Archive | April 2011

If You (Management) Want The Best People For The Organization: Get out of way!

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!”

pining for rain…it’s been missing for more than 60 days!

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.

a head of a vegetable was lopped off…what is it?

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).

through the trees

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.

a doorway into…

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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Work Is Part of Life: It’s about merging them, not balancing them on a zero-sum scale

Most of us wear the “professional suit” when we are at work; letting our hair down is for when we are at home and/or play.  That means that at work, we put certain constraints on who we are, how we behave, what we say and how we choose our words.  There is logic to such bounded approach to work, but when we feel as if we have to suppress part of our personality at work, then all manners of illness may be manifested.  I am not sure I like the phrase “balancing between work and life/family;” it’s that either-or dichotomy that can give us heartburn.  If we feel happier and seem to be more productive outside our work, why don’t we also want that feeling at work? I think it’s healthier if we ask how to allow our lives to better inform our work and how to enhance our overall lives by our work.

april snow accentuates tulip’s beauty

Former Southwest Airlines executive vice president, Libby Sartain, told some stories of the early stage of her career where she was repeatedly “advised” to “tone down” her laughter.  When she was working for Mary Kay, her (presumably well-meaning) boss said as much: while it was “fun” to work with her, her laughter diminished her “professional” conduct.  Refusing to be not herself, eventually she found a home at Southwest where her enthusiasm and “infectious laugh” were welcomed and embraced, and she was successful at what she did.

Conversely, bosses who exhibit “tough” attitudes or borderline abusive behavior are often lauded by business magazines and newspapers.  Former CEO of Sunbeam Al Dunlap was noted for his toughness, but in reality, he was essentially a bully.  He was eventually fired, not for his abusive behavior but for accounting fraud; perhaps he shouldn’t have been hired in the first place?!  Similarly, Richard Grasso, former chairman of New York Stock Exchange, would lash out at subordinates who didn’t meet his exacting standards.  He would dress down the “offending” party in public so aggressively that his face would be flushed.  And he was the person in the scandalous $140 million retirement package.  And no, such behavior isn’t the prerogative of male bosses; many female mangers have earned similar disrepute.

Why is it that the kind of behavior we would encourage in our families gets a poor reception at work, while abusive behavior we’d never tolerate in our beloved ones gets accepted and even praised in our workplaces?  Something is seriously wrong with our working and organizational cultures.  Furthermore, while organizations like to keep fairly tight control over the boundary between work and the rest of our lives, they have no qualms of suggesting, strongly requesting, or downright demanding that we devote more time on our jobs while studiously ignoring other aspects of our lives.  And we all put up with it.

To be fair, once upon a time, employers were very much part of our lives, but that was before the industrial revolution when most employers had limited numbers of people working for them.  It was a more family-like atmosphere then, admittedly not totally without some negative impact.  As corporations sprouted, and organizations grew bigger, issues of control and managing boundaries crept in.  Employees, too, wanted companies and managers to intrude less into their private lives.  Finding a happy medium hasn’t been very easy, harder in some cultures than in others:  Asian cultures tend to be more comfortable with porous work/life boundaries than most Anglo-Sexton cultures.

Certainly, there are good cases to be made for observing a clear boundary between work and the rest of life.  For one, it makes everyone’s life a little easier.  If we carried all the worries and demands from our homes into our working hours, we’d be distracted, lose our productivity, feel exhausted, and drive up health care costs, to name just a few negative impacts.  However, for organizations to not acknowledge that non-working life is just as precious as worklife, is tantamount to burying their collective heads in the proverbial sand.  If a child is sick, an aging parent needs immediate attention, a partner has relationship issues, or any important life aspects are out of kilter, we are bound to be distracted.  So, here is a paradox:  By rigidly separating family role from employee role, organizations have unintentionally exacerbated our internal conflicts.  Those organizations that are more enlightened by providing, say, on-site child care or infirmaries for sick family members, actually help employees better manage their internal boundary caused by conflicting roles.

much work went into making this lovely 3″ pinecone

Patagonia products are very pricey; the nickname “Pata-Gucci” isn’t unfounded.  However, they do know how to treat their employees well, and well-treated employees do help raise productivity.  At their HQ in California, there is a room full of sports equipment such as bicycles and surfboards, and people can take any one out on lunch break.  On days with great waves, they can get off work early and make up the time on other days.  Not surprisingly, Patagonia provides on-site childcare facilities.  I don’t buy their products often but am perfectly willing to pay full price to support their organizational priorities.  Similarly, I go to Costco only a few times a year, but I am happy to support them because their CEO doesn’t rake in millions of dollars in salary, and the company treats its employees well, with good benefits.

