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Tag: what do psychologists do?

Ask better questions about leadership! Lose the tired ideas about who is a good leader

Are leaders made by their followers?

The first time I encountered this idea was 25 years ago. It assaulted my classical training as a psychologist! It was very difficult to understand that no one is a leader.  All my training said otherwise!

But we are leaders only by consent of our followers and in specific situations for a very short time.  Martin Luther King was a leader for a few years only.

It is time to ask the right questions about leadership

Over time, I came to understand that we had been asking the wrong question; and the wrong question was muddling my head.  The question “are leaders are born or made” belongs in the trash can.  I’ve put it there.  You can too.

The right question is a sociological and anthropological. What role does “leadership” play in organizing society? What concepts do we use? Why do we use those concepts and not others?

Why, in other words, are we hung up on the idea that some people are leaders and some people are not?

Leadership in organizations

As a work psychologist, I spend most of my time working in work organizations. We have been consistently mis-advising banks, schools, hospitals, factories, armies, shops, and every workplace that exists out there.

Leadership resides in the followers

Leadership does not reside in senior positions. Leadership does not reside in individuals. Leadership resides in the followers.

There are times when all the right ingredients are present.  Someone is in the right place at the right time and it all comes together. As organizational consultants, our job is to help everyone in the organization to find this sweetspot.

We chose a leader as a shorthand to tell the world about ourselves

Leadership begins when people start talking to each other in what we call a bounded space. That is the workplace or a project. The people talking together look for a leader, not to tell them what to do, but to represent who and what they want as a kind of shorthand to themselves and to the world.

A leader needs to be replaced regularly because after a while they aren’t a quick summary of what we want to tell the world

The day a leader stops being representative of our collective wishes, either because s/he has stopped listening or because s/he no longer is what they want, then the relationship falls apart and force needs to be used to maintain the position of “leadership”.

Why do we allow leaders to stay too long and use force against us?

I suppose another sociological/anthropological question is when and why we allow leaders to run away with power and to use force against us.

It has long been agreed in the democratic English speaking world that the essence of good government is replacing leaders in an orderly way.  I wish we could see the same as the standard in business organizations.

The use of force against employees is a sign that the agreement is broken

The use of force against employees is a sign that something has gone wrong. Alarm bells should go off.  And HR should be on the scene in a flash trying to understand why the leader believes so little in his or her people that s/he feels the need to bully them.  Young managers often don’t trust their subordinates. A skill that is rarely talked about is the skill of believing in one’s people and seeing their strengths.

The job of HRM and work & organizational psychologists

  • Our job is to broker these agreements.
  • Our job is to coach the group during the inevitable shift in the agreement. How long should they carry on with the arrangement? When should they renegotiate?
  • Our job is to step in immediately force is used and declare a “state of emergency”!
  • Our job is to design organizational systems where leaders are replaced regularly. How long is a good time in the organization we help? How can we design the process of renegotiation and replacement of the leader?

Leaders are only a shorthand to tell the world who we are and what we want.  We need to change them regularly and we need to manage the process to produce the leaders we deserve.


Wolf in sheep’s clothing or sheepdog in charge of the flock?

The lottery of Stumbleupon may have delivered an article on “luckiness”. Today, my fingers typed zero zero instead of OO and Launchy retrieved something dubious from the depths of my computer – a post modernist view of management.

Rants that pretend to have substance

Yes, I read that sort of thing, so you don’t have to – and just in case the author knows something we don’t.

I read a little of the article as I tried to figure out what I was looking at and how it came to be on my screen. I found a rant.

In short, Nike pays Tiger Woods as much per day as you or I earn in a year. And more than one of their workers earns in a lifetime. The writer was disgusted. I am sure the writer is correct – factually and morally.

But, when I looked more closely, I thought the pot was calling the kettle black. First, there was the rant. Then, there was some obscure theorizing. The author plainly didn’t see the his argument could be applied to him.  He lives in the West very well.   How many people around the world support his lifestyle with their poverty?

So, I wondered, what is a morally acceptable position?

I think we have to put our money where our mouth is.

Shouldn’t we be honest about what we will fight for and what we are trying to win – at least to ourselves?  Don’t we have to fight for the right we talk about?  Don’t we have to get out there and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the people we champion?  Don’t we have to risk as much as they do?

Isn’t anything less hypocritical?

My 4 rules of a honest life

#1 It seems to me that as I cannot do everything with everyone, I should choose what I will do with whom, and join them, winning with them and losing with them.

#2 I think I have to tell the story from our own side.  Who did this post-modernist represent as he stood in his Western classroom?  I don’t know.  But I’d better know whom I am representing when I stand there!

#3 I need a clear goal.  And I prefer to be able to say it aloud in other people’s hearing.  I like to think through what the people who pay for my goal will have to say about it.  Not the people who pay me – the people who pay for my good fortune.  Will I be fleeing with them at my heels?  I don’t say this out of cowardice.  I am happy to annoy people if I believe in what I am doing.  But I am not going to pretend that my goals have no impact on other people.  Let me be clear about the inconvenience and upset that I cause.

#4 And not least, I need to respect that other people will pursue their goals equally vigorously.  To expect them to do anything less is crazy.  I may need to defend my projects from theirs.  If I find their projects totally unacceptable, I might feel compelled to stop them.  And I might get hurt in my efforts.   That’s why diplomacy is the preferred first strategy.   Perverting Clausewitz- war is just diplomacy continued through other means.

