21 May 2015

Authentic Acknowledgement and the Roots of Engagement

With employee engagement becoming the prime focus of today’s “Talent Management Business Partners” among many large corporations, the question of what truly drives engagement comes to the fore. It’s widely accepted that acknowledgement is a key facilitator of engaged employees. Being thanked for one’s work is a good start. Being recognized as one of the contributors to a project’s success is a useful follow-on. In fact, we see this all the time in formal, staged political events when the leader specifically names some otherwise obscure individual who has supposedly contributed a good idea, inspiration, or venue to the good fight being celebrated at the podium.(This has become a standard trope in American politics, for instance.)

It makes sense, then, that the opposite should prove to foster disengagement and demotivation: not being explicitly recognized for one’s contribution. (And, here I’m not considering the egregious and borderline sociopathic behaviour of a manager claiming personal credit for one of their underling’s work.) Indeed, fostering an environment of non-appreciation clearly does nothing for boosting morale, enthusiasm, and commitment. But there is an act of omission that proves to be even worse for undermining motivation and fomenting toxic dissatisfaction, so-called active disengagement.

Imagine that you’ve worked long hours developing and delivering a great analysis that potentially has significant strategic importance for the business. You’ve created a dynamite presentation and won the kudos and plaudits of key decision makers in the organization. Acknowledgement emails flow in through the next day from everyone concerned. And then…

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Not a single thing changes as a result of your fantastic effort. The recommendations – widely acknowledged as being tremendously insightful and useful – languish and people’s attention move on to the next fire drill. How do you feel?

Authentic acknowledgement is the basis upon which leaders create trust and enable true engagement. That authenticity necessarily requires demonstrable appreciation. To feel demonstrably appreciated – as opposed to receiving some euphemistic synonym of simply being thanked – individuals must be able to viscerally perceive the results of their effort in affecting the course of the enterprise. In other words, it’s all about the effect—if what I do has a perceptible effect, I know that what I’ve done has value, and therefore I feel valued. Feeling valued (which, according to Valence Theory is the Economic-ba relationship) is the effect of authentic acknowledgement, and therefore is the true driver of employee engagement.

Bottom line: If you want truly engaged employees – and believe me, you do – ensure that what you ask of them demonstrably shows up in the strategy and tactics of your business.

11 May 2015

Bad Business Practice, or Why I Won't Give Another Penny of Business to Intuit

Call it a cautionary tale. According to their Customer Service people, I have had “ongoing issues” with QuickBooks. More precisely, my “issues” are with Intuit and its business practices. Here’s why businesses must be cognizant of the effects their business models and strategies have on their customers. And, here’s why they must reality-check whether their nominal company values actually inform their in-use business practices or whether they are only so much feel-good window dressing.

I’ve been a QuickBooks user for over fifteen years, having upgraded – that is, repurchased – the program twice in that period. The software works for me, and like most software, it’s “easy to use” mostly because I’m used to it. I had to turn on payroll for a relatively short period of time using the 2014 edition, and much to my surprise and delight, the program told me that because of the particular edition I bought, I could use payroll for free. Yes, that would indeed be consistent with one of Intuit’s operating values, “Delight Customers.” Imagine my undelighted surprise when, six weeks later, I received a charge on my credit card for $31.64, the subscription price of the “free” payroll offer. The nice customer service folk informed me, essentially, that there ain’t no such thing as a free payroll. Oh, by the way, Intuit’s number one operating value is “Integrity without Compromise.” But we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what Intuit considers “Integrity.”

I put up with the payroll charge primarily because any equivalent payroll service would charge about that amount or more, and I preferred to manage things myself, as I’ve done over more than a decade. The next surprise (and oh how I wish Intuit could be more like the old Holiday Inn—the brand’s motto is about six paragraphs from the end of the article) was when the payroll stopped working because the payroll tables were apparently out of date. Now what good is a subscription service when updated payroll tables aren’t provided, I asked myself. Certainly this must be some minor error or slip-up on the part of the update system. After all, updating payroll tables is a simple matter of substituting one set of deduction factors for government remittances with another, based on the then-current rate of taxation, Canada Pension Plan, and Employment Insurance.

A call to Intuit support informed me that, no, it wasn’t a mistake. Intuit had DELIBERATELY chosen not to update these parameters in the 2014 edition, forcing all users to upgrade to the 2015 edition. And, by the way, the cost of doing so would increase my monthly billing from about $360 per year to OVER $600 PER YEAR! Yes, the capitalization of that last sentence reflects my utter shock, horror, and abject anger over that little piece of “Integrity.” Are we delighted yet?!

I screamed bloody murder. The only other businesses that I know of who hook their customers for free, then start charging, and once they are firmly ensconced in using the product for which the cost of leaving is relatively high (as it is for an accounting system) are the Mafia and drug dealers. Call it the Intuit “Corleone & Escobar” Business Model. Big Tobacco is only slightly less egregious, since theirs relies on a physical addiction.

My screaming resulted in them offering me a “discount” back to (only slightly more than) what I was paying. I discontinued using payroll in January and, after tax season when I had to produce and submit T4s, I called to cancel the subscription license. I only needed the accounting function, and therefore no longer had to rely on the non-free, free payroll service. Imagine my surprise (again) when they told me that, despite the fact that I had already paid them nearly double what the software would have cost in the store had I bought it fresh, I still “owed” them nearly $200 more for a license that I hadn’t wanted and didn’t need were it not for THEIR choice not to provide payroll deduction factors for the 2014 version.

