This is a provocative article suggesting that it’s a good thing if an employer loses good people. To be clear, it’s not a good thing if an employer loses people who quit in disgust. Rather, if you are cultivating an engaged work environment in which everyone is encouraged to move onward and upward, then there is a price to pay. That price is that sometimes employees take advantage of external opportunities.
The author of the article is Drew Falkman from a firm called Modus Create, a technology services company with a soft spot for people development. He suggests that if you are losing good people it is a sign of an engaged work environment that attracts transparently ambitious people. Ambitious people will regard your workplace as an exceptional diving board into the pool of life. These can be good people to work with.
What do you think? Could your new employer brand be “diving boards are us”? The reason I ask, is that most people are only familiar with what competitive diving looks like momentsafter the diver has taken flight. But in the yearsprior to jumping the diver will have put much effort into developing courage, strength, and skill. Would you have a better workplace if a larger fraction of your employees were constantly building towards a visible and transparent goal? This spirit of growing and striving would be a great workplace culture for employee and employer alike.
This change of attitude on the employer’s part redefines performance excellence as an act of motion amidst a growth mindset, not a final accomplishment that presumes a fixed state. A workplace that is always striving performs better than one in which managers treat their best staff as collectibles.
Managers are notorious for trying to hold onto their top-performers and keep them at their current level. It’s so convenient for the manager, having excellent people who are prohibited from seeking new opportunities, locked into place just-so, delivering double the productivity. These people practically manage themselves, and the manager doesn’t need to spend extra hours training them or replacing them when they leave. If the manager can cultivate a team like this, perhaps the manager could get the biggest bonus.
But thinking about the whole institution and the economy in general, locking-down high performers is a recipe for stagnation. Perhaps the millennials were right? Maybe we should stop tolerating mediocrity and take for granted that generalized career ambition is part-and-parcel of performance and workplace engagement.
Employers are increasingly desperate for good hires into the senior ranks, and they’re blunt that they should always be free to bring in good people from other institutions. So, as a society, the “correct” opinion is that employers and employees alike should be moving everyone upward and onward. Therefore, career-growth exits are a good thing.
But it gets better.
Falkman also suggests that former employees are valuable to your organization as well. Former employees can speak highly of their work experience at your organization, improving the employer and customer brand. Supportive former employees can also become committed customers, suppliers, or investors. You can go the extra mile and organize this resource of boomerang employees, building current staff to eventually be part of an alumni pool who continue to grow, keep in touch with their peers, and make themselves available as boomerang employees.
Every now and then a contrary opinion comes along that you really need to take seriously. This is one of the good ones.
I wish I was more insecure, so I could relate better to colleagues who struggle with their insecurity. I keep missing opportunities to share moments of vulnerability. I can’t tap into that common language where we all wish we were better. People watch me, waiting for me to trip-up, and then I succeed. Then they stop watching. This is not how you get likes.
Perhaps I can overcome this challenge by doing more research.
My greatest frustration is articles proclaiming that almost everyone is insecure. From a Huffington Post article by Susan Winter:
Every human being wonders if they’re “okay.” That’s the big secret no one shares and no one wants to share. …at the core of every human is the desire to be accepted and seen as valuable in the eyes of those around us. …There will be times you’ll feel on top of the world and times you’ll doubt your worth. This is normal. It’s a part of our forward movement as we take stock of who we are, in transit to who we’re becoming.
I feel like the captain of a Star Trek vessel observing “the planet of the insecure” hesitating about whether I should help. If I could cure this planet of its insecurities, would their social order fall apart? Would I take away that one thing that moves them forward every day?
What Teenagers Learn About Status and Insecurity
In this age of industrialized narcissism, the insecure are way better at delivering photos of their perfect life, drawing attention to their accomplishments, and working late to meet high expectations. In an Inc.com article Jessica Stillman cites Yale psychologist Mitch Prinstein, who bemoans that a growing number of platforms are making it easier for us to gain status. Prinstein differentiates between two types of popularity, status and likability. Those who pursue and achieve high status tend towards “aggression, addiction, hatred, and despair.”
It’s great television.