Player or spectator?

But just to rant?  Not for me.  I talk and write to figure out what I think, so that I can act.  I prefer to be a player.  Always have.

I very consciously chose to teach in Universities and to do consultancy because in these roles I am a line manager. I know that neither look like action to you!  But I am a psychologist, so it is in these roles that I run a business. I set the direction. I allocate resources. I solve problems. I am accountable for the outcomes. I couldn’t bear a role with no responsibility.

But that is my preference. What is yours? Are you a player?

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What managers – and work psychologists – get paid for?

Every one would like to be a manager

In my years of teaching at Universities, I found students queuing up to learn management and personnel psychology, industrial psychology, organizational psychology, etc.

Few though, had any idea what management entailed. And they are horrified when they find out.

. . . it is well paid, but . . .

The financial rewards are high. Yes, the trappings of good clothes, assistants, and international travel are glamorous.

I could say that “this is what is wanted in return for these goodies”. But that sounds like a bargain. You give us this – and we give you the rewards that you desire.

It doesn’t work like that.

On the surface, yes. Incompetent managers, who have themselves made a Faustian bargain, will tell you that your job is to brown-nose the boss. The website is full of how to impress your boss.  Well, the same skills will be valuable when you want to impress the gangs in prison-where you just might find yourself.

Management is NOT about impressing the boss. If you boss wants impressing, he, or she, is a pratt. End-run them. I suppose that is why most big organizations are run so badly. Most people understand this rule and end-run their boss.

Management does have a purpose

Management is about coordinating the various parts of an enterprise. I’ll give you an example.

Psychologists are part of general management

As psychologists, we belong to the general management function

Let’s take a real example. A few weeks ago, in an effort to stop a visiting friend from stepping into a busy street in Edinburgh, I took my eyes off my feet, tripped over some metal protruding out of the concrete.  I fell flat on my face.

It hurt, a lot. It was Edinburgh after all, so it hurt my dignity too. I looked drunk, which I wasn’t.

Fortunately, I didn’t break anything – including my glasses. I just bruised and grazed my knee.

My point is this. That metal has been there a long time. I am not the first to trip over it. It is a menace to the blind, the elderly, wheelchairs . . . and me.  A decent psychologist looks out for such situations.

Why? Dozen of city officials walk that street – they issue parking tickets, they inspect shops. How is it that a metal obstruction that trips people has gone unnoticed and unsorted?  A decent psychologist would look at the organizational structure that allows the error to occur and to persist.

This is the UK – we have ‘targets’ the way other countries have ‘bandits’.  An organizational psychologist would be alert to the consequences and their own responsibilities in the face of such a policy.  A decent organizational psychologist would bear in mind that his or her job is ‘general management’ – the way parts of an organization come together to form common cause.

When an accident happens, a relative junior will investigate what happened and why.  A relatively junior lawyer will review the legal liability.  A more senior psychologist thinks about the incident at a systemic level. They ask

  • Who follows up these incidents?
  • Who is responsible for minimizing these incidents?
  • What is the relative importance of checking for hazards on the pavement and checking for unapproved adverts, for example, which we have paid many people to do?
  • How did we get to the point that none of us have sorted out an obstruction on the pavement for years?

Within an organization, a psychologist will ask a manager why his or her subordinates have walked past an obstruction, again and again?

If targets are to blame, remove the targets! If the manager say that s/he has no authority to remove the targets, they have abdicated.  In a Weberian bureaucracy, they have said clearly “I cannot make the decision. Please refer to my superior.”   If they do not put your through, or make an appointment for you with their superior, then you only have one choice – to seek that appointment yourself.

If you are external to the organization, and their organizational structure is concealed, then go directly to the Chief Executive – with that argument.

This happened. I inquired from the public officer nominally responsible. They did not have the authority to solve the problem. They declined to refer me to their manager, which I understand is their obligation when they do not have the authority to resolve my request.

I now refer this to you  and ask you to direct it to someone who does have authority.

To psychologists, if these incidents are happening in your organization, you aren’t fulfilling your responsibility as general managers. Different sections aren’t meshing.

Bring it to the attention of a line manager, once. Once. Then go to their managers. And keep going. Politely. Sweetly. That is your job.

Psychology requires the exercise of authority, not brown-nosing a boss.

That is why not everyone really wants to be a manager .   .  . or a work & organizational psychologist

That is why a lot of students duck out of organizational psychology, once they get in to it.

Our trade is not only about earning money. It is not about brown-nosing a boss.

It is about exercising responsibility in accordance with the law. Pay bonuses that lead to recklessness or metal protuberances in the pavement, are prima facie evidence that the common cause of the organization is being neglected  If they aren’t resolved on first raising, that is prime facie evidence that some general staff are asleep.  To put no finer point on it – problems that persist are prima facie evidence that people earning much beyond 25K are stealing their wages.

That includes us – psychologists.  It is our job to raise these matters and insist they are resolved.

That’s why, after all, a lot of students don’t want the job.


Do your customers love the way your professionals work with each other?

The play, the actors, an ensemble, the essence, the audience

Today, I heard James Roose-Evans describe how he directs a play.

