Corporate America is living in an age of paradox, born from hanging on to old ideas in new times. It's an age in which the desire for teamwork conflicts with the need for individual accountability; in which short-term measurements interfere with long-term objectives; and in which entrepreneurial thinking is thwarted by the need for management approval.
Bombarded by conflicting messages, many employees have become like deer caught in the headlights: uncertain, scared and immobilized. Afraid any steps they take will be penalized, they choose to take none at all, giving the illusion that they lack commitment to both their jobs and their companies. In reality, they just don't know what to do. "It's almost as if they're caught in laboratory cages, getting electric shocks no matter what they do," says Peter Scott-Morgan, director of Arthur D. Little, a business consulting firm located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of "The Unwritten Rules of the Game" ((c)1994, McGraw Hill Inc.).
Far from what many people believe, however, these contradictions aren't something constructed by hypocritical executives for the sole purpose of causing employee pain. These are the result of very real, rapid and phenomenal changes under way in the workplace.
If we're to overcome the seeming inconsistencies in our management practices, we must acknowledge changes, discard the human resources policies that no longer fit and help employees understand the new world of work.
New times, old processes.
Indeed, the American workplace is moving from an industrial-age, assembly-line model for which standardization in products, procedures and jobs was the norm, to a workplace that's designed to encourage flexibility and adaptability.
To meet the demands of new consumers, new markets and new competitors, our companies, our jobs, and the relationship between the two, must constantly be reinvented. The paradoxes we're facing have appeared because we're in the middle of this change. The old systems and management principles no longer apply, but we've yet to develop corporate infrastructures that support the new model. Thus, while management may be genuinely saying one thing, our HR systems are still reinforcing something from the past. To employees, it appears as if management is speaking from both sides of the mouth.
Take teamwork for instance. We want employees to break out of their independent, autonomous mindsets and work closely with their colleagues. We want joint decision making, esprit de corp and group accountability. But for the most part, our compensation and reward systems still support individual achievement. A recent survey by the American Compensation Association, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, found that less than 45% of organizations offer recognition and rewards for team performance, and even fewer have cash incentives. This, despite the fact 92% of these companies expect to expand the use of teams. How can team members be expected to be focused on the team when they're paid based on individual accomplishments?
Then there's the whole notion of innovation. We push the idea of empowerment and entrepreneurial thinking, but give department managers the final word on all decisions. We want people to take more risks, but systematic layoffs reinforce the idea of employees playing it safe. We want employees to think like independent contractors, but continue to hire, pay, promote and manage people as if they were still in traditional cradle-to-grave job slots.
The essential nature of the dilemmas faced by companies today is what Hubert Saint-Onge, vice president, leadership development, for Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), calls "empowerment vs. alignment." After conducting 1 1/2-hour one-on-one interviews with CIBC's 27 most senior executives, he uncovered nine predominant organizational dilemmas, including independence vs. interdependence, discipline vs. creativity, and productivity vs. work/ life balance. All of these dilemmas, he says, are reflective of the tension that comes from trying to empower people and align them with today's corporate objectives. The only way we can achieve empowerment and alignment is through HR systems. When HR is out of whack with corporate goals, paradox occurs.
The disconnections in today's workplace aren't surprising, and no one is to blame. Changes in markets, products, competitors, technology and workplace structures have come upon American companies very rapidly. It wasn't clear at the start of all this upheaval that HR systems would also need changing. After all, the complex web of policies, procedures and practices that we call human resources has worked extremely well for generations of workers.
But today, where we need to go is very different from where we've been. We're not putting out the same products in the same way against the same competitors every year. We're designing new products, entering new markets and facing new and surprising competitors. Who would've thought the biggest competitor of Federal Express would come in the form of a fax machine?
To successfully compete in today's environment, we've taught workers to think differently about their jobs. Yet, our policies and procedures reinforce the status quo. Left unchecked, these inconsistencies can damage the bottom line.
Look, listen and act.
What can HR professionals do to root out and rectify the major workplace conflicts? First, hold up a mirror to the organization and recognize the most glaring inconsistencies. Don't rely on intuition. Talk to employees at all levels of an organization to find out where paradox exists. "It's easy for managers not to recognize hypocrisy because many of them try to take account of things intuitively," says Scott-Morgan. But that intuition is based on past experience. As we now know, it only takes one major shift in the economy, in technology or among competitors to radically change what feels like the sensible way to behave. "At a time of rapid change, relying on outdated intuition is too unprofessional," he says.
When talking to employees, look for the major gaps between corporate values and corporate systems. Are you promoting teamwork, but rewarding individual accomplishment? Are you planning for long-term growth, but evaluating managers based on the achievement of quarterly numbers? Do you reward cost-cutting measures, but hold revenue growth as the highest goal? Do you seek change and innovation, but recruit people who've done the same work for years?
Once you understand the nature of paradox in your organization, you can begin to align the conflicting factors. As David Axson, vice president and co-founder of the consulting firm Hackett Group, located in Hudson, Ohio, explains: "It's a linkage issue. You have to build the infrastructure to support your corporate goals."
Another role for HR professionals in this time of change is helping employees understand the harsh realities of today's business climate. Sometimes things may appear paradoxical simply because people don't have all the right information.
A recent HR study by the American Management Association, based in New York City, may provide some insight as to why employees are so paralyzed by today's workplace paradoxes. According to the survey, a scant 2% of HR professionals gave "the new employer-employee relationship" top priority as an organizational strategy. Customer satisfaction, total quality and reengineering came out way ahead. While these initiatives are vital to the success of our companies, they're bound to fail unless employees understand why the workplace around them is changing so drastically. Caught in the headlights of corporate change, today's anxious workers are desperate for meaning.
Besides just making sense of the dilemmas for employees, HR professionals must also help employees learn to live with them—because in some form or another, paradox probably is here to stay.
Although there always have been paradoxes in the workplace, the rate of change was slow enough for them to be worked out over time. If the reward system didn't support new corporate initiatives, for example, new measurements could be put into place. The difficulty of managing today's paradoxes is exacerbated because we're trying to change into organizations that will keep changing. We're not moving from one steady state to another steady state where we can realign and relax a little bit. We're leaping onto a treadmill.
To get comfortable with change we have to get comfortable with paradox, the side effect of change. We can do this by learning how to stop thinking about management strategies as "either-or" decisions, and by getting comfortable with the idea of them being "both-and," decisions, says Wynne W. Miller, a management consultant based in Newton, Massachusetts. We can encourage both teamwork and individual accountability, for example. We can push for greater productivity and give employees more flexibility for their personal needs. Not all these initiatives are mutually exclusive.
Becky Albrecht, vice president of HR for Hutchinson Technology Inc., in Hutchinson, Minnesota, agrees. "To be competitive, we have to be able to operate with these paradoxes," she says. "What we're seeing in HR is not all that different from what manufacturing managers have recognized for years—business has to continually change to operate in a competitive environment. We have to get used to the conflict."
Right now, the gap between what management is saying and what HR is doing is probably at its widest point. As we begin to address the inconsistencies, the gap will narrow, but it probably won't disappear. If change is to be constant, then HR professionals will increasingly find themselves in the middle of what was and what will be.
Personnel Journal, August 1996, Vol. 75, No. 8, pp. 68-71.