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.

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.

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.

Positions Vacant: Deviant Behaviour is a Key Selection Criterion

Positions Vacant: Deviant Behaviour is a Key Selection Criterion

Would 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 work 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 genuine 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.

Deviant Behaviour is neccesary

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 to organisational goals.1

Organisational deviance is, however, a significant 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.