I could easily have walked into Staples and bought a version of QuickBooks 2015 for $99, installed it fresh, and been done. But Intuit’s egregious business practices, arrogance, and total tone deafness with respect to customers caused me to do something else: I bought a copy of their competitor’s software (for more than double what QB would have cost), went through the hassle of converting my accounting, and am climbing up the learning curve of new software, because I will never give another penny of business to Intuit. Additionally, even though I’ve used QuickTax (now TurboTax) for on the order of twenty years, I will never again do that either, choosing instead to use a competing product.

I’m told by a former Intuit insider that QuickBooks, by far and away the market-leader in the accounting software market, has been enjoying a steady, quarter-by-quarter decline in its business over the past number of years. Presumably, more and more users are reaching the point of “enough is enough.” The strategy of “lock-in” – that is, create an excessively high barrier to exit in order to preserve captured customers – may be a winning strategy when ethical business practices are a distant also-ran in decision criteria. However, from a point of view that is cognizant of today’s reality of interconnected ecosystems and “doing good to do well,” it cannot be sustainable. Nor can such practices be sustained, sanctioned, or supported.

15 April 2015

Are You Leading Your Brand, and Branding Your Leadership?

“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time, it’s enemy action.’” Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger may be more menacing in his notice of repeated occurrences. For me, once is a notice. Twice is an observation. The third time, it’s emergent pattern. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had not one, not two, but three conversations that began with my in-depth analysis work transforming operationally oriented voice-of-the-customer (and social media) data into strategic, actionable insights. But, it’s where they ended that caught my notice and suggested the emergent pattern—the strong link among brand development, leadership, and organization culture.

In one sense, this is not at all surprising. A brand is what your product, service, or company is in the collective minds of your customers. It expresses the sum total of the perceptual relationships that you have with your public—how people feel about you and your offering(s), what they represent, the personality attributes they convey – which is more about the emotional responses they engender than, you know, their actual personality – the expectations they set, the identity they create, the behaviours they enact and encourage, the promises they make. Organization culture, arguably, establishes much the same connections among an organization’s members, both internal and external to the organization. The dominant themes of that culture are enacted in the environment enabled by the organization’s leadership. In extreme cases the two merge to such an extent that the organization almost becomes more known for the brand of its culture than the brand of its offering (Hello Holacratic Zappos!).

So there are three linkages we can consider: How brand and organization culture connect and influence each other; how leadership informs and influences organization culture and hence, individual behaviours; and therefore, how leadership and brand become intimately connected.

Brand and Culture

In a paper on Branded Service Encounters (Siriani, Bitner, Brown, & Mandel, 2013, Journal of Marketing) the authors describe how service interactions with customers should ideally be aligned with the brand’s positioning. For example, Lululemon seeks to hire staff who portray an active and enthusiastic lifestyle; Southwest Airlines (or WestJet in Canada) would employ people whose everyday activities are infused with fun. Siriani and her co-authors point out that “aligning employees’ behaviour with brand personality serves to strategically link the employee and brand in customers’ knowledge structure.”

However, vital to the success of this endeavour to imprint the brand’s personality on each and every customer interaction is how authentically customers perceive the interaction to be. Pasting on a smile when staff are drowning in low morale won’t work—“the beatings will continue until morale improves” is neither an effective strategy nor sustainable! Authenticity – the degree to which customers experience sincerity in staff’s brand-aligned behaviours – occurs when employees genuinely feel and embody the culture’s values espoused through brand positioning. Thus, a brand whose positioning is well aligned with the organization’s culture-in-use enables employee’s external actions to match well with their internal feelings. (For those relatively new to the concept originally conceived as espoused theory and theory-in-use by Chris Argyris, “culture-in-use” refers to the way an organization’s culture is actually enacted, as compared to the “espoused culture” of what is said. An organization might, for example, espouse collaboration, yet the in-use or enacted culture conspicuously rewards individual achievement.)

Culture and Leadership

Trickle-down economics doesn’t work all that well. But trickle-down culture as enacted by leaders? That’s quite another matter. Irrespective of the corporate values on display in the lobby, or moulded into metrics that drive performance reviews, employees observe and follow the lead of leaders in much the same way that a two-year-old emulates the behaviour of her parents. In a fascinating paper published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2012, Liu, Liao, and Loi explore “The Dark Side of Leadership”—specifically, the “cascading effect” of abusive behaviours from senior supervisors down the line. I described the particular effects to which the paper refers in an earlier blog post. Among the effects, simply put, is the notion that employees will look to, and emulate, the leader’s behaviours – good behaviours and bad – if they believe that enacting such behaviours paves a path to personal success in the organization. Any perceived inconsistencies between the organization’s espoused cultural values and the leader’s embodied attitudes will inevitably be noticed. That inconsistency inevitably fuels cynicism and a host of ills, from disengagement to malicious compliance to creating bureaucratic quagmires. Forget about innovation and creativity—another finding of the paper. And forget about authentic, branded service encounters, too.

Quite a number of great examples come to mind that vividly illustrate stark disconnections between actual, in-use leadership behaviour and espoused organization cultural values. However, in the interests of avoiding libel suits, they will remain in my mind. Instead, have a flip through this Prezi about WestJet, paying attention to the comment about how most airlines ignore the human factor, something about which WestJet takes great pride, among both its customers and employees, collectively, (some of) the organization’s members. Such a focus on “the human factor” leads to culture-creating behaviours that are modelled by the senior leadership and authentically enacted by individuals throughout the organization, irrespective of role or rank.

