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?

Monday, April 11, 2022

Of leaders and 'smiling depression'

“The ability to suffer in silence is a key requirement for senior leaders, though you will not find it in any leadership competency framework”, said the Senior HR leader when he was in a reflective frame of mind. This was my sixth ‘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’ and the ‘OD Quest’ 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 and the underlying assumptions.

It can be argued that leaders are at high risk for stress and depression. Leadership positions often come with very high expectations. Also, 'the buck stops with you' in a leadership position. Bringing in new leaders is often the preferred response for many organizations when they are in trouble.  It is possible that that problems at the organization strategy, structure or policies level get misdiagnosed as individual capability issues of leaders down the line. If that is the case, unless the new leaders have the empowerment to change/ influence those upstream factors/issues, they have no chance of being successful. Also, there is more at stake for the leaders. The higher you are, the harder will be the fall (and the harder it will be to get up and move on to another assignment).

 In a way, leadership is primarily about achieving the optimal balance between the various polarities in organizational life. One of those balancing acts is between ‘appearing to be confident and making a vulnerable connection’. Yes, leaders have to convey the confidence that they as a team/organization will be successful and that they are going in the right direction. However, leaders are also human and they, if they are honest with themselves, have their own share of doubts, fears, hopelessness, loneliness and sadness. However, many of the leaders try to live up to the ‘great man’ image and this makes any expression of negative feelings (to themselves or to others) a symbol of weakness or incompetence. This often leads to what is known as ‘smiling depression’ where leaders hide behind a smile to convince other people that they are happy and confident.

Leaders are often very successful in maintaining this façade as they are able to maintain a high level of functionality/effectiveness on the job despite their inner turmoil (this is the reason why smiling depression is also known  as ‘high-functioning depression’). It is not that they suffer less because they manage to smile. On the contrary, the strain of keeping up appearances can significantly add to their stress and suffering. Yes, it seems strange to think that someone can be very depressed, yet manage to hide that, even from their friends and family. Yes, this would also make seeking help (or others proactively reaching out to help) near impossible and could lead to perpetuation of a vicious cycle till some sort of breakdown happens. The 'high-functioning' aspect of smiling depression could also mean that the likelihood of suicide is much higher for those with smiling depression (as they have a higher level of ability to plan and execute the suicide as compared to those who are totally exhausted/ immobilized by depression). 

Yes, smiling depression does have physical manifestations like changes in eating habits and sleeping patterns. But these can easily be misattributed or even glorified as part of the way of the corporate warrior. It is very easy to believe what we want to believe. Let me give a personal example. My parents told me that they named me ‘Prasad’ as I was smiling almost always as a child -that too often without any reason they could understand (‘prasadam’ in my mother tongue Malayalam means expression of happiness on the face). This ‘smile on the face’ continued as a pattern in my life and I (conveniently) assumed that it was because I was happy almost all the time. It was during one of the ‘Human Process Labs’ that I suddenly realized that I use smile not only to express joy but also to hide discomfort. After that, when I catch myself smiling, I often ask myself the question “what am I happy about?” and this has helped me quite a bit to discover any possible discomforts that I am overlooking and to use smile as an expression of joy. Yes, this does mean that I smile a bit less than what I used to earlier; but, the loss of the smile can sometimes be a blessing!   

Now, let’s come back to the statement made by our Senior HR Leader. Yes, the responsibilities and expectations associated with leadership roles can put tremendous load on the incumbents and it can definitely take a personal toll, including high stress levels, anxiety, feelings of loneliness or even burnout. Yes, it is often an unstated expectation in many organizations that a leader ‘puts up a brave face’. Some organizations might even want their leaders to be viewed as a bit ‘super human’ (this could be one of the reasons why some organizations have separate lunch rooms and toilets for senior leaders – so that others won’t see them doing these very human activities). The problem is just that this way of functioning might not be helpful, either to the organizations or to the leaders, if it becomes a compulsion. 

Leaders should have the behavioral flexibility and the freedom to strike the appropriate balance between appearing to be confident and making a vulnerable connection. Authentic human interactions are a key requirement for both organization and personal effectiveness. This would also make it easier for the leaders suffering from silent depression to admit it to themselves and to reach out and ask for help – which is the necessary first step out of silent depression. Yes, if leaders invest in building a culture of open communication and relationships based on trust, it is likely to help them when they are going through stress and depression. Addressing smiling depression can also enable the leaders to respond better to/benefit more from leadership coaching and leadership development - as it helps the leaders to become 'unstuck' /'avoid the 'glued feet syndrome' where the positive pull generated by leadership development initiatives get negated to a large extent because the leaders are psychologically stuck or because of their inner turmoil is already taking up a very large part of their mental bandwidth. .