And I thought about leading groups of professionals when each brings their own expertise.

It is so different from working with people who hope to fill our shoes one day.  We have such inadequate language to describe how something magical and intangible but definitely palpable and recognizable comes out of our interaction and is so pleasing to our customers.

What do you think?

“I love working with actors. What is exciting, at the first day of rehearsal, when you have a whole group of actors from different backgrounds and different expectations and techniques and the director’s task is to weave them all into an ensemble in order to convey the essence of the play and share it with the audience. It is a very exciting journey that a director makes with the actors.”

Transcribed from BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 16 September, 2009.

“James Roose-Evans founded Hampstead Theatre 50 years ago. He has written 17 books, including the bestselling Inner Journey: Outer Journey and Experimental Theatre and has directed many plays, including the award-winning 84 Charing Cross Road. He is a non-stipendiary Anglican priest, founded the Bleddfa Centre for Creative Spirit and continues to lead meditation classes. His autobiography, Opening Doors and Windows: A Memoir in Four Acts is pubished [sic] by The History Press.

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Do you make any of these mistakes of job design and sabotage your organization?

Classical ideal feedback model. The feedback i...
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I’ve just been reading a post from an ambulance driver (woops, they don’t like that title).

It is a privilege, because I might not otherwise have the chance to observe the nuances of their job, and even if I did, to learn the same might take hours of interviews and hours of rewriting.

So we are lucky to have this blog.  It also teaches lessons for the general practice of job design – which it did today.

Briefly, feedback is a key idea in job design. Yet, it gets forgotten for procedures and targets.

This is what is critical.  For every task anyone does, they must get feedback on how well they have done before they begin that task again.

Experts often get feedback as they move from one part of a large task to another.  That’s what makes them expert.  The ability to detect feedback that will mean nothing to anyone else.

But at some point a task is handed over to someone else. When and how do they get feedback on how well their work fitted into the next process down the line?

If they don’t get feedback, what sense are the supposed to make of their work?   What sense will they make of their work?  And what of evidence-based practice, if the people doing the work do not get ‘knowledge of results’ before they start the same task again?

This is the story

The ambulance man and his colleague raced a severely dehydrated child to hospital rather than attempt to re-hydrate the child themselves. They drop off the child, but hear nothing more about what happened next.

There appears to be no mechanism to tell them if their decision was correct and whether equally trained people would have made the same decision.

The blog post talks about the decision points in the job.  It is worth reading in the original for the pattern of thinking that is typical in skilled people.  We are constantly on the look out for this thinking to inform our understanding of the information that experts use and need.   And indeed, who is an expert and who is not.

You will also see the confusion and overload that’s caused by not getting feedback quickly.

So what can the organization do to provide adequate feedback?

I don’t know what the NHS does. I’ve never worked with the NHS in a professional capacity and I don’t know any work psychologist who has.

What I would expect to be happening is a regular psychological audit of each and every job to look out for situations like this.

We want to know that in each and every situation, a skilled and experienced worker is able to set a goal, lay out a plan, and obtain feedback before they begin that task again.

Why might that feedback not be available?

1.  The task is handed over, and for some reason, the feedback loop is not in place.  It might have gone AWOL (in which case alert the line managers and check that they put it back).   It might never have existed (in which case which psychologist slipped up).  The job might have drifted (in which case re-analyse it and adjust the feedback system).

2.  There is one other scenario that is more tricky.  Managers have been known to hijack feedback because making people wait for information makes them feel powerful (and sometimes allows them to distort what is said).   An organization has to come down on such practices like the proverbial ‘ton of bricks.’   Withholding information causes stress and overload, delays learning, and potentially causes accidents, which in an organization, like the NHS, may lead to loss of life.   If managers are intercepting feedback, that has to be reversed.   In a hierarchical organization, usually we have one meeting with the manager concerned, and if that does not produce immediate redress, we have an urgent meeting with his or her manager.

Who guards the guards, so to speak?

The system does not stop with psychologists keeping jobs properly balanced.    The file on the job (not the person – the job) should have the internal auditor’s signature on it confirming they have checked that the psychological audits are taking place and are being conducted properly.

And there should be another file with copies of the report that the internal auditors routinely send to the Chief Psychologist to report on the quality of the psychological audits.

A lot of work?

Organizations are a lot of work.  That’s why we have to consider whether we want one at all.  But once we have one, we have to run them properly and ‘prevent rather than cure’.  Good systems reduce crises, problems and accidents.

I don’t know what the NHS does exactly but as the largest employer in the world, I imagine they have sophisticated management systems in place.  Feedback failures are one of the many things that ‘staff managers’ count, monitor and resolve.

Does anyone know how the NHS, or other large British employers, manage their feedback systems?

For further reading on the 3 tier system of

  • Doing
  • Directing
  • Reviewing


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5 lame excuses in HR for bad job descriptions

I’ve been in UK for two years now and frankly, I find the HR documentation here well. . . what euphemism shall I use  .  . . undeveloped.

From time to time, I’ve been sufficiently unwise to comment – and these are the excuses I get, sometimes concurrently, a dazzling tightrope of logic.

Excuse 1 : We are too chaotic

Turnover is so high that we cannot keep up with the documentation.  So we issue poor documentation or none at all.

