Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Appropriate metaphors for Organizational Commitment

"We need more commitment in this organization. Employees should just trust their managers and the organization and do what they are asked to do. Instead, they get confused and start asking questions", said the senior HR professional. It was my second encounter with this person (See 'Passion for work and anasakti', for the details of the first encounter that happened many years ago). Like what happened last time, this statement set me thinking. I have realized that interactions like this prompts me to examine my own opinions/assumptions and hence enrich my understanding. That is why I treasure these encounters!

For the purpose of our discussion here, let us define Organizational Commitment as the psychological attachment or affinity that employees have to the organization they work for. It is highly useful for the organization/employer as organizational commitment (or certain types of organization commitment - to be more precise) can have a positive impact on important workplace outcomes like employee retention, attendance, performance and extra-role behavior. There exists a significant volume of literature on organization commitment (e.g. affective commitment, continuous commitment, normative commitment etc.), its antecedents and its outcomes.

Now, let us come back to the statement made by our senior HR professional. What intrigued me the most was the likely underlying assumptions in his statement about the behavioral manifestations of commitment and trust. My objective is not to prove that these assumptions are wrong. Having been a people manager for more than a decade, there have been many situations where I felt that it would be so much better for everyone if my team members just did what I asked them to do without forcing me explain everything. Different assumptions are valid to different extents in different contexts. The objective here is just to examine if there are other ways of looking at the situation.

To begin with, I am not sure if 'getting confused' or 'asking questions' necessarily indicates lack of commitment. It might just be that the employee does not have enough information/clarity on what exactly needs to be done and how. Often, this is the result of the so called ‘curse of knowledge’. As the manger might have additional information/background/big picture understanding & knowledge/expertise about the situation/task the employees don’t have, what seems so simple, clear and obvious to the manager might not be so for the employees. But since the manager does not realize this (i.e. as he burdened by the ‘curse of knowledge’) he does not feel the need to provide all this information. Hence the most reasonable response on the part of a committed employee is to seek clarifications. However, in some organizations it could be culturally more acceptable for the employee to ‘muddle through the situation’ as compared to seeking clarifications upfront. In such cases it is the organization culture (and not the employee) that needs fixing (see 'Placebos, Paradoxes & Parables for Culture Change').

Sometimes, it is possible that the employee has a different view from that of the manager. In this case also, the most effective response is to discuss the matter upfront. But if such a behavior is not permitted/feasible, it can lead to 'passive resistance', especially on the part of the 'good' employees. As we have seen ‘Paradox of passive resistance’, it is often the highly competent (and hence capable of seeing the limitations of the approach suggested by the manager) and committed (and hence caring too much about the organization to accept the suboptimal solution) employees who exhibit passive resistance in an organization context where they can’t express their disagreement directly without seriously jeopardizing their careers.

Now let us look at the ‘trust’ aspect. I think that expressing the feeling of confusion and/or seeking clarifications can actually be a sign of the employee’s trust on the manager. If this trust did not exist, the employee won’t make himself vulnerable by expressing the feeling of confusion or by seeking clarifications (and hence revealing his lack of understanding). In a way, it also demonstrates the trust the employee has on the manager’s competence (to be able to provide the clarification). Of course, expressing confusion/asking questions can also be a defensive behavior – to avoid/delay the task. It is also possible that questioning too much when there is a critical need to take urgent action is counterproductive. My point is just that expressing confusion/asking questions doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of trust. It is interesting to note that the type of trust implied by our senior HR professional (on the omniscience and infallibility of the manager/organization) boarders on trust in God. That kind of trust would be appropriate in a religious/spiritual context but not in the context of business organizations! This brings us to the topic of metaphors and the appropriate use of metaphors.

Metaphors are highly useful tools for thinking. Metaphors facilitate the understanding of one conceptual domain (typically an abstract one) by relating it to another more familiar conceptual domain (typically a more concrete one). They are so much a part of our lives and thinking that often we are not fully conscious of the metaphors we use. It has also been argued that by examining the metaphors we use, we can a learn a lot about ourselves – our values and assumptions. A good metaphor is generative. It helps us to develop new ideas, perspectives and understanding about the topic that we are exploring (especially when the topic is a relatively unfamiliar one). But the use of metaphors also has its disadvantages. Since a metaphor is not an exact comparison, often inaccurate/irrelevant/misleading meanings & ideas creep in into our thought process/understanding. Since we might not be fully conscious of the use of metaphors in our thinking, this can be dangerous.

Now let us look at a couple of metaphors used to talk about (think about) the ‘employer-employee’ (employment) relationship. The most common one is that of ‘marriage’ – with sometimes a finer distinction being made between ‘arranged marriage’ and ‘love marriage’. While this metaphor help us to generate useful ideas (e.g. the importance of ensuring high degree of ‘person-organization’ and ‘person-job’ fit at the time of selection), it also brings in meanings that might not be appropriate (e.g. the requirement for making a long term commitment at the time of joining the organization – reflected in statements like ‘we should hire only those people who are willing to make a long term commitment to the organization’). As a social institution, we don’t yet have a viable alternative to marriage. But we do have viable alternatives to lifelong employment. In some societies, marriage is a sacred bond. But employment might not be so. While stability/continuity of employments is important for business, the disruption caused by employee attrition is often no way close to the trauma caused by the dissolution of marriage. Again, in the context of frequent rightsizing and reorganization, a sacred longtime employment commitment might not be feasible even from the organization’s point of view.

Another metaphor is that of the family (with the employer being the parent and the employee being the child). While this metaphor also helps us to generate useful ideas (like encouraging high degree of mutual trust & collaboration, care/benevolence towards the employees, extra-role behavior/going the extra mile etc.), it also brings in meanings that might not be appropriate (like a lopsided relationship/power balance, assumption that the employer/manager always ‘knows best’, encouraging ‘Parent-Child’ interactions as opposed to ‘Adult-Adult’ interactions– in the Transactional Analysis sense – between the employer/manager and the employee etc.)

So where are we now? We have found that two of the most common metaphors used to talk about (think about) the ‘employer-employee’ (employment) relationship have significant disadvantages. They also create avoidable complications when it comes to figuring out what kind of trust and commitment would be appropriate in an organizational context. However, metaphors have tremendous rhetorical value and hence they are highly useful for leaders/managers in the complex endeavor of ‘motivating’ or ‘inspiring’ employees (Please see ‘Power of carrot and stick’). Metaphors are also be very useful for employees to find meaning (or to make sense) in the workplace (Please see ‘Architects of meaning’). Again, it would be very difficult (or even impossible) to totally avoid the use of metaphors as they are such an integral part of our thinking process. Hence metaphors are here to stay and we need to make the best use of them.

Are there metaphors that are more appropriate for helping us understand commitment and trust in the employment relationship? May be, there is no one metaphor that is appropriate. The best course of action might be to use multiple metaphors (e.g. marriage, family, contract, partnership, citizenship, mission, journey, marketplace, channel, tribe, village, casino etc.) to generate a wide range of ideas on the various aspects/dimensions of the topic/concept, while consciously watching out for spurious meanings/ideas that are likely to come in as part of that process, so that we can select the useful ideas (and discard the irrelevant/misleading ones) enabling us to come up with richer understanding and better responses!

Any ideas/comments/metaphors?

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