Once upon a time in the United States, the motto was “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” Times have changed. Today, the proposition is more akin to “Where you start is most likely where you will finish.” Social mobility has calcified to no small extent in this country. Indeed, a recent study found that socio-economic mobility in the UK is superior to mobility in the U.S.
90% of the US population hasn’t seen an increase in earnings in 22 years. The vast majority of Americans have not enjoyed an increase in household buying power since 1972. Meanwhile during these past decades, there have been profound increases in employee productivity for a variety of reasons, technological and otherwise, including the growing illegal practice of working employees “off the clock” without providing them due compensation. These productivity improvements have helped aggrandize wealth at the top, to be sure.
However, my purpose in citing these realities is not polemical. I do not seek to convert you to some liberal/progressive agenda. Actually, the trends described above are, in my estimation, largely immutable and I am not one to tilt at windmills. When the die is cast, I relax and accept. No, my purpose instead is to provide context for a recent conversation I had with a young friend of mine who is just getting his career underway. He was in the process of considering a job offer from a well-known and respected private company and leaving the relative comfort of his current position with a quasi-public employer.
I stressed to him the importance of remembering that he needs to be interviewing “the company” every bit as much as the company is interviewing him. I then dusted the cobwebs from an ancient and now-disreputable concept once known as “work-life balance.”
I previewed the discussion with personal recollections from yesteryear. Back in the 1970s, the gallows humor in my chosen profession of management consulting was that “if you haven’t had your first heart attack by age 30, you’re not really serious about your career.” Later in a public accounting and consulting environment, you knew that people would look away and shun you if your 4-week numbers were bad, but that they would give you a hearty hello and hail-fellow-well-met if your numbers were up. (As Sam Goldwyn once said, “Deep down I’m very superficial.”) That same, now-defunct, organization administered a personality test to the employees to determine their respective “need for belonging.” The higher your need for belonging, the easier it is to exercise impactful social control over the number of hours you work and, to a lesser extent, the results that you achieve. We want more employees with a high need for belonging: We know that fear of loss is a key driver of human behavior and if fear of separation from the group can be leveraged, we can cause people to work themselves right into the ground, losing sight of their best personal interests.
Indeed, the exercise of social control in the workplace was exactly what I wanted my young friend to interrogate before accepting the job offer. There have been recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere concerning unrelenting work pressures in particular companies, which shall remain unnamed, and the degree to which these pressures create lasting emotional and physical damage. My personal favorite was the new father who sought a day off for the birth of his first child; he was told that if he took the day off, he need not come back. Bottom line? The nature and extent of these pressures is considerably more intense, more Dickensian, than in my career heyday. Another something for which I am grateful.
Rather than shunning an employee in the hallway, now we can use social media to target employees who are not conforming adequately to ever-rising standards of both elapsed hours worked and results achieved. We now institute programs where employees can “snitch” their complaints to the boss above the boss about a particular employee, camouflaged as a streamlined system for “delivering compliments on exemplary colleagues’ performance.”
Quite insidiously, a company may have a formal package of exquisite benefits, such as parental leave, annual leave, etc., which is useful during the employee recruitment phase. However, the informal culture may be one that grimaces and discourages the actual use of such leave as may be theoretically available. Indeed, actual use of annual leave in the United States is significantly lower than employee usage in other developed countries.
It’s difficult for a prospective employee to discern the actual contours of the everyday culture from the outside, but asking key questions in several different ways to several different people can be extremely helpful in ferreting out the truth. In addition, the extent that the company uses an iterative set of 3-5 separate employment interviews can serve as a red flag. This increasingly common practice is a way of ensuring that the new employee can be inculcated with the true operative values of the culture. Are you going to “fit in” and succumb appropriately to the dominant order, which has been established? Less charitably, will you be able to conform as a “Stepford Employee” if you are actually hired? In all fairness, these hard-pressed employees want to ensure that the new employee will pick up her end of the board; otherwise they will be expected to work even longer and harder than they do currently to compensate for a “bad choice,” a modern rate-buster, as it were.
