The Organisational Chastity Belt: Governance and Positive Deviance

According to popular history, when European knights left for the holy land during the crusades they fitted their wives with a chastity belt to ensure their fidelity. The belts were a crude device to enforce a behaviour that the knights did not trust their wives to display during their years long tour of duty.

Organisational Chastity Belt

Is governance an organisational chastity belt?The chastity belt is making a comeback—and not only with contemporary connoisseurs of erotic bondage. The Global Financial Crisis has driven an increased focus on the governance of organisations. More risk management, more red tape, more creativity stifling procedures—more paper chastity belts.

In an earlier post we provided seven reasons not to implement a process. Reason number eight is a lack of trust in the ability of people to make the right decisions on your behalf.

There is currently some interesting anecdotal evidence in the area of safety management. Increased emphasis on documenting every step of the production process is not necessarily eliminating accidents. The organisational chastity belts common in safety management are not eliminating naughty behaviour—they do not necessarily reduce the number of incidents.

The key to unlocking the organisational chastity belt is to look at your procedures and start to unravel them. Processes ad procedures should help people reach their goals. Procedures should not be the final word on how work should be done—procedure writers are not all-knowing gods of management. We need to allow for positive deviance, allow for employees making their own judgement on how to best achieve goals and not lock them up in iron clad red tape.

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the Humanities

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the HumanitiesBusiness problems are in most cases solved using specialised business knowledge. Effective managerial discussions are to the point, directed towards the problem and utilitarian—aimed at solving problems and improving the bottom line. But in that goal directed behaviour, management often looses purpose.1

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager you can be, you should invest  time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enhances the individual.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once beautifully expressed the importance of useless knowledge:2

I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

To make the fruits of being a manager not only bigger, but also taste sweeter, people in business need to embrace so called useless knowledge. This is not the type of useless knowledge that hits you in the face when reading the trivialities on Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. The canon of useless knowledge is deeper than that and includes philosophy and its eternal questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.

There is no such thing as useless knowledge

The term useless knowledge is problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge and a better term would be indirect knowledge, the type of knowledge that creates a holistic person and helps solving problems through introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, well rounded knowledge of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of the philosophy of science helps understanding what ‘evidence based management’ is really about. Understanding ethical dilemmas and the solutions proposed by philosophers might prevent managers from making morally wrong decisions. A well grounded appreciation of the arts beyond economic value helps in making beautiful products.

Best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is of course Apple computer. Steve Jobs once said:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing …

Useless knowledge makes you question the certainties of life; it creates a contemplative and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

  1. This post is based on an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw by Jonah Kahn. 

  2. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (1935). 

The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

The social gadflyWhen studying business there is very little time for critical reflection on what has been learnt. Newly minted MBAs are armed with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Generic Strategies and other tools to solve business problems. Their acceptance as valid tools is, however, often not based on critical reflection or solid empirical research but on mythical stories of how they were used successfully in the past.1 The study of business and most of writing about business is based on the case method. In this system students are presented with a business problem and placed in the shoes of the decision maker charged with solving the problem.

In the Critical Perspectives on Management course, Rolf Strom-Olsen advocates an approach that deviates from the standard case methods and draws from the more critical humanities. He sees the life of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as a signpost for a different way to think about business.

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His writings form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact deeply influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the market place in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was a bit like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?”, seeking the foundations of what we hold to be true. The Athenians themselves compared him with a gadfly, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock. A lifetime annoying people by questioning everything they know is, in the words of Rolf, not a way to Win Friends and Influence People. Socrates thus paid the highest price for his life as a social gadfly—he was convicted to drink a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my own experience it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career-suicide. For me personally, following the Socratic path has helped me to be very successful in solving business problems. Only by daring to ask the hard questions and draw from disciplines outside business we can see perspectives on problems that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the critical method from the humanities allows us to draw from totally different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social sciences and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

My advice to anyone who reads this post is to be courageous and become a social gadfly in your organisation. Never stop asking “Why?” and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates will teach you the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success and develop the cherished innovative solutions to the problems you will be faced with.