In another article Stillman argues you should be relieved if you were not a cool kid in high school. Cool kids get their reputation through behaviours that must become increasingly extreme in order to keep up with their subgroup. At some point these antics veer into criminal behaviour and drug use which peers realize isn’t cool at all: “by the age of 22, these ‘cool kids’ are rated as less socially competent than their peers.”
By contrast, those who focused on developing one really close friendship “reported lower levels of social anxiety and depression and higher self worth as young adults.” Nerds and healthy people work on their likeability. Not facebook likes – that’s just a type of status. I’m talking about people liking you for who you really are. This is hard work. You need to make yourself vulnerable to close friends. Sincerely attempt to improve yourself. Be authentic in your words and deeds. Back to Susan Winter’s Huffington Post article…
A truly empowered person can look at their shortcomings and seek improvement. The arrogantly insecure must only see a mirror that reflects their perfection. …The nature of growth requires embracing the new and unexplored. Security is opposed to growth, as growth is chaotic and unsettling. Insecurity is the gift of wondering what comes next in our discovery process. [Emphasis added]
Insecurity is a good thing? I’m furious.
Defining Emotional Security and Its Evil Twin, Insecurity
When doing people analytics, the first pass at the numbers often hinges on a data definition that needs better clarity. Humanity is ambiguous and the closer we get to precisely measuring people, the more the human element claps-back at the empirical system, exposing that it’s the quantitative models themselves that are vulnerable.
Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”
Wikipedia has a great article on emotional security, which by default gets into insecurity. Wikipedia is the source of consensus amateur opinion, which is perfect for you and me. I mean you. No offense. Insecurity is “a feeling of general unease or nervousness that may be triggered by perceiving oneself to be vulnerable or inferior in some way, or a sense of vulnerability or instability which threatens one’s self-image or ego.”
Already we’re in a pickle given Brené Brown’s research that the quality of our relationships depends on our ability to make ourselves vulnerable to others on a topic of personal shame. To go deep in a relationship, we must choose to be insecure. Those high school kids with one close friend were onto something.
Is There Anything Tangible We Can Do About Insecurity?
Is there anything tangible about insecurity? Yes. Wikipedia says
The concept [of Emotional security] is related to that of psychological resilience in as far as both concern the effects which setbacks or difficult situations have on an individual. However, resilience concerns over-all coping, also with reference to the individual’s socioeconomic situation, whereas the emotional security specifically characterizes the emotional impact. In this sense, emotional security can be understood as part of resilience.
Some people have a status and/or demeanor with which they can weather setbacks better than others. Therefore the emotional state of insecurity relates to 1) things that do in fact happen to us, 2) our ability to adapt to those things that happen including our own actions, and 3) our perspective and emotional state that arises from our experiences and adaptations.
This trifecta reveals that there are multiple responses to these shocks to our lives. We can prevent bad things from happening through precautions and defenses. We can mitigate after things have happened through insurance claims, emotional debriefs with friends, or by pressing charges. We can improve our adaptations by upping our game (by trying harder or changing our methods as individuals), or fighting back against a collective injustice (e.g. go to a rally or make a targeted donation), or sometimes just letting others win (e.g. I hereby choose to load the dishwasher).
Or we can choose a different perspective and emotional state, such as accepting flaws in ourselves, in others, and in the world at large. There is comfort in humility. If you don’t like that, there’s always hope. Choose your emotional posture. Shape the clouds with your own bare hands.
What a Secure Workplace Looks Like
Now, let’s consider what this means in the workplace. If an employee knows what is expected of them every day, they can correctly self-assess if they are delivering on expectations and change course accordingly. If an employee has one good friend in the workplace, they can share vulnerable moments in which they are reassured and accepted as who they are. If an employee is mistreated or put at risk, they can only prevent and mitigate if they are free to complain, talk to the union, or refuse unsafe working conditions. If the employee faces unexpected dental expenses or fears poverty in retirement, they focus better when their employer provides pensions and benefits.
Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.
The employer is asking people to do work for them, and in return offers an environment that is economically, physically, and emotionally reassuring to their security. Take insecurity seriously, it’s the main engine.
There we go, my work is done. It’s amazing what you can learn about a topic you know nothing about by putting a few hours into research and explaining things. It feels accomplished. It’s not that I was feeling insecure earlier. I wasn’t. I’m only doing this for you.
