All entries for Thursday 30 July 2009
July 30, 2009
There was an incident during the management of change module about whether or not it is appropriate to make "promises" to employees like guaranteed employment, benefits and so on. This is a real situation that happened to our company Flexipart during the business simulation.
In real life, the same dilemma is faced by well known companies. Like everything in life, there appear to be two sides to the story. While some argue guaranteed employement is Good for the company because employee are more likely to be loyal and hence less turnover costs. I remember reading this from Deming's book where he cite the example this in Japanses business practice.
However, contradicting evidence include the likes of General Motors, well known for the deal it made with the union worker for 'sweet' pension and retirement benefits. According to an article from the Economist, such employee benefits was a major cause for General Motor's collapse (because it can't meet its pension obligations) . So this make the following question relevant and interesting
Should organisations offer guaranteed employment to employees?
Well Argyris provide an interest take on this question, from a different perspective from above, I will just quote him i think
He writes in an interveiw with Acme CEO, the CEO wrote
"If the employees express fear about the new plan because the 'old' company guaranteed employment, say: "The new organization will do its utmost to guarantee employment and better prospects for growth. I promise that."
"If the employees express fear that they are not used to dealing with the market approach, say: I promise you will get the education you need, and I will ensure that appropraite actions are rewarded."
Now if I recall correctly, when this happned during the MOC business simulation, the tutor said to our managing director (I paraphrase) "Making false promises to your employee that they will always have their job is not doing them good, it is an act of cowardice". The rationale behind this is that when under pressure , the MD approached the employee's fear by offering a simple no brainer solution "I give you job no matter what happens", thinking this should eliminate sense of fear and enhance commitment. But the MD in fact have no control over the external environment. By simply asserting that he will guarantee jobs is a momentary attempt to regain legitimacy using his positional power while having no concrete plan to ensure his promises can be fulfilled. (He was treading on thin ice basically)
Now the three argumentsI mentioned above, all have a very anti-management bias (I didnt invent this term, Argyris did). Basically it first assumes the responsibility of job security rest in the top management while it completely ignores and removes employee's own personal responsibility for ensuring job security. Argyris wrote
"But look at the confusion of messages and roles. If the CEO means to give these employees a sense of theri own power over their own professional fate - and that was his stated intent - then why emphasize instead what he will do for them? Each time he said, "I promise you," the CEO undermined his own goal of creating internal commitment, intrinsic motivation, and genuine empowerment." (p105)
Argris's example again illustrate the point that each and everyone of us has our own hidden unsaid assumptions about they way we behave. In the CEO's case, he assumed the management has the full responsibility for employee's job security. But we often don't realise these assumptions are inconsistent with our espoused (publicly stated intent and behavior). When we don't realise these two are inconsistent, we produce actions that are inconsistent with are stated beliefs. To others, we appears inauthetic (Dee Nicholls) in our words and actions.
Now what should one do if he/she was in the CEO's shoe? Well I won't bore you with all the same words about leadership and communication. But I will leave you with an story from Mathew (co-tutor in the module). Instead of using fear to motivate , which is the opposite of guaranteeing job security (saying If you don't work hard , you and I will be both out of a job!). I think he said "I want us to be the best in what we do". Now I don't know if saying this is actually better than the other approaches mentioned above. I 'd happily welcome your thoughts and comments. :)
To quickly sum up. It is clear hopefully from my description that Guarantee-ing employee job secruity is NOT a good idea. For two main reasons. Firstthe external environment will dictate organisational action beyond management control (i.e. recent mass layoff from financial crisis), you end up shoot yourself in the foot. Second, it removes that sense of urgency from the very people you try and expect to change their behavior.
Argris, C (2001). Good Communications that Blocks Learning. Harvard business Review Paperback on Organizational Learning
In the past few weeks has been a really good period for me. I am reading stuff but I also find myself thinking about things, and understanding more about organisations, inter-personal behviors and so on. When I have these 'insights' i like to write them on blog immediately fearing they would quickly slip away. Doing so also help me clear thinking, analyse situations and so on... but I am not sure whether these ideas have any real value to others. They do to me though.
Anyway, building on my previous entry about defensive reasoning. I just like to relate it to the idea of "system" which W.Edward Deming use as a concept for explaining why problems in organisation occur. His use of word "system" is abit differnt from another well known author Peter Senge's System thinking. Whereas Senge refers to system as a way of making sense of the causal relationship between different events and therefore argue sometimes, what people think to be the cause (cause #1) of a problem could have a underlying (unobvious) cause (cause #2) as the result of our action taken on cause #1. The number of causes can of course be as many as you like depending on the complexity of the problem (situation). The point is our action may inadvertently agrevate the cause of the very problem we try to eliminate because of the circularity in the cause and effect. He use the example of US invasion of Iraq
US perceive Middle Eastern threat -> American take military action -> Middle East perceive US threat -> Muslim take militar action -> US perceive greater Middle Eastern threat -> so on and so forth
But Deming's idea of system is slightly different. It's more about the difference between superficial causes and underlying causes. They are not necessarily in circularity like Senge's idea. But rather superficial causes are the result of underlying cause. The underlying cause is a broken system. Let me illustrate with an personal example I experienced yesterday.
