Monday, March 25, 2013

Until morale improves

You may be familiar with the term cognitive dissonance,  the "psychological conflict arising from simultaneously holding two incongruous beliefs."

It is a theory that we all seek to "hold our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and balance" and when conflicts arise, we seek to restore our sense of harmony by reducing or eliminating the dissonant. The idea that spawned the theory is that we humans want "cognitive consistency" in our beliefs -- to believe what we believe, in other words -- and that need can lead to irrational and sometimes destructive behaviors.

This pop-psychology lesson is prompted by an interesting week in the pursuit of cognitive consistency in employee-related matters.   It was a somewhat futile pursuit:
  • An employer who has bemoaned the quality of applicants for open positions, but who continues to seek candidates from the same talent pool using the same recruiting tools.
  • Employees who decry micromanagement, but won't follow simple procedures and checklists designed to make their jobs safer and more productive.
  • A CEO who was surprised when a senior staffer left after being passed over for a promotion, but who refused to discuss with the employee why they weren't being considered for the post.
Yup, it sure is hard to be an employer.  But you know what, it is also hard to be an employee.  How do some bridge the gap and remove the dissonance that is endemic in many of the disagreements relationships between boss and staff?  Many organizations are considered great places to work.  Is it as Tolstoy wrote of families, that happy workplaces share common traits, but that unhappy ones are unique?

I think not.  While there are many causes for the friction that characterizes "HR" issues, I believe that the most common ones arise from a few bad organizational habits:
  • Lack of clarity. Managers aren't clear about their expectations and employees are clear about their responsibilities.  Take job descriptions:  do they describe the responsibilities of both employee and employer in meeting the requirements of the job?  Top-rated companies include not only duties and responsibilities, but detail specific the outcomes required to succeed as well as how performance will be judged.
  • Poor training.  Sometimes owners or managers don't have the skills to recruit and retain the talent needed for specific jobs, or the employee is not provided with sufficient resources to master the job.  Many business owners don't see it as their jobs to train their employees; this is a short-sighted and self-defeating attitude.  Organizations that grow, grow their employees.
  • Failure to communicate. Whether employer or employee, the phrase I hear most often when discussing people issues is: "I just want..." The problem is the "I." Employees are individuals, and while directives and procedures are a necessary part of any well-functioning organization, few individuals respond well to diktat.  The most productive cultures are ones that actively seek and encourage employee participation and feedback in new initiatives, in order to foster buy-in and ownership. 
If you are ready to have your employees walk the plank or are they plotting mutiny, a take-no-prisoners attitude is surely not the model of a major modern management solution.  But avast!: according to one study there are secrets that can be learned from the entrepreneurs of the high seas. Spoiler alert: no beatings are involved, but treasure may lie ahead.

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