  1. See my earlier blog post on the classification of business theories

Management: It is not Rocket Science. Or is it?

Management: It is not Rocket Science. Or is it?Space exploration is generally seen as the crowing glory of human achievement. Anyone working in this industry—astronauts flying the space ships and rocket scientists building them are the heroes of contemporary society. Ever since the start of the space race in the 1960s rocket science has been perceived as the most complex human activity. Rocket scientists became the ultimate symbol of human intelligence and the phrase “It is not rocket science” has been heard in offices around the English speaking world.1

Does this statement actually make sense? Is rocket science really so much more complicated than management? I think that rocket science is grossly overrated and that the science of management is a lot more complicated than the science of building rockets.

Management is not rocket science, its more complicated

The science of space exploration has actually been a lot more successful than then science of management. Robots have explored Mars, one space ship has left the solar system, people have walked on the moon and much more exciting exploration is yet to come. Management as a science has not achieved much compared to rocket science. There is, for example, no generally accepted theory for motivation or for effective decision making.

Rocket science is an extension of physics and therefore all processes are fully predictable. The more research scientists do, the better they understand the physical processes, the more predictable technology becomes. Management is, however, a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted at great accuracy. Individual behaviour is unpredictable and more controlled by emotion than by reason.2 There are no computer programs to help managers deal with people, there are no simple rules to make good decisions—a lot of management is based on unsubstantiated rules of thumb and intuition.

That leaves me to conclude that management is not rocket science, it is a lot more complicated.

  1. Call, D. (2005). Knowledge management—not rocket science. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(2), 19–30. doi:10.1108/13673270510590191; Dentzer, S. (2011). Innovation: Needed, but not rocket science. Health Affairs, 30(3), 378. Abbott, D. (2003). It’s NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. The Safety & Health Practitioner, 21(8), 40–41. 

  2. Some might argue that human behaviour is in essence a physical process. It is, however, so complex that it becomes inherently unpredictable as we are unable to model human behaviour in physical terms. 

The Boardroom Jester

The Board Room JesterIn days gone past the jester played an important role in powerful circles. Jesters, a precursor to the modern-day clown, wore bright, motley-patterned costumes and entertained the rich and powerful with their antics. Their role was not simply to amuse, but also to challenge their master and guests in their thinking. Jesters used to be a mirror of society, using satire to provoke the current status.

The jester played an important role in society because he was able to provide a unique perspective on current affairs. They were able to be critical without being concerned about internal politics and personal sensitivities. In doing so, they walked a fine line, because being not critical enough or being too critical could lend them in serious trouble.

The Boardroom Jester

Court jesters have disappeared from our cultural landscape, but it is time to bring this character back to the boardroom. I propose that major organisations hire a boardroom jester. The jester is allowed to attend all proceedings, say anything without punishment and use satire to hold a mirror to the people in power. The Boardroom Jester helps management to think “outside the box” by being an intellectual Jack-in-the-Box. An effective boardroom jester practices philosophical cynicism, rejecting social conventions and using humour to reveal the naked truth.

Unfortunately, most managers take themselves far too serious. People at senior management positions—these days referred to as leaders—are often disconnected from what really happens in their organisations. Staff are reluctant to speak about the details because the fear the repercussions. Officially sanctioned jesters can hide behind their silly costumes and foolishness to ask the questions that others are afraid to ask. The Boardroom Jester does not form part of the business hierarchy, so there is never any fear of damaging career prospects.

Unfortunately the idea of hiring people that can challenge current thinking is being frustrated by contemporary recruitment practices. Organisations seek people to fit into their carefully chose set of values, rather than people that deviate from normality.

Leadership is Evil: Inspiration from Star Trek

Leadership lesson from Mr SpockLeadership is the magic word spoken around board tables everywhere on the globe. No longer are we supposed to be good managers, we have to be good leaders. Nobody can actually definitively explain what leadership is and there are schools of thought and definitions abound. Leadership has become a value judgement. Nobody wants to be a good manager any more, they are expected to be leaders. This is in my view the biggest scam in management thinking of the past decades.