Organizational culture is collectively created by the people who comprise the organization. Nonetheless, in keeping with my view that a leader enables the environment from which an alternate future becomes possible, it is indeed that environment from which the organization’s culture emerges.

Leading Your Brand 

Putting all this together, the logic is fairly straight-forward. As a leader, you’re enabling an environment that will inevitably yield a culture—the collective, enacted behaviours among employees as they engage – for good or for ill, authentically or not – with customers. Literally, when it comes to attitudes that directly affect day-to-day actions, employees follow the leader. They see and do, much as your young children might. Thus, a leader who embodies espoused brand values and personality contributes to a healthy, engaged culture enables employees to do the same. They, in turn, provide authentic, branded service encounters with customers. Doing so can become a secret marketing weapon, especially for relatively unknown brands where such encounters have to potential to match or even surpass market leaders (according to the Siriani et al. results).

The moral of the story: Like other aspects of an organization’s existence, when it comes to branding, culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast, and the leader is the chef in the kitchen!

24 March 2015

Storytelling for [Creating Common Organizational] Purpose

Last evening, I once again had the pleasure of attending one of Rick Wolfe’s “Kitchen Table Conversations” on Storytelling for a Purpose. The dozen or so people around the table – not in his kitchen, but at the Centre for Social Innovation—Annex in Toronto – shared story snippets, experiences of the power of stories for both personal and business purposes, and various aspects that comprise effective, purposeful stories and storytelling. A light bulb went on for me towards the end of the session; not an earth-shattering light bulb, but one that provided some illumination on what is, retrospectively, sort of an obvious issue.

People tend to hold onto their stories. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, “we are the stories we tell about ourselves.” In fact, we construct our individual experiences of reality – to which we also hold very tightly – by creating stories that contextualize our experiences in a product comprised of our context at the moment, our prior experiences of similar contexts, and our history. In fact, the effects of many of these constructed stories are to serve the maintenance and sustainability of that constructed reality, irrespective of how objectively absurd it might be. [Note: objective and absurd are in the eye of any particular judgmental beholder.]

If one of our objectives in the process of leadership is to enable some sort of cultural congruence throughout our organizations, that necessarily requires congruence among the stories that pervade the lives of our members. This can be accomplished by edict – the so-called alignment of values, vision, and mission that characterizes 20th-century leadership practices. Alternatively, this can be accomplished through collective storytelling: Creating a series of stories and storytelling venues that can eventually create a congruence among contexts, experiences, and history. The mythic tales of an organization create and have the ability to re-create (as in, “alternate future”) the organization itself.

An organization, like an individual, is the stories it tells about itself. Change the story; change the organization. Change the story; enable the possibility of an alternate future.

12 March 2015

Five Secrets of Effective and Enjoyable Leadership

“I realized that the more fun I had, the better I did.” So says actor Bill Murray in an interview posted on Business Insider. To be sure, for any of us in almost any profession, the more fun we can have, the more enjoyable our daily enterprise, the better – more productive, more effective, more innovative, more engaged – we can be.

It’s not too hard to conceive of having such fun as an actor, especially a comedic actor like Murray. But in other roles, say the role of leader, what does it look like to truly experience fun and enjoyment, not to mention doing better! I’ve heard many people say that they enjoy their role so much that they’re surprised that they’re being paid to do it. (I often feel that way myself when engaged with students.) But strip away the extrinsic trappings of leadership – the material privileges of big office, high salary, expense accounts, and any number of executive perqs – and the sometimes heady exhilaration that accompanies a perception of total control, and we’re left with the question, how many truly enjoy the role of leader? How many are therefore situated to do and be the best they can, as Bill Murray suggests?

Most people who are in leadership roles today came through their leadership training – whether formal or informal – based on the industrial model of the 20th century. Need I say that the contemporary world is radically different (okay—I just did)? What can make the leadership role considerably more enjoyable, more fun, and more effective for all concerned are embedded in five (not-so-secret) secrets:

  1. Contemporary leadership is not about “leading.” It’s about creating a very particular environment.
    Specifically, leadership is about enabling a conducive environment for people to come together and create a shared experience, from which an alternate future becomes possible. Received wisdom, sustained for over a century, that a leader has a vision that translates into a mission with objectives that are disseminated among aligned functional departments, with individual employees given carrot-and-stick incentives to accomplish lists of specific, measurable results—that is a description of industrial management, particularly 20th-century management dating back to Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911. Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studios, suggests in his book, Creativity, Inc. that leadership is not about driving the train, it’s about laying the track. In other words, good managers keep the business running and accomplishing the nominal objectives (more about this in a moment). Contemporary leaders, on the other hand, are the ones who conceive of the new destination – an alternate future – for their organization and enable the conditions for that future to be realized.

