Positive Workplace Deviance vs the Governance Chastity Belt

The Organisational Chastity Belt versus Positive Organisational 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 guarantee their fidelity. The devices were a crude method to enforce chaste behaviour because the Knights did not trust their wives while they were on their holy tour of duty. It is unlikely that chastity belts indeed prevented any lonely woman from expressing her natural urges. We can apply this concept also to management and the rise of governance.

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 governance in organisations. More risk management, more red tape, more creativity stifling procedures—more paper chastity belts. These procedural chastity belts serve the same purpose as the medieval metal versions. Chastity belts are a tool that replaces trust with a forced power dynamic.

A lack of trust in the ability of people to make the right decisions on your behalf often leads to a perceived need for corporate chastity belts.

Procedural chastity belts, just like their physical counterparts, are not foolproof methods to ensure chaste behaviour in wives and managers. Employees will circumvent any device that replaces trust when the motivation and the reward for deviance outweigh the risks.

The key to unlocking the regulatory chastity belt is to look at your processes and start to unravel them. Procedures should enable people to achieve objectives. They should not be the final word on how employees do their job. The people that write these procedures are after-all not all-knowing gods of management.

Positive Workplace Deviance

Lucid managers allow for positive workplace deviance, and they enable the employees to make their judgement on how to best achieve goals, instead of using the bondage of red-tape.

Deviant behaviour has a bad name for obvious reasons. We all know people who behave negatively in the workplace, even resorting to bullying or harassment. Positive workplace deviance is not about embracing your Machiavellian tendencies but more about breaking unwritten rules to progress organisational objectives. To think outside the box, to use a cheesy metaphor, requires you to bend the rules to shift reality.

A popular meme to express this idea is “not to give a fuck“. This somewhat crude popular wisdom does not imply that you can rampage your way through your workplace with caring about the consequences. Positive workplace deviance is the subtle art of crafting your niche within your organisation or your industry.

A Lucid Manager always asks why unwritten business rules exist and seek inspiration in playing little thought experiments to test the boundaries of the traditions within an organisation. Those trying to use positive workplace deviance to can find inspiration from the great Frank Zappa who famously said:

“Without deviance from normality, there can be no progress.”

Frank Zappa: Without deviane from normality there can be no progress". Positive workplace deviance

The Importance of Useless Knowledge in Management

The Importance of Useless Knowledge and the Humanities: The MBA Whisperer

Although managing a business can be very complicated, the solutions for solving problems often seem deceivingly simple. Managers resolve even the most complex issues with a two-by-two matrix. Practical 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 loses purpose.1

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager, you should invest time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enlightens 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 enlarge and sweeten the fruits of management, business people need to embrace so-called useless knowledge. This knowledge 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 more profound than that and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.

The words “useless knowledge” are problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge, and a better term would be indirect knowledge. This the type of knowledge creates a holistic person and helps to solve problems by introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, excellent understanding of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of philosophy of science helps to understand ‘evidence-based management’. 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 creating beautiful products.

The best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is an Apple computer. In the words of Steve Jobs:

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 thoughtful and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

Lucid managers embrace useless knowledge and study the classics and the humanities. Read some of Plato’s dialogues and learn from Socrates how deviant behaviour leads to innovation.

The Social Gadfly: The Benefits of Socratic Management

The Social Gadfly: The Benefits of Socratic Management

When studying business, there is little time for critical reflection on what has you have learnt. Universities arm newly minted MBAs with management tools such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Five Forces and other devices 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.

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. This article briefly discusses what we can learn from ancient Greek philosophers and why we should practice Socratic management.

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 the 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”

The benefits of Socratic management

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His books form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact, profoundly influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the marketplace in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?” to find 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 of drinking a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

From my experience, it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career suicide. For me, 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 issues that a case method cannot provide.

The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the analytical method from the humanities allows us to draw from entirely different perspectives and analyse issues in creative ways. Business is an applied social science, and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

Socratic Management: philosophical deviance to improve performance.

The Lucid Manager is courageous and not afraid to be a social gadfly and practices Socratic management. The Lucid Manager stops asking “Why?” and goes beyond The Five Whys if needed. View your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates teaches the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success. Following the path of Socrates will help you to develop those cherished innovative solutions.

It is not rocket science. Managing people is more complex.

Rocket science is seen as one of the most complex human activities. People management is not rocket science; it is much more complex.

Space exploration is the crowning glory of human achievement. Anyone working in this industry—astronauts flying the spaceships and rocket scientists building them are the heroes of contemporary society.

Ever since the start of the space race in the 1960s, rocket engineering 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 make sense? Is rocket science 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.

The science of space exploration has been a lot more successful than the science of management. Robots explore Mars; one spaceship 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 effective decision making.

Rocket science is an extension of physics, and therefore all processes are entirely predictable. The more research scientists do, the better they understand the physical processes, the more predictable technology becomes. Management is not a physical science but a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted with high accuracy. Individual behaviour is unpredictable and more controlled by emotion than by reason.

