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.

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.

The Importance of a Silo Mentality to Deliver Business Value

A silo mentality is one of the most evil things a manager can have. Is this really the case?

Two silos I designed for a South African concrete brick manufacturer.

A silo mentality is one of the evilest things that can happen to a manager. Well, that is what you are lead to believe when attending the average management workshop.

One of the first things people mention when asked what is wrong with their workplace is having a “silo mentality”. Organisational silos are evil, and everybody who tries to build one runs the risk of becoming a pariah. Personally, I think silos are inevitable and valuable—I designed some early in my career as shown in the picture above.

A silo mentality is so prevalent that a small vocabulary has built up around this phenomenon: ‘information silo’, ‘silo thinking’, ‘the silo effect’, ‘functional silo’ and so on. The language around removing silos is quite vigorous and evocative: silos need to be ‘demolished’, ‘blown up’ or ‘torn down’. Surely, any manager using this type of language is serious about his job!

This article proposes a more philosophical approach and gently deconstructs, not demolish or blow up, the concept of silo mentality to show that they are not as evil as many managers believe.

embrace silos to deliver value

There is no proper definition of what a silo mentality is. A recent paper suggests that people with silo mentality are mentally ill.1

Psychodynamically, silos represent the phallic characteristics of male dominance, submission and persecution. They are characterised by intra- and intergroup anxiety followed by the infantile and regressive defensive structures …

On a positive side, a functional silo is a vertically aligned team with experts in their respective fields. Silos shape expert knowledge communities that can reach consensus, make decisions and act efficiently and effectively. By embracing and nurturing functional silos, an agency’s expertise can flourish.2

Pointing at silos to identify why an organisation is not optimally functioning is a way to blame somebody else for your problems. Instead of wielding the silo, managers should practice some introspection and think about how they can improve communication with other experts in their organisation. Don’t blame somebody else for not wanting to cooperate with you, think of ways you can motivate them instead of using strong language and start demolishing, tearing down and blasting their silos.

  1. Cilliers, F., & Greyvenstein, H. (2012). The impact of silo mentality on team identity: An organisational case study. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 38(2), 1–9. 

  2. Paulson, J. (2010). Embrace silos to deliver value. DM News, 32(17), 32–32. 

The Golden Rule of Recruitment: You get the employees you deserve

The Golden Rule of Recruitment: You get the employees you deserveRecruitment of new people or can be a stressful experience. Many organisations maintain extensive procedures to try to find the right person for the right job or even hire specialised consultants to do the job for them.

They ask strange questions that no reasonable person would ever dare to entertain: “What are your three trademarks?”, “What are your biggest mistakes?” or “What is the meaning of life” and “What is the airspeed velocity of a laden swallow?”. Some even resort to pseudo-scientific personality testing to throw some insights into these strangers across the table.

The problem recruiters have is that it is a lot easier not to hire someone than to fire them later, which leads to complicated processes to reduce this risk. Job interviews are thus a bizarre environment that often bears no resemblance to a real professional situation. The fear of taking a risk with a person and a lack of self-confidence in their people skills motivates recruiters to resort to pseudo-scientific tools and hiding behind bizarre interviewing techniques.

The Golden Rule of Recruitment: You get the employees you deserve.

Particularly in a customer service related position a person’s ability to smile and understand customers is more important than the results of a personality test or the answer to weird questioning. Asking irrelevant questions only motivates the applicant to bend the truth. Recruitment methods should as much as possible be normal human interaction as ultimately every company gets the employees they deserve.

No matter how ritualised the interview process, the Golden Rule of Recruitment remains: You get the employees you deserve.

Management’s New Clothes: The Magic of the Business Suite

Management's new clothesThe manager in his or her suit has become an archetype in professional life around the globe. Even at international meetings, where people of various cultures gather, managers all wear the same type of clothing, only displaying minor variations in style and colour.

Business suits have of course no practical purpose, but rather convey social meaning. The suit has become a symbol of power, and a means to demarcate the white from the blue collars. Using clothes and other objects to communicate meaning to other people is a natural aspect of being human. An immutable law of marketing is that we don’t buy stuff for what it does, but for what it means.

