| making 'People' work

To have meaningful work that enables our independence and to live with dignity should be a basic human right

Month: July, 2013

Why workers should be allowed to just be themselves

A number of interesting studies look at the human drive for seeking meaning and provide lessons for those who are responsible for designing jobs.

Psychologists Travis Proulx (University of California) and Steven Heine (University of British Columbia) ran several experiments in 2009 in which they asked volunteers to read texts that ranged from nonsensical to confusing to disorientating.  When done with the reading, the volunteers took a difficult test in which they were asked to find patterns in long and what appeared to be random strings of letters.  The researchers found that those who read the disorienting text were able to correctly identify more patterns overall than others who were provided ‘normal’ text, and even saw patterns where there were none.  Variations of this experiment realised the same results – volunteers who were subjected to a disorienting experience responded with a need to find meaning at a cognitive level anywhere they could.  Proulx and Heine concluded that the human need for order and predictability may be fundamental to the human condition, and with predictability would come psychological power.

Michael Gazzaniga is a leading brain scientist and pioneer of cognitive neuroscience.  He has famously conducted experiments with split-brain patients who have had the connections between the two brain hemispheres severed.  These patients enable testing to isolate how the brain hemispheres function separately but create a cognitive whole.  Gazzaniga’s research suggests that the left hemisphere is an ‘interpreter’ that ensures that individuals are able to preserve and protect a holistic sense of self.  The drive to create the stories that rationalise an individual’s action are so powerful that the mind develops beliefs at lightning speed that form part of an individual’s sense of identity.

In The Ethical Brain (2005), Gazzaniga writes, “Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self-image, knowledge, or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of our self.  The interpreter seeks patterns, order, and causal relationships.”

Most organisations recognise that ‘meaning’ is important for the sort of worker engagement that increases commitment and productivity.  Their rationale is if work is meaningful workers will experience a sense of purpose, will have greater confidence that goals can be reached, and that ambitions can be realised.   The process of defining measurable/observable values for achievement and performance create  an illusion that measures create meaning because they can control and measure it.  We allow key performance indicators and competencies to define what we are capable of and ‘meaning’ is taken at no more than face value.

However, the conclusions from these studies suggest that people will find meaning anyway because that is what humans need.  The mission/goals/measuring progress paradigm also fails to take into account the way the brain works.  It assumes that people are continuously working at the fully rational level and does not account for the fact that our cognitive level is only an interpretation of how our brain has responded to what it has experienced.  Michael Gazzaniga describes one incident that illustrates how readily the left brain interpreter makes up stories and beliefs. In the experiment, the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking.  When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

Far from being contrived and defensive responses to justify actions, the brain actually changes in line with these beliefs.  In an experiment carried out with artists, when asked which art they preferred from selected galleries, the artists consistently thought the art from galleries that had sponsored them were better.  This was not just a case of favourtism, brain scans that monitored the artists’ neurological responses actually showed the relevant parts of the brain lit up showing that the artists actually did prefer the art from gallery that had sponsored them, showing how the brain continuously moulds an individual’s understanding of the world to match the person’s sense of self.

When we experience inconsistency between cognitions (beliefs, actions, ideas, values and so on) the state of tension or stress, called ‘cognitive dissonance’ is a condition well understood by many.  The theory was developed by American social psychologist, Professor Leon Festinger.  In 1959 he conducted an experiment with a colleague, James M. Carlsmith, in which participants were asked to complete a monotonous task – repeatedly filling and emptying a tray with 12 spools and turning 48 square pegs in a board clockwise – for an hour.  Some participants were paid $1 for the task, and others were paid $20.  When they completed the task they were asked to tell the next person about to complete the task how much they enjoyed it.  As Festinger and Carlsmith expected, those who were paid $1 were more likely to give a much more positive explanation to the next person than those paid more.  Their mindset adapted so that they believe that they DID enjoy the task.  The people who received $20 didn’t have to justify anything – the task was boring, but for $20, who cared?  There is little or no dissonance in the $20 situation.

Meaning comes from identity, i.e. “This is important to me because this is who I am.”  Studies such as those described here help us understand how the brain works to manage and support a person’s identity.  How can we use this knowledge to improve meaning for workers so that their engagement with their work is genuine and fulfilling?  How can we reduce the stress that comes from a need for continuous reduction of tension created from the conflict between workers’ identity and the work they do?

Dr Adam Grant, Wharton organisational psychologist, has explored the connection between meaning and performance for many years.  In one study of workers at Borders, employees were asked to contribute to an employee-beneficiary fund that would be managed by the staff, with Borders matching donated funds.  The money was set aside for employees in need, for instance, someone facing financial hardship, or attending the funeral of a loved one.  Interestingly, Grant found that it was not the beneficiaries who showed the most significant increase in their commitment to Borders; it was the donors, even those who gave just a few dollars a week.  Through interviews and questionnaires, Grant determined that “as a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company.”