Other reasons why we should observe some boundary between personal and organizational life include minimizing nepotism, practicing objective decision-making, minimizing use of company time and resources for personal matters.  Of course, all these concerns are still present in most organizations.  We still help recruit friends and sometimes relatives to our organizations.  We occasionally exchange emails on non-business matters.  And let’s not forget cyber purchases on the Monday after Thanksgiving and other post-holiday sales.  So, this implies that as long as human beings need to work together, some of these artificial boundaries are going to be broken.  The goal isn’t to eliminate all potential boundary-breaches (you can’t anyway, remember the third law of thermodynamics); the goal is to manage them smartly.

Allow me a bit of psychological speculation.  I think the Cyber Monday is a small defiant gesture on employees’ part against the mounting tensions and frustrations in their organizational lives.  A wise management should overlook a few hours of “protest” as a relatively harmless method of venting frustration.  Choking off such a minor outlet can potentially lead to much worse blow-offs down the road.  On the other hand, an employee exchanging 537 personal emails in a 3-day period is definitely a breach of contract, which deserves some form of sanction.

another little beauty in the snow

So, the real issue of the balancing act should be more about how to let people be themselves while maintaining some respect for the boundary between organizational and personal lives.  A good starting point may be to encourage the kind of behaviors that we teach our children, and conversely, to not tolerate behaviors at work that we would reject elsewhere.  I can almost hear some bully-type arguing that “this is how they are.”  So how many of us come into this world thinking that someday when we get to be bosses, we are going to yell at people, threaten them, and blackmail them?  “Be ourselves” means to uphold our interests, passions, worldviews, ways of thinking, preferred working styles, etc.  Manners are taught and therefore can be learned and relearned.  I’ve encountered too many managers who definitely need to be sent back to finishing school every so often.  Perhaps, instead of attending some “leadership institute” they should be given a basic course prescribed by Ms. Manner.  It wouldn’t hurt (except perhaps their egos).

Today’s topic was inspired by a chapter from the book, “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense:  Profiting from evidence-based management,” by Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton.  I wanted to do an entry on the whole book, but upon re-reading it, I found some chapters warrant an entry on their own, today’s topic being one of them.  And this topic invites me to say that I will suspend next week’s post because I want to spend some quality time with my aging mother next week.  Till 4/24,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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If The Shoes Fit: Job, Personality, Working Style, Thinking Style…All Should be Aligned

When shoes are of the wrong size or wrong shape, our feet hurt; we look for a better fit.  But when jobs don’t fit, we seem to have little choice.  Okay, that’s understandable; there just aren’t as many jobs available for us to choose from as there are shoes.  Once we have a job, while we don’t want to be labeled, categorized, pigeon-holed, most of the job descriptions and job responsibilities restrict us anyway.  So, not only cannot most of us find jobs that fit us well; even when we do, the jobs tend to constrain us.

different shoes for different occasions

My first big-time job was with a major Fortune 500 company.  I indicated that I would like to be involved in marketing research — I had a master’s degree in communications – since I had a research background and enjoyed it.  So, the company decided that I would be better off going into marketing communication, essentially advertising.  I encountered wonderful people, from secretaries to supervisors, but I simply couldn’t muster enough energy to like my job.  After more than a year, I quit when I felt that I had to lie about a specific product status, making it sound like #1 when it was clearly the #2 on the market.  And I couldn’t exactly tell my colleagues why I quit because they had to stay on and do their jobs.  I didn’t want to insult them, and most of them did have integrity.  Each of us has to find our own paths.  But that “real world” (as opposed to the “unreal” academic world) experience left an indelible impression on me.

I was young and naïve, wanting to learn and absorb as much as possible; I thought I was willing to bend in order to fit myself into whatever the situation was.  But eventually I realized that I was unhappy.  A seemingly simple problem that eventually took a complicated journey stretching over years to find the solutions for myself.

If only organizations would take the time and resources upfront to help people mold their jobs to better fit their core personality, interests, and working style, I am pretty sure it would save the organizations substantial resources and bring about higher productivity.

So here is a micro example:

Donna was a feisty woman who could see through the mirage of rules and regulations, cut through the chit-chat to make people understand what their responsibilities were, sense the timing with impeccable accuracy, and know her local organizational needs well.  But she was underused in this giant organizational cauldron.