  2. Contemporary leaders don’t drive for goals. They navigate for intended effects.
    Over a period of several years, I was invited to facilitate the annual strategy retreat for a social justice organization. Each retreat would begin with a session that celebrated the prior year’s accomplishments relative to the goals that were set at the previous retreat. One year, the leaders lamented that for the needs of a particular constituency they had intended to address that year, not one of the set objectives had been accomplished. However, during the review, we discovered that this constituency had indeed become well-engaged through a variety of programs and initiatives. Moreover, their engagement was to an extent that exceeded all prior expectations. Had the group been evaluated on the basis of accomplishing its identified goals and objectives (as is the case for countless individuals in the vast majority of annual performance appraisals), the year would have been considered a dismal failure. However, the group navigated a constantly changing environment so as to enact the intended effects through their programming. The initiatives met the needs of their intention and were therefore tremendously successful. The world has become far too complex, and therefore, far too unpredictable, volatile, and ambiguous for any fixed objectives to remain relevant for long. No one can know whether objectives and goals that seem appropriate at any point in time will in fact be considered to have been appropriate at some future date. Moreover, it is often the case that specific goals (because of the artificiality inherent in setting such goals) don’t actually effect the organization’s overall intentions: Individuals may achieve their goals. The organization fails nonetheless. Or, put more colloquially, the operation was a success, but the patient died.

  3. Contemporary leaders base their organizational culture on individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.
    Giving someone responsibilities and holding them accountable is a great way to exert control. In a complex environment, however, control is the last thing you want: attempts to control a complex system changes it ways that inevitably produce the infamous “unintended consequences.” It kills initiative and intrinsic motivation. Worse, perhaps, is that control stifles innovation and creativity, precisely what you don’t want to do in today’s hyper-competitive, hyper-connected environment. But think about it: all of those systems of checks, balances, incentives, rank scoring, top-down planning, rolled-up objectives… all of them induce stress for everyone concerned (especially managers) and create specific personal incentives to sandbag goals and “look out for number one” rather than collectively looking out for the enterprise as a whole. Today’s world is nothing if not collaborative. People entering today’s workforce are nothing if not entrepreneurial and enterprising. Giving them licence to have their own autonomy of action and agency to accomplish what matters to them makes them not only happier and more engaged, but vastly more productive. Creating conditions and incentives so that all members are collectively responsible for the success of each ensures an environment of continual interaction that promotes innovation. Having a personal sense of accountability to each other rather than just to a boss enables a person’s intrinsic motivation in favour of collaboration. The three – autonomy/agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability – ensures alignment throughout the organization and appropriate navigation without the need for high control. And everyone ends up enjoying their time in the workplace a whole lot more.

  4. Contemporary leadership employs strengths-based, appreciative practices.
    In theory, having employees set development goals that focus on improving areas of weakness will make them more effective as employees. In theory, providing them with “feedback” – especially when things have gone wrong – will enable them to improve their performance so that the wrong thing “will never happen again.” In practice, however, having a person focus on their deficiencies and deficits is a sure-fire path towards disengagement, demotivation, non-reflective dependence, and compliant – rather than committed – behaviours. Besides, unless you’re among the relatively few sociopaths in society, how enjoyable is it to constantly point out someone’s faults to them? Even when things do go sideways – as they are wont to do in an inherently unpredictable, complex environment – wouldn’t it be far better to initiate a reflection beginning with what went right? Which of the individual’s core strengths did they call on during the situation as it was unfolding? What was missing that precluded a more desirable outcome? Rather than measuring annual performance against possibly irrelevant or retrospectively not-useful goals, wouldn’t it be more effective to ask which accomplishments made the person most proud (and why)? Instead of dictating top-down performance objectives, often conceived against an artificial and arbitrary model of “mission pillars” (or some other similarly immovable metaphor), doesn’t true engagement begin with collaboratively creating a common appreciation of what’s possible (see point 1) leading to a common volition to action?

  5. Contemporary leaders recognize that one’s work integrates with, rather than balancing in opposition against, one’s life.
    “Work-life balance” is a baby-boomer construct, defensively countering the puritanical Protestant work ethic construction of corporate capitalism. It sets up a false dichotomy that one’s work and one’s life are two separate, distinct, and antagonistic entities. Ideally, “work” and “life” should ideally be balanced—a notion responding to the rather unfortunate fact that for many people in the last (and to a certain extent, current) century, work dominated – and often ruined – people’s lives. Even the now-hoary admonishment – “nobody on their deathbed ever said they regretted not spending more time at the office” – has been nominally, if cynically, remedied by the office following us home via always-on connectivity. Thanks to the first generation to be born into the internet society entering the work-force, whose apparent lack of a work ethic distressed many a boomer manager, we now are beginning to realize that work must be integrated as but one part of a well-rounded life. This concept shift gives leaders permission to ease up on their expectations of themselves as they reset expectations of others. It also suggests that all sorts of policies, procedures, and control mechanisms can be dispensed with, particularly if the other four recommended guidelines are brought into effect.
By removing a considerable amount of pressure imposed by Industrial Age command-and-control precepts of “good management,” organizational leaders can direct their attention towards creating and enabling the optimal environment for their members to engage with one another, achieve personal and mutual aspirations, and have one heck of a good time doing it.

05 March 2015

Predicting Organizational Dynamics—Empirical Validity of Valence Theory

Good theory does three things:
  1. It explains observed phenomena and behaviours.
  2. It makes (testable) predictions of future behaviour.
  3. It enables one to derive new behaviours and phenomena in response to new circumstances.
(You might ask, what’s the difference between thing 2 and thing 3? The second case predictions are based on situations that one could anticipate or conceive. The third case deals with situations that are completely from out of the blue, which is increasingly what we face in our contemporary world.)

