Commentary on an article, “Changing Others Through Changing Ourselves: The Transformation of Human Systems” in the Journal of Management Inquiry by Quinn, Spreitzer and Brown

A ubiquitous and critical component of adaptive change is alteration of human systems. There is also a scarcity of research, expertise and effective, proven tools to accomplish this grand task: this article attempts to address this. To accomplish meaningful change the people within the system necessarily have to step out of their comfort zones and their routine behaviors.

When asking others to change, lead the way with our own change. Change and empower the self to be aligned with a vision for the common good. Then, after that essential first step, attract others to change by example. This article discusses an approach of targeting the change agent, rather than the traditional method of targeting the change target, and lays out an argument that transforming the self is the more effective method of transforming the system. It challenges traditional transactional models.

The article contains an interesting recap of traditional change strategies:

  • Empirical-Rational Strategy: Explain why the change target should change—make persuasive argument.
  • Power-Coercive Strategy: Identify and apply levers of power and force others to comply.
  • Normative-Reeducative Strategy: Involve others in an honest dialog while mutually searching for win-win solutions.

     

The article makes argument that ACT is more comprehensive than these traditional strategies and puts greater emphasis on the need for leaders to change themselves to change the system. It emphasizes:

  • Engaging Self-Deception: Recognize hypocrisy and self-deception lest risk impairment of individual and collective growth. Seek to eschew self-interest in order to allow alignment with that of a higher purpose.
  • Acting on Faith: Maintaining ongoing action and a sense of unconditional confidence in the midst of self-doubt and chaos. Recognizing that there are no guarantees while placing oneself in possible jeopardy.
  • Dealing in Paradox: A willingness to walk on the edge of chaos facilitates counterintuitive thinking. One must be able to go against the status quo and pursue an internal vision that may be at odds with external pressures
  • Surrendering Oneself to an Unproven Vision: Selflessness is critical to the process.

 

I quite enjoyed this article and, in spite of my analytical mind, do often enjoy non-traditional thinking and “out-of-the-box” counterintuitive approaches to age-old problems. The article was abundant with quotes from Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus and these three certainly were noble examples of changing others and the external world by first changing oneself. Although the article was speculative and not scientific or definitive, it massively appealed to my humanistic side and I do think we need more humanism and selflessness in modern business environments. In these changing times, some of the old, counter-intuitive adages such as “giving is receiving” really are more true than ever.

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Comments on an interesting article, “Sounds of Silence”, in Stern Business by Morrison and Milliken.

The article is about the ubiquitous situation in which employees know about certain issues and problems that their organization faces but do not dare to speak the truth to their superiors. The article likens this to a CEO who has no clothes and the employees, instead of mentioning it to the CEO, instead compliment his fine dress. The CEO takes pleasure in receiving the complimentary comments about how he dresses well and only the foolish or naïve dare speak truthfully (in public anyway) about the situation. And those who do are viewed as troublemakers by the CEO and often dismissed.

From the mindset of the employee, they often think that they will suffer negative consequences (which is often true) if they speak truth to power and that speaking up would not make a difference anyway (which is often also true). From management’s perspective, we need to figure out how to encourage employees to speak up and express opinions lest we lose out on one of our best opportunities for making our organizations better. Employees are often on the front lines of a business and experience first-hand how things work and see the problems that exist and can often make very good suggestions about how to improve things. Even just pointing out that problems exist is a good thing. The danger with not having “speaker-uppers” in an organization (and let’s face it: the environment created by management certainly goes a long way to encourage or discourage this behavior) is that organizational learning and change is hampered. Organization errors tend to persist and possibly magnify.

The fundamental attribution error can be a contributing source of organizational silence conditions and should be guarded against. For example, when employees do speak up about problems, take a hard look at what they say and don’t automatically dismiss it as self-serving for the employee or that they have a personality or something. We do tend to make the fundamental attribution error when explaining the behavior of others and being aware of it can help organizational behavior in many ways including helping to guard against creating a culture of organizational silence.

To do list:

  • Work hard to counteract the natural human tendency to avoid negative feedback
  • Work hard to build an open and trusting organizational climate
  • Send messages with actions not just words

Comments on an article subtitled Job Dissatisfaction and High Turnover at the Lima Tire Plant, from Harvard Business Publishing, June 12, 2008, by Skinner and Beckham.

This case study was of a tire manufacturing plant in Lima, Ohio and the study focused on the negative working conditions that existed for the line foremen and the consequent high turnover problem.

Some of the Problems and Symptoms:

  • Foremen were pulled in conflicting directions by hourly staff, management and union. They did not get respect from any of the three constituencies.
  • Foremen had too many responsibilities yet not enough authority to effectively deal with them. They needed to do lots of juggling with daily personnel, resource and administrative issues. They felt unsupported by upper management and felt that felt their locus of control was external (which in large part it was). They had little disciplinary power and had to go through the union and often had no explanation of the union’s actions with regard to deciding to discipline or not.
  • Lack of training. Foremen were thrust into a sink or swim situation with little guidance and little preparation. Most did not have college degrees and without training or educational background many probably lacked the skills necessary to navigate the job. The system all but set them up for failure.
  • Emotions and attitudes are contagious. The symptom, dissatisfaction, of the foremen spread to other employees exacerbating and exponentially growing problems that manifested.
  • Long shifts (12 hours) contributed to absenteeism. This move saved immediate money for the company but cost more in the long term and contributed to making the foreman’s job harder in having to constantly scramble for substitute workers.

