11 December 2014

Vacation Reversal

In a classic example of a Laws of Media Reversal – in which any medium (something we conceive or create) pushed beyond the limit of its potential reverses what were its original effects (messages) – granting too much vacation time reverses into people taking little time off. As reported on The Science of Us blog, “Unlimited Vacation Policies Can Make Taking Time Off Kind Of Awkward”:
While you'd expect an unlimited policy would result in more days off, it can sometimes do the very opposite, resulting in fewer vacation days, especially for the employees with the biggest workloads. … People will hesitate to take a vacation day as they don't want to seem like that person who's taking the most vacation days. It's a race to the bottom instead of a race toward a rested and happy team. What you will do is push people to the edge of burnout and unhappiness. They'll eventually leave your company.
One company has figured out how to use the reversal to everyone’s advantage, employees and employer alike: Travis CI, a Germany-based software integration company, has mandated a minimum required vacation policy rather than a maximum number of days off.

09 December 2014

Educating for Misogynist Leadership

Regular readers will know that I consider leadership to be environmental: Leaders enable an environment in which all sorts of things occur that are consequential effects of that enablement. Among those things – ideally – is that alternate futures become possible. That, to me, is the essence of contemporary leadership. But all sorts of other thing also occur, including the reproduction of dysfunctional cultural behaviours.

We’ve seen lots of them this year: City of Toronto led by a dysfunctional mayor; with dysfunctional leadership between the Police Services Board and the Police Service; Toronto District School Board and its multiplicity of dysfunctions; CBC management seemingly mishandling the Jian Ghomeshi affairs with what appears to be wilful blindness in favour of material gains. Leadership dysfunctions seem to trickle down throughout an organization driven from the culture – the exemplar behaviours, customs, mores, language, interactions, and worldviews – that is sanctioned by example from the organization’s leaders.

In the business world, successful exemplars that train-by-lived-example often find their origins in business schools. Those who teach business at the top schools – and who themselves are paid like rock stars – set the tone for future leaders. Is it any wonder, then, that sexist behaviours stubbornly persist throughout the (business) world when first-year MBA students are given an assignment portraying a fictitious “ditzy female” protagonist who can’t figure her way through a first-job compensation package (even though she later remembers that her Finance class notes should provide her with the appropriate calculations because, “she is a ‘super-organized’ student with binders that are ‘colour-coded and organized by term’”). Instead, she turns to her Yale-educated fiancé for assistance because she is busy dreaming of “little blue [Tiffany] boxes and beautiful [Louboutin] shoes.

Rotman was quick to issue a retraction and a perfunctory statement of unacceptability. To which I would say, “Horse pucky!”

That the assignment was released to students without a second thought by the professor – Kent Womack (whose earnings according to the province’s sunshine list were just over a half million dollars annually… talk about an aspirational role model for business students!) – reveals much about the cultural norms of acceptable behaviour that are endemic in the institution. That the professor refused to take ownership of the offense by stating that the assignment was written by an unnamed teaching assistant reveals even more. Now consider all of that together with the in-class conversation subsequently turning to protecting the Rotman brand with Professor Womack advising students, “to think carefully before speaking to the media.” You don’t have to have your Finance notes colour-coded by term to do that math: The exemplar behaviour displayed by this highly paid, and therefore highly regarded, Rotman professor suggests that it will be a long, long time before business leaders will truly “get” the transformation occurring throughout society which characterizes the 21st century.

What we still need in our business schools is authentic, contemporary leadership education. It seems we won’t be seeing same from business schools still grounded in the last century.

25 November 2014

Take the job (statistic) and shove it!

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report is out for the period ending September 2014. There is an interesting tidbit that jumped out when one compares the number of voluntary separations – those who quit outright – to the overall job openings. The latter number remained stable month to month (in fact, it went down slightly). The number of people who quit jobs, however, went up: “The number of quits increased from 2.5 million in August to 2.8 million in September. This was the highest level of quits since April 2008.” It seems that, statistically, at least, many of those who quit found jobs, as the number of hires increased by a corresponding amount. But that’s a statistical trick: the hires rate would obviously include people who were hired after months of searching and long – some would say overly long and onerous – recruitment processes.

The US BLS claims that “the quits rate can serve as a measure of workers’ willingness or ability to leave jobs,” possibly suggesting a healthy availability of jobs in which to land when jumping out of current employment. However, given the relative stability of openings, this glib conclusion should be critically questioned.

There is an old adage which states, “people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.” Given the meanness that has crept into corporate cultures of late, the (un)natural selection of dark triad managers for promotion to leadership positions, and the behavioural trickle-down effect in which aggressive bad-boy behaviour at the top of the status hierarchy is emulated by those lower down as a de facto road to career success, I’m not surprised at the fact that workers are jumping ship in ever greater numbers. I personally know of several people who left one of Canada’s so-called Best Places to Work because the environment was so unbearably toxic. In another case with which I am familiar, a dark-triad manager was given a free rei(g)n of terror until fired, apparently for financial malfeasance. Only after did the manager’s abusive behaviours become known. (And the employee engagement survey was of no use in ferreting out the problems because the environment was unsafe rendering the results unreliable.)

People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers. Is the increased turnover rate in your organization – perhaps concentrated in one or two particular areas – the proverbial canary in the managerial coal mine?

24 November 2014

It’s all fun until someone acts like a jerk

It is, perhaps, the fundamental issue of ethics and morality: To what extent do I support a company or service whose moral conduct is only slightly north of reprehensible? If I save money or gain convenience, does that excuse making marketplace choices that ignore the company’s management practices and leadership behaviours? Do I therefore become an enabler of behaviours that I would otherwise not tolerate amongst my own employees, friends, or family members?