I went to see Paul Robert for not receiving feedback on my KBAM assignment. It was not to be found on the network or on Paul's personal computer. Long story short. It was probably never received by the WMG department yet somehow submission was recorded as "received" and Paul marked "something" and gave me a mark. I followed the entire event and I thought about how complex the entire system was from student submission, admins recording receipt, making copies, send to tutors, tutors send to tunitin, mark assignment, making different files for recording marks, send marks and feedback back to admin, admin send feedback to student... and so on. If there was any error in the process (by the student, admin, or the tutor) it would have resulted in delays. Sounds like a broken system that need process improvement? ... haha... I think so. But the thing is I think throughout the entire incident, everyone seemed to be quite happy with the way the system works. They try to go to the bottom and find the cause. They check IT, check student's record, tutor's records, somehow the cause is there "somewhere" and "we just haven't found it yet". But has anyone ever wondered why such error occur? and as far as I know from the admin, not just infrequently. As a student, I think I can say for myself that the submission system is WAY too complicated to use. There is even a dummy mechanism for you to PRACTICE submission.... now having need to practice SUBMISSION is quite strange to some people. Does it really need to be this complex?
Now I think there is a rationale behind all this. Need for control, and need for back up. As we learned in books and classes. Excessive control leads to bureacracy. As people find more and more need to have check points , the longer the chain of commands, and the greater the ineffciency is likely to result. The idea of backing up is good, system engineering RDD right? but any additional back up system impose a cost. And in organisations, this cost in time, and money being wasted on the the process of making an copy "just in case". Okay, I know I sound terrrrrrribly like books and consultant... maybe I have been reading too much that I have been 'converted', but yeah something worth thinking about.
Funnily whenever such errors occur we tend to be very tolerant if it was a fault of customers. We would say "let's make things more user friendly so that customer won't make the same mistake twice!" (although not every organisation positive thinker like this). Whenever such errors occur within organisation, we tend to be very intolerant of our employee. Insisiting such problem arise because employee did not do job properly, overlooked certain things, not trained properly (then the blame goes to managers), or whatever.
Argyris work on organizational learning really has been really useful to me. At first , I remember myself dimissing it as 'stating the obvious' . Single loop and double loop learning, yeah right. But the more I read, I find myself realising more and more how prevalent the issue of learning is in our society. In almost everyday, every news I read , stories from people I talked to , I find see in some way it relate to what Argyris refers as defensive reasoning
Whenever problem arise, people look for a solution, but at the same time they also seem to have a tendency to blame others. It usually come across in words like " I told him this and that" or "It's not responsibility to..." or " Who did this? who was responsible when the problem took place?" and so on. Then the debate comes down to who was right and who was wrong. To illustrate, a week ago, a news in the US about a black Harvard professor being arrested by a white policeman for breaking in his (the black professor) own house. I spent some time listening to these media pundits arguing passionately defending whoever they thought no wrong. The supporter of the black professor would say "It is not breaking the law for breaking into his own house, the white police man obvious overreacted (some also implcitly suggest it is racial profiling by the policeman)" . On the other hand the supporter of the policeman would say "The police was only doing his job, he checked after a call for a suspected burglary, the black professor lost his temper and would not listen to the policeman's request to come out of the house, the balck professor is racist himself".
Well, after listening to both sides of the argument, and some reports of the actual incidents. I think it is obiviously that both parties had misbehaved. The black professor obviously overreacted (sure people would defend again saying "under the historitcal circumstances, and being suspected for no wrong doing, anyone would be overeacting"). Sure that is true but does that mean it was the "right" thing to do at the time? Does that mean, you (as the black professor) could be excused for not following the police request, and yell racial slurs to the policeman? No, I don't think so. Similarly, did the policeman have to arrest the black professor after confirming that he (the professor) was not the burgarlary and the situation was just a misunderstanding? No he didn't. But if he had not done so, he probably would have looked bad to the gathered people and to colleague at the police station (this I am really guessing his motive, but probably far -fetched guess) .
The point I try to make is while each parties are busy defending themselve, and accusing others. Everyone seem to overlook the fact that perhaps both parties were responsible for the outcome of the incidenct. If this was in an organisation, the contructive approach is to engage both parties to a conversation , and talk things through. Not only to resolve the misunderstandings. But to inquire why the event happened the way it did without putting on blames. Did they way the professor reacted was perhaps due to an underlying assumption he held about the white policeman in America? Was it okay for the white policeman to assumethe only way to deal with "disorderly behavior" was to arrest this guy and clear his name later? After the incident both parties hopefully was already thinking about theses issues anyway.
But doing so, questioning one's own underlying assumptions, as according to Argyris , is extremely difficult because it would mean crticising self for holding those assumptions, and be in a position of blame, which is not something we like to admit to.