It is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone – and especially any manager – who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization. – Peter Drucker
If you visit this blog periodically, you'll know I have an obvious interest in workplace behaviour, leadership, human resource management and that newly identified field, cognitive labour.
For the most part, I think we do this incredibly poorly. We don't know the right way to motivate our human resources to be productive in the modern economy, nor how to design work and define roles to foster the best work from our teams. It's not just me that thinks this way - the private sector has come to the same conclusion, as has the Canadian Mental Health Commission. When even Stephen Harper's hands-off Conservative government comes up with psychological health and safety standards for Canadian workplaces, you know it's a significant issue.
How have we gotten to this point? Why are we so bad at creating a culture of cognitive productivity?
I believe this to largely be a hold-over attitude from the Industrial Revolution, where work was pretty standard - every worker was a cog in motion; carrot and stick motivation worked well at promoting manual labour. Management simply had to apply the carrots and sticks and make sure the machines kept running - underperformers could easily be replaced and what happened to them afterwards was someone else's problem.
Which is why I find the approach taken in the article linked to at the top so interesting - the implication therein, that underperformers should be cast away, completely avoids answering the question of why certain individuals would be underperforming in the first place. Drucker seems to think it's likely these were just bad hires in the first place - and I think it's fair to say a majority of employers would agree. They hire and fire; it's up to employees to do and if they don't they can be replaced.
After all, it's not like staff turn-over hurts the bottom line, right? Especially when you don't bother training; nothing gets lost when you're not investing in your employees. Of course, one questions what is gained when it's the cognitive abilities of your employees (their networks, their ability to process and analysis information, produce reports, handle external relationships, etc.) that you're after.
So, here's a problem facing many a workplace in this knowledge-and-relationship based economy; employees are hired, their role and office relationships (internal protocols, support services, etc.) are never clearly defined and their managers are using Industrial Age carrot-and-stick management tools to motivate work. People aren't getting raises or bonuses on churning out more widgets, nor being fired for not producing enough - their performance is being judged based on their ability to read the minds of their managers/employers, figure out what their roles are and manage down their employers anxieties long enough to get the job done.
What happens when people in this situation fail to be occupational psychics? What happens when they struggle to figure out what their duties are, or are never given enough time to finish a product thoroughly, or they are told they must manage their time wisely but write daily reports on productivity to their supervisors?
This thing called presenteeism, which looks an awful lot like those under-performing employees mentioned above. Bosses can pull out their hair, frustrated at all these young kids that don't seem as disciplined or "with it" as they are and churn through employees - this isn't helping their bottom line any.
So let's revisit the equation a bit; what, beyond ruthless removal, is the role of the executive?
The Executive Director is a leadership role for an organization and often fulfills a motivational role in addition to office-based work. Executive Directors motivate and mentor members, volunteers, and staff, and may chair meetings. The Executive Director leads the organization and develops its organizational culture.
That's from Wikipedia, who many still have problems with - but it jives with what management guru David M. Dye has to say about organizational culture:
You may use different words, but it is critical that you create a culture where everyone is expected to do what they need to do and to treat others with respect.
A culture of respect; everyone treats everyone else with respect. Does that include the executive, as well? I would tend to think so; if the role of an executive is to ruthlessly cut out any performer who fails to set a high standard, then any executive who fails to motivate and mentor members, volunteers or participate in meetings is failing to walk their own walk, potentially fuelling a culture that corrupts the very behavior they should be enhancing. One would think that any executive worth their salt would fall on their own swords should it be pointed out that they are failing to provide valuable leadership to their organizations. Right?
There are some best-practice organizations out there who are investing a bit more in their hiring practices and taking the time to show respect and value to new team members before they even begin. These organizations are seeing dividends for their efforts and, I imagine, will start to outpace the HR laggards out there, setting a new trend. You'd think those organizations committed to excellence would seek out and emulate these examples, if they were sincere in their intent.
Which finally brings us to government. Remember those underperformers who could be easily replaced? They become government's problem; through the work of Ministries of Labour, through economic incentive and training programs but above all, through research, consultation and active commitment to labour/occupational mental health issues, it's the role of government to ensure that everyone has the tools they need to succeed. If it isn't them, it's nobody.
Given the magnitude of this responsibility, you'd imagine government wants the best-trained employees with the right level of commitment and would be constantly researching best HR practices to ensure their teams have the tools they need to succeed, right?
You'd be wrong. Politics is regarded in much the same way as a factory floor in the industrial revolution; there are lots of bodies looking for opportunity, we need only cycle through them to find the right fits. The people can be discarded; it's the elected folk, the executive, that really matters. This is why, despite the commitment of governments across the country to occupational mental health, you'll be hard pressed to find a Political Party that has internally implemented any of the federal standards for psychological health and safety. Training is non-existent for the same reason it's hard to find in all kinds of fields; with constant staff turnover expected and presenteeism not understood at all, the powers that be don't see any need for complex training.
Think about that for a second - the people who advise your government policy and communicate your government's message have little to no training on how to do their job, unless it's on the political side. If presenteeism is a recognized issue and poor performance is seen as a contagion, is it any wonder we are constantly seeing a cycle of entitlement boom and bust in politics?
It'd be all too easy to join the throngs of frustrated citizens shaking their fist at lackluster politicians failing to perform with the highest distinction and turn to our favourite political mantra of "kick the bums out!"
But not so fast.
How much training do our politicians get? Do they receive any management courses, any negotiation or mediation training? Do we expect them to receive budget training, provide them with clear mandates and provide mentorship if they're missing the target? Who would you expect to provide that training? Do we consider periodic and high-level briefings or the odd awareness-building protest sufficient training to empower politicians to do the job we expect of them?
The fact is, government is among the most poorly run organizations there is - politicians, their staff and their internal overseers all fumble around with personality management, time management, task prioritization. Nobody says boo about this; we somehow expect politicians to come to their Legislatures as fully-formed and perfect representatives. When we, surprise surprise, don't get that, we either stew until we can vote them out or tune out of what they are doing entirely.
To let such a man stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization.
In a democracy, it's the people who form the Executive; by how we engage, what motivation and support we offer, we either motivate and mentor our politicians, or we don't.
If we expect them to conceive and execute our work with no direction, we have only ourselves to blame for the outcome.
There's only one way we can ensure Canada or Ontario or any of our jurisdictions remains competitive and keeps moving forward (instead of falling behind others) - and that's for us as citizens to get informed and get engaged. If we expect our representatives to perform with the highest distinction, it's up to us to set that standard ourselves.