Some might argue that human behaviour is, in essence, a physical process. It is, however, so complicated that it becomes inherently unpredictable as we are unable to model human behaviour in physical terms. There are no computer programs to help managers deal with people; there are no simple rules to make correct 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.

The Boardroom Jester | The Teller of Organisational Truth

The Boardroom Jester | The Teller of Organisational Truth

In medieval times, the jester played a significant role in influential 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 only 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 essential 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 not being severe enough or being too critical could land 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 seriously. People in senior management positions—these days referred to as leaders—are often disconnected from what happens in their organisations. Staff are reluctant to speak about the details because of 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 illusion of hierarchy, so there is never any fear of damaging career prospects.

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.

Evil Leadership: A management lesson from Spock

Evil Leadership: A management lesson from Spock

Leadership 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 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 anymore; they want to be accepted as leaders. This change in focus is the biggest scam in management thinking of the past decades.

Most literature on leadership discusses the psychology of leadership. A vast industry providing leadership training has developed in the wake of the movement away from management. Leadership coaches promise to transform average 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 there is 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 individuals with a high level of Machiavellianism perform better in their jobs.1

Evil leadership: Snakes in Suits

Paul Babiak, an industrial and organisational psychologist, and Robert Hare, the creator of the standard tool for diagnosing psychopathy, wrote a fascinating book about psychopaths in the workplace, which he called snaked in suits.By the way, you can play our Corporate Snakes and Ladders career simulation if you like some free career lessons.

Babiak and Hare 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 empathy and are willing to sacrifice ethics to achieve personal goals. They can impress in interviews, but their lack of understanding creates tension in organisations, which in the long run leads to reduced performance.2

So it seems that Spock was 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 the key to good organisations. Management can be defined, and its outcomes can be measured, while leadership will forever be contested and its effects are unable to be measured.

Live long and prosper!

Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

The great Aristotle wrote more than two 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.

Avoid middle management stress

Knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomenon and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should only 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 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, you should ensure that you look after middle management in your organisation and avoid high levels of stress.

Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, a Lucid Manager looks after middle management and avoids unhealthy levels of stress.

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 “we have too many silos!”. Everybody around the table nodded. The secretary noted another action in the board minutes and instructed the CEO to change the culture of the organisation.

Nobody knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change. Because nobody knew what had to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like the best way forward. Not that anyone had any idea what organisational culture 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. The management team held meetings and defined a range of new values, based on a concise list of abstract nouns.

Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you either are with us and subscribe to these values, or you are an enemy of the organisation. Employees that criticise the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard to visualise 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 didn’t realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is 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, they kill a significant source of improvement and innovation.

The link between organisational culture and business performance is strong, but both researchers and practitioners struggle to describe what a healthy culture is. A culture of obedience to a norm might be pleasant, but it will lead to organisational mediocrity.

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

The Cynical Manager: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

The Cynical Manager: The Organisation's Guard Dog

The cynical manager has a bad name in business, and some even call them a “cancer in your organisation”. In my view, most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in corporations because they expose the ‘new clothes’ of management.1

The word Cynic stems from the ancient Greek word for dog. The cynic might be a dog but is not a lapdog. The cynical manager can be the guard dog for organisations, protecting them from nonsense. Philosophical cynicism rejects conventional social values, such as business hierarchies. The cynic reflects on business practices from an external perspective and positively contributes by pointing out issues that might not be visible to their superiors. Being cynical is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.

The value of a cynical manager

Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert who is armed with uses buzzwords without substance. Cynics often exasperate upper management by questioning everything, like a child they keep asking “why”.  More often than not, however, they know what is going on and see through the veil of ignorance.2

Cynicism helps people to ensure that others don’t take advantage of them and it benefits organisations through resistance to potentially dangerous decisions.3 In one experiment, participants that were cynical towards their organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical ((Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469.[/note]

Types of cynicism

Not all cynical behaviour is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynics:

  • Affective
  • Cognitive
  • 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 self-interest runs your organisation. When you are behaviourally cynical, you display that attitude in how you perform at work.4 The most productive type of cynicism is the cognitive type—the cynic as the devil’s advocate.

The Lucid Manager listens to cynics in their organisation to find out what is bothering them and learn from these experiences. You can cultivate your positive deviance by becoming the board room jester and use humour to make people think.

The Value of Value-Based Management

The Value of Value-Based Management

Many organisations espouse to implement value-based management. There are several definitions of what value-based management is, but most are not very illuminating. The consensus is that value-based management is a tool to achieve organisational consistency, or from a more cynical perspective, values are a device to control behaviour.

Philosophers refer to words such as value an ‘essentially contested concept’, which means that there is no agreement on the definition of value, which has espoused a complex branch of philosophy called axiology.

In practice, value-based management leads to a list of abstract nouns that the organisation advocates. But, which of the many hundreds of positively interpreted abstract nouns in the English language do you choose?