Excuse 2: We are learning

Nobody knows what will be done in the job.

Excuse 3 : Not made here

This is the system we have worked out.  That must count for something.

Excuse 4 : We can fudge it

Well, we will put in a clause “And any other task required by the Head of Department”.  90% of work comes under that clause.

Excuse 5 : If we are sufficiently muddled, we can shift the blame

I know I didn’t mention it but it is on page 56 or in the middle paragraph of an email addressed to someone else and copied to you.

Beginner’s dilemma

I remember years ago, one of my former students asked to see me at my house on a Saturday morning.  He had been given a rough talking to be a line manager at work and he didn’t really understand what he was doing wrong.  “I just took him some forms to fill in,” he said,”and the guy laid in to me”.

My reply was to ask whether he was a high-paid messenger boy.  Did the organization need a graduate to move forms from one point in the organization to another?

What the organization needed was an intelligent, thoughtful, informed person to ask the line manager questions in the line manager’s language, translate into HR-speak, fill in the form and return it to the line manager for signing.

And the line manager should look at it and look up with a shine in his eyes, and say: “Oh, that’s what this is for!”

The line manager should feel that scales have fallen from their eyes. They should see the work they do as clearly as if someone wiped the mist off the mirror and they saw themselves for the first time.

Example of good work

This morning I stumbled over this excellent example of a job description, and given the quality of job descriptions that I am seeing daily, I thought it would be good to flag it up and link to it.

Job description of a website owner

It says clearly

  • what the person’s day looks like
  • what the job holder does
  • the decisions they make

It says clearly how each task contributes to

  • Work for the day
  • Long term planning

Get the organization organized

And now you might say, I would like to but this place is just not that organized –  the work changes from day-to-day.

Then that is your first job. To get it organized.

Actually, the organization is probably more organized than you think.  Wipe the mist from the mirror and let them see themselves.

Just write down what they do all day and sort it out.  It may take you a few hours but everything else in HR flows from there.

When the job description is clear, it is easy to

  • communicate with job applicants
  • select people who can and want to do the work (without discriminating)
  • pay equitably
  • train & develop
  • coach & manage performance.

In short, you cannot do your job until you have worked out what people do on the job.

And writing it down allows us to check that we have a common understanding.

That is our job.  To be the mirror of the organization so that we develop a common understanding and confidence in each other.

Collective efficacy, believing that the next person is competent, adds 10% to the value of an organization – and a 10% that cannot be copied by your competitor.  No money in the world can buy collective efficacy.  It comes from the continual work of developing  confidence in each other.

And we cannot be confident of each other when we each have a different idea about what we are supposed to be doing.

It’s as simple as that.

How did the story end?

Well, my former student’s eyes lit up as the penny dropped.  He went back to work and started delivering value to his line managers.

The firm did fold eventually (but not because of him).  Indeed, they kept him on to manage the redundancies.   When he was done, he joined Ernst & Young as a Consultant.  Then he moved to a bank and after that he started his own firm of consultants.

I hope you enjoy the job description. It is a fine example of good work.

PS I’ll tell you where the 10% comes from if you want.

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A comprehensive 2 x 2 x 2 on HR and the recession

Organizing ideas about HR and the recession

Many people are landing on this blog looking for information about HR and the recession.  I suspect, though without any evidence, that many people seeking this information may be students, or people deputed to write a position paper on what HR should be doing.

This is intended to help you out. It is a summary, though a long summary, of earlier posts. I’ve also framed it with ideas you will find in classical text books on HR. I am writing mindfully that you may want to use the information for a presentation.

Any one else reading might like to check through to see what I have forgotten. You might also be interested in my inclusion of positive HR that is not yet in most textbooks. It is a long post though, and you may want to bookmark it for later.


HR strategy, in business or in other organizations, be they public or private, follows a disciplined logic. Before we decide what to pursue in the HR arena, we ask 4 questions.

  1. What are macro-environmental factors that affect everyone – us , our customers and our competitors?
  2. What business are we in, and what are the institutional factors that affect all firms in our line of work?
  3. What are the micro-environmental factors that set us apart from our competitors?
  4. What are the laws and regulations specific to the jurisdiction where we will be hiring people?

A recession falls mainly under the first question. Recessions may also affect the other three questions as well. For this post, though, we will look only at the way a contraction across the entire economy changes the general pattern of HR, no matter what business we are in.

HR managers struggle, typically, to assert itself within the management team. To clarify our role, initially to ourselves, we typically look at our contribution along two dimensions: hard to soft, and strategic to administrative. ‘Hard’ HR looks at issues like productivity and legal contracts. ‘Soft’ HR looks at emotions, morale, loyalty and engagement. Strategic HR asks the big questions about the type of HR that we need – much as we are asking in this post. Administrative HR is the HR we all see – the forms, the interviews, the communications.

We need to be good in all FOUR areas, and all four areas change in emphasis when the economy slows down. I’ll summarise those changes in a moment.

It being 2009, we also need to add a third dimension: positive HR to ‘gap’ HR. Gap HR is the HR that is commonly described in textbooks, which sadly are always somewhat out-of-date. In gap HR, someone – somewhere – has decided what is good, and the rest of us are required to live up to that ideal. It is akin to a jigsaw puzzle. The picture is known, and we are the scrambled pieces to be put together following a preordained pattern. Positive HR is generative. We may have a picture in mind, but we do not believe it is the only picture. Indeed, we define a good day as the day that we discover a better picture than the one we had previously imagined. This is akin to leggo. We have building blocks which we use to test out possibilities.

