The dark and bright sides of organizations (HR Manager’s Bookshelf)

For some, today’s corporation can become a ‘democratic’ entity, offering fulfilling careers. Others see the corporation as a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies

Anyone who has lived and worked in an organization of any substantial size will have lessons, observations and opinions on what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy in the overall experience. Is it a fulfilling place to be or a prison-like environment that stifles growth? HR professionals have one of the best observation posts of all. They often see first hand — and are directly involved in — both the dark and the bright sides of the organization.

Several recent books deal with the nature and effects, for better or worse, of hierarchy, authority, individual and group behaviour, implementing change and that most challenging characteristic of any organization — culture.

There are implications for leaders: how to be effective, what skills are needed, and whether one should even aspire to lead in the complex and often dysfunctional world of the large organization. And there are major implications for HR: how to understand the dynamics, recognize the realities, help people survive and thrive in the workplace. How to develop policies and processes that may change the organization for the better.

Top Down

By Harold Leavitt, 189 pages, Harvard Business School Press (2004) ISBN 1-59139-498-8

This is an insightful view that helps make sense of the working world, particularly for HR and OD/management development professionals. Leavitt pursues three main themes in the book:

•There’s a reality check. Hierarchy, the authoritarian structure that characterizes virtually every large organization, is changing around the edges, but it’s here to stay.

•The softer and veiled ways authority is expressed today are significantly different from earlier times, but they still leave managers — especially middle managers — with complex balancing acts if they are to be successful from the perspectives of both their bosses and their staff.

•Managers and leaders can handle the challenge of their roles if they adopt new mindsets and gain skills in three key areas: pathfinding, problem-solving and implementing (a model first outlined in Leavitt’s book Corporate Pathfinders, Penguin, 1987).

Readers will find descriptions of the way hierarchy breeds childlike dependency, greed, distrust and inflexibility; how managers can learn to use their endowed authority for better or worse; and how “systemizers” (promoters of analytic management and control) and “humanizers” (promoters of participative management) endeavour to change hierarchies in opposing, but also complementary, directions. This happens in an era of established social egalitarian views, and also at a time when technologies are used to exert high levels of control over people.

Here are some brief excerpts:

“Large human organizations are hierarchies. Human hierarchies are authoritarian systems. Many large human organizations live in non-authoritarian societies. Therefore, those organizations are out of sync with their societies. True or false?”

“Human hierarchies, for example, are psychological magnets that attract achievement-driven men and women. They reward us with more than just the money to pay our rent. They give us opportunities to achieve power, status and wealth, to climb our vaunted ladders to success. They give us social identity cards to help us maintain the illusion that we are both significant and secure in an insecure world. Although we complain about the negatives of life behind hierarchies’ walls — about boring routines, toxic bosses and the rest — we also collude with those hierarchies to get our share of the goodies they dangle before us. Their requirements of conformity and obedience are almost ideally suited to our ethic of individual achievement.”

“If you choose your organization wisely, your hierarchy’s vision may be quite simpatico with your own. You may then easily find room to fit your beliefs and values within its broad framework.”

The Democratic Enterprise

By Lynda Gratton, 272 pages, FT Prentice Hall (2003) ISBN 0-273-67528-1

To use Leavitt’s Top Down terminology, this book takes a strong “humanizing” stance and describes “liberating your business with freedom, flexibility and commitment.”

The author begins: “More than at any other point in time, there is now a chance to create the democratic enterprise. Over the last decade it has become increasingly clear that through the forces of globalization, competition and more demanding customers, the structure of many companies has become flatter, less hierarchical, more fluid and virtual. The breakdown of hierarchies provides us with fertile ground on which to create a more democratic way of working.”

The entry of generation X and Y members into the workforce and positions of power is bringing a greater desire for adult-to-adult relationships, self-determination, autonomy and technical savvy. Moreover, technology allows people to shrink space, share information and knowledge rapidly and directly.

The book reviews the development of democracy since ancient times, and explores six tenets of a democratic enterprise:

•an adult-to-adult relationship;

•individuals as investors;

•the expression of diverse qualities;

•participation in the conditions of association;

•the liberty of some individuals is not at the expense of others; and

•accountabilities and obligations.

Readers will learn how these tenets have played out at companies like BP, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, McKinsey, British Telecom and Kraft Foods, in terms of a variety of job assignments, projects and task forces, choice of job content, training and developmental relationships. It also looks at variances in location, time, rewards and benefits.

