What does Organizational Sloganeering indicate?

Sloganeering is the repeated use of empty words geared at influencing behaviours and/or attitudes.

Politicians use slogans all the time. Those of you who live in democracies know that slogans are often empty promises. Those of us who live in other types of regimes know how to decipher slogans and guess what the regime really means.

Organizations use slogans almost as much as politicians.

Most of us are less skilled at understanding slogans in an organization that we are in understanding political slogans.

 I want to provide possible directions of what sloganeering can indicate.

1-There is a gap between actual and desired behaviours that management does not how to bridge, so they are using slogans. Let’s call this sloganeering due to ignorance.

2-There is only a message that management wants to purvey; there  is no willingness  to commit resources to make it happen, so slogans are being used to obfuscate.Let’s call this sloganeering as malicious lipservice.

3-Instead of solving problems pragmatically, there is a corporate religion which is being promulgated, in the hope that more religion will cure the organization. Let’s call this organizational religious  fanaticism.

4-Slogans are used as imperialistic tools to conquer someone else’s territory. The massive  use of “big data” and “internet of things” are illustrations of this. Let’s call this sloganeering as weaponry.

Case Studies

  • The slogan: Worship your customer.

This company was not willing to invest in the necessary IT to serve its customers, so they invested in sloganeering internally and externally.

  • Let teamwork make it happen

This company hired managers who built empires and after several failed attempts to create more synergy, slogans are being administered, which makes “more sense” that replacing managers.

  • Quality is everybody’s job

This company makes very aggressive commitments to the market which are unachievable. So initial product releases are crap. Yet the CEO truly believes that everyone should own quality. BTW, the measurement system supports speedy releases.

In all the supervision work I do with consultants, I place a major focus on how to diagnose and use the company’s slogans to understand and deal with organizational pathologies.

One final word of caution. Has a company hired you to train its employees about how to implement its slogans? Don’t do it since the chances of being relevant are very very very (3 verys) low. But you sure can get burned!

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The Management of Blame by Senior Managers

In the natural course of doing business, things go wrong.

For some of the things that go wrong, people assume responsibility; for other things that go wrong, blame is assigned. The management of blame is part and parcel of organizational life. Blame is part of the game at all levels of the organization.

At the very top of every organizational/business pyramid, there are people with huge egos, and the management of blame is a tool that protects the valuation of the ego and the reputation of the very senior players.

As a matter of fact, managing blame is a critical skill often ignored by the starry eyed consultants who tweet and write about leadership. Many claim that blaming is characteristic of poisonous leadership, or a dysfunctional culture. I disagree.

My experience of 35 years in 4 continents suggest to me that almost all senior leaders have (and use) a vast array of political skills, one of which is the allocation of blame to others when things go wrong. Without blaming skills, you do not reach the top. 

Organization development consultants need to pay more attention to the allocation of blame as a generic built in characteristic of leadership at the top, because senior management teams “manage” the allocation of blame all the time, looking for a place to “park the blame”, and have someone else pay the fine.

I want to point out 10 frequent types of blaming used by people in senior positions.

  1. Pushing  unrealistic commitments
  2. Demonizing a certain figure
  3. Blaming one’s predecessor
  4. Picking on one member of the team without dismissing him/her
  5. Blaming the entire senior team
  6. Blaming the regulators (over-under regulation)
  7. Constant shifting of blame, like a swan casting water off it back
  8. Lack of employee “engagement”
  9. Making ambiguous demands and then, ex post facto, expressing dissatisfaction about the results
  10. Maliciously and intentional under-resourcing

I have never encountered any senior manager or senior team where some blaming dynamic is not in place. Furthermore, the blaming dynamic often reflects the pathology of the organization.

The starry eyed idealistic consultant, armed with leadership models fresh from academia, avoids discussing the blame factor, and focuses solely enhancing accountability, ownership and mutual dependencies. By ignoring the realpolitik of senior leadership , the consultant will become irrelevant.

A professional practitioner understands what part of the blaming dynamic is changeable and works to mitigate the dynamic, whilst accepting that the treatment of the blame pathology can only go so far.

One final comment. In Asia, senior management tends to vocally blame subordinates far less than in Europe and North America, due to the obligation of the leader to appear to be compassionate. Blaming does occur, but it is much more subtle.

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Challenging your clients’ belief system

When practised as a professional service, Organization Development challenges clients’ belief systems in the everyday course of work.

Every OD practitioner develops skills on how to do this ghastly task effectively, unless he/she has morphed into a moronic mode of “how to merge a company in 3 easy steps”.

This post relates to several aspects about how to go about challenging a clients’ belief system more effectively.

     1 Build a caring relationship with your client.

I am not an easy person with whom to work.  I “speak truth to power”, I am very direct and as I come armed with lots of miles/kilometres on the road, it is hard to push aside my arguments. I challenge my clients all the time.

But my clients know I care. I am not talking about social media caring.  I am talking about really being compassionate. And each of my client feel justly feel that I truly care about them personally and their success.