As organizations and intra-organization behaviour have become more complex, academics, organization development practitioners, consultants, and managers seek new models to explain, predict, and derive what happens, will happen, and could happen in organizational contexts. Over the past fifteen years or so, it is increasingly common to use the metaphor of communications networks – roughly modelled on the Internet – to describe organizational dynamics. Information flows within organizations no longer strictly follow the hierarchical chain-of-command first described by Henri Fayol back in 1916 (in French; 1949 when translated into English as General and Industrial Administration). To model the complex, interconnected feedback and feedforward loops that occur throughout most large organizations, and indeed, the social graphs of informal teams or spheres of influence, adopting a network theory of contemporary organizations seems to be a useful thing to do.

As an aside, there are two complementary thoughts on theory: The first says that, although all models (theories) are wrong, some are useful. The second says that all models (theories) are right—until they’re not. It is indeed useful to bear both of these in mind so that one resists the temptation to substitute the model for reality (leading to very problematic “abstract empiricism”), and understands that any model has its limits of applicability (i.e., the trick is to know when to stop).

In particular, a network theory of organization would predict that if a person becomes a blockage or impediment in information flow or effectiveness, the network would “route around” – that is, avoid involving – that person. Indeed, that is what often happens. It follows that if that obstreperous person (and their department, if they are a manager) were eliminated, the adapted flow would simply continue and the organization itself would not be expected to undergo any substantial change. After all, the information flowed before; it can flow afterwards, relatively unchanged and unimpeded, all other things being equal.

Valence Theory predicts something else. Valence Theory defines organization as “that emergent entity resulting from two or more individuals, or two or more organizations, or both, that share multiple valence relationships at particular strengths, with particular pervasiveness, among its component elements at any point in time.” The five Valence relationships are: Economic, Affective (socio-psychological), Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological. There are two forms of each valence – fungible and ba – that respectively account for more traditional, bureaucratic, administratively controlled, and hierarchical organizations, and “connected relationship” organizations that are more consistent with the ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate reality in which we live.

A Valence Theory conceived organization is potentially always in flux based on the precise nature of the relationships at play at any time (and the relationships themselves interact in ways that are not deterministically predictable). In a practical sense, however, given a more-or-less stable cohort of actors (staff personnel and those external actors with whom they interact), and more-or-less established relationships, the organization would usually exist in a state of stable homeostasis. One of the predictions that Valence Theory makes has to do with changing members: When people arrive or leave the organization, relationships and their interactions necessarily change. Valence Theory predicts that the organization itself necessarily changes, even in the absence of any other change-initiating impetus.

One could see an organization changing if, for example, a relatively (hierarchically) senior person were to change. Conventional thinking would say that a relatively lower-level (again, hierarchically speaking) person coming or going would not be considered as important enough to initiate a substantive organizational change—even though complexity thinking might suggest otherwise (based on the principle that in a complex system, small perturbations can initiate substantial systemic effects). Valence Theory, on the other hand, predicts that any change of members necessarily changes the organization because the nature and quality of (the Valence) relationships necessarily change.

Consider the case of the aforementioned troublesome person around whom information flow re-routes. Valence Theory would predict that if that person were to leave, the relationships would necessarily realign to such an extent (because they had been, colloquially speaking, so bent out of shape that they would have no choice but to realign) that the organization would experience a clearly observable change. That change would occur seemingly of its own volition without the organization having to undergo an explicit change initiative or a formal re-organization (which often changes very little, in actuality—deck chairs, meet Titanic...).

I recently had opportunity to observe this precise phenomenon occurring in a live environment. At the “Fair Contest” company, there was a mid-level manager who was responsible for a support function, nominally acting as an internal supplier to the line business departments. This manager happened to possess characteristics that, taken together, would characterize that person as a “dark triad personality.” For numerous reasons, people in other departments learned, over time, to effectively marginalize that person and avoid using that manager’s department or resources, choosing instead to “route around” that department and obtain their own, usually external, suppliers. Suffice it to say that the department enjoyed very little credibility at Fair Contest.

A network model of organization would predict that the departure of the dark-triad manager should not necessarily result in a substantive change, since the other, relatively autonomous managers would continue to use the services they had come to know and rely upon. (Note that budget was not a determining factor between using internal and external resources.) Valence Theory, on the other hand, would predict a substantive change in organizational trajectory because of the resulting major realignment of relationships, and consequential organizational reconfiguration of valence relationship dynamics.

Last fall, the dark-triad manager was, in fact, fired for cause (apparently not directly related to their narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellianism). In the relatively short period between then and now, there has been a significant, beneficial shift in organizational trajectory in both tactical operations and strategic positioning even though none of the many changes which occurred had been specifically planned. In fact, they can be well explained as the result of realigned valence relationships among members that, in turn, reconfigured organizational dynamics. The departed manager – true to their narcissistic character – was heard to say that the Fair Contest Company had made a big mistake in letting them go. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though no one had anticipated the magnitude and positive significance of the ensuing changes. No one, that is, except Valence Theory.

Valence Theory called it.