This is the dilemma now encroaching on the collective consciences of many who use and support the (supposedly) ride-sharing (but in reality, alternate taxi service), Uber. The New York Times has a piece that deals with this question of personal morality. The behaviour of Uber’s leadership “signals a winner-takes-all culture that justifies any behavior so long as everyone is getting rich.” As I wrote about the other day, hyper-competitive cultures often lead to systemic dysfunctions among an organization’s members as those lower down in the status hierarchy emulate their superiors – who, problematically do indeed consider themselves to be superior to just about everyone else. The NYT article quotes Lisa Abeyta, founder of a tech start-up in Albuquerque as noting, “There is a difference between being competitive and being dirty. It is bad-boy, jerk culture. And I can’t celebrate that.” And then she deleted the app from her mobile.

Ms. Abeyta’s decision is one we all have to consider: Do we, collectively, act as enablers of “bad-boy, jerk cultures” by supporting misbehaving leaders though our purchases? Or, is it the right thing to do in our ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world to stand together in saying to such leaders, “your behaviour is unacceptable in today’s world.” Uber is but one example. Amazon is clearly another (and I, personally, have stopped ordering through Amazon because of their horrendous labour practices).

Toronto’s mayor-elect, John Tory, claims Uber is here to stay. Perhaps. He, of all people, having just ousted bad-boy, jerk leadership from city hall, might want to reconsider lending his support and endorsement to analogous behaviours in other corporate leaders.

20 November 2014

Uber-competitive leadership culture: A winning strategy?

Many bits have been spilled this week over Uber, the Silicon Valley start-up that has disintermediated the highly regulated and nepotistic taxi industry. Toronto mayor-elect, John Tory’s comments notwithstanding, Uber’s sustainability will be a question for a future tech retrospective. What merits closer examination and reflection is the sustainability of its culture, and indeed, the cultural values consistently rewarded by today’s Silicon Valley investors. In a blog post yesterday, Sara Haider laments that Silicon Valley venture capitalists “tend to value ruthless execution and short-term success…and we make media heroes out of founders that deliver on what we value.” Fred Wilson, himself a VC, points out Uber’s culture of “ruthless execution combined with total arrogance” combined with “about the best execution I’ve witnessed in a long, long time.”

These days, hyper-competitive behaviours that often typify start-up cultures and are always instigated from the top inevitably lead to toxicity throughout the organization. Or so it seems. (And there is good research that supports the notion of “cascading abuse” in organizational cultures.) Not surprisingly, these organizations are, more often than not, led by relatively young men who have yet to mature into seasoned leaders. Clearly, evidence suggests that, at least in the short to medium term, such willful disregard for employees’ well-being (and especially those low-level workers who actually supply the services; hello Amazon), customers (viz. Uber’s laissez-faire, puerile attitude towards its users’ privacy), and the public at large (goodbye Enron) can yield stellar financial returns (not to mention the odd jail term here and there). However, over the longer term, misbehaving CEOs  arguably destroy value for shareholders, tarnish the brand, and stifle innovation.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is an aphorism commonly attributed to Peter Drucker (and popularized by Mark Fields of Ford Motor Company in the context of a massive culture change effort in 2006). This claim was not intended to cast culture and strategy as opponents, but rather to highlight the polarity tension between them. Too much of one in the absence of countervailing effects of the other will lead to the inevitable demise of the organization. Instead, contemporary leaders must enable a culture that supports sustainable, long-term strategy. What is needed is less emphasis on bad-boy, celebrity, start-up anti-heroes and more visibility for leaders who live values that are not typically associated with psychopathy.

That moves me to ask: Are hyper-competitive start-up cultures necessarily toxic? How can they be created to be otherwise?

18 November 2014

Leaders with Hot Pants

I am struck this morning with the coincidence of three items in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business. There is the report on Keurig’s response to the pending lawsuit alleging anti-competitive practices brought by Coffee Club. [Disclosure: In 2011, I did a culture change engagement for a fee at Green Mountain Coffee Roaster’s Toronto plant. GMCR is the parent company of Keurig.] There is the item on Canada’s Competition Bureau looking into alleged restrictive trade practices at Loblaw. And finally, there is the piece on Telus joining BCE in its challenge to Rogers’s exclusive provision of NHL hockey content to its own subscribers contrary to “the CRTC’s vertical integration rules, which require companies that both create and distribute media content to offer it to their rivals to distribute as well.

In each of these cases, senior leaders from the respective organizations respond with a trite, deflective response that sidesteps the issue at hand. Moreover, the response attempts to justify the behaviour being called into question. For example, Stéphane Glorieux, president of Keurig Green Mountain Coffee Inc.’s Canadian and U.K. divisions,
likened Keurig’s stated incompatibility with rival coffee to apps made to run on Apple Inc.’s phones and tablets. “When you play with an app, you have to go through a platform called Apple. So it’s a little bit of the same principle. That’s how we view ourselves so that we can control our quality,” he said.
What nonsense! The issue here is that Keurig includes an interconnect mechanism that prevents non-Keurig K-cup coffee pods from being used in the new series of Keurig machines. So, it’s not quite the same as Apple managing the App Store for new applications to control quality. Rather, it’s like a car manufacturer insisting that only its brand of gasoline can be used to fuel its vehicles and including a technological lock to prevent you using any other product. Or, to bring things back to the kitchen, it’s akin to a toaster manufacturer insisting that you buy only its proprietary bread to use in its toasters, so that the manufacturer can control the quality of the toast. (Note to M. Glorieux: Have a look at Chamberlain v. Skylink in the U.S. Federal Court)

In Loblaw’s case, the Competition Bureau is seeking access to supplier contracts from a dozen major grocery suppliers “searching for information about potential “reprisals or repercussions” from Loblaw” including requirements that suppliers financially compensate Loblaw if a Loblaw competitor offers the supplier’s products on special and Loblaw chooses to price match, among other similar allegations. Loblaw’s response? “Loblaw spokesman Kevin Groh said … Loblaw doesn’t believe its “practices are inconsistent with a competitive market.”

