The perfect storm: The fearful HR clerk and the OD brush salesman (totally revised)

In my previous very widely read post, I described the imperfect nature of the OD intervention. In that post, I explain that OD interventions cannot be perfect. Organizations themselves are very imperfect. Once the human race started organizing and we all  became dependant on one another, there is severe anxiety built into the very essence of organizing, and all forms of organizations. This anxiety is not soluble nor does OD  “deliver” solutions to this inherent anxiety.

The goal of this post is to link these imperfect OD interventions to what is happening to HR, which often commissions external OD interventions.

The positioning of HR organizations is in a state of drastic decline. HR domain has been cannibalized by IT technology, Legal Departments as well as by the declining perceived value of the resource that HR represents, i.e. people and their loyalty/satisfaction.

As a result of HR’s speedy and painful demise, the anxiety level of the remaining HR executives is sky high. Management and peers of HR constantly “question the value” of HR, as illustrated in the satiric HR Gloria blog. Like a third rate politician frightened by plummeting rating, HR becomes motivated by fear.

There is a still a group of HR managers, mainly (but not only) in their 40s +, who stand their ground and do an admirable job in this hostile environment. However there is also a younger set of HR managers , transactional technicians,  who accept that the HR consists of sycophancy to the regime  (obsequious flattery) and transactional efficiency. These HR technicians guard their position by “apparent effectiveness” and wow-wowing, i.e., organizational cheer leading.

At the meeting point between the imperfect world of OD interventions and the anxiety of transactional HR technicians, the perfect storm occurs.The OD practitioners can only commit to a process that questions the regime’s assumptions, and the HR technician deals with its own anxiety by wow wowing and cheer leading.

The result of the perfect storm is that the type of OD intervention which is chosen by HR is aligned with the fear level of HR and not the needs of the organization. The OD “vendor” must ensure that the intervention is fun, measure-able, and creates a wow buzz. Luckily for HR, there are many OD hacks who have morphed into doing this shit.

Just to provide a small example. Recently I received a call from the HR manager of a company which had recently been acquired. The call went like this, “Hi this is Dorit speaking. I am the HR manager of XXX, which has recently been purchased by YYY. Do you have an “engagement package” for technical staff. And how much does it cost?. I need this by 2 pm”.

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Why engagement and training programs fail to deal with a no can do attitude

There are organizations and units where “no can do” is a frequent behaviour of employees and lower levels of management. No can do is undue pessimism, foot dragging and a passive attitude.

Upon encountering such behaviour, senior management gets all upset and may demand “engagement” programs from the ever so perky HR department, as well as pressure middle management to assume responsibility.

Consultants may diagnose no can do-ism as  lack of engagement and then prescribe engagement or managerial training or even coaching, reminding me of doctors looking at something they do not understand by labelling it a virus caused by stress and tell patients to live a less stressful life style.

Can’t do-ism, however, in many cases is a positive adaptive defence mechanism on the part of employees.Unless recognized as such, it cannot be properly addressed.

Here are examples where a no-can-do attitude actually pays off!

1-an organizational culture in which people are pushed to over commit, and then blamed for delays.  This is very prominent in software, sales and cut throat competitive domains.

2-a culture where constraints to aggressive timetables/goals are negotiated (in the sense of bargaining) ,not discussed. This can be prominent in software, in goal setting, and with certain societies which tend to negotiate instead of discuss.

3-a culture where there is a severe work life imbalance and employees perceive a need to “hide” (pad) from management, because where there is no such thing as priority management, and everything is urgent.

As such, no-can-do is a survival reflex of an abused employee to a dysfunctional organization.

In my experience, all engagement programs, talent management and training efforts that “throw skills” and wow wow (cheerleader) when dealing with no-can-do are doomed, because they see no-can-do attitude through the biased eyes of management.

In worst case scenarios, there is a ready made training/coaching product that is “applied”  to make a fast buck which also helps someone internally look good for rapid action to deal with this no can do  `virus`.