With three dimensions, each crudely broken into two, we have 2x2x2 or 8 types of HR, that we can think about and ask systematically, how they change when we move at a national economic level from positive to negative growth.

And then we can ask how we can integrate our observations into a general approach to HR in a recessive economy.

1 Hard, strategic, ‘gap’ HR

A typical task of hard, strategic, ‘gap’ HR is scenario planning. Along with other people who are responsible for the future of the organization, we imagine how the economy might change and we anticipate how we, our competitors and our customers will react to each scenario as it unfolds.

Small business owners do this too. They follow discussions about the economy and they will typically look at a worst case, best case and a likely scenario. Yesterday, a business owner told me that he was working on the economy contracting until around September 2009, and then beginning to grow very slowly.

From this thinking, we are able to make ‘guess estimates’ of sales, and work backwards to the number of people who are needed by the organization and the skills they should have.

2 Hard, administrative, ‘gap’ HR

At the administrative level, it is likely that we will bring some contracts with employees to and end using redundancy provisions – so we pull those regulations off the shelf and dust them off. We are also likely to be pulling out the early retirement rules. We may be recruiting less – so we will try to maintain our relationships with the colleges and schools in the area, while tactfully indicating we will be hiring fewer people. We will also be looking out for government-backed schemes to train people and to subsidize employment in one way or another.

3 Soft, strategic, ‘gap’ HR

At the other end of the hard-soft continuum, we imagine what our organizations will look like, and the way members will interact with each other in five years’ time. We discuss, for example whether Gen Y are different from Gen X and baby boomers.

Planning the way we interact is the most likely area of HR to be sacrificed in difficult times.  Letting this area go is the biggest mistake we can make.  Managers will react under pressure, in the way we all do, by over-emphasizing their fears, and putting too much faith in their own judgement. We will hear a lot of talk that dismisses the views of other people.

When we hear this talk, it is the sign of an organization in deep trouble. It is in trouble financially. It lacks depth in its leadership. It lacks loyalty to its employees and other stakeholders.

HR leadership needs to be there, to turn around this emotional climate.  We should not let this go.  This is our main contribution during a recession.

4 Soft, administrative, ‘gap’ HR

On the soft side ,at the administrative level, much training, whether it is directed at productivity, or soft interactional skills, is also sacrificed, while more money is spent on stress-relief (usually for senior people) and counselling for people facing redundancy.

It is important to help people cope with the emotional distress of extremely unpleasant changes to their lifestyles, but regrettably in a ‘gap’ system, HR usually steps in after the distress has occurred.  We would be better advised to step in earlier.

5 Hard, strategic, positive HR

Turning now to postive HR, we should note at the outset, that positive management styles are not necessarily cheerful.  To be cheerful all the time is like expecting a 12 month summer, and a harvest every week. Positive management styles accept that life is changing, and that we need to change our ways consistently with changes in the real world. Hard, strategic positive HR attempts to take us, from worlds we know, into worlds we don’t know.

It is an obvious fact that we don’t enjoy recessions because we are losing a world we like. As in winter, we see little sun, and as in winter, if we don’t know how to dress warmly and to cook comfort foods, we may have a difficult time.

This recession that we are encountering now, though, is more like an earthquake or tsunami. We aren’t just dealing with a season that we encounter every year. We are dealing with a large mess that arrived abruptly. Structures, we have formerly depended upon, have been destroyed. What else can we do but rebuild, and rebuild better structures, that will last us for the next 50 to 100 years?

Just as in a natural emergency, first we attend to safety. We count heads and we count our supplies and we set about giving everyone the basics : water, food, shelter, medicine. Then without a break in our stride, we depute appropriate people to work on the bigger issues. We set about searching for missing people. We put people in groups to identify priorities. And we put people to work.

BTW, it is standard practice to fly in psychologists to emergency areas to ‘debrief’ or help people cope with the immediate shock. The psychologists are rotated, and are debriefed themselves as they are pulled back ‘behind the lines’. Emotion is contagious, and emotional sanitation, sorry to call it that but to make the point, is as important as clean water and ways to handle human effluent.

In short, we deal with the situation in which we find ourselves in. There is no going back, and the only forward is together, respecting our distress, and making use of all our resources, within which we will find our answers.

The HR leader understands this process and brings it into the practical work we are doing on a day-to-day basis.

6 Hard, administrative, positive HR

As with hard, administrative, gap HR, we will be looking at regulations but with an eye for possibility. We want to be like the on-line out-sourcers who responded to Hurricane Katrina, and put their computer systems at the disposal of authorities. We want to be associated with ‘delivering a bigger bang for our buck’.  We don’t want to be associated with cutting costs and bringing misery to people who depend on us and trust us.

An example from UK, is the offer of a four day week to KPMG staff. It is a positive move. At the same time, computer geeks in the south-east have got together to make business services available to people starting their own businesses. It would be good to see large firms, who are essentially very profitable and who made a lot of money when times were good, reach out to help parts of the community who are far more distressed than they are.

We can have immense satisfaction and even in triumph in our use of routine facilities.