Finally, over at Rogers, the now-owner of NHL Hockey broadcast rights streams hockey content to anyone’s Internet-connected devices, irrespective of supplier. However, it makes its proprietary GamePlus app available exclusively to Rogers’s customers, allegedly creating a vertical integration that requires die-hard hockey fans to subscribe to Roger’s service for a full online experience, including a much touted “ref cam.” As Telus joins BCE in launching the complaint to the CRTC, Rogers’s rather telling, if not childish, response is to refer to BCE as a “crybaby” and minimizing the impact on customers of this decision: “we don’t believe we transgressed any rules and we will continue to focus on delivering innovation for consumers and not fighting little petty fights such as this.”

The commonality of these three news items for me is how they demonstrate the response of imperious leaders who defiantly place themselves above what a reasonable and objective observer would deem as fair play, and minimize or ridicule those who would call them on what the common person would consider aggressive and anti-competitive behaviours. Unless these individuals have a greater degree of psychopathy than usually found in minimally dark triad leaders, they cannot, in their heart-of-hearts, truly believe the responses they spout publicly—responses that are clearly disconnected from market realities. To say that their proverbial pants are on fire might be going to far. But warm to the touch?...

Members of organizations look to their organizational leaders for tacit guidance on what is acceptable and expected behaviour, especially with respect to getting ahead in the organization. Irrespective of the espoused values that may be laminated or bronzed and hanging in the lobby, it is the in-use practices to which people pay attention. No one should be surprised when members of Keurig, Loblaw, and Rogers – who see their leaders skirt ethical behaviours and the truth in order to promote the ends of their companies – do the same. What those quoted in the Globe articles are providing is not leadership, or at least the type of leadership that is consistent with the complex demands of the 21st century.

10 November 2014

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization

One question that periodically surfaces among my leader-clients is, “how did we ever get into the leadership mess we’re in these days?” What often passes for leadership is often bull-headedness, the ability to drive to accomplish a goal with almost obsessive determination, and the overarching drive to win at any and all costs. The C-suite seems to be overrun with dark-triad personalities. Organizations tend to create elaborate shields of willful ignorance so long as the leader in question – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the hierarchically most senior person – continues to bring in the results.

In other words, how did we get to here?

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization takes a stab at answering that very question. It begins with a foundational premise of human interactions: the dominant way in which we communicate with each other as a society enables the structuring institutions of that society. It is an argument that implicates technologies throughout Western history, but is not technological determinism, the doctrine that says technological advances drive everything with an unwavering inevitability. Rather, drawing from the arguments of people like Eric Havelock, Harold Adam Innis, and Marshall McLuhan, I would suggest that throughout history, communication technology enables environments that tend to favour structuring institutions of society most consistent with the way in which people interact with each other. That is, “we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Which brings us to the history of those great, structuring institutions, organizations. The paper traces the way Athenian democracy organized itself in a remarkable contemporary way, promoting inclusiveness, participation, knowledge sharing, and prevention of concentrated power in the hands of a few, privileged men. As communication technology changed, so too did the organizational institution: bureaucratic power emerged very much concentrated in the hands of a few, very privileged men at the top of the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th and 12th centuries. The manuscript culture that drove the Church gave way to a culture driven by mechanized print that enabled the Enlightenment, early modernity, and paved the path to Industrial Age organizations and management. This, of course, gave us the industrial and mechanistic 20th century and the foundations of modern management.

In the paper, I argue that the 20th-century organizational story takes two, parallel paths, one that creates the managerialist worldview, another that provides a more humanistic approach. If 20th-century management (and most MBA education) served the purposes of the former approach, the latter is emerging as better serving the complex challenges of relationship-oriented organizations in the 21st century. Finally, I introduce Valence Theory as a foundational, contemporary theory of organization that both accounts for the past 3,000 years (including the 20th century), and explains the complex, emergent, and downright weird organization forms and dynamics that we have seen more recently.

A Brief, 3,000-Year History of Organization. Download the paper here.

05 November 2014

Congratulations on Your Engagement. Or are you feeling unsafe?

One of my most popular tweets recently was this one:
Conventional thinking – often promoted by HR specialists and others holding a managerial worldview – says that anonymously surveying employees for their: (pick one) engagement, satisfaction, motivation, net promoter score… provides management with useful metrics through which they can better understand how to get more productivity from their workers. The logic suggests that a better understanding of what’s working well and what could use some tweaking helps to create workplaces that enable job satisfaction, continually improving productivity, and long-term employee retention. Or so goes the theory, credited to Elton Mayo, famous for his interpretation of the Hawthorne Experiments, way back in the late 1930s.

In practice, despite the plethora of engagement and satisfaction surveys, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report found that 70% of workers were either disengaged or “actively disengaged” in their work, and “emotionally disconnected” from the place in which they spend the vast majority of their waking hours. Yet, it is often the case that in-house engagement surveys (usually administered by an outside, third party to ensure anonymity) tell a very different story. With their own evidence seemingly refuting Gallup’s results, senior leaders enjoy a sense of personal satisfaction, if not personal pride, in their ability to create the exception-to-the-disengagement-rule workplace. Not so fast…

There is an additional, critical factor at play which calls into question the entire methodology surrounding metrics that purport to measure employee engagement. Imagine the following situation: You work for a boss who is known to take personal credit for things that happen well, and blame subordinates for mistakes. A boss who has a reputation for “managing up,” that is, ensuring that their own superior thinks well of them without concern for the effects on peers or those who report to him/her. A boss who is known to publicly belittle employees and has a temper with a short fuse. Now you are asked to complete the employee survey. Said boss strongly encourages full participation with the tacit (or not-so-tacit) suggestion with respect to the expected outcome. S/he may even offer perq-y bribes around the time of the survey like offsite meetings, sponsored lunches, or other material tokens.

Especially if the boss displays tendencies towards the “dark triad” personality type, employees have a sense that their future work assignments, availability of desirable opportunities, positive performance reviews (and the associated bonuses or salary increases) have become intimately entwined not only with participation in, but significantly, with the results of the survey.