(Repost from October 19, 2017) Are the best leaders currently excellent? No, they are not. The best leaders are those who always strive to become a little bit stronger in the near future. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review the authors identify that Good Leaders are Good Learners.[link] Leaders who are in “learning mode” tend to develop stronger leadership skills than their peers.
This learning mode is exhibited through three behaviors:
“First, leaders set challenging learning goals in the form of ‘I need to learn how to…’”
“Next, they find ways to deliberately experiment with alternative strategies.”
“Finally, leaders who are in learning mode conduct fearless after-action reviews, determined to glean useful insights from the results of their experimentation.”
Several organizational indicators of the fixed-mindset mentality are contrary to the idea of a “learning mode.” Consider psychometric testing that selects the most innately qualified leaders on a snapshot basis. How useful is this information if you can’t identify an upward trend? If the rules in your business keep changing, what use do you have for a leader who was top-performing under last year’s rules? Surely the best leaders are the ones who can move upward and onward from any new starting point. You get to change the rules more often with these types of leaders. The world is experiencing more changes of the rules, so these types of people are well-suited for the current era.
Also consider the use of forced ranking performance appraisals and winner-take-all reward systems. Basically, these systems use backward-looking performance indicators that anoint those at a high performance level as worthy of recognition. But with a learning mode mindset, those mitigating from a disadvantageous starting point might be your new heroes. Especially if they are learning and leading along the way.
My interpretation is that the “learning mode” mindset is simply the leadership-development element of an engaged workplace. If you’re required to lead an engaged learning organization, only those with a growth mindset will excel. And when they excel, the business will perform better. So the leader, the culture, and organizational performance will move in synch.
Leaders cannot get fearless feedback unless they have fostered a workplace of high trust and two-way communication. Leaders cannot openly name the things they need to learn unless they have sense of humility and an absence of back-stabbing amongst leaders. Leaders cannot experiment with alternative strategies unless they have permission to fail; an onus of perfection would oblige leaders to stick to the tried-and-true.
It’s reassuring to know that a variety of broader truths are coming out of the evidence. Engagement, learning, leadership, and change are all built on a foundation of focus, collaboration, curiosity, and trust.
Now if only we could make sure those types of people are actually put in charge, I think we would be set. But that doesn’t always happen, does it? It’s a warning-shot to those who think they are already awesome. Excellence is in knowing your next step.
Is there something about payroll systems that cause everyone who mucks with them to be destroyed? It’s as if payroll systems have deep dark secrets, requiring years of study to allow people to interact with them safely. Indiana Jones achieved a doctorate before his most epic physical quests. How much do we need to learn about payroll systems before attempting to make improvements?
In last week’s blog post I provided a summary of the Auditor General’s report on the Government of Canada’s Phoenix payroll fiasco. Whenever I read about the Phoenix fiasco, I shed a tear for anyone who has goals. Payroll is supposed to be one of those things that happens automatically in the background. The rules are clear, the numbers are known, and most of the decisions have already been made. All that’s required is that we upgrade the software every few decades. What could possibly go wrong?
But it is exactly that presumptuousness which is fatal. Have you ever talked to a payroll person? These are people who quietly persevere doing intelligent work with no glory. They are careful, and they discourage foolish moves. Do they know something I don’t about the risks of screwing everything up?
Payroll Systems are Like Russian Winter
I came up with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Soviet Russia as the right metaphor to describe the Phoenix payroll fiasco. It is a great allegory that demonstrates how grand plans can be ruined by a complex landscape and the blindness of arrogance.
There’s a really good article about winter combat produced by the U.S. Army. It’s titled Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies, by Dr. Allen F. Chew, December 1981 under the Leavenworth Papers series from the Combat Studies Institute. It covers three major battles, the third of which is the battle between Germany and Russia in the winter of 1941-42.
With winter combat, preparing well in advance is key. Combat engagements in the freezing winter are sensitive to whether troops have “…appropriate clothing, weapons, and transport for that harsh environment. Acclimatization and pertinent training are also essential.” Appropriate transport means pony carts, as the animals keep warm when busy. For appropriate weapons, landmines malfunction when the detonator is encrusted with ice. Burning campfires with charcoal instead of wood reduces the visibility of the plume of smoke.