Doug was a project manager in the same giant cauldron, and was getting frustrated that people were behind schedule on a specific project that involved working with some sensitive materials.  The nature of the materials meant that much of the work had to be coordinated with another unit (MAT) before the work could proceed.  It was especially maddening because of the sequential nature of work.  Any stop-and-restart would not only slow the work down, it would add additional cost that risked sabotaging the whole project.  Doug often had to run around to make sure everyone was doing what s/he was supposed to do, even while waiting for MAT to send the personnel.

There is a saying:  Why own a dog, if you have to do your own barking?  Doug was essentially doing the barking.

Ken, the manager, whose unit owned the project, worked out a solution with Doug.  Ken heard Donna had the knack of making people do their share of the project’s work and do it on time.  Ken managed to transfer Donna into his unit.  In a couple of days of Donna’s arrival, she figured out what needed to be done and on what schedule.

How?  By incorporating a deployed MAT person directly into the work team.  Ken hired a contractor for this purpose.  Thanks to the previous manager’s foresight in setting aside some soft money, Ken was able to hire this additional person.  But the contractor wasn’t needed full-time on the project; he was needed for portions of every day and his immediate presence was essential for the project to advance, but there was down time in between these portions.   (If MAT realized that he’d have some down time, MAT would send him elsewhere to fill in the slack, but that meant that when Ken and Donna needed him, he would not be available right away, and the project would fall right back into its frustrating status.)  Donna came up with an idea.  There were old machines sitting around the unit that needed to be decommissioned.  And no, you couldn’t just throw them out; inspections and paperwork had to be completed.  So, if someone is in down time and wants to work, you give him the kind of work he likes to do anyway.  Donna had the contractor work on decommissioning these old machines; he’s happy, MAT couldn’t take him away, and when the project needed him he was right there.

So, that particular project finished on time with no additional costs incurred.  Later, Doug allocated more money to Ken’s unit for a different project, and once again, Donna was given the task of supervising the workflow.

Unfortunately, that devoted MAT contactor had since relocated for personal reasons.  So Ken and Donna faced the same problem of not having a devoted MAT person again.  But Ken did know how to reach the right person in charge of MAT; the conference call included Donna.  When they went through the list of available personnel, Donna recognized one name because she had worked with this fellow before and they had worked well together.  The deal was made and project began to hum.

complementary color scheme is more eye-catching

According to “Team Dimensions” group exercise, some people are inclined to be “executors,” some “creators,” others “advancers,” and some “refiners.”  Of course, like all labels and categories, we are likely to fit in more than one category.  However, a strong inclination usually means that that role most closely matches our core personality, and is the role in which we are most comfortable.  Many people object to such labeling for precisely that reason:  it is seen as profiling, and as labeling that is limiting and restrictive.  But others find such descriptions informative because they convey valuable information, and because of the complementarity of these categories.  Ken, the “creator” and “advancer” knew that Donna would be an excellent “executor,” and hired her to set and keep the project on track.  Either of them alone could have carried out the project, but it would have been a steep uphill climb against their personal inclinations.  From my perspective, I too feel extremely uncomfortable with labels (and Ken and Donna probably do too), but it all depends on how we use them.  A label can be binding, but can be enabling too, as in the case illustrated above.  However, I also have known people, managers particularly, who get stuck with labels and categories and don’t know how to put them to enlightened use.  An additional concern is that in this culture, we tend to put more value on creativity than on finishing a job; in other words, we tend to rank “creators” higher than “refiners” or “executors.”   And our projects fail for want of people whose personalities drive them to finish projects.

Returning for a moment to domestic-animal metaphors, you may have seen the websites on “How to give your cat a pill.”  It’s a prolonged battle already lost at the start.  “How to give your dog a pill” however is as easy as wrapping the pill in bacon and tossing it in the air.  So if the job you need done involves the taking of pills [advancing a project], it’s worth taking the time to get a dog [advancer].  Conversely, if the job you need done involves the catching of mice [executing a project], get yourself a cat [executor].   Right job, right talent, right-fitting shoes.

a ghastly misfit…even as a fashion statement

Now, where are we?  I would probably come down on the side of learning as much as possible about how these labels and categories do or do not describe our people, and use them with great care according to the same principles I discussed in the post on “Diversity or Multiculturalism:  It’s all about working with differences, posted on 1/30/2010”  If and when I find myself using a label to describe someone, I would pause and ask myself if I am putting constraints on the person, and I would also check with the person about my assumptions.  Easier said than done, I know.  It’s especially pernicious in today’s work environment where people have barely enough time to finish their work, let alone time to nurture relationships.  But nurture we must. (Here is the promised link.)

Until you find the shoes that fit well,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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