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Thursday, October 20, 2011

If your bosses are forced to become dictators, what are you forced into

If you are working in the field of sports or music and if you perform poorly, say while playing tennis or violin, someone can easily tell you why your performance was poor, by giving you instances of where you missed or failed. Evaluating performance in A&P field is based on objective criteria. Even if your coach disagrees with you, it is visible to all others. This at least helps you, as the A&P performer, to find from others if your performance was 'really bad' or was disliked by the critique/coach because he does not like you.

On the other hand, when you are working in a cognitive field, be it in manufacturing, sales or design, your work-output is not visible like a music piece or play. Infact, in cognitive work, work-output is misguiding, because in cognitive work, it is very easy to cut corners and produce the required output. One can increase the customer calls by giving 'terse and incomplete' answers, one can lend more loans by tapping 'suspect' customers, or one can write software code quickly but which is 'inherently difficult to maintain', or one can achieve production targets by compromising on quality. In short, it is difficult to evaluate cognitive work performance objectively through its 'output' measures.

When companies try to measure knowledge work of their employees through 'thinking process' such as by counting the number of ideas produced by a cognitive performer, it generates even more questions. In a company, which implemented this scheme, interesting scenarios emerged.  Some ideas, which had big impact, required indeterminate effort to 'mature' them. Some were low hanging matured fruits but had low impact. Some looked good but looked technologically difficult to implement. Some looked outlandish, but seemed promising from customer angle. Only a person with similar 'specialised' skill, working closely with each employee, can evaluate the cognitive performance of each employee after considerable effort. Therefore evaluating cognitive performance through your 'thinking process' is a good idea, but impractical to implement.

If your cognitive performance can neither be evaluated by output, nor by the inputs ( i.e. the thinking  process), what does your company management do? Your company finds a practical alternative: they give this responsibility to your boss or supervisor. Your boss becomes your key evaluator.

Given the invisible characteristics of cognitive work, and being human, your boss finds some workable method to evaluate you. Sometime he measures your cognitive performance by 'output' even though it seems illogical. Sometimes he measures it by your acts of omission and commission. Sometimes, he measures it through your manner of speech and communication. Sometimes through your dress. Sometimes ....There are as many measures as there are bosses. In short, bosses look like dictators who do whatever they wish. ( By the way, some bosses start taking their role seriously and start behaving as dictators, thus closing the loop!)

What do graduates do when they encounter these kind of bosses in their jobs?
  1. They become like Jabbar. They think that the problem is their 'boss', and only if the boss is right, everything will be fine. So they keep on changing jobs to find the right boss. Naturally, because it is the nature of cognitive work, and not the nature of boss, they never find their solution. Some luckier ones find the right job and boss, which helps them unfold their journey of talent. 
  2. Second approach is taken by enterprising graduates. I know of Karthik, who rebelled, and started working as an entrepreneur three years back. He was happy to leave behind a tyrannical boss. But when he developed his first 'technological' innovation, he was shocked to see the response of his customers. He realised that his performance-evaluator had changed from 'boss' to 'customer', but the evaluation was still the same. Now, after three years, Karthik believes 'customers are totally irrational, want everything free, and demand immediate service without paying anything'. Karthik's talent path has got diverted unwittingly because of this conclusion !  
  3. Third approach is to accept the belief that 'boss ( or system) is always right' and become 'part of the system'. These individuals learn to 'manage bosses and the system', but forget their talent. As a result, they become 'successful' in the corporate world, but remain unhappy because their talent has got submerged in the corporate world. They are like Anil, who have forgotten what are they good at. Their 'method of success' becomes their bottleneck ! 
  4. Majority follow the fourth approach. They become practical and mature. They forget their talent and 'adjust' with the world. Some adjust by blaming the entire world for their misfortune. You will find them as constant trouble makers in corporate world. Some adjust by finding expression in some non-work activity like photography, writing, making friends, or even helping charity. As you would imagine, there are innumerable ways of adjusting with the world. 
You have a choice, provided you consciously take it

As you would have intuitively realised from the above four scenarios, your boss or customers are not the dictators. Infact, as you would have realised, they are the victims of the system which has pushed the difficult responsibility to them because they cannot say 'no'.  They do not seem to have any choice. But you have a choice.

Either you unconsciously get exploited by the system like Karthik ( and the majority ) and get derailed from your  'main journey'. Or you refuse to become part of the system and become like Jabbar, and hope that salvation is around the corner. Or you unconsciously exploit the system and become like Anil, who won the war but lost the battle.

Or you have another choice. Accept the fact that your path of skill-development is pulled by these market forces, even if you do not like it. Once you accept this reality, you will appreciate that your path of skill-development is hampered by these key actors - your boss,  if you are employee or researcher, or customers, if you are an entrepreneur - who are just playing their mediating role. These actors  behave, in their uniquely dictatorial way, because the market is biased, irrational, unpredictable and idiosyncratic in its demands.

Therefore, if you embrace them as a collaborator in your journey, it will help you understand the 'corporate world' and/or 'customer world'  better, learn to  'negotiate' the hurdles they have placed, and continue on your core journey of unfolding your skill into a talent. The choice is entirely yours.

And, if you chose to consciously negotiate the system, it is not difficult. Not as difficult as your course in Engineering, physics, medicine, accounts or law. It is much simpler. The art lies in 'being part of the system first before learning to be apart'.

You have to learn to map the 'metasystems' in which you are working, understand what they expect from you in terms of performance, and then maneuver it to fulfill those expectations.  Because it is different skill to acquire, initially it will be difficult, but once you cross the threshold, it will be as easy as driving your car. ( This skill is learnt through the discipline of Systems thinking!)

Do you want to become victim of the system or understand the system and negotiate it smartly? ( The word system is 'differently' defined in the discipline of systems thinking)

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