The answer to improving engagement at work, studies confirm, is affected by meaning, however research indicates it goes the opposite to the normal approach of standardising labour inputs.  Rather than the ability to compare, target and measure our efforts against a homogeneous list, what seems to work better is letting people just be who they really are.

The workforce talent quest (why Gen Y don’t want to be ‘retained’)

Most employers agree: retaining talent is at the top of their list of HR priorities.

Talent retention is part of the traditional HR approach to people management: ‘resources’ that can be ‘gained, trained, maintained and retained’.  Having established the organisational hierarchy and work flow, the cog that fits in that wheel is able to be determined.  The cog vacancy requirements are documented in the position description and the lengthy process to find the right cog can begin.  Although you cannot always expect a perfect fit, you can ensure the cog is malleable enough to adjust itself, perhaps with a little leadership lubricant as required.  More significant building up of the gaps or filing down of the rough spots may require some training, a process that is more likely to be made available to the cog as long as everyone can see that the right shape, size, fit and movements can be eventually achieved (being able-bodied, with English as the first language, and not too young and not too old are generally good indicators that the cog has potential so they are often more likely to be hired).

Having gone through such effort to create the well-oiled machine, management needs to generate the highest possible returns and this means keeping people in the position for which they have been selected and moulded for as long as possible.  The cost of cog replacement is estimated to be around 1.5 times the employee’s annual salary.  Significant management efforts go to motivating employees to remain as shiny, new cogs.  Little cogs are encouraged to want to learn how to become bigger cogs, or to move to another part of the machine.  Even if they never get there, at least aiming and hoping, is a strong incentive to stay.

But this is ‘talent’ of the old model.  It is not just that the industrial model no longer fits the rapidly changing world in which organisations operate and compete.  It also no longer fits the people who will fill these jobs.  With the ‘Gen Y’ worker now between the ages of 18 and 30, they currently make up approximately 20% of the workforce.  Within ten years this generation, often considered by employers to be uncommitted, entitled, ungrateful, lazy and impatient, will account for close to 75% of the workforce.

Figures often quote Gen Y workers to have an estimated 5 careers and 20 employers in their lifetimes, and so the race is on for employers to find the best of the best and keep them.  This however is just not how Gen Y works, and the problem is not just attitude it’s structural.

The Baby Boomer generation, having survived depression and war were grateful for a job for life.  Mutual employer-employee loyalty was expected and given.  Retiring with a gold watch was more enticing than a new job.  Generation X that followed, living in the post-Vietnam war years and with memories of the Cold War, recognised that they were here for a good time not a long time.  They divorced and remarried at unprecedented rates and learn to enjoy the spoils of an increasingly materialistic lifestyle.  They learned to ‘look after number one’ and ‘greed was good’.  Their loyalty was to their careers.

Generation Y have grown up in an insecure world.  They not only learn of the terrible conflicts from wars and ideologies but they do so in real-time, the internet giving them instantaneous access to not just reports of disasters, wars and revolutions but delivering these in images and first hand accounts spread through social media.  They see thousands of displaced people whether from natural or man-made disasters, they see natural resources exploited to the point of exhaustion, and a world heading towards an environmental disaster.  Closer to home, they are as likely as not to have experienced their parents’ divorce and would have first hand experience of someone who has been made redundant and or suffering unemployment.  They were told that education was the key to a secure future, and the most educated generation ever is a victim to post-secondary degree inflation.

What Gen Y want is meaning.  They feel a greater responsibility than one to the employer they work for.  They have a responsibility to the environment, to social causes, to their peers who are co-survivors.  They have also been brought up by parents who considered them their peers; they were the centre of the household, consulted for their opinions and supported at a very close level.  They were told that they could do anything.

Gen Y were also brought up with the internet.   They cannot remember a time without email and mobile phones – both of these now old school anyway.  They don’t think knowledge is power because with their smartphones and mobile devices knowledge is everywhere and it is everyone’s.

To Gen Y their first loyalty is to their lifestyle.  There is no such thing as work/life balance, it’s life/life balance.  Personal goals mesh with professional goals.  They simply do not understand a workplace that will not allow them a six month leave of absence to build a school in India or save the elephants in Africa.

Being both highly (if not hyper-) encouraged and protected from birth, they prefer to work as part of a team, to be self-directed, to be allowed to innovate and to take risks.  Work that offers them freedom their preferred environment, will see Gen Y will work hard and drive towards their goals.  They are also used to taking their friends everywhere and being only a status post away.  Working in an office, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 just because, simply doesn’t make sense to them.

