Elephants in the Workplace

An elephant never forgets. We all know that saying. It implies, for some reason, that elephants possess some incredible long term memory. (Apparently though, there is some research backing this up).

There are also elephants at work. Which can be super awesome.  Or sometimes quite dreadful.

On the plus side of the column there’s the “institutional knowledge” guy/gal. I can’t tell you how many times, upon joining a new organization, I’ve relied on the HR or Payroll lady who remembers (with amazing recall) the minutiae of an employee investigation that took place years before or can recollect, with incredible clarity, the ER/EE medical co-pay rates circa 2005.

But, more often than not, these pachydermian recollections are used for evil as opposed to good. Have you ever heard…

  • “Susie is inflexible” (Because Susie didn’t want to change the office hours and start at 8:30 instead of 8:00 back in 1999)
  • “Tom has a bad temper (That one time? He yelled at Stu in Receiving? Remember?)
  • “Trixie provides really poor customer service” (OMG! In 2010 Mrs. Szymanski called and she was so pissed it went all the way up to the CEO at magical-corporate-office-in another-state!!)

Naturally, most of these stories are based on ancient information and, more often than not, very few data points. Any self respecting statistician who claimed to draw meaning from such lackluster numbers would be drummed out of business.

Trixie, (as just one example), in the course of her career with ACME Corp, may have dealt with 20,000 customers. But it’s the 5 (.00025% of customers) who asked to speak to a supervisor or, in 2018, left a comment on the company Facebook page, who have become those data points.

Of course, it’s today. We can use technology and gathering of e-scores to determine exactly what Trixie’s deal is.  We do pulse surveys and NPS and whatnot. Can’t we?

But not all organizations have that technology at their disposal.

So the elephants are consulted

And they … never forget.

The Employee Experience: As Simple as “X” and “Y?”

Sixty years ago Douglas McGregor from the MIT Sloan School of Management presented two theories of workforce motivation he named “Theory X” and “Theory Y.” Over the intervening decades these theories have been used by leadership teams, HR professionals and OD folks as they craft and create HR policies, performance management programs, rewards and recognition, and work space design.

If it’s been some time since you gave much thought to McGregor’s work, here’s a refresher:

Theory X assumes that:

  • people dislike work
  • people want to avoid work (i.e. “people are inherently lazy”)
  • people do not want to take responsibility

Theory Y assumes that:

  • people are happy to work
  • people are self-motivated to pursue objectives
  • people thrive on responsibility

In a Theory X organization:

  • management is authoritarian
  • control is centralized with a belief that people must be coerced
  • a reward and punishment style (i.e. “carrot and stick”) is used; financial incentives (or financial punishments) are believed to the best motivator

In a Theory Y organization:

  • management is participative; employees are involved
  • feedback, especially positive feedback, is continuous
  • it is assumed that control, rewards and punishments are not the only ways to stimulate people
  • people have self-direction and self-control

Simplified perhaps. Because, of course, we all learned in our earliest forays into leading others that management of a team requires some combination of Theory X and Theory Y style.  Every employee is unique.  Yet “simple” is helpful as we tackle what we consider to be the nuanced and complex workplace issues today; decades after McGregor first shared these theories in 1957.

So as I sit here, day-in-and-day-out, and think about the employee experience (which, let’s face it, is merely an amalgamation of previous terms and is now the trendy catch phrase/buzzword for everything else that has come before it) I often find myself stripping all the glam and sexy stuff down to a pretty basic question… “Do you provide an X or a Y experience?”

For therein lies the problem; without asking that question and truly examining a few key principles about how people are viewed, numerous organizations continuously circle round and round in a never-ending journey of futility.  They may telegraph to candidates, applicants and new hires all the Theory Y things they do when, in reality, the policies, rewards and management style exhibited by the vast majority are most assuredly Theory X.

Not to mention there’s a real danger of ongoing confirmation bias; a Theory X organization which operates with control and coercion may find, as time goes on, that employees become so accustomed to punishing behavior (“you’re 5 minutes late! Here’s your penalty!”) that they do, in fact, exert minimal effort and thus confirm all the assumptions that managers have had all along. “See how lazy they are!  You can’t trust people to show up on time. We have to punish them or no one will come to work!”

Let’s be real though; there is not one single HR pundit or “Future of Work” speaker out on the vast global conference speaking circuit touting “Top Ten Ways to Motivate Your Lazy Unwilling-to-Work Employees!”  Nope; that wouldn’t sell a lot of tickets.

Instead, managers from assorted disciplines attend their specific professional development conferences, sign up for the “HR Track,” and take copious notes as some HR consultant/speaker talks about “The New Way of Work.”

And then those very same managers head back to the office, roll up their sleeves, and bust out the Theory X.

Is it Ever Time to STOP Chasing a Dream?

The internet, magazines and even the backs-of-cereal-boxes are filled with inspirational messages, stories and exhortations. Quotes abound as HR bloggers, career coaches and life style experts share words of encouragement:

There’s big business to be had by inspiring others, pushing people to develop good habits, live their authentic lives and clarify their goals and aspirations. Depending upon one’s outlook it’s easy enough to find motivation of the spiritual, religious, financial or career-focused type. Future focused human beings, with a desire to improve their lives, may set goals and dream big as part of a deeper search for personal meaning. People may have aspirations in order to overcome adversity stemming from the death of a family member, the ending of a relationship, or the loss of a job. Sometimes it’s just a bit of restlessness or a lingering feeling that they can find enjoyment and fulfillment by doing something ‘more’ than merely holding a spot on this whirling planet we call Earth.

Positive thinking is great; much better, in my opinion, to look for opportunities than employ a “woe is me; I can’t change things” mindset.

But after a recent conversation I got to wondering if there is any validity to the opinion that there’s a shelf-life on dreams.

  • “You don’t have that many years to work before retirement; perhaps you just need to be happy where you are.”
  • “What more could you want? You have a pretty great life.”
  • “Isn’t your current life enough to make you happy?”
  • “You’ve accomplished a lot; isn’t it time to take it easy?”

I know a lot of dreamers. In some cases I could refer to them as idealists or even visionaries. I run into numerous early or mid-stage career HR professionals who know, with certainty, their desired career path; moving into a CHRO role or shifting from a generalist path to a specialization in OD or Learning and Performance. I recently met a guy who wanted to be a professional musician but put that on hold in order to take over his family’s business a few decades ago; but now he’s gigging with various bands and the plan is alive to work towards a recording contract.

Is there an expiration date on dreams? I don’t think so. 

“I’m going to dream. Maybe one day I’ll be disappointed that things didn’t work out exactly

as I’d planned, that I didn’t get to write for National Geographic, pen a bestselling novel

or win a literary award, but I will have challenged myself to reach a level that I didn’t

think I could. I would have enjoyed the process, had fun, and even for a little while,

believed all things possible.”

Mridu Khullar Relph