Early in my career, I was working on a dredging site in Bangladesh, wearing my comfy heavy metal t-shirt and jeans. I was unexpectedly asked to present to head office executives visiting from the Netherlands. Blissfully unaware of my lack of appropriate attire and ignoring their visible scepticism towards my expertise I was able to convince them of my recommendation.

It is of course not a secret that the relationship between the clothes we wear and our actual ability to be a good manager is not a necessary one. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who analysed human interaction from a theatrical perspective, wrote more than half a century ago:

People holding corporate positions are blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.1

In the field of consumer behaviour, the clothes we buy are often seen as the result of our lifestyle, demographics and other variables. Sociologists, however, have a reverse logic and see the clothes we wear as the cause of the behaviour. Research has confirmed that we use objects such as clothing to compensate for actual ability to act in a particular role.

It has been found that MBA students less likely to be successful in professional life (based on grade averages) are more likely to look the part.2

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that quite often the smartest people are portrayed in movies as eccentric, deviating from the expectations, but accepted because of their abilities.

Clothing as a means to communicate actual and aspired social status is part of what makes us human, and after my experience, I quickly learnt to adapt to the expectations of professional life. The best way to end this post is with the words of the bard:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts … (As You Like it).

  1. Erving Goffman (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life, Penguin, London. 

  2. Solomon, Michael R.: The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective, The Journal of Consumer Research 10(3), volume 10, 319–329, 1983. 

The Pitfalls of Culture Change: Why most programs fail

The Pitfalls of Culture Change: Why most programs failCulture change is a popular past-time among contemporary managers. The promise that many management books make is that changing your organisation’s culture will lead to organisational success.

Managers eager to impress their directors will invariably implement a cultural change program with the anticipation that it will increase productivity, profitability or any other noun ending in -ty. This promise first to change themselves on the premise that successful organisations all have a ‘good’ culture.

The idea that a good or healthy culture will improve business results is also logically nonsensical. The claim that a strong organisational culture will improve performance is tautological. Any qualifier of the word culture will inevitably be self-referential.

Interestingly enough, most culture change programs fail!

The reason most cultural change programs fail is that culture is an epiphenomenon of human interaction, which means that culture as such does not exist. Culture is a mental construct. Culture is the effect of something and can not be the cause of anything. The only place where culture changes are always successful is in microbiological laboratories, where nerdy scientists in lab coats poke around in Petri-dishes and conical flasks to develop medicine, biological warfare or just because they need a job. Back to human cultures.

Culture is the result of a whole range of phenomena, such as people’s values and beliefs. Managers more often than not focus on these aspects of culture. They try to change the values and beliefs of their staff by spouting ‘inspiring’ rhetoric and professional development programs. See our post on consultants for a view on this.

Culture is an epiphenomenon

Corporations are not democratic organisations and rely on hierarchical structures. Culture is thus driven from top to bottom and can therefore only change to the limit of the values and beliefs of the managers in charge. It is because of this that most text books on cultural change fail. To change a culture, managers need to first change themselves!

Because culture is the effect of phenomena, it can not be the cause of anything – including corporate success.1

How to implement culture change

There are aspects of culture that can be modified quite easily. Other phenomena that cause culture are rituals and ceremonies, stories and legends and material objects. This might sound like things that you only find in tribal societies, but all corporations have them. Rituals and ceremonies are expressed in the way meetings are conducted, and birthdays are celebrated and everything in between. Stories and legends relate to the history of the corporation and material objects are the tools we use and the office we work in.

If a manager wants to change a ‘culture’, then these phenomena are the starting point. Change these and the culture will follow. Best example to illustrate this are the often discussed Google offices. By placing people in the right environment, they will display the right behaviour. Supermarket designers use these principles very successfully. Telling appropriate stories will create a sense of collective and conduct the corporate rituals in the right way will act as an example of the desired behaviour.

The simple message is: don’t try to change a culture, try to modify the phenomenona that cause the culture.

  1. Pettigrew, Andrew M. On Studying Organizational Cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1979): 570–581. 

Esoteric Change Management: Marketing to change employees

Just as a new house owner likes to change the paint colour, new businesses practice change management. The literature shows that most change management processes do not achieve the objectives they seek and a whole library of books has been written about the best ways to create and sustain change.