The statistic that Gen Y will have 20 jobs in their lifetime only reflects the jobs of those Gen Y who look for and stay in full-time jobs, and these will be the minority.  An oDesk survey found that close to 60% of Gen Y consider themselves to be ‘entrepreneurial’ meaning having an opportunity-seeking mindset, rather than business ownership.   Gen Y have learned that the internet democratises work.  Anyone can build a business, it may be an eBay store or a single idea that might become another Facebook, or it may be joining in on someone else’s crowd sourced idea or investment.   They can do this at the same time as they hold a regular job – found online of course – or find a gig through Elance or 99designs or any number of marketplaces.  They can have upwards of 100 jobs in their lifetime, which suits Gen Y perfectly because they can come into a job at exactly the right time and only work on their specialist area.  There will be tertiary-educated Gen Yers who will never experience a permanent, full time job.

In light of the changing demographics in the workforce, a radical shift in thinking to the ‘talent retention’ problem is needed.  It’s a catch-22 situation, the machine needs people to stay yet it is the machine that people – especially Gen Y – leave.  Employers need to start thinking of their workers as permanent but their employment as stints, much like universities see their alumni students.  They need to de-construct work so that ‘talent’ is no longer defined as those that fit the box, the cogs.  Instead talent should be what is actually means, ‘innate ability or skill’.  To Gen Y who have grown up mixing and partnering with people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, appearances and able-bodiedness, they are used to the talent fitting the situation, not the situation deciding the talent.

More reading:

HR, the bully maketh

Workplace bullying is a problem that the Productivity Commission estimates costs Australia $36 billion a year in lost productivity.   For human resources, which has only ever had one purpose: to manage an environment in which the employer can extract the highest possible utilisation of human labour, this  is a big problem.

It is now standard human resources practice to guard against bullying.  The armory of weapons to fight the scourge routinely includes anti-bullying policies, equal employment opportunity (EEO)  training, interpersonal skills training, occupational health and safety audits, awareness campaigns, confidential complaints processes, and contracts that make clear the ability of the employer to dismiss the employee if claims of bullying against them are substantiated.

And yet the problem not just continues, but grows, defying both logic and any notion that HR has found the right approach to managing the problem through its various efforts to raise bullying awareness, a zero intolerance for bullying, making avenues for complaints and compensation more accessible, and having human resources as the role specifically responsible for acting on bullying.

Bullying is usually identifiable by one party that is the bully and the other, the victim:  bullies with total disregard for impact of their aggressive, controlling and overbearing behaviour; victims without sufficient skills, support, confidence or power to ward off the bully.  There will always be problems with workplace psychopaths whose purpose is to terrorise those they can.  Many victims of bullying will attest that this does not describe their experience.  Many of those who are bullied are not weak, powerless or lack confidence.  Many workplace bullies do not even realise they have become one.

Bullying succeeds as a debilitating condition because of its insidious nature.  Victims become sensitised to the environment in which the bully operates, for example, the bully pays them unexpected compliments.  The bully then creates a pattern of unsettling behaviour, such as ‘innocent’ or ‘joking’ remarks that highlight a condition to which the victim is or has been sensitised.  The victim begins to suffer detriment from the bully’s behaviour, some such examples: working longer hours, avoiding certain places, taking on tasks they cannot or ought not do.  These responses do not occur suddenly but progressively, sometimes without conscious awareness.  A victim can provide logical explanations for these responses (“I get more done if I eat at my desk”) that disconnects their behaviour from that of the bully’s.  While this helps with the victim’s self-preservation, it also distorts their frame of reference.  Over time victims may find it increasingly difficult to pinpoint exactly what the bully has done and when it has occurred, and can even find it difficult to distinguish between their own behaviour (“I made this mistake”) or state (“I haven’t been well lately”) and the bully’s behaviour as the source of their distress.  This distorted understanding of the source of their distress makes them even more susceptible to the bully’s actions.

Research indicates that around 50% of employees experience bullying to some degree.  In some industries and positions, such as trade apprentices, this is an easily comprehended statistic.  A combination of culture, lack of oversight, male dominated workplaces being the usual reasons that enables bullying in these environments to occur.  However, the Australian Public Service Commission’s own estimates indicate that as many as 30% of public service employees experience bullying.  These are not jobs in off site locations where ‘local law’ prevails; they are not untrained, unskilled workers without people skills to perform anything but the most manual of tasks; they are not unsupervised; and the workplaces are not without clear policies and procedures.  In fact the public service – as for most corporate workplaces – is structured and organised and do not lack for a human resources department.

Human resources invariably install a system for maximising employee performance by describing ‘jobs’, a wish list of what the ideal person can do.  The system improves individual performance by handing managers a range of tools: reports, key performance indicators, competencies, tests, evaluation forms, and so on;  by which they can regularly describe an employee’s actual performance, why it is inadequate and what it should look like.  Performance management is a program designed to focus on the negative.