Suggestions:

  • Mentoring Program. The foremen definitely need more support, guidance and tools to work with. Also, the company indicated they were having budget problems that precluded incorporating a formal training program. First, off the company seemed to have a problem and a pattern of looking only at upfront costs and not being able to see the big picture. A formal training program, while an upfront expense, would probably more than pay for itself once up and running and gained a little maturity. As a second-best-option, a mentoring program could achieve some of the same results while being lower up-front cost.
  • Employee Feedback Program. Communication seems to be a big problem for this company. More formal employee feedback programs that gives the employees a voice and encourages them to speak up and be involved may help them to take ownership of their jobs and also uncover problems that may have remained hidden with no opportunity to fix them.

This article discusses a Case Study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business that is subtitled: Success in A Declining Industry.

The founder, George Zimmer, opened his first store back in 1973, at a time when competitors were closing their doors. From opening to the time of the article (1997) the Men’s’ Wearhouse enjoyed 30% growth. Between 1991 and 1996 they grew from 113 stores to 345 and from $133.4 to $483.5 in net sales. This Case is a study of some of the things they did right.

Some of the things that I think they did right:

  • Humanism. George Zimmer said: “I’ll tell you the last thing most MBA’s probably think of as value is the untapped human potential…the culture says, ‘It’s got to be quantifiable’.” They understood that their people were not disconnected from the rest of their lives when they were at work and had holistic views of their people. In terms of sales and their salespeople they understood that customers could unconsciously tell the difference between a “fake” salesperson and a salesperson that is being part of a genuine human interaction. They saw their salespeople as “consultants” who could expand off someone’s initial request but not sell them something they didn’t want or need for their own benefit. They used the term “selling with soul” and “becoming an artist as a salesperson” as well as “make an emotional connection” (a la “Linchpin” per Seth Godin which actually came more recently). They understood that sales involved understanding and serving people.
  • Servant Leadership. In contrast to the ubiquitous ‘shareholders first’ mentality, they said that employees came first and shareholders last (my cynical side says ‘is this real or just lip service?’). Management treated the people they managed and worked with as their customers as well, which is a great policy. Zimmer set an example of his servant mentality by making a comparatively smaller salary than his industry counterparts. They also seemed to have a mentality of managers doing all jobs when needed, similar to Southwest Airlines; if a regional manager was visiting a store and saw a customer that needed help they would jump in and help.
  • Open Door Complaint Policy. They encouraged employees to point out problems. Encouraging complaints and allowing problems to surface goes a long way toward improving the business’s structural systems.
  • Abundant Training. Zimmer characterized training as the same thing as mentoring, just that it reached more people. He also tried to give his employees a sense of being connected to something with a higher purpose. However, all training was ‘in-house’; see “wrong” section below for the other side of the training subject.
  • Tailored Performance Evaluations. While I’m generally not a fan of the Performance Eval, Men’s Wearhouse did do one thing that is worth applauding, if even for the effort: they, at least somewhat, tailored their Evals to the specific job, rather than using a “one size fits all”. This was a step in the right direction. On the down side their Evals did not have any team incentives which probably would have helped preclude inter-company competition and stealing of customers which they seemed to have some problem with.

Some of the things that I think they did wrong:

  • Nepotism. Most of the management team and board of directors were George Zimmer’s relatives and boyhood friends and nepotism was not discouraged. While it can be personally nice to work with friends and family it can substantially increase the risk of such negatives as groupthink and lack of fresh ideas.
  • No Outside Training and Promotion Only From Within. Men’s Wearhouse said that their “managers did not have the time” to do outside training. In-house training and promotion from within are nice in moderation but too much could create a stagnant situation of sparse levels of new energy and ideas.

This case study presents a fictitious scenario about a company facing the prospect of laying off 10% of its workforce then follows with recommendations from three experts. The 10% workforce reduction was presented as a requirement to “keep profits in line with Wall Street’s expectations”. Should early retirements be forced? Should a performance-based layoff of the bottom 10% be enacted? Should the newest employees be laid of first? Are there any other options? These are some of the questions this Case Study poses.

In my experience, I have found one of the biggest dangers with layoffs to be hurting employee morale and, ultimately, customer service. The company in the Case Study, Astrigo, kept several million dollars in the bank in case of acquisition opportunities. I think this would be a of, at least, part of that fund to invest in the employees and hope things turn around in the extra time the cash could buy the company in avoiding layoffs. This would go a long way toward showing the employees that the company cared about them and, as long as a not-too-large proportion of the cash was used, this would be a good option.