Most literature on leadership discusses the psychological properties of leaders. An impressive industry providing leadership training has developed in the wake of this, promising to transform normal hard working managers into great leaders.

At Lucid Manager we don’t get inspiration from management books or leadership programs. We are inspired by the arts and nothing more inspiring than the epic television series Star Trek. The great Mr Spock summarised an important aspect of leadership in the mythic 1966 episode The Enemy Within (Stardate 1672.1):

What is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

In some management books this evil side of management is innocently referred to as being Machiavellian. These are people who are willing to sacrifice ethics to achieve specific goals. Although some people believe that this is a necessary condition of being successful, there is no evidence the people wigh a high level of Machiavellianism perform better in their jobs.1

Paul Babiak, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and Robert Hare, the creator of the standard tool for diagnosing psychopathy wrote a fascinating book about psychopaths in the workplace. They explored the prominence of people with destructive personality characteristics who could be classified as psychopaths. A psychopath does not have to be a knife wielding mass murdering maniac. Most of them are charming and intelligent, but lack in empathy and are willing to sacrifice ethics in order to achieve personal goals. The are able to impress in interviews, but their lack of empathy creates tension in organisations, which in the long run leads to reduced performance.2

So it seems that Spock was actually wrong. Being either good or evil bears no relationship to the level of performance. We should once again focus on good management instead of leadership. The leadership experiment has failed and has not created better organisations. Management is they key to good organisations. Management can be defined and its outcomes can be measured,  while leadership will for ever be contested and its effects are unable to be measured.

Live long and prosper!

  1. Gable, M., & Topol, M. T. (1991). Machiavellian managers: Do they perform better? Journal of Business and Psychology, 5(3), 355–365. doi:10.1007/BF01017707

  2. Babiak, P. (2006). Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. New York: Regan Books. 

Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

Middle management stressThe great Aristotle wrote 2½ millennia ago that man and women are social animals. More recently, Charles Darwin made us realise that we have more in common with monkeys than we wish to admit.

Recent research has strengthened this idea by showing that middle management stress is a natural occurrence as it also occurs among Barbary macaques.1

Although there are many advantages to working in organisations, social conflict is often a source of stress. Subordinate members of the team receive more aggression from higher ranked individuals and experience higher stress levels as a consequence. Katie Edwards showed that monkeys at the Trentham Monkey Forest in the middle of the hierarchy were involved with conflict from both individuals below them as well as above them, whereas those in the bottom of the hierarchy distance themselves from conflict. The middle ranking macaques were more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher on the social ladder, causing them stress in the process.

middle management stress can be avoided

But knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomena and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should simply accept it as a fact of life. The paper also describes how different animal species developed coping mechanisms to deal with their stressful lives. In olive baboons, subordinate males that redirect aggression towards another baboon following a conflict, had lower stress levels compared to those that did not do so. Another coping mechanism is social buffering; the social support from other members of the group, which has been demonstrated in greylag geese. Direct social support reduces the impact of stress, including close grooming relationships during times of social instability, and post-conflict consolation. Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, make sure you look after the middle managers in your organisation and avoid high levels of stress.

  1. Edwards, K. L., Walker, S. L., Bodenham, R. F., Ritchie, H., & Shultz, S. (2013). Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study design. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 186(1), 72–79. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.02.023

Organisational culture and the risks of normality

Organisational culture and the risks of normality“We need to change our organisational culture!” one of the board members said. Everybody around the table nodded and the secretary noted yet another action in the board minutes. The CEO would now be charged with changing the culture of the organisation.

Nobody really knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change and because nobody knew what to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like a great idea. Not that anyone had any idea what culture actually is, but judging by some of the inspiring articles in Harvard Business Review it seemed the best way to go.