All this serves as a safety net, so when I challenge their beliefs, they know I with them, on their side.

     2 Understand the view point of your client, as he sees things.

Harping on one’s exclusive narrative leads to narrow-mindedness and righteousness and the inability to have impact on another’s’ belief system. Look at reality as your client does.

When I began my career, I worked for in the hotel industry. In each hotel and department, I would work with the staff and managers on all the shortcomings that need to be corrected. Staff and managers taught me that many problems disappear when certain guests/nationalities leave the hotel.  At the beginning, I labelled that as “defensive behaviour”. I was dead wrong. Until I understood that point of view and internalized it, I did not understand that industry, and they knew it.

The key is empathizing, not merely listening and yes-but consulting behaviour. Once you empathize with the others’ belief system, there is more intimate discussion and fewer pissing contests, which often characterize the  ineffective challenging of a belief system.

     3 There are some things that are best left unsaid.

There are plenty of incorrect client belief systems that are not going to be changed. Because of human nature, or the nature of each specific industry or whatever.

So pick your battles; leave things unsaid when change is impossible. If you focus on something that is very important but unchangeable, you spread the change effort too thin. Focus only on what can be changed.

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Avoid trying to build too much “buy-in” into decision making

There are global companies that attempt to elicit “buy-in” for key decisions. There is no place for a priori eliciting of “buy-in” in very diverse global firms. It just does not work. The goal of this post is to explain why not and provide an alternative.

In many parts of the world, management is autocratic and autocracy is not a pejorative term. Autocratic management has the right and privilege to decide, and in return, autocratic management assumes responsibility and does not share blame. Autocratic management can be more compassionate than more democratic forms of leadership, because compassion comes with the territory of being an autocrat.

The autocratic manager has subordinates who feel relieved that they are asked to do, not decide. They willingly relinquish the power of decision to the autocrat, as well as the larger salary and reserved parking spot.

Autocratic management is often prompted up by religious beliefs, such as the 5 unequal relationships of Confucius. There also may be a political preference for autocracy due to a societal fear of the instability which stems from the divisiveness caused by overly democratic decision making process.

The  global companies that try to get buy-in for key management decisions believe that there is a phenomenal upside. It is true; buy-in has a phenomenal upside, in some cultures. Yet, cementing a priori buy-in is limited to very few cultures and appears to be a bit of an idiosyncratic quirk, observed in such diverse places as Japan, starts ups of a certain nature, companies with a strong participative ideology slash religion of participation, and companies which have perhaps overdosed on OD as a religion!

Too much focus on buy-in may result in a growing lack of trust in management’s ability in cultures with an autocratic streak to them. Worse, too much reliance on buy-in may cause folks to feel that management is dithering and the company is “unsafe”.

Pragmatism is suggested as the best medicine. In autocratic cultures, it is best to dress up buy-in as risk mitigation, rather than challenging the decision itself.

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Dealing with the cynicism encountered with managers from Former Soviet Union (FSU)

In my previous post, I pointed out some of the characteristics I have encountered in managers from the FSU with whom I work .

In this post, I will provide 3 tips on how to deal with the cynicism, which can be tough to take for western yes-we-can OD consultant/manager.

1) There is no need to counter every cynical remark that is made. Just listen to  these comments as “this can be tough”. It’s often no more than that.

2) Use these cynical comments as a springboard to work out a rational set of risk mitigation tactics.

3) When a very, very cynical person comes your way (and they do exist), use a paradoxical intervention, such as “So there is nothing to do, we need to avoid wasting out time”. I have been surprised at how well this has worked.

I train managers and consultants to better manage folks from FSU. Lot of what you need to do can be counterintuitive, so it takes time.

If you succeed, you will generally have a hard working and dedicated resource on your team, albeit cynical.

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New mindset and tools for middle managers upon the establishment of a union

The mindset of middle managers needs to change upon the establishment of a union. As the union flexes its muscles and establishes its power base, middle management must rethink its role domain and retool. This post related to changes which need to occur in the mindset of middle management.

  • Middle management needs to internalize that managing in a unionized shop is a new ball game. Part of the ball game is that senior management may be broadcasting that “nothing has changed”. Senior management is probably sending out the message: “you keep doing your job and we (whoever that is, probably Legal) will take care of the union”. However, this message is problematic as it illustrates the one of the very reasons why the union was established, eg, arrogance.
  • Over time, most unions become a partner in strategic and operational decision making. The more that management tries to make decisions “above their heads” of the union, the more militant the unions will become. Middle managers need to ensure that they engage their own senior management to avoid being used as an ineffective and damaging way to bypass legitimate union interests.
  • Middle management needs to understand the dynamic of union activity, understand the agendas of the union, build trust and proactively work with the union.  There is no “working around” the union via dealing with the so called “more sane” employees.
  • The employees will always defer to the union, because the union will take better care of them than management. So never bad mouth the union.
  • Partner with the union on a personal level and strategically. Senior managers come and go. The union is “built to last”. So it’s better learn about the new partner-for-life than working to neutralize their power.
  • It takes up to two years for a union leadership to exercise their muscles. But they do get strong and cannot be “managed” by an external legal firm. So learn to respect their interests early on in the game.

