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!

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