Soon enough a consultant was hired and the work to transform the organisation began. Meetings were held and a range of new values, based on a neat list of abstract nouns, was defined. Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you are either with us and subscribe to these values or you are an enemy of the organisation—those employees critical of the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard, indicating that deviance from normality was from now on scorned upon. Thus began the new world order.

forcing normality destroys excellence and innovation

What the consultant did not realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is a repression of spontaneity and destroys sources of excellence and innovation. When organisations force their employees in the same value pattern and no longer accept any deviance, an important source of improvement and innovation is killed.

Positive organisational deviance is a necessary condition for innovation and improvement to thrive—only by nurturing those that think differently are organisations able to become remarkable.

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of job interviews

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of job interviewsJob interviews are stressful and time consuming for both the applicant and the recruiter. The most often used mechanism for selecting new staff is often a highly ritualised affair, with little room for meaningful human interaction. The job interview is an artificial environment that has no comparison in the social world, except maybe police cross-examination.

Formal job interviews are a limited tool to get to know the person seeking a new job. The main problem with this approach is that the balance of power is presumed to be on the recruiter’s side. This forces the applicant to be like a dancing monkey, performing the tricks that he or she believes will please the recruiters. The applicant is often left to second-guessing the ‘right’ answer to the questions. And although we are often told that there are no right or wrong answers, this is of course not correct. There are answers that get you the job and the ones that don’t. The recruitment process is a case of double deception, both the recruiter and the applicant are not willing to have a genuine conversation because they are limited by the script of the traditional job interview.

Genuine Conversations

Formal job interviews are popular because they provide an illusion of rationality as it is assumed that thorough questioning will lead to the truth.

The purpose of the recruitment process is to try to predict the future behaviour of the applicant. A formalised job interview is a counter-productive human interaction with limited predictive quality when it comes to getting to know a person. The artificial nature of the job interview does, however, prevent this process from being rational.

Effective job interviews should be based on the presumption of equality between the recruiter and the applicant in order to espouse genuine conversations between the parties. It is the task of the recruiter to make the applicant feel comfortable and treat them as an equal conversation partner. Only this way will you be able to get to know the person you are interacting with.

The Importance of Cynicism: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

Cynycism is bein the guard dog of management.Cynicism has a bad name in management, some even call it a “cancer in your organization”. In my view most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in organisations.1

The word Cynic is derived from the ancient Greek word for dog. The cynic might be a dog, but is certainly not a lapdog. The cynic can be the guard dog for organisations. Philosophical cynicism rejects conventional social values, such as business hierarchy. The cynic is thus able to reflect on business practices from an external perspective and positively contribute by pointing out things that might not be obvious to their superiors. Cynicism is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.

Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert that uses many buzzwords without substance or the critic who is quickly to find fault at anything, without themselves performing. but tend to deliver the goods. Cynics often exasperate upper management by constantly questioning everything.  More often than not, however, they do know what is going on.2 Cynicism can help people ensure that others don’t take advantage of them, and potentially help organisations benefit from resistance to potentially bad decisions3. In one experiment, participants cynical toward the employing organization were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.

Not all cynicism is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynicism: affective, cognitive and behavioural. In other words, you can be cynical as an emotional reaction, such as irritation, tension and anxiety. When you are cognitively cynical you think that your organisation is run by self-interest and when you are behaviourally cynical you display that attitude in how you perform at work.5  The most productive type of cynicism is the cognitive type—the cynic as the devil’s advocate.

My advice is to listen to cynics in your organisation. Find out what is bothering them and learn from these experiences.

  1. Dean Jr, J.W., Brandes, P. & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review (23) 341–52. 

  2. Carlini, J. (1996). A trustworthy cynic. Network World, 13(42), 70–70. 

  3. Naus, F., van Iterson, A. & Roe, R. Value incongruence, job autonomy, and organization based self-esteem: A self-based perspective on organizational cynicism. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 2007b, 16, 195–219. 

  4. Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469. 

  5. Kim, Tae-Yeol, Bateman, Thomas S., Gilbreath Brad and Andserson, Lynne M. (2009). Top management credibility and employee cynicism: A comprehensive model. Human Relations 62(10), 1435–1458. DOI: 10.1177/0018726709340822