7 Soft, strategic, positive HR

Soft, strategic positive HR is the most demanding of our 8 areas, and is needed more during a recession than in good times. When we are faced with loss, it is extremely difficult to sit down with other people to think of ways forward. We become very concerned that we will lose out, and we tend to focus more on what we will gain personally, than on what we can create together.

We need soft strategic, positive HR  to proactively help leaders remain generative. Once they’ve moved into a psychological position where they are prepared to be disloyal to their employees, it will be difficult to turn them around. We need to act swiftly to keep their mood positive, so they can imagine possibilities and see constraints as enjoyable hurdles.

To neglect early soft strategic HR will be our biggest failure. From that we can never recover.

8 Soft, administrative, positive HR

Soft, administrative positive HR is slowly coming in to focus in an area dubbed .personal leadership.. Personal leadership is easiest to understand when we observe the 24/7 nature of the internet. Whatever we do, where ever we do it, becomes visible as someone photographs us and tags us on Facebook, or another network.

The internet provides both the challenge, and the opportunity, to live coherently and authentically. No longer do we go to work as one person and change into another at the door. Gen Y are used to being the same person all day long, and though employers have found that confusing, it is now an advantage.

Gen Y are very receptive to setting personal goals that are big enough to include the company, but also not totally dependent on the company. They make energetic partners, who sense wider possibilities, which they bring into the firm. Yet they are willing to move on if necessary.

HR’s role is to ensure that everyone has developed their personal plans and are pursuing them with gusto.

Putting it all together

Eight parts of a portfolio are many parts, and these are only the features of the macro-environment, the first of the four questions we asked at the start. But lets pull together these 8 ideas before the patchwork grows any more complicated. This is the order in which I would think about an HR policy during a recession.

  1. Look after ourselves. In a recession, we feel as if someone has taken away our toys. We aren’t happy, and what’s more, we worry, that someone will come along and take away some more. Our first goal, in this state of stress, is to restore a mood in which we can deal with threats objectively, and return to a generative and imaginative outlook. In short we must be as good at winter as we are at summer. And because winter makes us gloomy, we need to look after ourselves and deliberately allocate time and resources to nurturing an appreciative outlook. Are we enjoying the winter?
  2. Be purposeful, one and all.  Recapturing a positive mood is not simply a way to have a party. We have a purpose. After a recession, and particularly this one, we are not going back to where we were. This is the equivalent of a hard winter that will affect the next summer, and harvest as well. So we need to set up goals for the cold season, and the seasons that follow. Each person should have a goal. If mum and dad are retiring to have quiet mumbles, leaving the kids to do whatever they see fit, they will be surprised the day there is no food on the table. Our task is to get everyone to discuss the practical issues openly and calmly, to work out the schedules and goals, and to monitor our progress. Our goal is not to carry on as usual. It is to understand the meaning of a hard winter and to find roles for ourselves where we contribute to the common good.
  3. Weave in dreams.  Nonetheless, we don’t really understand what is going on and there is some panic about. We might be trying to hide our panic but, to continue the analogy, kids know more than we think, and can solve appropriate age-related problems quite well. People like being consulted and depended upon, so we should put people onto solving the problems where they have the greatest expertise. The hardest problem to solve is the disappointment of people who need to delay life plans – a person who has to delay going to college, for example. Our task as leaders is to acknowledge the difficulty, and to bring the person’s life story into the frame. What are the things that they could be doing now that they are particularly good at, that help everyone else too, and that get them ready for their life ahead? There is a a lot of work doing this with everyone in even a small firm, and we must remember that we too, need to rest, recover and attend to our own dreams.
  4. Let former experts work on well understood problems. Though there is much we don’t know, there is still plenty that we do. I would ask a mixture of implementers and defensive pessimists to explore and plan our responses to well known issues.
  5. We still need the regulation gurus. New government regulations will almost certainly come into play. People with detail-oriented, administrative minds and experience will take charge of this for us.
  6. Bring all the good ideas together and let people see them. All this while, people are generating good ideas that are grounded in their own work and experience. We want to catch the ideas and weave them in to our plans, in an open wiki, so everyone can follow how our ideas are developing.
  7. Celebrate our past, good and bad, as our foundation of the future. And finally, I would capture the essence of what we are doing and show how we are carrying the strengths of our past with us into the future. I wouldn’t bury the negative. I would look to it for what we learned, and the relationships which emerged from our difficulties.

Come with me!

I hope this helps you. I have started a wiki called MGMT101 to organize ideas about managing in the 21st century. If you would like to add your own ideas, or comment on others, please do drop a comment here, and head over there to add your thoughts.

Have a winning week!

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Is my salvation yours?

And who sat next to me?

Many years ago, I was flying from Harare to Johannesburg and I sat, by providence, next to Dr Shahidul Alam, who I was to discover is a very well known photographer and activist from Bangladesh.  In those days, email newsletters were quite the rage, and overtime of course, we have updated to blogs and RSS feeds.

I use Pageflakes as my feedreeder and I have a page for the feeds I check first thing in the morning, a page for UK blogs linked to my profession, another page for non-UK links in my profession, a page for venture capital, etc.  And I have a page for Evening where I feed blogs like Shahidul’s from Drik Gallery in Dhaka. Whether you like to be informed about events around the world, or whether you just like good photography, I recommend it.

