13 October 2010

Chief Psychoexecutives

"Have you ever wondered if you work with a psychopath?"

Well, no actually - but the question did catch my attention.

It starts off an HR Ringleader blog article about psychopaths, in which we learn that "there are an estimated 250,000 people walking freely in the US who fall into this category."

"That means that they are with us in the workplace," is the author's somewhat sensational alarm bell (bold in the original) in an otherwise well-intentioned article. The piece continues on to the less alarming (and not bold) caveat that "most of us will never have to deal with a psychopath", even if HR and management have to deal with some "extreme employee issues."

HR Ringleader suggests that organisations may have some employees with dodgy 'paralymbic systems' (the bit of the brain believed to go wrong for psychopaths) who manifest one or more of the following:

  • Impulsivity
  • Poor behaviour control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Superficial charm and exaggerated sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Not taking responsibility for their actions
  • Committing crimes
Erm . . . remind you of any chief executives?

You know, the ones who are "walking freely" down a corridor near you, and are right now "with us in the workplace" and yet might one day end up doing their televised 'perp walk' to jail for fraud . . . or collecting their bonuses after destroying shareholder value in deep water. . . or lying about that gray area between love affair and expense account . . . or driving their company to bankruptcy through hubris and 'special purpose entities'?

While HR Ringleader is worried about employees "who have characteristics that seem to be uncontrollable" and conjures the "horrors" of serial killers with guns, I can't help wondering if the real horror in many workplaces is the serial executive with options. (No coincidence, perhaps, that 'execution' fits both compulsions?)

Fortunately, HR Ringleader has just the answer for dealing with these paralymbically-challenged individuals: "Learn the EAP offerings so that you can steer them in a positive direction."

Over to you, human resource ringleaders. Go steer your chief executive to the EAP offering.

I'll be right behind you. Really.

12 October 2010

Employee engagement - theories X, Y, U & T

Over at Strategy + Business, Matthew Stewart celebrates the 50th anniversary of Douglas McGregor's Theory X / Theory Y perspective on human nature in the context of managing people at work, which I think bears relevance to the present-day employee engagement fad.

Stewart suggests that "we're all Theory Y people now" - that we tend to favour employee freedom and self-realisation rather than autocratic command and control (a generalisation that perhaps doesn't apply outside some narrow cultural and geographic boundaries). It has been repackaged, he says, by many of the the big names of management 'wisdom' such as Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Charles Handy.

However, McGregor's theory of human nature has become confused with a theory of human conflict, says Stewart, who provides contrasting Utopian (U) and Tragic (T) theories of the latter to untangle the two kinds of theory. He puts the result, inevitably, into a 4x4 matrix:

He concludes that much of the debate about Theories X & Y has been a confusing one, between Controllers and Freedom Lovers, and has obscured the distinction of Theories U & T:

"If it requires a more thoughtful approach to management to accept that people are active by nature rather than passive, it requires a still more thoughtful approach to grapple with the fact that they can be active and destructive at the same time. Of the four types of managers in the Human Relations Theory Matrix, it is the constitutionalists who must expend the most mental energy and governance effort."

What does this mean for employee engagement?

Taking Stewart's matrix as a provocation for thought and conversation rather than a map of reality, I suppose one question is to consider if your particular flavour of employee engagement corresponds with the theories that your organisation (tacitly) adheres to. If not, does it illuminate any ways in which your engagement efforts are going mysteriously astray?

Secondly, if your approach to employee engagement sprawls across two or more of the four possibilities conceived by Stewart, perhaps that's either a sign of enlightened postmodern complexity reflecting your organisation - or just a bit of a mess. Does that matter?