Managing change is more often than not about changing the behaviour of people. Management speak uses words such as alignment, creating buy-in and other bendable learnings. However, as soon as the word ‘change’ is mentioned in a workplace, people will raise their defensive shutters and try hard to keep doing what they have always been doing.

One aspect of management where attempts to change behaviour is very successful is marketing. Good companies can manipulate the attitudes and behaviour of consumers so that they buy their product. Why does it work in marketing but not so much in management?

Change management strategy is more often than not exoteric. This means that all details of the approach are revealed to the subjects of the change. Change managers, and more often than not consultants, openly explain how they will change behaviour.

Marketing managers are a bit more devious about their motives and use esoteric techniques to change the behaviour of consumers. Some advertisements openly admit to the methods they use to change the behaviour of consumers – best example is a Molson beer ad from some years ago:

Esoteric change management: Advertising to change employeesMaybe change managers should take a leaf from the book of marketing and use the sophisticated sociological and psychological techniques employed to convince people to change their buying behaviour.

This might raise the question whether it is ethical to change people’s behaviour esoterically. But all I have to say to that is that we change our behaviour based on our interaction with other people all the time. The anti-marketing crowd often underestimate the intelligence of consumers, which they portray as will-less victims. Creating change, whether in marketing or management is about creating an environment in which people feel comfortable to change, can identify with the proposed changes and believe that the change will provide them with benefits.

Positions Vacant: Deviant Behaviour is a Key Selection Criterion

Positions Vacant - Deviant Behaviour EssentialWould you like to work on the front lines of contemporary management?

The Lucid Manager is hiring, and we are looking for people that don’t fit the culture of their current workplace and have difficulty being aligned with corporate goals. At the Lucid Manager, we believe that the only thing you have to be brought into line with is yourself.

We acknowledge that deviant behaviour and taking calculated risks is the foundation of innovation. We, therefore, look for independent critical thinkers who can add value.

If this were a real recruitment add, it would have been a very odd one indeed. Most companies are looking for so called alignment and matching cultural values. At The Lucid Manager, we believe that this will lead to a severe lack of innovation.

The major corporate collapses and scandals of the recent years have caused a tightening of corporate governance, and many organisations have moved away from open models of leadership that value self-initiative to more regimented models of management.

Even though the western world is waging war to spread democracy around the globe, the one aspect that dominates most people’s lives, their workplaces, are ideally meritocracies but are mostly more like dictatorships. Most organisations are managed through clear hierarchical lines, and people are not very likely to go against the grain.

Research shows that employees do not only remain silent because of a fear of retribution but also because it is perceived as a waste of their time. This silence creates psychological tension and cognitive dissonance and eventually less commitment with organisational goals.1

Organisational deviance is, however, a major source of innovation. Without the freedom to make mistakes, there can be no learning. The current wave of tightened corporate governance leads to the silencing of dissenting voices and pruning of innovative actions. The ultimate consequence of this is the impoverishment of management practices.

  1. Detert, James R., Burris, E. R., & Harrison, D. A. (n.d.). Debunking four myths about employee silence. Harvard Business Review, 88(6), 26. 

The Virtues of Nepotism: Collectivism to build strong organisations

Nepotism is considered one of the great sins of Western culture. As society has been levelled by removing class distinctions and shaped to create a level playing field for everybody, regardless of race, religion, gender. Family relationships are not supposed to play a role in any one’s chances of success. The Wikipedia definition of nepotism is:

Favouritism granted to relatives or friends, without regard to their merit.

The Virtues of Nepotism: Collectivism to build strong organisationsWhen Ian and I undertook some research in Vietnam, we came across interesting recruitment practices. From our interviews with local managers, it became clear that using family networks is an accepted recruit source for staff.