Today, I stumbled upon an article about the 1971 generation, Bangladeshi men and women who were disappointed by the outcomes of Bangladesh’s Independence.  Dashed hopes are sadly quite common when we have worked long and hard for change.

Is your liberation, also mine?

Today’s post began with a quotation from an Aboriginal activist group from Australia.

If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

It is attributed variously to Lila Watson and the Aboriginal Activist’s Group Queensland 1970’s

This is a sentiment I learned growing up in southern Africa with all its inherited problems.

When we are sufficiently well off, we often approach a conflict as if we have nothing to gain from its resolution.  Our patronising attitude is very irritating to the other side.  We may be surprised to find that what we think is good will on our part is generating  considerable contempt.  We may be shocked to hear that we are regarded less positively than people who are downright aggressive.

The alternative takes a lot of courage.  Can we approach conflict resolution and negotiation without any preconditions, and in particular without commitment to being a senior partner?

It is amazing how often we refuse to engage if we are not guaranteed a superior position in advance.  It is also amazing how often we project this stance onto others when they are just calling us on our unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.

So many of the world’s intractable conflicts would be resolved in an instance if we could only get down from our high horse.  And this is true too, in business.

Examples in business

For example, think of the typical networking event when people introduce themselves.  There is little discussion of common goals.  I say what I do (hoping it sounds important).   Others listen, not for something they could do for me, but for something I can do for them, pretending all the while that they want to help me!  Such social contortions!

Imagine if the atmosphere were different and we could say openly, in the next year I want to achieve X?  How many of us would dare?  How many of us listen with and offer “I can help you from there to there” without trying to be important?  I have seen it done but it is so rare that it stands out!

Think too of the typical job advertisment looking for people who are ‘the best’.  And think of the tension that implies.  I want the best but I am recruiting from the open market.   I do not employ the best? Nor I am able to train them?  Ow!  I am really very dependent on the applicants for their skills but I cannot contenance admitting that!

Imagine again phrasing a job advertisment honestly.  This is what we want to achieve this year.  Who believes they can help us?  Please reply stating how we can help you in return.

So why do we get involved with this posturing?

The simple answer is that predicating everything on a pecking order is the central characteristic of  masculine cultures. Britain and most English-speaking countries are very masculine.  And when every one else is attending to the pecking order, to neglect it is dangerous.

Other cultures though, and to some extent the culture we have bred in our midst, Gen Y, are less attached to the pecking order culture.  They are often amazed at our shenanigans and they find our collegial skills somewhat lacking.

Towards an unexpectedly prosperous 2009?

Are we able to abandon the premise that some people are more important than others?  Are we able to abandon the act, that I am safe and OK, and this negotiation affects only your position and not mine?  Do we have the courage to define our future collectively?

It may be important during 2009.

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Uni degree, then what?

Meeting up with psychology students around the world on Twitter

A psychology student, Trudy, commented on my post about Work Psychology: 2008 AD. I first ‘found’ Trudy using Twitter, the micro-blogging service, where you say what you are doing in 140 characters or less. I ‘followed ‘her there, and from there to her blog psychology in real life.

Gen Y are proactive

Trudy is an example of Gen Y: connected and proactively connecting to the world by writing about what she is doing now. Blogging & twittering illustrates an important issue for work psychologists. The world changes and we need to be up-to-date about the way we work, communicate, and interrelate. Work psychology is as much about work as it is about psychology.

Now Trudy doesn’t want to hear about her – she has her own voice! She would like to know what I do. So with permission of my client, here is a case study of a project currently on my desk.

Case study

A graduate, let’s call him Tom, lives and went to university in a remote regional capital.  Tom always had very clear work ambitions and read far beyond his university studies about his chosen industry. Unfortunately, this industry (industry not function) doesn’t operate in his home town and ‘getting into play’ means applying for jobs thousands of kilometers away where he is unknown and unsupported.

Undaunted, Tom is setting off to a trade meeting where he hopes to meet people and circulate his CV as a committed wannabe that someone should take on as an apprentice production manager. This is pretty proactive by any standard. Understandably though, he is anxious, in rather a diffuse way.

There is plenty advice about networking and job hunting on the internet. And it is valid. Look the part you want to play (preferably one level up). Have a smart CV stating your achievements briefly and with numbers. Speak to the needs of your targets (whom he has researched). Circulate with copies of your CV. Keep conversations focused and sum up what has been agreed. Follow up with an email and follow up again when you get home.

What does a work psychologist offer that is over-and-above this advice?

1.  We are on your side

We know that only 1 out of 20 students leave university with written goals and they achieve as much in life as the other 19 do together! A ROI of 2000%! We also know that 1 person out of 100 creates content on the internet, 9 comment, and 90 lurk. What distinguishes active, proactive people from the passive?

Actually nothing. Achieving goals is very easy. Setting goals is the difficult part and we cannot be continuously proactive about everything!

A psychologist helps you to assess what is reasonable to expect of yourself, taking into account your life as a whole, and most importantly, stays with you during the whole process. A mentor and supporter is critical to Tom’s professional success.