25 February 2015

Appreciative Performance Reflection: A powerful alternative for annual review season

In a recent post I critique the traditional, so-called SMART-goal-oriented, performance review, an annual ritual that most people anticipate as eagerly as they do tax season, or a visit to the dentist (not that I have anything against dentists!). Advocates of this latter-day corporate version of the auto-da-fé would insist on the necessity of setting specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound goals to ensure that individuals are aligned with the overall objectives of teams, departments, divisions, and the organization as a whole, that they are objectively held to account for their responsibility towards the organization’s intended achievement, and that there is a fair and manageable mechanism to assess the relative contributions of individual team members. “Besides,” more than one command-and-control freak has assured me, “people want to know how they stack up against their peers.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, and hardly a left-wing advocate of fads like holocracy, puts it very simply:
Managers don't like giving appraisals, and employees don't like getting them. Perhaps they're not liked because both parties suspect what the evidence has proved for decades: Traditional performance appraisals don't work. … Performance appraisals often don't accurately assess performance. … Performance reviews mostly reflect how well employees can ingratiate themselves with the boss. … Reviews occur too infrequently to provide meaningful feedback. … Those receiving the reviews invariably believe they are above average—and defensively resist being told that they aren't. … Performance appraisals [are] unlikely to improve performance. … Possibly the biggest issue, however, is that performance appraisals focus managers' attention on precisely the wrong thing: individual people. … By focusing on the presumed deficiencies or strengths of people, individual performance reviews divert attention from the important task of eliminating the systemic causes, such as inferior technology [not to mention problematic HR-driven systems or personally-dysfunctional managers], behind poor performance.
So what’s a possible alternative?

I recommend periodic Appreciative Performance Reflection conversations. This process derives from the Appreciative Inquiry methodology developed by David Cooperrider, from which the Discover, Dream, Design, Destiny structure is taken. It is a way of enabling a positive-focused review of one’s accomplishments in the larger context of long-term aspirations and ambitions. More than that, Appreciative Performance Reflection enables one to contextualize those accomplishments in the service of organizational and colleagues’ objectives. Using a reference group comprised of those with whom the individual mostly interacts as well as their manager, rather than simply reviewing accomplishments with one’s direct supervisor alone enables better collaboration and activity coordination among individuals, especially those working in diverse functional areas. Additionally, this process encourages more innovation and greater initiative than traditional goal setting exercises. Traditional goal-setting often provides an incentive for uninspired objectives—people quickly learn that greater rewards accrue from setting non-challenging goals.

The Appreciative Performance Reflection is ideally held with a reference group of three people chosen by each individual, which often includes the individual’s direct supervisor or manager. The reference group helps facilitate, and actively participates in, what is essentially a coaching conversation around the individual aligning their aspirations and bringing their strengths to the organization’s collective success. The participation of the reference group helps to create mutual accountability and collective responsibility. It enables organic, emergent alignment of everyone's efforts towards common successes. Ideally, the reference group process obviates the traditional necessity of a hierarchical command chain to align people’s activities so that the organization accomplishes its goals. The thinking behind this acknowledges that autonomous individuals are capable of self-organization towards common goals in a context of common understanding, a key finding of my research.

The setup and framing is roughly as follows (noting that the animating questions have been condensed for the post):

Appreciative Performance Reflection

Given your current understanding of the aspirations, high-level objectives, and business needs of our organization over the coming medium term (i.e., up to a year), please reflect on the most recent six to twelve months past, the coming six to twelve months, and one to three years ahead as you answer the Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny questions, below.


  • Since the last reflection and formal check-in, what have been your greatest personal successes? What is it about these accomplishments that is important to you, that helped them be memorable and significant? Who contributed to your success in these accomplishments, and how?
  • Reflecting on your own personal growth, development, and transformation since our last reflection and formal check-in, how have you have changed, and how did those changes occur?
  • What is one thing about you at this point in your experience here that you want to herald to the wider organization?


  • What would you like to do more of, do differently, or do even better than you’re doing now in order for you to be even more successful and satisfied?
  • Imagine that you are in your ideal role here, doing precisely what you love, and feeling very proud and satisfied. What does that role look like? What have you done to achieve that role?


  • Which one or two aspects of the ideal role inspire you to take positive action over the next while? What initial steps can you take?


  • What resources and individuals do you want to call upon to support your aspirations? What type of support do you want from your supervisor? What resources to which you don’t have ready access would support your success over the medium term? Which from among your particular strengths will you call upon to support your progress and success towards achieving your aspirations?

Using such a framework to guide a strengths-oriented, appreciative reflection enables the desired alignment of individual’s activities among collaborative groups with whom each person interacts the most in a way that encourages people to bring their best towards achieving their – and the organization’s – aspirations.

[Review] "No Journey's End": A Wild Ride, and a Wild Read

No Journey’s End, a new, “creative nonfiction” book by PeterChiaramonte, should best be enjoyed with a background soundtrack of Steppenwolf’s classic, rock & roll anthem, “Born to be Wild.” Chiaramonte takes us on a ride that perpetually seems to be heading over an existential cliff as he recounts how his life-path intersected for a time with that of a convicted member of Charles Manson’s murderous “family,” Leslie Van Houten. We follow the journey of Chiaramonte as an aspiring but rebellious academic who chafes against the reins of the traditional academy that leads him from an uninspiring job in a suburb of Toronto to the psychedelic adventure that was Southern California in the early 1970s. After seeing newspaper pictures of the then young-and-beautiful Leslie Van Houten, he is compelled by an irresistible drive to pursue, woo, and win the heart of a woman whom we know is ultimately doomed. The author portrays Van Houten as a naif, caught up through little fault of her own in Manson’s vengeance project driven by the sex-and-drugs-enabled mind control of his followers. Throughout the hard-driving narrative, a variety of characters from both Van Houten’s and Chiaramonte’s lives act as crash barriers for the tragic couple careening towards the inevitable end. It is no spoiler that would threaten the sheer roller-coaster enjoyment of the read to note that Chiaramonte managed to veer safely to a life-long academic career, while Van Houten has spent nearly her entire life in the maw of the US penal system.