In many organizations, and particularly among workgroups that are led by problematic managers, employees do not work in an environment in which they feel safe and secure in their employment. Such managers use the very powerful, coercive, and blunt instrument of performance reviews that determine who survives, who thrives, and who is relegated to that special HR hell of “Performance Improvement Plans” (or similarly euphemistic first steps to firing) to keep wayward employees in line. In doing so, they create environments of fear, rather than autonomous and active engagement. Despite the nominal anonymity afforded to the surveys, it is often not difficult for a manager to infer whom among his or her direct reports are not towing the “satisfied worker” line, often via the free-form comments or so-called verbatims. Quite understandably, employees are reluctant to give their honest opinions and advice, especially if they have had the opportunity to see retribution being meted out to a would-be whisteblower.

Thus, for any given employee engagement or satisfaction survey that shows reasonable but not necessarily stellar results, it may well be the case that employees are reasonably satisfied and engaged. On the other hand, these results could represent the practical reality that employees who feel unsafe in their workplace and cannot afford to jeopardize their employment will only very rarely express their true feelings.

Simply put, employee engagement surveys are largely inaccurate in unsafe environments. Thus, any reasonable result on the survey may equally be a sign of systemic problems that the engagement instrument is not designed to detect.

23 May 2014

Academic Freedom is Not the Issue - It's Poor Leadership

There was a general consensus, at least among the usual suspect commentators, that University of Saskatchewan’s recent conflagration over the firing of professor and Dean of the School of Public Health, Robert Buckingham had an inherent duality. On one hand, Professor Buckingham had the protection of tenure that enabled him to speak out about a dubious plan to consolidate the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, and Public Health into one, super health-care school. On the other hand, now former university president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac made it very clear that, “Leaders [i.e. senior academic administrators and managers] have opportunities to express personal opinions in leadership discussions. Once decisions are made, all leaders are expected to support the university’s directions.” According to Professor Buckingham, President Busch-Vishniac told the deans and vice-presidents that their tenure would be in jeopardy if they spoke out against the cost-cutting decision to consolidate the three schools.

Professor Buckingham did just that in an open letter entitled, “The Silence of the Deans.” He was summarily fired both as dean and as professor, contravening the long-held tradition of tenure in which a professor has job protection against losing his or her position based on what they say, write, or research. A firestorm ensued. The university administration quickly backtracked on the loss of the tenured position, but not on reinstatement of his deanship. The Provost, Brett Fairbairn, was made the scapegoat and resigned over the incident. The president, claiming that “I came here to accomplish some things. I think we've been making some progress on them,” refused to step down. In at least one radio interview on CBC’s As It Happens, she was (in my opinion) rather glib and somewhat revisionist about the incident and circumstances. However, the damage to the university’s reputation continued to expand with the university’s students protesting, academics around the world widely condemning the move, and the whole kerfuffle attracting the notice of the provincial government.

Wednesday evening, the university’s Board of Governors lowered the boom on President Busch-Vishniac and summarily dismissed her (although, in a move that was rather poetic I think, said that she could be rehired as a professor).

I believe the Board of Governors moved swiftly on both the urging of the government and the wider academic community in order to salvage the university’s reputation. However, it points to a possible sea change in contemporary management and leadership. Traditionally, there was an implicit (sometimes explicit) mentality of noblesse oblige among managers, and especially senior managers and executives (who today are euphemistically called “leaders”). They made decisions and everyone else was required to comply or face dire consequences, irrespective of the merit of the decision, or its logic, ethics, practicality, expected consequences, or effects be they intended or unintended. This mode of operations is established in an instrumental, industrialized view of organization that considers its people as replaceable machine components, and therefore expendable. (I contend that it originally came from the very first, pre-modern, administrative bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, stemming from the time of Pope Gregory VII).

No longer, it seems. The expectation that managers and workers will simply fall into line with decisions of top executives may be going the way of the telegraph, wired line telephone system, and daily milk delivery. Today’s organizations whose dynamics are based on emergent interactions among multiple relationships require inclusive participation, active listening among multiple constituencies, and consensus-building processes that enable true leadership to occur. To enable individual autonomy and agency in an environment that encourages collective responsibility in an environment of mutual accountability. Simply put, absent a culture of silencing fear (which is, sadly, all too prevalent among many modern organizations), senior managers can no longer expect to order their subordinate managers and employees around without consequences. In the case of University of Saskatchewan and the decision to "TransformUS" by consolidating three health-related schools against the advice of their respective deans, and silencing all dissenters through overt threats to their livelihood, the leadership failure happened long before Professor Buckingham's firing. Executives can no longer exert such arbitrary - dare I say regal - power. They may not meet the dire end of former-President Busch-Vishniac at University of Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, they will be entirely unable to fulfil their mandate of accomplishing whatever the organization intends to accomplish, never mind the more lofty objectives of leadership, innovation, and creating great environments of engaged workers.

22 April 2014

Research at Adler

Blogging over the past number of months has been... well... confined to Twitter to be perfectly honest. Positive progress at Adler continues at a breakneck rate in all areas, from recruitment to new degree development, through curriculum evolution, and more. A particular point of pride for me is the great advances Adler has made in laying the groundwork to be considered a hub of significant applied psychological research. This is considerably more than the university model of "recruit some students and run an experiment to prove a hypothesis." We're talking about research that has the potential to affect real lives, real families, and real communities, potentially influence public policy, and certainly inform psychological care. We've initiated critical, qualitative inquiry and research design as a mandatory first-year course (that I personally teach with great enjoyment because of our terrific students!), and augmented it with parallel quantitative methods training.