Which value is critical to your organisation? Do you prefer creativity over punctuality? Or should we have pride in our work or is it dedication we are after? Any word that has positive connotations and ends in -tion, -ism, -ity, -ment, -acy and so on will do. Defining a list of value, which usually is no longer than four, is restrictive and leads to the implicit exclusion of other positive values.

Value-based management is primarily a crude implementation of virtue-based ethics. This approach leads to tensions because most organisations don’t work according to virtues but follow a consequentialist approach; valuing those behaviours that lead to positive outcomes. Consequentialism can be problematic because not all activities that lead to the right results can be considered ethical. I have argued in an earlier paper that deontic constraints are required to maintain the goal-oriented nature of business in an ethical environment.

Value-based management is of little value

In value-based management, it is assumed that following an arbitrary list of abstract nouns will lead to good business outcomes. These lists of abstract nouns are a cheat-sheet for employees on how to behave and a way for management or colleagues to assess the behaviour of others.

The values chosen from the multitude of available abstract nouns are usually decided democratically, without systematic examination of all available options. I prefer to stick to the list defined by Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; kindness and temperance.

Most businesses are not honest in their chosen values, Enron being an excellent case in point. The never list greed any of the other deadly sins as their real core values. And those so-called deadly sins are not always wrong. Peter Nowak argued convincingly that the seven deadly sins propelled humanity more for good than bad.

Value-based management is of little value as it ignores the practical outcomes of behaviours. It is also flawed because it arbitrarily highlights some values of others. Surely to be ethical, we should behave in accordance with positive values and not just those printed on our coffee mugs.

Buddhist management: Organisations do not exist

Buddhist management: Organisations do not exist

Yesterday, Cyndi Laurin presented at the World Business Capability Conference about The Four Pillars of Organizational Greatness. Cyndi discussed one analogy that stuck in my mind as it took me back to my days as a philosophy student. Cyndi asked which part of a car is the most essential. The audience mentioned several options, and then it dawned on me that this analogy is much like a famous line of reasoning in Buddhist philosophy about the self, which I will use to show that there is no such thing as an organisation and that no one part of an organisation is essential or more important than another.

One of Cyndi's slides
One of Cyndi’s slides.

The idea of the firm in Buddhist management

The Buddhist management view of the firm would be that there is no such entity, illustrated by a debate between King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena.1

Following the analogy used by the monk, we can compare a firm with a chariot, or in more modern terms a car. None of the individual parts of the car (the wheels, the engine, the radio and so on), are the car. Nor can you say that the combination of the parts is the car. We can not discover a firm at all, only the word that denotes the idea of the business. A business consists of its parts, just like a car does. None of the components of the firm, however, are the firm. No part is less important than the other—although followers of the Lean philosophy will disagree on this one.

The Buddhist management argument extends to management in that a firm is not about its constituent parts, but a firm is a cycle of cause and effect, or in Buddhist terms, Karma. A firm is not about its CEO, the share price, employees, customers or fancy headquarters. A company, just like a person, is defined by the actions it takes and their results.

Following the Buddhist view to its conclusion, there is only one pillar of organisational greatness: the actions taken by the organisation and the impact these actions have on the beneficiaries.

Reinventing the wheel? — Repetitiveness in business theory

Reinventing the wheel? — Repetitiveness in business theory

I am presenting my work at the World Business Conference in Auckland. One of the things that struck me listening to fellow presenters is the repetitive nature of the presentations. Not that they are bad presentations, but it seems that research is repeating itself. When a presenter throws up the next slide with profound truths many people think “duh, common sense”, others have an ‘aha-erlebnis‘—a moment of sudden insight, and the rest of the audience does not notice as they gently fall asleep due to Powerpoint overload.

Is business theory busy reinventing the wheel?

Some business theories are based on rigorous research while others are intuitive and akin to pop-psychology. What all business theories have in common is that they aim to influence behaviour. Management is about changing or controlling the conduct of employees; marketing seeks to modify the behaviour of customers and strategy is about the behaviour of stakeholders and the competition.

Most business theories are unintentionally based on the idea that people are rational. But contemporary economics and marketing have found that our rationality is limited. Our brains stop us from following the normative theories in business. Being in business is a constant struggle between the rational part of our minds and its natural tendencies. Plato described humans as a chariot pulled in different directions by two horses: reason and the emotions. Going to business conferences and hearing the same stories over and over again might be a way to give the horse of reason more power.

Maybe it is not about reinventing the wheel, but perhaps management theory is about keeping the wheel turning. We need to be continuously reminded of the obvious through variations on the theme.

Google in their infinite machine learning wisdom has found the ultimate answer to the management question and has defined The Eleven Rules of Management. Whether these eleen rules are indeed the final answer is doubtful. The harder question is to ask whether we need to keep this wheel turning and maybe we should give some more credence to the non-rational dimension in management. Management is not rocket science; it is much harder because dealing with people goes beyond the horizon of reason.