I think layoffs, while generally unfortunate, can oftentimes be turned into a (big picture) positive thing and a leaning ‘fitness plan’ or ‘diet’ for companies. It can be an opportunity to trim out some of the fat and make the company leaner, healthier and more higher-functioning. The layoffs must be done with care, compassion and empathy but sometimes must be done and can be done in a good way; the layoff does not necessarily have to be a (big picture) bad thing.

One of the experts, Bob Sutton of Stanford University had what I thought was some great advice and worth repeating: “A single big layoff is tough on everyone but does a lot less damage than seemingly endless rounds of unpredictable ones.” This certainly makes sense when viewed under the fact that the unknown and change (even good change) is stressful to people. Most would rather have bad news up front than constantly and endlessly wonder and worry and have their imaginations at work on it. If layoffs become inevitable, all at once does seem to make sense. This goes to show that the way management handles a situation (not just the characteristics of the situation itself) go a long way to influencing the effects.

Parting thoughts:

  • When layoffs seem inevitable, hopefully businesses look at other, bigger picture, solutions before considering layoffs and only use them as a last resort. Oftentimes, there are other options that go unconsidered: tap a rainy day fund, across–the-board salary cuts, etc.
  • CEO’s being affected by their decisions and by financial problems sends a good signal to employees and, conversely, a CEO being unaffected by a company’s financial problems sends a signal that is very deleterious to morale.
  • Clear communication with employees and explaining why decisions that were made were made is important.

The WSJ article is about an executive who found out his bosses were being unethical and defrauding people. He subsequently quit his job even though it cost him a lot of money to do so and he knew ahead of time that it would. There is a great lesson in this article that money is not everything and that it is more important to do the right thing even though it will require some self sacrifice monetarily. Some other lessons here are that executives should not let the sense of entitlement, which generally goes with the position, go to their head and an executive that surrounds their self with yes-sayers puts themselves at risk of doing just that.

The second article is about self-sacrifice as well, albeit in a more indirect way. The article contends that good leadership requires boss’s to put their employees interests ahead of their own. This is the concept of servant leadership. To achieve this personal sacrifice, on the part of the leader, is often necessary and this is the reason servant leadership is as rare as it is. Some aspects of servant leadership are empowerment delegation (giving people the power to own their jobs) and the leader acting as coach (mentor your employees) instead of the artifact of command-and-control. One caveat: in order for servant leadership to work, the employees must be, at least somewhat, internally motivated and able and willing to take ownership of their job, it is not just a case of the employee sitting back and being served by their leader. Our society and our culture have a strong element of self-sufficiency and rugged individualism as wells as “one makes one’s own destiny” sort of thinking; this is often at odds with self-sacrifice and a servant mentality. Maybe if we could think about the idea of karma and what comes around goes around. In serving others, there may be delayed gratification but the good energy that one creates when serving others definitely comes back around to us.

Lt. Withers was the leader of an all-black supply convoy in WWII. He was faced with a dilemma between following the rules and doing the right thing as a human. He found out that his men had taken in and were hiding some young survivors from the Dachau concentration camp. When he found out, he planned to have the strangers removed but changed his mind when he actually saw them. He broke the Army’s orders to allow the two Jewish survivors to stay and they ended up hiding among the blacks from segregated America for more than a year while they regained their health. Lt. Withers was an educated man and dreamed of using the GI Bill to earn his PhD after the war so he potentially risked his whole future in violating the Army’s rules as it was especially important for blacks to follow orders in the segregated Army or risk a dishonorable discharge. The lesson here is that as leaders we are all, sooner or later, confronted with a tough decision of following rules and orders or doing what is right as a human being. Sometimes humanity has to come before the team. Hopefully, we can all be strong enough and wise enough to make the right decision when that time comes.

 

Col. Joe Dowdy was the leader of 6,000 Marines racing to Baghdad in the Iraq War. During the war he was stripped of his command, essentially ending his 24-year Marine career. His removal was very strange because he had not committed any of the acts that are usually associated with dismissal: failing to complete a mission, disobeying a direct order, or breaking the rules of war. A spokesman for the Marines said that “It was a decision based on operating tempo” and would not elaborate further. It came out later that a probable reason for the dismissal was tension between mission and men. Col. Dowdy leaned to the “men” side and his commander, Gen. Mattis, favored “mission”. Mattis wanted speed on the push to Baghdad and Dowdy saw sacrificing everything for speed to imperil the welfare of his men and was delayed by intense fighting in Nasiriyah. His evaluation said he was “overly concerned with the welfare of his men.” The lesson here is one about competing interests between team members and mission. Mission has to be ultimate priority but sometimes the rules have to be broken and the members have to be elevated above the mission; the hard part is discerning when it is one of those times and making the right decision. Hopefully most times we are confronted with this situation we can find an answer that is a balance between team-mission and the choice will not have to be either-or. Being concerned with the welfare of the team is important for a leader but how much is too much? We all have to be humans first and team members and employees and bosses second.