Here are some examples, grouped by broad theme, of student research that has recently been approved by Adler's Research Review (Ethics) Committee:

On Psychology and Newcomers:
  • Experiences with Counselling – For Individuals within the South Asian Community. 
  • The Difference Between Newcomers Who Seek Help As Opposed to Who Don’t in Terms of Stigma Towards Mental Health. 
  • Psychological Effects affiliated with systemic barriers experienced by newcomer women in Toronto. 
On Family Connections and Dynamics:
  • Sexual offender’s perceptions on early life experiences: role, gender and forms of attachment between mother and father. 
  • A Glance at Attachment bonding in families with children with Disruptive Behaviours.
  • The effect of family ties on the resilience of homeless youth.
  • Patriarchal versus Matriarchal Dominant Households, and the Influence on Behavioural and Moral Mindset of Offspring.
  • Self-Help: Impact and Efficacy on Marital Discord.
  • How do prosocial video games influence the behaviour, family dynamics and interpersonal relationships of a child with behaviour issues?
  • Parental perception of iPad use in preschoolers.
 And, simply interesting and important:
  • A qualitative analysis on the experience of pregnancy loss in women after 24 weeks gestation.
  • The Experience of Alzheimer’s Disease: Through the Caregiver.
  • The Communication of Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus to Children: A Pilot Study.
  • Investigating the effects of gender and online support for individuals experiencing anxiety.
  • Affective, anxiety, and perfectionistic response to positive and negative feedback: A qualitative study of gender, interpersonal, and societal factors in individuals with perfectionism.
I am really looking forward to reading the results of these interesting research projects, and eagerly anticipating Adler's (future) first, formal, research conference. 

17 December 2013

Advice for the Leader-lorn: Help! I'm Trapped in a Government Bureaucracy!

Advice for the Leader-lorn is a periodic column that responds to leadership-related queries from the contemporary workplace. I invite your questions.

Today's question comes from a civil servant located somewhere in Canada:
I am a team leader at [a government department which may be provincial or federal, to protect the correspondent's identity] and recently participated in a leadership development program within the organization. Our first week of the program was kind of a revelation to me and I've since delved into anything having to do with leadership. After viewing your video, I was inspired to try and change my little part of the organization from BAH to UCaPP. My current position is the first step into a supervisory position within the public service, so you could say that I am quite low on the proverbial totem pole. My goal is to focus on what I am in charge of, as there is very little that I can control.
So I am coming to you in the hopes that you could spare a few minutes of your time to either point me in the right direction, share some advice, direct me towards some reading material, or blatantly tell me that there is no hope and to move on to something else!
I always find it interesting to meet recently appointed, especially low-level (potential) leaders filled with Quixotic enthusiasm for the contribution that they truly believe they can make. Please don't interpret what I am about to share with you as coming from someone with a jaded, I've-seen-it-all cynicism, although there is the very real possibility that my comments could be interpreted no other way. There is an unfortunate reality that organizational transformation is not - cannot - be a grassroots initiative unless the organization itself has that attribute of bottom-up, inclusive change "baked in" to its in-use values and practices. Governments tend to be an extreme case of organizational inertia due to its unique - and very contemporary - incarnation of bureaucracy that introduces a political control layer over top of what is already staunchly stifling bureaucratic processes.

Bureaucracies exist in order to remove human judgment from decision making and replace judgment (and often good sense) with systemic procedures and routines. There can be good and valid reasons to do this, especially when one understands organizational imperatives and operating systems from the ground of post-industrial age 20th century. (More on this in this paper on Enabling a Culture of Innovation that I presented at the Conference Board of Canada National Councils of HR Executives meeting in June, 2013.) What governments at all levels began doing in the mid-1980s was to add a layer of political control via these procedures that created a hybrid form of bureaucratic control that had never before been seen, and has since become the de facto operating mode of governments. The current Harper Federal Government is perhaps more efficient - if not overt - at it than most others have been, but in reality is no different in kind than the David Peterson Government in Ontario was at the time.

In particular, government bureaucratic machinery (by which I mean the civil service) have become extremely effective and systematic about stifling innovation and the type of independent procedural, process, and approach thinking that is a requirement for culture change. In particular, one of the key characteristics of a UCaPP-consistent organization is that it promotes and encourages Individual Autonomy and Agency, Collective Responsibility, and Mutual Accountability among its members. Can you really see that sort of transformation occurring in any government? Indeed, I often say that contemporary leadership is about enabling a conducive environment so that people come together to share common experiences from which an alternate future becomes possible. Most very large organizations (that are not on the brink of ruin or the destruction of their historically stable industry or market) truly advocate and encourage alternate futures. They need good managers to maintain, more or less, the status quo. They actually shun true leadership.

Do not lose your inspiration to create engaging environments that are indeed conducive to culture transformation. Organizations in general are dying for want of such inspiring leadership. More important, people are living their lives in silent (or not so silent) frustration in the depths of despair and cynicism because their workplaces are for most intents and purposes, intolerable, toxic, or simply stultifying. The world needs more true contemporary leaders.

09 December 2013

On Attributes of Creating a Great Leadership Environment

"He draws people out of their comfort zone,” he said, “but he does it subtly, challenging them with his openness and his commitment to change. He ends up making them rise to the occasion. He doesn’t just synthesize and sell a solution. He finds opportunities in the larger body of players to create circumstances where change can happen.”
- Former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff, John Podesta, speaking about Barack Obama, quoted in Ron Suskind's book, Confidence Men.

Consistent with my contention that contemporary leadership is about creating environments where people come together to share an experience from which an alternate future becomes possible.

28 November 2013

The Dark Side of Leadership

I'm in the process of developing a new Certificate in Innovation Leadership that Adler will offer in 2014 in conjunction with HRPA. It comes from several talks I've done over the past several months on Enabling an Environment of Innovation. While doing some research on enabling factors, I came across an interesting study published last year in the Academy of Management Journal entitled The Dark Side of Leadership: A three-level investigation of the cascading effect of abusive supervision on employee creativity.

The primary results of this extensive study by Dong Liu (Georgia Institute of Technology), Hui Liao (University of Maryland), and Raymond Loi (University of Macao) are not that surprising. They found that abusive behaviours by top leaders tend to cascade downwards to be emulated by lower-level managers and group leaders. They also found that abusive behaviours significantly and negatively affect employees' creativity and hence, innovation throughout the organization. This result is corroborated by extensive literature indicating that intrinsic motivation is critical to promoting innovation; nothing kills intrinsic motivation among people more effectively than abuse.