Given Chiaramonte’s credentials, it is not surprising that this book can be read as a philosophical and existential reflection on one person’s inexorable attraction to impending disaster. The narrative is filled with drugs and rock-and-roll that typified the times (although notably, very little sex). It is also filled with fast cars and the vicarious horrors that were the crime scenes, both physically in the LaBianca and Tate/Polanski homes, and in the psyches of the drug-deranged family members. During the prison visit scenes, in which the author speaks with the object of his desire through bullet-proof glass, one gets the impression that he is actually looking himself in a Narcissus-inspired mirror. Zeus, it is humorously said, advised Narcissus to “watch yourself.” Chiaramonte is given the same advice throughout the book by various and sundry actors that populate both his and Van Houten’s lives. As the reader vicariously races through the hell of the Manson experience in the author’s “shotgun seat,” often watching the blur of scenery through spread fingers of hands over eyes, one realizes that among many other things, No Journey’s End is a cautionary tale that retrieves the ancient trope, there but for the grace of God go I. Chiaramonte does a masterful job reflecting on what might – but could never – have been, looking for adventure, taking the world in a love embrace, and exploding into space.

24 February 2015

Humans vs. Human Resources Systems – Guess Who Wins?

Jeremy Scrivens, a “work futurist” living in Melbourne, Australia, tweeted last week that “#HR says that engaged staff give their discretionary effort. Shirky calls this #CognitiveSurplus. Another term is Voluntary Contribution.” He is referring to the importance of workplace engagement for people to “bring their best,” so to speak. People for whom work – what occupies them as the source of regular income – is not “work”—an onerous, demoralizing, soul-destroying necessary evil… heavy on the evil.

Widely quoted statistics report that between two-thirds and three-quarters of employees are disengaged or “actively disengaged” (I just love the cynical irony that term embodies) from their employment. There are, of course, many possible reasons for such vivid disengagement: lack of autonomy, dysfunctional managers, boring or monotonous work, a sense of purposelessness… you could probably list them as well as I could. What struck me about Jeremy’s tweet, however, was the mention of HR – presumably the Human Resources role – that speaks about the importance of engaged staff.

Seriously? The HR function?

My tweet in response expressed the substance of my incredulity.

As a friend noted during a recent conversation, if organizational systems create circumstances that promote structural disengagement among the workforce, you could have the most enthusiastic and otherwise motivated employees in the world, and guess who will win? To be sure, I’ve seen, met, and been in conversation with the “losers” in this scenario all too many times. HR systems that begin with dehumanizing recruitment practices using automated, artificial pseudo-intelligence resumé parsing systems, and end with the highly problematic annual performance reviews, contribute to – make that “actively” contribute to – the epidemic of contemporary employee disengagement.

The standard discourse goes like this: In order for the organization to achieve its vision, it must accomplish its mission (set by the top leadership). This requires the setting of annual objectives for the business as a whole and decomposing them into aligned objectives for each functional area, and subsequently for each department, manager, and employee. If everyone accomplishes their individual objectives, then the organization will accomplish the overall objectives, and ultimately accomplish the mission. (“Mission Accomplished” has a nice ring to it, no?)

The requisite alignment and necessary accountability requires goals to be specific, measurable (because if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it), achievable, results-focused (because if it doesn’t contribute to the organization’s results, it’s not appropriately aligned), and time-bound (because if you don’t set a deadline, you don’t know when to hold the employee to account). Isn’t all that smart?

Performance reviews, then, enable the employee and her/his manager to quantify to what extent said goals were accomplished, often setting the size of reward “carrot” according to the degree of accomplishment (because we all know how effective carrots and sticks are for motivation). The performance review also sets next year’s equally “smart” objectives.

Finally, so that organization ensures that it retains the supposedly “best and brightest,” many use rank scoring to eliminate the lowest performers while instilling a culture of fear among the rest… Following the guidance of this discourse, presumably, creates engaged, motivated employees with lots of cognitive surplus according to the standard Human Resources discourse.

To borrow terminology possibly in the lexicon of my friend from down under, Bollocks!

Given the complexity of today’s business environment (not to mention non-business organizational environments in general) it is impossible to anticipate with any accuracy whether a set of specific, measurable, etc. task-oriented goals will actually be useful in contributing to the organization’s success over a year. The very fact of a dynamic environment tells us only one thing with any sort of assurance, namely that this year’s target will likely be next year’s miss by the time we reach it.

Performance reviews tied to an employee’s income (let alone job security) absolutely ensures what Frederick Taylor called “soldiering” ’way back in 1911, where employees will sandbag their objectives so that they can be assured of meeting them. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism about predicting the future (“never predict anything that hasn’t already happened”), never set a goal that you haven’t already achieved! [See here under “Success by the Numbers” for an example of how this principle is actually implemented in a governmental organization.) And by creating a rank-scoring environment, organizations generate conditions of constant competitiveness among its employee ranks together with constant fear for retaining one's job – think of it as employment as a season of “Survivor.” In doing all this, what we actually create are circumstances of individualistic safety and risk-aversion rather than the highly desired and sought-after workplaces that promote collaborative innovation.

In fact, the only benefit of this HR-mandated set of dehumanizing systems is that employees can be controlled and “held to account” for their actions. Aside from that, no one benefits—not employees, not customers, not investors, not communities. And the sad reality of it all is that systems whose design creates circumstances of structural disengagement will win every time.

The key question for leaders is, how can we humanize organizational systems so that the humans win instead? Perhaps we should start by humanizing the act of leadership. Stay tuned… More to come!