The typical organisation is based on a hierarchy of formal relationships which take organisational precedence over the more complex social relationships that form between co-workers.  While the system relies on the social relationships for the workplace to function smoothly, it manages through the formal, hierarchical relationship (manager to worker).  Organisations with objectives to, in one way or another, achieve more with less, use the hierarchy to exert constant, consistent and persistent pressure on employees to meet ever-higher targets.

Bullying is the abuse of a power relationship.  Power, whether real or perceived, is the ability to influence a person to do something you want done, or the ability to make things happen the way you want them to happen.  The abuse does not have to be of illegitimate power, that is, power usurped to further an unauthorised agenda, as is often assumed.  It is easy to think the bully as someone who uses his power to protect his position, or hers to hide her incompetence.  Abuse of a power relationship is increasingly occurring within legitimate power where both the use of power and source of the influence are fully within the boundaries of workplace expectations.  It is this problem that this article addresses.

The worry is that organisations have over the past century created a bullying structure and the effectiveness of human resources is such that it has worked this structure so thoroughly that its natural output is the workplace bully.  Bullying does not occur just because of a pressure to perform.  Managers causing employees to feel insecure about their abilities, pointing out areas of insufficient achievement, giving critical feedback, or denying employees benefits due to targets or standards not met, are not in themselves actions that bully, as these may also be conflicts or disputes.  Endemic, systemic bullying is negative behaviour that is persistent, regular and long-lasting.  Precisely the environment that human resources seeks to develop: a systemic approach to communicating on a regular and ongoing basis the individual’s deficiencies.

Not all actions that aim to improve performance are classified as bullying.  In fact, being challenged and working under stress can create a positive and motivating work environment.  The bullying environment is different to the challenging environment in four significant ways.

  1. The organisation provides the environment for the bullying occurrences.  Research from the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration, Helsinki, Finland, found that the organisation itself provided the antecedent to bullying when: an enabling structure exists (e.g. causes inequities or frustrations); a motivating structure exists (e.g. incentive program creating internal competition); and triggering circumstances occur (e.g. downsizing and restructuring).
  2. The organisation controls the work.  By maintaining a structure in which measures and controls are managed by the organisation, individuals have low internal loci of control.  In the workplace a high locus of control (i.e. the extent to which the individual can control their work and the events at work that affect them) is directly linked to higher levels of motivation, higher occupational success, greater ability to deal with problems and lower tendency to anxiety and feelings of helplessness.  Bullies are those who deal aggressively with a low locus of control and when they experience failure, defeat or misfortune, or react to stress and anxiety are likely to blame others, or feel entitled to, or pressured enough to justify using others to resolve their problem or anxiety.
  3. Conflicting, ambiguous or difficult relationships.  The lines of an organisation chart not only grossly over-simplify the relationships in an organisation but fail to represent all the critical relationships at play in the course of people doing their jobs.  Victims of bullying often have an impaired knowledge of healthy relationships, a factor which makes some people far more vulnerable to bullying than others.  In the workplace context a healthy relationship can be difficult to achieve.  One-way, power relationships are not the basis of a healthy relationship, and this is even more problematic when managers and workers form social relationships, interdependent relationships, leader/follower relationships, coaching/mentoring relationships, compete for attention and recognition on one hand, and form alliances for protection and preservation, on the other.  There is no manual for how these relationships – some overt, some subconscious, many conflicting – placed in a pressure cooker of organisational demands should be reconciled.  It is usually allowed to play itself out between the individuals.  It is not just the employee that suffers, but also the manager; having to confront an employee’s poor performance, for example – or put differently, use the strength of a social relationship to conduct the work of a power relationship – is stressful.   Handled poorly, bullying results.
  4. Uncertain identities.  Another common characteristic of  victims of bullying is a lack of confidence about their self-identity (having been told or believe they are too plain, too slow, not assertive enough, not masculine enough, and so on).  The organisation creates identities through titles and job descriptions, and these become the individual’s identity in the workplace.  Many people struggle to assert an identity beyond their organisational label (particularly if they are being evaluated on such a narrow basis, for example, during a selection process for redundancies).  Identities can be made further uncertain when a performance label is added (“not competent”).  Bullies operate in an environment where they can compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy by focusing negative attention on their victims.  This is made easier when the organisation ‘progresses’ by finding and highlighting peoples’ deficiencies.

Organisations and their performance enforcers, human resources, can no longer go about their business so naive to the effects of their systems and structures.  While they look for bullies under every rock, determined to stamp out the problem, they may recall the story of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  Instead of looking at the respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll, a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty”, they may need to look out for the smaller, younger, crueller, remorseless Edward Hyde.  They may need to remove Dr Jekyll in order to be safe from Mr Hyde.

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