What was particularly interesting to me was how motive attribution affected the results. The authors tested two attribution reasons: promotion, that is, whether abusive behaviour was perceived by subordinates as the way to get ahead in the organization; and injury, that is, whether abusive behaviour was experienced simply as malicious intent to cause harm.

If promotion was the attributed reason for abusive behaviour, the cascading effect of higher-level abusive behaviours was enhanced. In other words, if underlings perceived that abuse was the way to get ahead because those higher up behaved that way, they were more likely to adopt similarly abusive behaviours, as compared to those who perceived that their superiors were simply mean bastards. On the other hand, attributed promotion had a somewhat mitigating effect on the creativity-killing aspects of abusive behaviours. In other words, if people perceived that the abuse was the result of organizationally sanctioned success behaviour, employee creativity was destroyed less than perceived meanness.

The bottom line is, if you're seeking innovation in your organization, you must have no tolerance for abusive behaviours. Period. However, if you are an abusive person, ensure that your victims believe that you're only doing it to get ahead.

[And yes, for the irony challenged among my readers, that last statement was indeed satirical.]

Now, one might say that organizations should never tolerate abusive behaviours. Sadly, I have first-hand knowledge of several organizations that are officially named among Canada's so-called Best Places to Work (don't get me started), in which the organization culture has been described as toxic, and employees regularly leave without a job to go to, choosing unemployment over continuing abuse. Among these companies' espoused values? Innovation. Go figure.

28 June 2013

The Agenda on "Knowing in Common"

I was on The Agenda with Steve Paikin yesterday reflecting on the question of what do we need to know in common in order to fully participate as citizens in both our country and our world? As The Agenda episode tag says, "Much emphasis is placed today on keeping students engaged by allowing them to follow their interests. How will that affect the viability of a common curriculum in schools increasingly reshaped by the internet?"
By the way, here's my top five list of what we need to know by the end of high school in a reimagined curriculum. I am assuming basic literacy and numeracy, of course, plus the skills of written and oral expression, the ability to write a cogent argument and engage in thoughtful dialogue about its merits, context, meaning, and applicability. So, let's call these five basic skills:
  1. A working knowledge of physical and chemical science - the fundamental processes of how stuff exists, interacts, and transforms in the natural and built world. This covers matter from the very small (quantum) to the very large (cosmological),
  2. A working knowledge of biological and ecological science - the fundamental processes of how we (and other creatures) physically exist, operate, interact (on a material basis) and transform. Among the ideas here are to gain an appreciation for natural, organic balance for individual health and the health of the natural environment.
  3. A working knowledge of the history of the four major inhabited continents, North and South America, Europe, and Austral-Asia. Among the intentions here is the notion to study history in parallel rather than linearly, so that, for instance, the War of 1812 in North America is understood in the contexts of the war between England and France, the effects on First Nations, as well as the typical context of (Upper and Lower) Canada and the US. Understanding that places other than North America and Europe actually have history that affect and contextualize current global events has been long overlooked.
  4. A working knowledge of the cultural production of the four major inhabited continents, including literature, music, and visual/material arts, plus the ability to produce same (including music).
  5. A working knowledge of the fundamental philosophies that have informed human history, including the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, the various African beliefs and philosophies, plus a selection of some of the more influential philosophers' work from the four continents. The idea here is to gain an appreciation of how various cultures approach questions such as: How did we get here? Why are we here? and How should we be in the world?

06 May 2013

How Do You Define Work?

danah boyd poses an interesting question over on LinkedIn: "How would you define work in a networked world?" The article is a thought-provoking read and worth the time for the issues it raises.

Here's what I had to say in the comments in response:

Labour became an Industrial Age concept, enshrined in Western modernity, as the product of the "doers" as opposed to the "thinkers" in an organization. It hearkens back to medieval service to the Church, revised and revamped in a post-Enlightenment context to essentially become service of the masses to the privileged. When Marx (and all the subsequent labour process theorists like Braverman, etc.) wrote about alienation of the worker from his/her labour, indeed it was the identification of this "in service to the privileged" aspect from which he charged the proletariat of the world to unite and cast off their chains.

In the latter part of the 20th century, the Boomer generation (largely) conceived of the notion of "work-life balance," once again reproducing Marx's alienation concept in the distinction between one's "work" and one's "life." Life is not so much what happens when you're making other plans, but rather it's what happens when you've returned home from your daily commute to the glass-and-concrete, high-rise salt mines.

Today, the idea of work-life balance gives way to the contemporary generation's experience of "work-life integration." This reconceives our relationship with the stuff we do for material sustenance noting that we have only one life, parts of which we engage with for economic remuneration and parts of it we engage with for remunerations of different sorts (like psychological/social, identity, knowledge, etc. - essentially the Valence Theory relationships). Thus one could say that there is no work for the person with integral awareness of their life (to borrow from Marshall McLuhan). In that sense, danah, most of the time you don't work in the traditional sense. Rather you engage in a whole bunch of activities of your choosing, some of which you get paid for, and ALL of which (or close to all) you integrate in knowledge, socio-psychological affect, identity construction, as well as material benefit.

From Understanding Media, an interesting insight that might inform the conversation (and not to be taken literally, and remember, this was published in 1964): "'Work,' however, does not exist in a nonliterate world. The primitive hunter or fisherman did no work, any more than does the poet, painter, or thinker of today. Where the whole man is involved there is no work. … In the computer age we are once more totally involved in our roles. In the electric age, the 'job of work' yields to dedication and commitment, as in the tribe."