In conclusion, the book outlines five good reasons to become a democratic enterprise:

•employees who experience democracy are more engaged;

•democratic enterprises create win-win solutions;

•democratic enterprises are more just and fair;

•democratic enterprises are more agile; and

•democratic enterprises are more able to integrate.

Professor Gratton teaches at the London Business School and is the author of Living Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Purpose (FT Prentice Hall, 2000).

True Change

By Janice Klein, 224 pages, Jossey-Bass (2004)ISBN 0-7879-7473-0

Subtitled, “How Outsiders on the Inside Get Things Done in Organizations,” this book offers a penetrating look at organizational change that will resonate for both internal and external change agents and leaders. It’s written for executives, managers and individuals in line organizations who are trying to introduce new ideas and alternative ways of doing things.

Klein, a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, says “true change occurs when ideas or concepts become embedded in the underlying assumptions about how work is done. True change means the new ideas become institutionalized and are no longer dependent on a change agent or champion to support them.”

What follows is an in-depth examination of “outsiders on the inside.” Those people at various levels in the organization who have both a grounding in the organization’s reality, and a clear objective view as well. Real change over time depends on having a critical mass of such people.

“There are two types of outsider-insiders: outsiders who become socialized as an insider but retain their ability to step back and look at their situation as an outsider, and insiders who learn to take an outsider perspective. Hence, organizations that want to build a critical mass of outsider-insiders need both to help insiders learn how to question assumptions and facilitate an accelerated credibility-building process for newly recruited outsiders. This does not imply, in any way, that outsider-insiders should be treated with kid gloves or as special people. They merely possess a competency that is as critical and valuable as unique technical skills and should be developed and managed, as are technical experts.”

Klein takes issue with change management proponents who push solutions, arguing instead for a “pulling change” model that is based squarely on the perceived problems of those inside the organization. She uses examples from companies like Kodak, Ford, Motorola, Intel and Boeing to demonstrate the importance of a conscious management strategy to groom outsider-insiders and foster the “pulling change” approach.

The Dark Side of Organizational Behavior

Ed. by Ricky Griffin and Anne O’Leary-Kelly, 544 pages, Jossey-Bass (2004) ISBN 0-7879-6223-6

“Most research in industrial and organizational psychology has focused on the positive contributions people make to organizations. Although the positive side is clearly important, there is a growing awareness of the impact of more negative aspects of behaviour, such as theft, harassment, alcohol and drug abuse, and retaliatory behaviour. This volume pulls together the research and thinking of some of the strongest scholars in these areas.” Chapter highlights include:

•workplace aggression and violence;

•when the dark side of families enters the workplace (intimate partner violence);

•subtle, and not so subtle, discrimination;

•sexual harassment as dysfunctional behaviour in organizations;

•sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace;

•the dark side of politics in organizations;

•under-the-table deals;

•extreme careerism; and

•psychological contract breach and violation.

The Corporation

By Joel Bakan, 256 pages, Penguin Canada (2004) ISBN 0-14-029004-4

HR and management readers who are fans of, or disturbed by, the popular film or television documentary versions of The Corporation may want to take a look at this book by University of British Columbia law professor Joel Bakan. Here’s his starting point:

“A key premise is that the corporation is an institution — a unique structure and set of imperatives that direct the actions of people within it. It is also a legal institution, one whose existence and capacity to operate depend upon the law. The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

Read the book to explore, with Bakan, how the corporation became what it is, its pathological nature and its implications, its power over society and what can and should be done to mitigate its potential to cause harm.

Organizational Culture and Leadership

By Edgar Schein, 464 pages, Jossey-Bass (3rd ed., 2004) ISBN 0-7879-6845-5

This revised edition of Schein’s classic scholarly and practical book explores culture and its most challenging questions: what is it, how does it evolve, what impact does it have and how can it be changed?

“Culture and leadership are two sides of the same coin, in that leaders first create cultures when they create groups and organizations. Once cultures exist they determine the criteria for leadership and thus determine who will or will not be a leader. But if elements of a culture become dysfunctional, it is the unique function of leadership to perceive the functional and dysfunctional elements of the existing culture and to manage cultural evolution and change in such a way that the group can survive in a changing environment.”

Is your organization’s culture best described as fragmented, mercenary, communal or networked? Is it an operator culture, an engineering culture or an executive culture? Schein concludes the book with a profile of the learning culture and the learning leader: in a more complex, culturally diverse, fast-paced world, “organizations and their leaders will have to become perpetual learners.”

Ray Brillinger is a certified management consultant who works with clients on organizational change, HR strategy and performance improvement. He can be reached at (416) 766-9580 or [email protected].

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