From our data, we formed the hypothesis that recruitment in countries with a collective nature, such as Vietnam, is primarily conducted through social networks. This collectivism contrasts with the developed world, with a high level of individualism, where, especially in the government sector, a level playing field is created by publicly advertising positions.

in Hanoi, family networks are used as a primary recruitment source

Although Vietnamese practices smell like the dreaded nepotism, some people made clear to us that the family networks are used as a primary recruitment source, but within that pool of people, the selection is nevertheless based on merit. A training manager of a large company told us that they have many teams in which several generations of one family work together and that this creates a great culture and sense of common purpose within the organisation.

This sense of shared purpose is considered a holy grail by most organisations in the developed, individualistic, world. Many activities are aimed at ‘aligning’ people to the common objectives of the organisation. But given that most businesses are a grab bag of people, working together more by change than by common purpose, this has proven to be an illusive goal.

Research in Australia has shown that people recruited through anonymous sources such as newspaper advertisements missed almost twice as many days as those recruited through other sources, such as employee referrals.1 This research underwrites the importance of using social networks as a source of recruitment.

Human beings are inherently social creatures, and we like to spend our time with people we like. Within that, we have a definite bias for people that we are related to. One of the primary reasons many people don’t enjoy work is not because of the work itself but because of the people they are forced to socialise with. Open recruitment processes aimed at creating a level playing field are problematic, and many organisations use abstract tools, such as personality tests, and reference checks, which have been discussed recently.

Next time when hiring people, look around your immediate and extended social circle and see if there is anybody you would like to work with that can potentially do the job. The moral of the story is: nepotism is not inherently evil, as long as the final selection is based on merit.

  1. Breaugh, James A. (1981) Rela­tion­ship between recruit­ing sources and employee per­form­ance, absent­ee­ism, and work atti­tudes. Academy of Man­age­ment Journal 24(1): 142–147. 

The Battle of the Disappearing Teaspoons

The Battle of the Disappearing TeaspoonsIt doesn’t matter how well-designed, functional or beautiful your office tea-room or kitchen is, it almost seems completely useless if you can’t find a teaspoon. From time-to-time, someone will snap, and there will be a call to arms. The indignant party who leads the charge will usually be well-meaning and genuinely concerned about standing up for the rights of others needing to create a vortex in their hot beverage of choice.

Emails go out, complaints are made and, if the workplace culture is entirely wrong, painfully polite and hilariously, hostile passive aggressive notes will adorn the tearoom. After some weeks of torment, the apparently intractable problem will be solved by buying some more spoons, but not before several people have walked around feeling guilty while the spoon crusaders end up muttering about never being listened to. All of this is avoidable once you understand the science behind spoon migration.

Science? Spoon Migration? Yes, it has been studied and published in the British Medical Journal. A research study at the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia found that the half-life of teaspoons in their common tea room was 42 days.1

That’s right, it’s been studied by a group of epidemiologists and, to paraphrase and butcher their results, the conclusion is: communal teaspoons will eventually disappear. This has sparked a range of possible management interventions, including:

  • Don’t provide spoons
  • Provide disposable stirrers
  • Provide spoons on a heavy chain
  • Just accept that people are going to take them and buy more spoons

Do we defend the practice of stealing office property, regardless of how small, shiny and apparently valueless it is? Of course not! We should, however, understand which fights are worth fighting. Or in the wise words of Sun Tzu:

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

To provide a simple guide to where loss-of-teaspoons fit into the scheme of things, consider the following list:

  • Occupational Health and Safety issues
  • Working to gain multi-million dollar revenue streams
  • Teaspoons
  • Ensuring you’ve employed the right people for the job
  • Making sure your telecommunication systems are running effectively
  • Ensuring your corporate image is one that appeals to consumers

Note that the list above could have been written in any order and the addition of teaspoons will always appear unworthy and unwelcome. The Battle of the Disappearing Teaspoons is not an important issue.

For the amount of time and effort, people will spend badgering other staff members about the loss of spoons, complaining, writing nasty notes and disrupting the workplace, based on epidemiological science, if you have a tearoom it is best to accept that you will regularly need to buy spoons. This one simple tip will help avoid a lot of the angst and pain of not being able to measure your morning caffeine dose accurately.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.

  1. Lim, Megan S C and Hellard, Margaret E and Aitken, Campbell K (2005) The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute. BMJ (331)7531: p. 1498–1500. doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1498