Any comments/ideas?

Sunday, February 27, 2022

What 'success' looks like - Exploring the inner world of leaders in transition

One of my all-time favorite books is ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig. This book begins with the lines “And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good, Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?". When it comes to the domain of Leadership and Organization Development, it is very important to have a clear understanding of ‘what good looks like’, because we are often dealing with the inner world of individuals and groups that tend to be quite ‘subjective’. This is especially true when it comes to leadership transitions.  

Leadership transitions, those involving new leaders moving into the organization in particular, are important and risky at the same time, from both the individual leaders’ and the organization’s points of view.

From the organization's point of view, leadership transitions are high-stake situations as the level of effectiveness of the new leader will have a significant impact on the team, the organization, and the other stakeholders. This becomes even more important when the new leader has been hired with the mandate to drive organizational transformation.

Similarly, from the individual leader's point of view, moving to a new organization might imply high risks, as a leader's effectiveness is often quite context-specific and as the leader is making the transition decision based on limited information. Also, how the leaders approach the job change process and how they look at the  degree of ‘success’ in their job changes can vary from leader to leader. 

I have had the opportunity to observe many such leadership transitions and their impact closely. Please see ‘When the new doesn’t outperform the old’ for some ‘unorthodox’ perspectives on this fascinating domain that also include suggestions for the leaders in transition like

  • considering a bit of 'exorcism’,
  • validating 'what good looks like.
  • being politically aware without 'playing politics', and 
  • ‘alignment, alignment, alignment’.

Now, let us come back to the inner world of leaders in transition - their ‘lived experience’ of job transitions and their tacit definitions of success (i.e., the factors that affect the perceived degree of success in job changes made by leaders, as perceived by the leaders themselves). In a way, success in transitions is a construct that exists in the minds of the individual leaders in transition and it has no clear boundaries.

It is possible that the above factors that affect the perceived degree of success are different for internal job changes and external job changes. Similarly these factors that affect the perceived degree of success in job changes might vary based on the nature of job change (e.g., that for lateral moves as compared to moves involving a level change, moves within the job function as compared to cross-functional moves, moves involving relocation as compared that moves that don’t involve relocation etc.).  

It is also possible that these tacit definitions of success change as the leaders spend more time in their jobs. For example, it is possible that when accepting a new job, the tacit definition of success is more in terms of 'objective' factors (e.g., salary and job description). Then transition-related factors (e.g., how smooth was the transition process), fit related factors (e.g., person-organization/person-team fit, person-job fit, and the fit between assumptions made by the leader while making the job change decision and the experienced reality), and progression related factors (e.g., capability and career development) get added on.

Again, there could be variations in the factors that affect the perceived degree of success in job changes based on personality related factors. gender, age, job function, job level, type of organization, national culture etc.

I guess, what makes this domain fascinating to explore is the interplay of individual and context related factors apart from the very fact that we are we are exploring the inner world of leaders in transition. The inner worlds tend to follow ‘their own rules’ and sometimes they might even refuse to follow any rules!

Having said this, I must also add that there is a strong 'business case' for exploring the inner worlds of leaders in transition and their tacit definitions of success.

Such an exploration can help the leaders to be more intentional about job changes and to make better-informed decisions and actions that can enhance their perceived level of success in job changes. Also,  it can help the organizations to make better selection decisions by probing the tacit definitions of success the candidates for leadership positions have and comparing them with what the organization offers. Again, it can inform interventions like executive coaching, leadership induction, new leader assimilation, and leadership development. 

Any comments/ideas?

Friday, December 24, 2021

Remarkable Encounters – Part 3 : Contented

It is said that we discover some parts of ourselves only in the context of our interaction with others. Some of these interactions are so enriching that they leave us feeling more complete, integrated, alive and human. Similarly, some of the interactions prompt us to think more deeply about the underlying aspects, instead of just floating on the surface of life. In this series of posts, we have been looking at the impressions from some of the remarkable encounters that I have had.  

In the first post, we looked at my impressions from my encounter with a remarkable teacher (See Remarkable Encounters – Part 1 : Teacher). In the second post, we looked at a constant companion to many of us – fear (See Remarkable Encounters -Part 2: Fear). This post is based on an encounter that I have had a long time ago, that stayed with me all these years. 

My first job, after I made the ‘quantum jump’ to the management domain, was with a global management consulting firm. Management consultants, in general, tend to lead stressful lives. Some of them even glorify their high-stress fast-track lifestyles that also involve frequent business travel. Of course, since the business travel is often billable to the clients, the consultants often get to stay in the best of the hotels with a wide range of food options. One of the ironic things that I noticed was that, even among the consultants who ordered very highly-priced dishes, only a small percentage of them ate the food mindfully/enjoyed the food (as their minds were often preoccupied with other ‘more important’ matters).   