 

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The perfect storm: The fearful HR clerk and the OD “brush salesman”

In my previous very widely read post, I described the imperfect nature of the OD intervention.

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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When change is failing, don’t fall into a trap

OD consultants and other change professionals are commissioned at times by clients who are stuck and dither when facing a serious problem.

Two examples:

Take the merging 3 small companies into one and management insisting on “creating a new culture, based on the best parts of the 3 companies.” Management dithered on this issue for two years with the hope that things would somehow stabilize as the social fabric fell apart in political warfare.

Or, take the example of a company which needed  to really commit itself to transparency with its own staff to ensure credibility, yet focused on word-smithing, sweet-talking and sloganeering as the company employees become more and more “militant” and unionizes.

In such situations there is natural tendency of the consultant to push hard for decisiveness. And to make matters worse,  when  decisive action does not occur, the client may even blame the consultant for the slow pace of change!

Here is the crunch: If you push the client too hard because YOU want to succeed, then you may find yourself out on your ass. On the other hand if you accept the clients’ pace, you become part of the system.

This problem has no easy fix. For those of us who have learned to drive in heavy snow, it is helpful to remember how to free yourself from a snow bank….backwards and forwards, slowly, until you get the leverage to jolt forward.

And remember, ultimately it is the clients’ mess, not yours. If you feel that you are the one who is failing, your actions as a consultant will probably be less effective.

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Listening is a guessing game in many cultures

Some cultures are relatively blunt and to the point. One rarely needs to guess what a Dutch, German, French or Israeli means when they express themselves in business. True, nuances and cultural clues may be be missing, but after some exposure, getting the point is pretty straight forward.

In other cultures, corporate communication is much more difficult to decipher. In some cultures, this  difficulty comes from face saving (e.g. Thailand, Philippines) ; in other cultures the difficulty comes from a cultural uniformity which negates the need to be explicit , like Japan. In the USA, the difficulty in figuring out what something means is negatively impacted by political correctness, which obfuscates clarity.

In cross cultural communication, a key skill that one needs to acquire is how to understand corporate communication when a lot is “unsaid”.

Example: A senior manager asks the Japan Office if he can visit the first week of August. The answer he gets is yes. Then, the senior manager asks how many people will be on vacation that same week. When he learns that 70% of the people will be on vacation that same week, he asks if the first week of September is better, and gets a “yes”, only to learn later on that this date is also unsuitable.

Here are a few suggested ways to get around this impediment of implicitness:

1) Don’t try to get people to be explicit. While it can be done, it is very humiliating for the other side.

2) Ask many people the same question and compare answers.

3) Learn to provide alternatives, as opposed to asking questions the answers to which are yes or no. (Do you prefer I come on this date or that date).

4) Listen very closely to what is not said. Watch eye content, pay attention, putting  all communication in (age, role, situational) context.

5) Watch for purposeful ambiguity. E.g, Is this a good time to meet? “Yes, it may be”.

Follow me @AllonShevat

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In praise of the global organization-and a toast

Nothing like spending the last month running to and from bomb shelters with my dog Georges to make me think. Today,  I  propose a toast to the global organization.

Coming from me, this may sound strange. This blog and my satiric blog focus on some of the more serious defects in global organizations.

Over the past  month, my thoughts were tortured watching the worst of human behaviour manifest itself in the Middle East-beating on the war drum, mutually exclusive narratives which drive fanaticism, so much hatred and senseless violence. I found myself asking how is it that global organizations, with all their weaknesses, never bring out such evil behaviour. When I compare the behaviour of people in global organizations to the behaviour of people in nation states, global organizations eat nation states for breakfast.

I work with one team of technical pre-sales engineers based in Tel Aviv, Cairo, Ankara, Dallas, Shanghai Munich and Riyadh. Yes, there are tensions, infighting and problems of synergy. And yes, there is squabbling about how does what. Yet folks work together, laugh together, and communicate well and strive for success together. Even In the hardest of geopolitical times, the team’s behaviour is matter of fact and to the point.

Here is what I believe are a few success factors which explain why global organizations succeed where nations fail.

1) Membership in a global organization is temporary and based on achievements. This provides clear focus, sense of purpose and direction, as well as a healthy sense of the  temporary nature of belonging.

2) While there is plenty of violence in global organizing, there is no use of physical force at all.

3) The desired  ways of behaving are defined, measured, policed and enforced.

4) Religion has no place whatsoever in the public domain.

5) There is no democracy whatsoever in global organizing, so a huge mob with the wrong ideas has no impact. Yes, there is heavy handed leadership at times, but shelf time is limited and there is periodic life cycle regime changes.

So, Georges and I propose a toast to global organizing. Cheers!

Le-Haim-To life.

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