The Soviets also had larger numbers of trained ski troops because they had learned from their engagement in Finland a few years earlier. Skis are critical for covering longer distances without getting exhausted. This lesson was available to anyone who did their homework. For the Russians, this homework was like an overview of yesterday’s lecture.
Also, defense has the advantage. Soldiers on the offensive must expose themselves to freezing winds in addition to oncoming gunfire. Attackers also lose the element of surprise because sound travels better on the snow’s crust. Those who stay-put are more likely to win.
There is a theme that you must hang back a little, and look for small tactical tips that make a big difference. Leaders must seek out this information and reflect on what this means for efforts big and small.
The Cold Teaches You Humility in Leadership
Leadership and strategy are all about the embodiment and communication of the most suitable emotional state and mindset. With winter combat, what is most important is having humility, knowing there is so much to learn. There’s a traditionalist saying that we stand on the backs of giants. Those who came before us learned their lessons the hard way, and we must heed their lessons. Particularly if they lost.
…perhaps the most important lesson is simply the folly of ignoring the pertinent lessons. …the highest German commanders were slow to profit from Russian examples [of the past] because of their feeling of superiority, and some refused to learn until they went down in defeat. There may be a message for others in that conceit. [p. 41, emphasis added]
These lessons echo the Phoenix payroll fiasco, as Phoenix was an epic blunder of arrogance and the negation of contrary evidence. We can interpret that the size and importance of a major project can warp a leader’s ego. Unwieldy efforts can be intimidating, and in order to move them forward you may need some bold and reckless courage. But that’s an emotional posture that you would need to choose, logically. If you actually are a bold and reckless person whose courage comes from an illogical abandonment of information, then you’re in a pickle. Instead of advancing emotional strength, you may be advancing emotions that are relatively stronger than a hobbled intellect. And that spells trouble.
Phoenix was most significantly damaged by the failure to identify that centralizing payroll processing in Miramichi resulted in a skills and productivity dip amongst new staff. The phenomenon was real, and incoming information that this skills dip was a material problem turned out to be something that could not be overlooked. Executives negated the evidence, and small problems became part of a landscape that could not be overcome.
A more reasonable goal is to not be destroyed by the landscape. You would develop this goal because you observed from experience, and from your homework, that the environment is humbling.
Maybe you, too, can adopt the chill demeanor of a payroll representative wearing wool socks by the fire when it’s winter outside. Who wants to go outside and play? Not me. I think I’ll sip hot chocolate while looking out the window, watching the snowfall, ever so slowly.
What if junior staff and those far from head office knew more than their superiors? It’s an impolite question which may offend those who have worked so hard to get to the top. But it’s an important question to ask.
In February 2016 the Government of Canada implemented the Phoenix payroll system, and it was bungled from the start. According to the Auditor General’s report in Spring 2018, mistakes were consistently made by three Phoenix executives that negated the input and information coming from those lower ranking than themselves, and those who did not work in their particular bunker. Auditor’s reports make for great reading, because they are often “true crime” page-turners of corporate malfeasance. Let’s take a closer look.
The Productivity of New Employees at the Miramichi Pay Centre
The first stage of the Phoenix project was to centralize staff working with the old software, then the new software would be brought in. But the project team chose Miramichi, New Brunswick as the geographic location for centralization. The previous system was staffed by people all over the country, so the move to Miramichi was a tough sell. Many experienced pay advisors chose not to move.
Because of the move, there was a loss of experience and a drop in productivity. A lot of staff were new. Think to the first time you have done anything – you’re slower until you hit your stride. It takes months to get on top of the work, after which you eliminate errors and do things faster and easier. But there was no allowance for this ramp-up in the Phoenix schedule, and no anticipation this time was even needed. Prior to the move, each pay advisor could handle an average workload of 184 pay files. After the move, productivity dropped to 150 files.
This was troublesome because Public Services and Procurement Canada had expected productivity would rise to 200 files per advisor. This gap played out on the grand scale.