19 February 2015

Thoughts from an NFP/NGO ED Roundtable

Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a roundtable conversation among Executive Directors of Not-for-Profit and Non-Governmental Organizations (hence the NFP/NGO ED alphabet soup of the post title). Included were EDs of arts organizations, a film festival, an Africa advocacy organization, and a peace-building/post-conflict think tank and consultancy. Alan Kay hosted and facilitated the two-hour conversation from a Solutions Focused standpoint.

One of the participants – the ED of the film festival – shared his view of the ED’s role as being more entrepreneurial: “the relentless pursuit of opportunities without regard for resources available.” The inherent transition of (mostly publicly and charitably funded) NFPs and NGOs to having to become more self-reliant and creative for revenue sources has likewise transformed the ED’s role. In the former model, the ED’s focus was primarily on program and budget—creating mission-consistent initiatives that close-to-exactly spent the annual budget grant. With handout funding sources drying up, that administratively oriented ED may find that s/he is lacking crucial, strategic engagement skills essential in today’s complex environment.Such skills have become mandatory in the contemporary world to fulfil the mandate of leader whether it be in a NFP/NGO, a for-profit corporation, or public sector institution: to enable a conducive environment in which people come together to engage so that an alternate future becomes possible.

Speaking of former models, it has always been the case (it seems) that growth was the often-unspoken, driving agenda for EDs in NFP organizations and NGOs. The growth imperative was, of course, consistent with the dominant discourse of late 20th-century capitalism. With so many contemporary NFPs and NGOs all chasing very similar worthy causes, a very serious question emerges: can all of these organizations that share overlapping objectives find sufficient capital and human resources to viably sustain themselves, let alone grow? This query suggests two, vitally important considerations. First, how could these organizations with common purpose meaningfully and materially collaborate in ways that might eventually lead to some sort of merger, either in body or in enacting effect? (One person mentioned the idea of being able to use $1 in 2 ways.) Indeed, combining the resources of two or more organizations may enable opportunities to grow from the tactical wish list into new strategic initiatives for the combined organization. Implicated in such a path are the EDs – specifically, the EDs who would no longer be an ED – who, in most cases, would have to find satisfaction in a modified role. Alternative governance models – a rotating, collaborative leadership model, or a consensus leadership model – might prove to be both useful and valuable in mitigating the challenge to the EDs’ identity-valence relationship with the organization (more on this in a moment).

Second, members of the NFP/NGO sector in general must seriously consider whether growth is always a useful or valid endgame objective. [In fact, such a consideration might well be useful in the for-profit and public sectors as well.] A simple example: an organization whose purpose is to facilitate the eradication of preventable, childhood diseases might legitimately see their endgame as putting themselves out of business! Less obviously, capacity-building NGOs focused on, say, post-conflict regions of the world, may deliberately choose homeostasis for themselves while focusing on capacity growth among their supported constituencies. Determining appropriate strategies to maintain structural stability while dissipating energy through their associated membership around the world presents unique, and uniquely complex, challenges—a very different endgame from that of “growth.”

Should the ED have passion for the cause, or highly developed administrative – that is, program and budget – skills? Ideally, of course, this would be a “both/and” situation. Board search committees often tend to emphasize the latter, drawing from the operational focus that many board members tend to bring from their other business activities. Indeed, such a board may have members all too willing to “drop by” and offer their operational “suggestions” to an ED, subsequently holding her/him to account if the suggestions are not followed. (The clear consensus around the table was that such nominally well-meaning “assistance” undermines the ED’s role by overstepping the legitimate governance boundaries of the board.) A leader without passion for the cause may find their affective connection more strongly expressed in the trappings and social capital of the ED role itself. Preservation and enhancement of their role becomes their personal passion and purpose, a means to achieve more means, so to speak, rather than the intended ennobled ends.

Enabling the organization’s board to become more actively engaged with that higher purpose is of strategic importance to the ED. One participant shared the metaphor of talking to his board more about “what’s on the shelf, not about the shelf itself.” The supporting "shelf" is the stuff of most ED reports to the board: the numbers, statistics, key performance indicators, and other infrastructure metrics of so-called accountability. What’s on the shelf are the stories and experiences that convey embodiment of the organization’s purpose, and particularly, the real-world effects that the organization’s intentions have enacted, enabled, and created. For the film festival, for instance, it is not the box office receipts nor the series subscriptions sold. Rather, it is bringing to the screen the story of a wrongfully convicted youth, the documentary of which caused the New York state Attorney General to order a new trial. [In a similar, on-the-shelf vein, NPR’s hit podcast, Serial, was responsible for enabling Adnan Sayed, convicted for murder in Maryland, to win an appeal of his conviction.] 

Generally speaking, KPIs and metrics are proxies for objectives; effects, on the other hand, speak directly to enacting the organization’s intentions, irrespective of profit motive. This is a distinction I’ll explore further in the next post.

28 January 2015

"Coolest Speaker" "Inspirational / Visionary" plus Something New in Experiential Exec Ed

Sometimes, it's nice to know that you've made a lasting impression. This notice popped up in my Twitter feed today. I still do this talk from time to time, and (clearly) have evolved my thinking to apply these worldview-changing ideas to contemporary organizations, leadership, and culture.

I'm now in the early stages of developing a new project that crosses experiential learning with executive education for leaders who truly seek to move their organization's approaches into a contemporary context.

Please get in touch if you'd like to be in on the ground floor.