There was one exception to this in the office – though not among the consultants. This was provided by the elderly security guard in the office who always used to greet everyone, employees and visitors alike, with a warm smile. He was also very effective in his work and he could resolve tricky situations (that would have got the other security guards agitated) with a large degree of grace and ease.

He used to eat his lunch from the roadside food stall just outside the office. His lunch was always the same – a plate of rice with some gravy poured on it accompanied by two pieces of 'dal vada'. What caught my attention was the slow and mindful way in which he used to eat this simple lunch that too with a great deal of enjoyment.

Initially I thought there was something special about this apparently very basic meal. I was even tempted to try it myself. But, since I didn't see the same level of enjoyment on the faces of others who ate the same food from the same food stall, I came to the conclusion that it was probably more to do with him as an individual. Maybe, he had learned how to enjoy his food. Maybe, this was part of something larger – like being comfortable in one’s skin/being comfortable with where one was in one’s life. This did prompt me to explore some of the definitions of/approaches to ‘personal excellence’ that go beyond the traditional measures of success.    

One such idea is the Greek concept of areté. Though this word is often translated as 'virtue', it actually means something closer to 'being the best you can be', or 'reaching your highest human potential'. Areté is frequently associated with bravery, but more often, with effectiveness. The man or woman of areté is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties to achieve real results. Areté involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans. Thus, being one's best self and realizing one's  human potential is a key part of this approach towards excellence.

Another relevant concept here is that of 'flow' or 'being in the zone' – especially the aspect of ‘being fully immersed in an activity and enjoying the same’. One of the defining features of ‘flow’, that is particularly relevant in the context of our exploration here, is that ‘flow’ can be achieved at various levels of skill, so long as the level of skill and the level of challenge are in sync. This enables an individual-specific approach towards achieving the ‘flow’ (at one's current level of skill). 

Yet another such concept is that of 'shibumi'. While there are many interpretations on what shibumi means, I am using it here mainly in the sense of 'great refinement underlying commonplace appearances'. The other interpretations of shibumi that appeal to me include 'simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty', 'articulate brevity', 'understated beauty', 'tranquility that is not passive', 'being without the angst of becoming', 'authority without domination, 'harmony in action', 'invisible excellence', 'effortless effectiveness', 'beautiful imperfection' and 'elegant simplicity'. 

From this discussion, the similarities between shibumi and 'simplicity on the other side of complexity'(which is the primary theme for this blog) are quite obvious. No wonder I like the concept of shibumi very much! This does highlight the role of ‘resonance’ in the perceptions of excellence – the resonance of a particular thing with one's (subjective) self -  that go beyond any absolute/objective factors!

Apart from areté, ‘flow’ and shibumi, another key underlying theme for the kind of excellence we are talking about here could be the emphasis on 'presence of value' rather than on 'absence of defects'. Thus, 'goodness and authenticity' are preferred over 'correctness'. One interesting aspect that is common across all the three underlying themes mentioned above is that they all imply internal benchmarks. Maybe, that is the way it should be since here we are talking about 'personal excellence'!

In this context, the Zen concept of 'personalization of enlightenment' also comes to mind. It says that your work does not finish once you attain enlightenment (otherwise, there is no point in living any longer !). Actually, your true work begins only then. The real work is to personalize the enlightenment that you have attained by bringing in your unique gifts/perspective/life context.

Now, let’s come back to my encounter with the gentleman that triggered all these thoughts/prompted this exploration on personal excellence. I don’t remember his name. However, I still remember him, his quiet efficiency, the relish with which he was eating his simple lunch and his state of 'being at peace with oneself' – even after almost two decades since I moved out of that office. Come to think of it, what I noticed in him also has similarities with some aspects of  ‘wu wei’ , especially those related to ‘unconflicting personal harmony’, ‘effortless action’ and ‘perfect economy of energy’ ('Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished').

Of course, I am in no way suggesting that the challenges and rewards associated with various jobs are comparable or that less stressful jobs are better. I am also not trying to glorify the job of a security guard in any way. I guess what made this encounter remarkable was that I saw something in his behavior that stood out (beyond what can be attributed to job-specific factors) and that it was something that was missing in the behavior of most of the consultants including myself.  So, in a way, the experience served as a mirror to me. Yes, it did prompt me to examine some of the unexamined parts of my personality, my beliefs and my behaviors, apart from prompting me to explore the concept of ‘personal excellence’ in some depth. Hence, going by the definition that we had started this post with, it definitely qualifies as a 'remarkable encounter' for me!

 Any thoughts/comments?

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?