Most of us who have worked in organizations of various sizes have this feeling in common: We want to be part of it and we also want to be apart from it. The “it” can be the organization in which we work, or the work group with which we affiliate. I would imagine that this tension is likely stronger in cultures where individualism is embraced, such as American, and less so in cultures where collectivism is ingrained, such as Japanese. In the last post, I mentioned that many organizations try to put us in role expectations that often do not fit with who and how we really are. So, it is in those rare wonderful organizations where talented people actually shine; or more accurately, great organizations – through “wise” management — allow people with various talents to flourish. This post is a continuation of reflections on “Hard Facts,” by J. Pfeffer & R. Sutton.
Russell Ackoff, a leading proponent of system thinking, used to tell this story: Gather a group of top engineers from the auto industry. Have each of them choose their preferred top of the line vehicle. Bring all those vehicles in, and have the engineers re-engineer starting from these top models to make the one very best automobile. What do you think this dream automobile would turn out to be? It didn’t budge at all. Paraphrasing a popular political slogan to sum up the moral of this story, “It’s the SYSTEM, stupid!”
While it is natural for organizations to espouse their goal of hiring “the best” people, it is much harder to define what that “best” entails. I.Q.? G.P.A.? Sales volume? Number of articles published and cited? Empathy or emotional intelligence?! The list goes on. Furthermore, a person’s performance varies over time; that means that talents and skills evolve. Research has shown that if people believe that they can get smarter, they inevitably do, and if they think I.Q. is stationary, they won’t get smarter. It is up to the individuals as well as the quality of the environment in which they learn (and I don’t mean to limit it to school environment). Even Einstein evolved over time. I am not crazy about Picasso’s paintings, but I am fascinated by his evolution; I much prefer Van Gogh’s style, which also changed over time.
Therefore, whatever talents we bring in to an organization, those talents need a nurturing environment to enable further growth. Most organizations seem to bring in multiple talents and then manage to choke off their aspirations, by micro-managing, by putting up all kinds of roadblocks, by imposing mountains of rules, by not listening, by punishing the slightest mistakes, by building routines for innovative and creative work…etc. How does this make sense? For instance, (back to one of my pet peeves) the forced ranking on people only creates stress for most; instead of continuously learning and improving, people tend to focus on only the indices by which their performance would be judged, and learn to manipulate the system in order to benefit themselves. Additionally, people who make the judgments, i.e. managers, are not free of bias; these judgments are likely to reflect the managers’ own interests and tastes. Do managers learn and grow? The usual trajectory of taking a few training courses, seminars, and workshops offers limited and little sustaining development. If the system does not allow managers to practice what they have learned from their non-working environment, they usually revert back to their old ways.
So, what does a nurturing environment look like? I imagine that in a nurturing environment, one would be able to feel more oneself than not, an aspect I discussed in the last post. Related, one is allowed to explore ways to make the job a better fit with one’s personality, style, and interests. But this is contingent upon the organization/the system where one works. Therefore, I have to draw the conclusion that a great system is a lot more important than a group of great people; it’s the system that makes people to want to contribute their talents. At least, ideally, the system is the greater sum of the talented parts. Of course, we can always find individuals with strong perseverance defying and prospering even in a dysfunctional system, but that’s likely to be the exception rather than the rule. Besides, I have often argued in this blog the over-emphasis on individualism in this country. We tend to credit individual heroes when things go right (when it’s really the system), and scapegoat individuals when things go wrong (again, it’s often the system).
Professors Repenning and Sternman of MIT did a study comparing and contrasting manufacturing firms on their processing improvement efforts, one that succeeded and one that failed. In the failed organization, the focus was always on individuals who did “right,” with recognition and rewards, and who did “wrong,” with admonitions and punishment. There was usually a bit of a spike on productivity right after such exposure of individual behaviors, but inevitably the setbacks would follow. Then, there would be more scrutiny, more precise measures, more spotlight on those who have done wrong, followed by reprimand and punishment…a downward spiral…imagine working in such an environment! More isn’t always better.
In contrast, in the successful firm, the managers went out of their ways to not focus on individual efforts, but on the cycles and timing of the system and how they could improve the process of the system so that all individuals could work more smoothly. This firm found problems in the system and fixed them. Sounds so much like common sense, doesn’t it? In the failed one, they found problems with individuals and fixed them by making them feel demoralized. Actually, in the successful firm, the managers did have to make efforts to curb their natural urge to focus on the individuals. Common sense lies in the eyes, and the efforts, of the beholder.
Even in sports, such as basketball, often it’s the individuals who “score” the most who get the hero treatment. But successful coaches understand that even the most talented players wouldn’t score as well if they don’t have a good team supporting each other. John Wood, the UCLA basketball coach who presided over a 12-year period in which he and his team won 10 national championships, believed in allowing players to give their best, and not tracking the win-loss scores. His philosophy was to allow people to focus on things over which they can exert control, rather than things they feel powerless over.
When we can control our own development, hone our skills, feel a sense of contribution, we feel part of the organization. But when we feel stymied, get “no’s” to most of our proposals, are rebutted when asking questions, the sense of belonging to the organization rapidly diminishes.
Many of us have experienced the utter disappointment of having someone we thought would be a great manager take over the position only to behave like his disastrous predecessor. One of my professors, Kenwyn Smith, called this “role suction;” it’s as if there is an independent and inherent dynamic associated with the role, not controllable by the person occupying the position. And there are certain positions that are truly impossible for anyone to “succeed” in. Pfeffer and Sutton labeled this: “The law of crappy systems trumps the law of crappy people: bad systems do far more damage than bad people, and a bad system can make a genius look like an idiot.” Managers should learn to acquire more humility, and others can learn to be more sympathetic.
So, how can we enssure the building and maintaining of a healthy system? In one word, “wisdom.” Wisdom is a lot more important for an organization to possess than raw talents. What’s wisdom? Pfeffer and Sutton explained it as “knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. This attitude enables people to act on their (present) knowledge while doubting what they know, so they can do things now (emphasis theirs), but can keep learning along the way.” So, doubting, asking questions, challenging the status quo, asking for help, being willing to forgive…all are forms of demonstrating wisdom.
Of course, in reality, most of the time we are grateful for having a job, and few of us can afford to jeopardize the job by asking too many questions and acting in a manner that can be interpreted as defiant. So, when you sense that you have a job that fits you well, and that you have a boss that encourages you to grow, and that the system is overall in good health, take advantage of that. Till you find such a wonderful niche,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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