31 January 2013

Recognition Rewards and the Compliance Culture

It’s an exercise I use in leadership facilitation to illustrate the difference between organizational cultures of commitment and compliance. Imagine you’ve been invited to meet the one person in the world you’ve always dreamed of meeting. More than that, you’ve been asked to pick that person up at the airport, chauffeur them to the corporate office, host them for the day, and have dinner with them in the evening. A full day, one-on-one with your all-time hero(ine)! On the morning of that fateful day, you wake up extra early, get yourself ready with the perfect outfit, and head out to the airport. On the way… BOOM!… you have a car breakdown. What do you do? Because you are not going to spoil the day, you would likely ditch your vehicle, call a cab, meet your celebrity on schedule and have an outstanding day. A week later, since you did such a fine job with the celebrity, your boss invites you to do the same thing again but with the one person you would least like to spend even five minutes with. On the day, you hope your alarm clock fails (it doesn’t), you don’t bother to even do your hair, and on the way to the airport, car breaks down again. Do you call a cab? Do you flag down a passing motorist? No, you call in: “Sorry boss. Car broke down. Can’t make it.”

The first instance is about commitment; the second, compliance.

It’s the commitment culture to which great leaders strive. It’s that special environment in which people feel valued and appreciated, where anything is possible because everyone pitches in to make those alternative futures indeed become possible. In a commitment culture, mutual recognition and appreciation are baked in to such an extent that they are simply the ways in which individuals treat each other every day. On the other hand, in a culture of compliance, external mechanisms are required to ensure that people are compliant with what the enterprise demands of them. Unlike a commitment culture in which intrinsic motivation provides the primary impetus, compliance culture necessitates sometimes elaborate systems of carrots and sticks - extrinsic motivators - that attempt to align individuals’ actions with what are often imagined abstractions of mission-oriented behaviours.

Which brings us to recognition rewards. In some corporate cultures, it has become common practice to award tangible acknowledgement of contributions above and beyond the call of duty, as it were. Someone who works long hours on a high-profile project is given a cash bonus, or significant-valued gift card, or a company-paid night on the town with their spouse or other important-person-in-their-life. It is a way of acknowledging the extra value that the person contributed – often on their own time – to the success of something that is important to the company. What could be wrong with that?

Too often, in my experience, such recognition rewards are artefacts of an organization that has developed a highly task-oriented, compliance culture. Relationship and people-orientation has become so foreign that simple and authentic gratitude is beyond the capability of most people. Because the organization’s members are systemically incapable of expressing sincere gratitude, the recognition reward becomes a routinized, corporate surrogate for recognition of a job well done. In a dysfunctional, unhealthy culture, bribery is a proxy for true appreciation.

In the larger context, recognition rewards highlight the difference between compliance and commitment. In a culture of commitment, this bribery-recognition would not be necessary (although additional, creative forms of augmented compensation are certainly appreciated, even in a commitment culture). In a culture of compliance, such carrot-and-stick encouragement mechanisms are essential to enforcing the requisite conformity to management-dictated behaviours. In a culture of commitment, literally anything is possible.

29 January 2013

Tactility and the Inverse Performance Review

’Tis the season for Oscar announcements, breaking New Year’s resolutions, and perhaps among the most dreaded of annual rituals, the Performance Review. I wrote recently about Appreciative Performance Remediation, and here at Adler we too are setting up for our own Appreciative Performance Reflections done in the context of a 3-person reference group (rather than being reviewed by their direct supervisor or manager alone, or in the context of the now-cliché 360 appraisal).

When an organization is guided by vision, a method of evaluation and assessment that involves oversight and supervision (which literally means the same as “over” “sight”) makes some semblance of sense. Vision is a one-way sense that demands distance and separation of the viewer from what is being viewed. Objectivity is the intent, and that unfortunately necessitates that which is being viewed – that is, the employee – to become an instrumental object in the organization’s “eyes.”All of that is consistent with the instrumental consideration of employees in an Industrial-Age-informed workplace.

On the other hand, an organization that chooses tactility as its guiding sensory metaphor – navigating according to the question, whom are we going to touch and how are we going to touch them today? – has a different realization. Tactility is a two-way sense: you cannot touch without being touched. In a workplace informed and inspired by tactility, there is an opportunity to introduce a reciprocity aspect to the annual performance reflection. If the organization is going to ask its members, “how well did you accomplish what we’ve asked of you; how well were you able to bring your best to contribute to the organization’s success?” then the individual has the right to ask of the organization’s leadership, “how well did you do what was expected of you to support my success?”

Recall what 21st century leadership is about: “enabling a conducive environment where people engage to create a shared experience in which an alternative future becomes possible. In an organization informed by tactility, it is not only legitimate and appropriate, but necessary for the individual to assess the leadership, asking, “how well did you enable that engaging shared experience? How much more likely is that alternative future this year as compared to last year? How effectively were resources deployed to create an environment most conducive to enabling me to bring my best towards our collective success?”

Fair game, I say: If organizations are bent on annually reviewing the performance of its members, the members have an equal right and obligation to act appropriately in undertaking an inverse performance review.

10 January 2013

New Course: Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams

We are very pleased and excited to officially launch our first course in the new Faculty of Leadership and Organization at Adler Graduate Professional School. Beginning in February and running to the first week of May, we are offering the unique opportunity to study with one of Canada's leading academics and practitioners in the field of Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams, Dr. Marilyn Laiken.

Dr. Laiken is Professor Emerita at OISE, University of Toronto, where she served as Chair of the Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology. Now a member of Adler's Faculty of Leadership and Organization, Dr. Laiken is bringing one of her most popular courses - one that she has taught to wide acclaim for over twenty years - to Adler and its students.

Developing and Leading High-Performing Teams: Theory and Practice is part of our forthcoming Certificate in Leadership and Organization, Development and Coaching that will be starting in September, 2013. We are providing a "sneak preview" of that certificate program by offering this course as a special, stand-alone offer for a special price running on alternate Thursdays from February 7 through May 2. Full details are on the program flyer.

