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 chaste behaviour as the Knights did not trust their wives while away for their holy 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.

The key to unlocking the regulatory chastity belt is to look at your processes and start to unravel them. Processes and procedures should enable people to achieve objectives. Procedures should not be the final word on how work should be done—the people that write procedures are not all-knowing gods of management.

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

It is not rocket science! Managing people is more complex

Management: It is not Rocket Science. Or is it?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 complex than the science of building rockets.

Management is not rocket science, its more complicated

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 accepted theory for motivation or 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 not a physical science but a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted with 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 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.

  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 medieval times, the jester played a significant 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 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 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 serious 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 serious. 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 business 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.

Leadership is Evil: A management lesson from Spock

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 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 large industry providing leadership training has developed in the wake of the movement away from management. They 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 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. 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 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 they 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!

  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 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.

middle management stress can be avoided

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.

  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. 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 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 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, they kill an important 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.

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interview

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interviewJob 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 unbalanced relationship 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. Some answers 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 as a job interview

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 to espouse genuine conversations between the parties. It is the task of the recruiter to make the candidate feel comfortable and treat them as an equal conversation partner. Only this way will you be able to get to know the person on the other side of the table.

The Importance of Cynicism: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

The value of cynicism: The cynic is the guard dog of management.Cynicism has a bad name in management, and some even call it a “cancer in your organisation”. In my view, most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in corporations.1

The word Cynic stems 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 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 being cynical

Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert armed with uses buzzwords without substance. Cynics often exasperate upper management by questioning everything.  More often than not, however, they know what is going on.2

Cynicism helps people to ensure that others don’t take advantage of them and it benefits organisations through resistance to potentially dangerous decisions3. In one experiment, participants that were cynical towards their organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.

Types of cynicism

Not all cynical behaviour is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynics: 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 self-interest runs your organisation. 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.

The lucid manager listens to cynics in your organisation to 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 organisation based self-esteem: A self-based perspective on organisational 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

The Value of Value Based Management

Value based management as a means to control behaviourMany 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 more important 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 essentially 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.1

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 for 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.2

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 have 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 positive values and not just those printed on our coffee mugs.

  1. Consequentialism can be problematic because not all action that leads 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. 

  2. I prefer to stick to the list defined by Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago: wisdom; prudence; justice; fortitude; courage; liberality; magnificence; magnanimity and temperance. 

Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magicians

Five points of public speaking — What managers can learn from magiciansPublic speaking fills many people with fear. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that:

“… people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This strong statement means to the average person that if you have to go to a funeral, you are better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”.

For professionals, public speaking is an essential skill which unfortunately not many of them excel at. We all have sat through death by Powerpoint; bombarded with slides and poorly presented disjointed information.

In my opinion, presentation skills are essential to succeed in any organisation—business presentations are a form of theatre. In this post, I will explain how a book popular among magicians—The Five Points of Magic Spanish performer Juan Tamariz—can be used to teach professionals about presentation skills.1 Below are some tips from the book that apply to both magicians and public speaking.

The Five Points of Public Speaking

1. The Eyes

Eye contact is the most important tool to connect with the audience. Don’t only look at the first row. Sweep your gaze like a fan across the spectators, giving everybody some personal attention.

Public speaking - eye contact

2. The Hands

The hands are the most important tool of the magician, and in business presentations, they usually perceived get in the way. But the hands can communicate almost anything. We should use our hands to point out things, present objects and emphasise the communication. Think about how you use your hands other than a means to hold your laser pointer.

3. The Voice

Imagine an elderly lady, who is hard of hearing, sitting at the back of the room. Dedicate the performance to her and project your voice to the last row.

Public speaking - project your voice

4. The Feet

The best place to stand is centre stage, facing the audience. Don’t hide behind the lectern or turn your back to the audience. This positioning is essential to be able to make good eye contact.

5. The Body

Body language is our subconscious means of communication. In theatre, and thus also in public speaking, we need to be aware of this type of communication.

In Conclusion

This post is only a glimpse into the wide array of literature on theatrical performances that can be applied to public speaking. Business people that perform magic have been found to be better public speakers.2 Next time you need to do a presentation, view it as a theatrical performance and follow the five points of public speaking.

One last tip: whatever you do, never imagine your audience naked, at best it will get you distracted.

If you like to know more about magic tricks, read my book Perspectives on Magic.

  1. Russian magician Manual Llaser uses the Five Points principle in corporate training. 

  2. Davids, Meryl. “Tricks of the Trade.” The Journal of Business Strategy 15, no. 3 (1994): 67.