irony occurs when what actually happens turns out to be completely different from what was expected. In a way, irony is the paradox of consequences.  

This book is the outcome of my struggle with these paradoxes, contradictions, dilemmas and possibilities over the last two decades. While this struggle can indeed be very frustrating, it also holds the key to achieve a higher level of awareness and more nuanced understanding that can open a wide range of possibilities for us – possibilities for responding creatively and effectively to the paradoxical situations that we face at work and in life.

This book is an expedition through the paradoxes, dilemmas, polarities and possibilities in the various aspects of organizational life. Our focus will be on ‘real world paradoxes’ that impact our effectiveness in business organizations, as opposed to ‘logical paradoxes’ that are more like logical riddles. The book is organized in a manner that anyone who works in business organizations should find it interesting. If you are a people manager or business leader or if you work in the Human Resources domain you will find many additional insights. I do not promise any algorithmic solutions or to do lists. However, I do promise a lot of triggers for insights!   

The book is available on Amazon India, Amazon UK and Amazon US in both paperback and Kindle versions. It is also available in other eBook formats like Kobo and Google Books. 

Would love to to hear your comments/ideas!!!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Of espoused values and enacted values

"This slide has a spelling mistake", remarked one of employees attending the 'corporate values workshop'. "Sorry, I can't find it", said the puzzled facilitator. "The problem is with what is shown as renewal. The correct spelling should be removal!", replied the employee. 

We come across these kinds of tragicomic situations when there is a significant difference between the 'espoused values' (the values that an organization publicly states that it believes in) and the 'enacted values' (the values that the organization actually exhibits) of an organization. The enacted values get reflected in the manner in which the organization treats its stakeholders, including the employees. 

In the particular incident that we started this post with, the employee did have a point. The organization had gone through repeated cycles of trying to renew itself by firing a large number of employees and replacing them with new employees. While there was no evidence to prove that the newly hired employees did any better than the employees they replaced, it did give the management the satisfaction that they took quick and decisive action. It also created an illusion of progress (or even an illusion of renewal). So, 'renewal' in this organization actually meant 'removal' though it was referred to by means of more progressive terms like 'workforce refresh' and 'top-grading'!

It is indeed 'fashionable' to have well-articulated set of corporate values. Also, how can we even think of (let alone work with) an organization that doesn't have any values? However, the most essential thing about values is that they should be 'valued'. To me, something should be called a value only if it is so important (so valuable and so core to the organization) that the organization will exhibit it even when it leads to competitive disadvantage or results in a loss to the organization. Also, values are about 'who you are' as an organization and hence the values are 'discovered' (not 'designed'). 

Unfortunately, many organizations trivialize values and hence the values 'safely' remain in corporate presentations and on the walls of the organization. The arduous journey from the walls to the head to the heart and to the hands is never even seriously attempted. Ironically, this lack of congruence between the espoused values and the enacted values of the organization creates the highest amount of 'cognitive dissonance' and 'disengagement' in the case of those sincere employees who take the organization and its stated values seriously.

Any comments?