…Miramichi pay advisors could handle a total of about 69,000 pay files, not the 92,000 files the Department had transferred to the Pay Centre. …outstanding pay requests were already increasing because of centralization, and pay advisors in Miramichi were already complaining of excessive workload and stress. …Even though pay advisors were less productive than what was expected of them, Phoenix executives still expected that their productivity would more than double when they started to use Phoenix. [Paragraphs 1.71-1.72]
Some Interpretations on How to Mitigate a Tactical Blunder
If information was shared and accepted, there might have been a clear opportunity to overcome the problems at the Pay Centre. Centralization required either the acceptance of a downshift in experience level and hence more staff would be required. Or they could allow additional time for expertise and productivity to slowly build. As a third alternative, centralization would need to include locations where there was an established labour market.
But these are all tactical solutions to tactical problems. The strategic issue is that powerful people were negating information that was coming from the ground. It’s a “no complaining” mindset. And because the tactical complaints were real, leadership decisions to negate these voices caused tactical problems to overpower strategy.
Yes, Org Charts and Internal Audits are Important
The larger and more complicated a project is, the more important internal audit becomes. The Auditor General’s report asserts that a proper audit prior to implementation “would have given the Deputy Minister an independent source of assurance… that could have resulted in a different implementation decision.” There were guidelines in place for independent review, but the review was controlled by three Phoenix executives. Those executives determined the interview questions and the list of interviewees. The interviewees chosen were all members of the Phoenix project team, who were under the thumb of those same executives. So, watch what you say…
The project had significant problems with governance and the chain of command. The organizational chart shows a reporting structure that bottlenecks through the three Phoenix executives who in turn reported to the Deputy Minister. There was no direct line to the Deputy Minister that was unfiltered by those three people. Say anything you want, and they’ll pass it along. Or not.
The Fake Consultation Meeting
In order for a meeting to be productive, you need the right people in the room and freedom for those people to share information and opinions. However, the key meeting prior to implementation was rigged to provide one-directional information flow. The briefing was January 29, 2016 when 30 deputy ministers from across government were told that Phoenix was about to be implemented. Fourteen departments and agencies provided feedback prior to the meeting that they had “significant concerns with Phoenix”. But the people leading the project assured those in attendance that all the issues had been resolved. Critics were cautioned that any delays would cost too much money and cause a knock-on series of additional delays. They were going ahead.
The project’s leaders didn’t have to try hard to win people over. That is because Public Services and Procurement Canada chose this particular briefing meeting because it did not have any decision-making authority.
As an information-sharing and advisory forum, the Committee could not formally challenge the information it received from Public Services and Procurement Canada or the decision to implement Phoenix. [Paragraph 1.100]
All subsequent stories were about pay advisors struggling to get out from under a backlog as their workload doubled while grappling with a new piece of software. In the story of this project’s failure there is little discussion about the quality of the new software itself, because the project was eaten alive by the landscape.
Appropriate Leadership Styles in Information-Heavy Strategic Efforts
It’s too bad there weren’t low-level people who were free to speak their mind about how things were going. And it’s curious how high-ranking people could develop a lifestyle where they never talk to lower-ranking people. Why do leaders do this to themselves? I know that democracy can be unpleasant and messy. And egalitarianism involves a lot of extra work. But for senior people to be so single-minded in their goals that they would bar feedback from those they are affecting goes beyond arrogance and into strategic self-harm.
It’s like reverse-provincialism. Provincialism is the notion that there are people living in remote areas who are less sophisticated and overly concerned with their local issues, to the detriment of higher-level goals. But what if people in the provinces and remote pockets of the hierarchy are the ones who have a better grasp of the truth? What do we do about high-level people in head offices who know nothing about what’s happening in the field? What do we do about people who think their big fancy plans are brilliant and best, when they are really just playing fancy board games for which the only prize is a slightly more expensive used car.
I know what we should do with these people. We should teach them.
We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel. The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society. By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs. While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.
The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.” They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.
Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area. There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new. There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap. There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.
But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery. It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created. In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.
Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital
The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.” The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of. Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance. Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff? If you think about it for a while, examples abound:
When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff. By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff. At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture. Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily. This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity. Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented. In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us). Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z? This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity. Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old. Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.
As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value. As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts. Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy. There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.