As part of this special offering, we are opening registration to qualified members of the public. If you are in a leadership or managerial position, if you work with or as part of multi-disciplinary teams, or if you simply want to be more effective in workplace collaboration, this course is for you.Subject to individual graduate school requirements, this course may be eligible for graduate-level transfer credit towards a master's or doctoral degree. Please consult with your individual school registrar for eligibility requirements and documentation.

We are tremendously enthusiastic about this offering - and space is very limited because of the unique experiential dynamics of this course. To register, please email us at studentservices@adlearn.net, or call 416-923-4419 and speak to one of our Student Services representatives directly.

03 December 2012

Appreciative Performance Remediation

I happened to see an interesting post on my Facebook timeline that originated from a posting on Dharma Comics:
I was recently told of an African tribe that does the most beautiful thing. When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him. For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness. But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help.

They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth: “I Am Good.”
This tribal practice offers some important ideas for organizations facing the challenge of “performance remediation” and its many euphemistic incarnations with respect to dealing with problematic employees. It is essentially the basis of Appreciative Management practices.

Traditional performance reviews involve “checking the boxes” against achievement and development goals that are more-or-less arbitrarily set in an annual exercise (that is mostly dreaded by managers and employees alike). Such practices are based in a control and regimentation mentality that assumes that all achievements can be quantified (that is, they are measurable), that they can be translated into specific, observable “action,” and that they conform to deadlines (“timely”). Given the complexity that defines most that happens throughout contemporary organizations, such goal-setting exercises that to not recognize the fact of emergence are not really very “smart.”

Even worse is that the reward and punishment mechanisms that surround and support such performance management regimes more-often-than-not lead to abusive and non-productive behaviours that tend to diverge from the organization’s tactility – whom it intends to touch and how it intends to touch them – in favour of achievement of goals that are abstractions of what seemed like good ideas at the time. It is particularly authoritarian mechanisms of discipline and control that become problematic.

In contrast, Appreciative Management practices are inherently strengths-based and founded in continual reinforcement and support of “catching them doing it right”—especially important when part of doing “it” right involves organizational members autonomously determining what are the right things to be done.

Particularly, when traditional organizations are moved to discipline (or the very many euphemisms thereof), Appreciative Management approaches are far more effective in sustainable correction of problematic behaviours. When the “tribe” reinforces an individual’s strengths, and the good that they are and can bring to organizational environments, we see remarkable turnarounds in both direct behaviour and sustainable engagement and commitment.

21 November 2012

Employee (Dis)engagement

Back when I was doing my research that led to the development of Valence Theory, I came across a curious phenomenon among two of my participants, both senior leaders – CEOs, in fact – of their respective companies. In many instances, they said nearly the same things but their intention and meaning were almost exactly polar opposites of each other. For example, both spoke about consultation and collaboration with employees, yet one’s intention was to impose his beliefs, worldview, and sense-making on employees who held dissenting opinions. The other leader consulted and collaborated – especially with those who held opposing views – to discover what she was missing in her own understanding of business situations. One leader was confident in what he knew to be “true.” The other, actively sought out to fill the gaps in what she didn’t know that she didn’t know. In McLuhan language, same figures with different grounds (contexts) yields different meaning; meaning being the interplay of figure against ground.

I’m reminded of this idea that we can construct very different meanings from a given observation depending on the ground or context against which the observation is interpreted. Take employee satisfaction surveys, for example. Every leader wants to believe that her or his employees are engaged, satisfied, willing to go the proverbial extra mile or kilometre, and would happily stay even if offered a somewhat better job elsewhere. Leaders want to score high when employees consider whether their company is a Great Place to Work. They survey employees regularly, solicit feedback from workers at every level, and herald high scores through self-congratulatory email blasts thanking staff for their great teamwork, support, dedication, and loyalty in the face of adversity and constant change. What could be wrong with that?

And indeed, all may be well in the state of the company. Equally – thinking back to the example of the two leaders saying the same thing from completely opposite intentions – all may not be as well as the survey results might suggest on the surface. Here are some telltale signs that great results in an employee satisfaction survey might be masquerading some serious, systemic problems:
  1. Response rate is low or delayed: Most such surveys require a minimum response rate from workers to be considered valid. Those sponsoring the survey monitor responses and strongly encourage managers to get their employees to respond, especially as the deadline draws closer. Generally speaking, people are more reluctant to share bad news and eager to provide good. A delayed response – a “hockey stick” shaped response graph – might indicate underlying dissatisfaction.
  2. Small granularity of samples: If response units are fewer than ten people, it’s often easy for a manager to figure out who are the naysayers (or non-responders); framed another way, those who are not “good team players.” In an environment in which employment safety with respect to reprisal, career limitation, or risk of firing is a concern – especially when there is a culture of “no bad news” (see below) – employees will give neutral to mildly positive responses rather than share their true feelings. It’s a tough job market out there!
  3. Functional favouritism: Especially in companies that favour one function over another – engineers and developers in a tech company, sales people, researchers in knowledge-based organizations – satisfaction results may be skewed by overwhelmingly high scores among those who enjoy privilege who also tend to dominate in numbers as well. When average-to-mediocre results are clustered in particular functional areas, there is useful information that management is missing.
  4. No bad news, a.k.a. Emperor’s new clothes: Employees quickly learn whether honest opinions – especially those that express disagreement with the senior leaders – are welcome or not. They learn whether dissenters experience reprisals via lack of promotion or salary raises, limited access to funding or opportunities, or whether they become members of madogiwazoku “the window ledge tribe” of people who are stripped of responsibility and forced to spend their days in triviality until they resign (assuming they can find alternative employment). In such environments, employees know that there is no percentage in telling the emperor s/he has no clothes. It’s much easier, not to mention safer, to tell him/her what she wants to hear.

Sadly these conditions and others create conditions in which leaders are unable to hear and observe what is really going on right under their noses: compliance rather than commitment, apathy instead of innovation, putting another one over on the boss as opposed to providing inspired guidance.

The bottom line: High employee satisfaction and engagement survey results are meaningless if they are not understood in the context of the real environment in which they are taken.