2.  We take the trouble to understand your task

When I was growing up, career advice was a matching process in which we find appropriated holes for pegs of various shapes.. In this century, we understand careers as “discovering and shaping the place where the self meets the world” (David Whyte). We no longer believe there are holes or pegs. Instead we encourage students to make the place where they interact with the world.

Trudy does this very well with her blog. Tom is making that place by attending the trade meeting, but can he do more?

3.  We share with you what we have learned in other industries

The last ten years has seen growing tension on many fronts. Indeed, many people see the credit crunch and Obama’s election as two sides of this coin. Any one watching the Obama election will know he used Facebook, Twitter and a website where supporters (and non-supporters) could log on, make their own profile, and talk directly to each other.

This is not just a political phenomenon. We have all used call-centres and so, we know about out-sourcing. What has been less visible to the public is a move from ‘push’ management to ‘pull’ management. What this means is that, just like in the Obama campaign, we have added a third stream to management.

We still have people-2-purpose, we still have people-2-resources. Now we also have people-2-people. The fun part of people-2-people systems is that we can take the initiative. Moreover, because people-2-people systems use platforms similar to Facebook, Gen Yers are very comfortable taking the initiative.

My suggestion to Tom is that he takes the initiative hugely and sets up a social media interface for his trade meeting. In practical terms, all he needs to do is spend a couple of evenings activating a community on Ning, a hashtag on Twitter, and start connecting with people attending the meeting.

What would he expect to gain?

  • Early contacts whom he can follow up in person

  • Better conversations among graduates in the same boat as himself

  • A place for employers to ‘come out’ and engage at a deeper level with ‘wannabes’

  • Reputation as a project manager in the industry

I would expect that as he worked on the project that his goals would refine themselves quite fast and that would maintain my interest and motivation! I would be quite forgiving of phone calls and DM that have the time zone calculation wrong! I would not think it impossible to create the ultimate space where the self meets the world: a special assignment as assistant to the CEO.

This is an ongoing assignment: will it work?

This may surprise you. It doesn’t have to work. Tom is going to the meeting anyway. He will walk around introducing himself anyway. Twittering, Facebook, Ning cost nothing but “intellectual surplus” [TV time] and if he gets bored with the project, or runs out of time, he doesn’t even have to clean up!

Modern day norms allow this. That is the nature of “pull” management. Take part if you wish, don’t if you don’t want to. The world is our oyster!

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Work psychology: 2008 AD

Do you know what work psychologists do?

Thirty-one years ago, I decided to study psychology.  And for 28 years, I have practiced as a work psychologist.  Can you imagine my surprise when some readers said this blog was their first encounter with my esteemed trade?  So what do we do?

What do we do all day?

I love being a work psychologist and I think it is important for you to know I go to my ‘office’ every day with a spring in my step, looking forward to the people I will meet during the course of the day.   Most of our lives are spent ‘on the road’.  We usually work at our clients’ factories and offices, and we need strong arms to carry around briefcases laden with confidential papers.  When you see us, we are likely to be taking part in some HR exercise — recruitment, selection, or team-building, say.  When you don’t see us, we will be reconciling paperwork, doing computer work, or talking to senior managers about the direction of the company, and ways to organize, lead, up skill, confront challenges, and look after each other.

Why do clients hire us?

We deal with the pulse of the organization.  Ideally, we want everyone to enjoy their work as much as we do.  There is fascination in what we do, but little mystery.  Our understanding of how organizations work has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 100 years.  The last ten years have been particularly interesting as the limits of old ‘mechanical’ organizations have been reached and we’ve begun to embrace the fluidity and flexibility of the internet.

The psychologist’s role is to bring to the party up-to-date information about the way work practices are changing around the world, hands-on experience of changes in other companies, and deep commitment to supporting you as you think through changes in the immediate and foreseeable future.

What is special about what we do?

Just looking at us work is not sufficient to see the value we add.  You can see us talking to people – lots of people do that!  You see the briefcases – a prop?

The key to what psychologists do is deep training and ongoing exposure to work situations around the world.  When we talk with you, we are not asking whether we like you.  Nor, are we are asking about things we want.

Our interest is in accurately understanding your motivation and your circumstances, reflecting them against the changing world of business and work, and helping you work through the mix of emotions you feel as you cast your story in terms of today’s economic conditions – globalization, credit crunch, and new technologies.

This is a complicated process.  Even in the simplest business, we have on the one hand the things we want, and one the other, ‘what’s out there’.  And that gap in knowledge is not all we cope with.  When we really want something, we feel fear and trepidation.  Our job is to stay with you while you work through your anxiety and take the first step towards what will ultimately be success and very deep satisfaction.

Psychologists understand this process, see it is normal, and are there to help steer you through all three questions: you, your opportunities, your emotions.

When we work in most modern businesses, 5, 10, 15, 10 000, 100 000 of us are going through the same process.  When I decide, for example, to pursue my story in certain ways, my actions change your circumstances.   The key to good organization is that the give-and-take between us as we follow our own dreams strengthens us as

When we work in most modern businesses, 5, 10, 15, 10 000, 100 000 of us are going through the same process.  When I decide, for example, to pursue my story in certain ways, my actions change your circumstances.   The key to good organization is that the give-and-take between us as we follow our own dreams strengthens us as individuals and as a group.  Therein, the discussions we hold with senior managers.

Some case studies next? 

Do let me know if I have made it any clearer what we do for a living!


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