No can do is a severe and hard to diagnose dysfunction which cannot be picked up at a proper resolution via organizational surveys or cured via engagement programs. However when diagnosed qualitatively and without a management bias, there are many positive steps which can be taken to reverse the situation, none of which have anything to do with engagement.

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OD as contrarian

Because of commercial interests, a desire for more business alignment, and loss of direction, OD practitioners have both promulgated and actively jumped on the bandwagon of passing fads and fashions. TQM, Re-engineering, Excellence, Knowledge Management, Engagement are a few examples of these “short affairs”.

More recently, as organizations mechanized work flow and cooperation, having eliminated the need for intelligence (!) via IT driven business processes, OD practitioners clipped a coupon with a wide variety of products geared at lessening resistance and driving the change.

Big bucks have been made by “serving the mainstream” and avoiding the role of contrarian when confronting new fads.

Yet one by one, the fads die and are replaced by new fads, and practitioners find themselves preaching, retreating and then preaching a new fad, taking a huge hit on their professional credibility.

I have always looked at my role as a contrarian. Part of this is no doubt due to my personality, which is indeed critical and skeptical. (I am also a non-believer and avoid rigid religious beliefs of all kind, theological or organizational).

Yet being a contrarian is not only a function of personality. I think that contrarianism should be a major ventricle in the heart of OD.

This is not about criticizing everything or being anti for its own sake; rather it is a set of assumptions which may look like:

  • How can/will this new system be “outsmarted?” What does this mean?
  • Where is the arrogance behind this new belief or fad? How can I unmask it?
  • Whose interests are being served and whose interests are being compromised? Why? What does this mean?
  • What underlying dynamics are being ignored and created? What can be done with this?

And I can go on and on. Contrarianism is a sanity check on excessive  “beliefs”.

Few HR departments want this type of input from an OD consultant, and when internal OD departments are created to save costs, the first thing that is compromised is critical thought.

Yet contrarianism is an approach that senior management both wants and needs. If you want to look in the mirror and be proud of the value of OD, re consider learning to be a contrarian.

Notice the term: approach not product. You need a lot of experience to do it well, and it is not scalable.

For commercial reasons, for every contrarian OD consultant, there are a hundred consultants looking for new fads to support. To be a contrarian, you do not need to be an altruist, but you aren’t going to be rich.

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How to explain “face saving” to a Western Executive

The concept of “face” and “face saving” do exist in Western Cultures, although it is far less prominent, salient and discernible in the business domain than it is in Asia.

When I consult executives who are about to/have just assumed a role in Asia, one of the first things I address are the behaviours deriving from the concept of face. Unlike many consultants, I begin by giving examples of face in the Western world.

For example-

1) Your aging father calls you in the morning and ask you, “how are you feeling, sonny boy?” The “truth” is that you are very worried about an income tax issue, and you have a severe headache. Yet you answer “fine Dad, and how are you”. You want to save your father from feeling uncomfortable.

Preventing people from feeling uncomfortable is a key aspect of face saving; the Thais call this type of face saving “kleng jai” (deferential heart).

2) Your partner asks you “how do I look in this new dress”. The “truth” is that you are very busy with other issues and clothes are not your thing. “Great, darling”, is your answer. You prefer harmony to telling her “I am not the person to ask, and this is not the right moment”.

The preference of harmony to conflict is another component of face saving.

3) You tell a visiting colleague, Igor from Russia, “Why don’t you come by and visit next time you are in the States?” You have no intention to ever follow through on that, but you want to make Igor feel good.

Imparting a good feeling without any intent to follow through with action is another element of face saving.

4) You compete for a tender and loose. You pick up the phone, call your lost potential client, and “thank” him for giving you and chance and wish him “success”. You avoid telling “truth” because civility, not truth, serves the relationship.

Civility at all costs is another major component of face saving.

Face and face saving exists all over the world. In Asia, the use of face saving behaviours in business is overwhelmingly dominant, yet there is nothing that does exist, mutatis mutandis, in the west.


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