So as we all know, things are not always as they appear. In an effort to get a seat at the adult C-suite table in corporate America, HR folks can be eager to show how they can build a culture in which work-life balance appears to be a formal component of the company workplace for recruitment advantage, while simultaneously and surreptitiously growing the informal pressure-cooked environment where anyone serious about their career will need to abandon the quaint notion of a personal life, or else get voted off the island. It’s the dark side of human resource management. As I said to my young friend, Caveat Emptor!
“Bring me a rock.” (Pause) “No, not that rock.” This catch-phrase used by staff in a client organization summed up a syndrome they encountered frequently – one which I call “spiraling circularity.” It occurs when the executive tasks members of the organization without setting forth adequate specifications as to what the final product needs to accomplish. The challenge to staff is to present iteratively another version of the product, only to have it rejected with vague reasons for the rejection. They then go back to the drawing board and cycle through this experience once again and again multiple times. Thereafter, as an aside, the final iteration that comes to be accepted quite often resembles the first one that had been originally presented! So what was all of this about? While Spiraling Circularity generates a splendid appearance of “busy-ness,” with people spinning in a tizzy, the end result is usually more smoke than fire.
Round and round we go. Didn’t we pass this point before? Traveling in circles, the organization becomes progressively devoid of direction. Accomplishments become fewer and farther between, with concomitant losses in steam, revenue, potential and valued talent.
When staff are overwhelmed by exponentially more opportunities to be wrong than right, cynical behavior and attitudes take root. Rituals for handling today’s spiral fire drill will have more people just going through the obligatory motions. The wrong set of staff responses get cultivated and reinforced.
Some executives have used this technique to parlay into positions of higher visibility and authority, creating chaos that only they can finally resolve. A problem-solver! However, when you’re looking at your best organizational firefighter, beware that you may also be looking at your chief arsonist. Generating the appearance of frantic “busy-ness” and, ironically, suspending a sense of genuine urgency to achieve results can be a career-enhancement strategy for a Machiavellian player.
The caveat is that Spiraling Circularity may be appropriate if you are indeed sending staff into unknown territory and need to explore all options and vett them with all audiences. Thus, Spiraling Circularity may be an appropriate tactic on an episodic but not chronic basis. That said, if you need to do more thinking about desired outcomes and specifications before you task staff, you should do so in the interests of conserving talent, time, and a reservoir of positive emotional capital in your enterprise. Finally, if you are a top executive who has a report which is abusing your resources through leadership malpractice, don’t be fooled by appearances! Arrest the arsonist soonest before s/he burns your building down!
The CEO of a scientific enterprise decided that the organizational culture needed to change. After years of autocratic rule, there was a pent-up need to make the culture more inclusionary and participative, moving away from a strict “need-to-know” basis characteristic of a rigid hierarchy. Meetings came to involve progressively larger numbers of people. Smaller conference rooms fell into disuse as larger conference rooms were booked week in and week out. Absent complete consensus, no decision was made. Decisional gridlock grew worse. Sometimes it would seem that a decision had been reached only to find that a “huddle after the huddle” caused it to unravel or be reversed several days later. More people were getting involved but fewer decisions were being made. The decisions that were reached were less certain and sturdy, more diluted than anyone wanted. What’s more, staff feared exclusion because career well-being was perceived as revolving around visibility at meetings rather than around genuine contribution.
As the organization lost faith in its ability to move quickly, every move, no matter how minor, involved a large entourage. Results-oriented people were finding ways to circumvent the crowds and get things done “their own way.” As each faction pursued solutions in its own way, nascent anarchy picked up a head of steam.
Top executives became fixated on the process of inclusion and on minimizing discontent. The process of setting strategic priorities, e.g., deciding what not to do, allocating resources, aligning talent, etc., was getting lost.
Who can be against transparency and inclusion? It builds a future generation of leadership and confers additional benefits. On the other hand, renting the stadium to ensure that everyone has been included is not sustainable for all issues all of the time.
The solution was to adopt a Decision Process Model for making, ratifying, and communicating decisions and to clarify roles and responsibilities with precision sufficient to target meeting attendance with greater parsimony. The model pre-specified types of decisions where complete consensus is necessary vs. alternate forms of decision-making process, authority and accountability. When roles are poorly defined, there is no sharp edge for cutting meeting attendance to the vital few, and no basis for avoiding rent-the-stadium syndrome. Even good intentions can have unintended consequences, which must be managed promptly before things get out of hand.