Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Molefe’s morale boosting conundrum

A mountain to climb for Eskom’s acting chief in improving staff morale.

In the midst of load shedding the past fortnight, we had an unscheduled power break. The fault was reported, a reference number provided and within a short time, power was restored.

This was followed by a rather puzzling sms informing us that we would be approached for feedback on the service provided. Mirth was quickly replaced with pique at the audacity of an organisation that has arguably disappointed an entire nation to recruit any kind of useful feedback from customers on improving service. It was therefore not surprising when the call came to find that it was one of those electronic calls which avoided interaction with another human being. I ended the call after the first key-pressing option.

It reminded me of the article I wrote some time ago on the battle weary efforts of flag bearers of our non-delivering state-owned “empires” in trying to keep customers happy. I recalled at the time, the incident in which an Eskom employee parked on a Swellendam street was severely berated by a local resident on the other side of the street and with creative expletives only indigenous Overbergers have mastered.

Therein lies Brian Molefe’s challenge – boosting morale with a severely tainted brand. The two are closely linked, something Molefe seems to have recognised in a Moneyweb Radio interview (see here). He appears to have also appreciated the need to embrace leadership at all levels.

It is often too lightly accepted in conventional organisational theory that an inspired top leadership can infect the general workforce. As important as it is, in large organisations this inspiration more often than not simply hits a solid wall of resistance at the most critical leadership of all – that band from first line supervisors to middle and senior managers. Even where workers at the coal face are motivated through a plethora of costly smile courses, team building break-aways, rah-rah events and happy working conditions, that tired, cynical and stubborn lower leadership group often seems to have its own agenda, rife with resentment and scepticism.

It’s a phenomenon I became acutely aware of in my 15 years of consulting on employee involvement in companies. Armed with background in organisational theory after a stint at Templeton Management College at Oxford, I became involved with and exposed to an overwhelming number of Human Resource orientation and inspirational interventions and processes, many of them simply packaged franchises from abroad. An earlier era saw the birth of a massive new consulting industry, with previous accounting management consultants entering the much more lucrative field and the growth of big and powerful company in house departments.

Large amounts of money were thrown at the “people” problem, with new “stakeholder” concepts proliferating the field. Ironically, all this happened at the same time as the growth and grip of the shareholder value approach and the obsessive focus on maximising returns on capital. In turn this has led to an intolerable contradiction: despite all the time, effort and money and all the smoke and mirrors which modern human capital doctors employ to convince their paymasters that the two approaches – maximising returns and involvement of labour are compatible, labour generally and globally has never felt as besieged as it does today.

One of the myths that is often peddled in costly interventions is that “happy people are involved people”. This is simply not true. Camaraderie in the workplace on its own does nothing for productivity. At one stage, for example, a financial institution was ranked as the “best place to work for” in South Africa. At the same time it was losing customers in their thousands. At a more mundane level, I remember once trying to enter a discount store in a mall well after opening time. The glass doors were locked, although I could see the staff huddled in a group inside the store. The security guard informed me that “they were having a team building meeting.”

I can relate countless more examples, but suffice to say that too many of these highly costly, lengthy and disruptive interventions either achieve very little or when they do, they are seldom sustainable. Ultimately the key to employee involvement lies in that which I have written about countless times: commitment to a common purpose. The only indivisible common binding factor in any organisation is its service to the customer, the community or society. Even that irascible first line supervisory and middle management band can be drawn into such a purpose and strengthen it by ensuring that their subordinates are enabled and empowered to contribute to it.

We keep on insisting that the primary purpose of all of those involved in an organisation is material self-gain. Not only does this appeal to the worst in staff, but it is a divisive force in the way it is constructed in companies. Yet it need not be. By following principles of common fate, in which rewards are differentiated yet flexible and directly linked to wealth creation emanating from the common purpose, it becomes the ultimate force behind employee involvement.

It is quite simple: human beings have two instinctive and primary driving forces – purpose and provision. Both find expression in the working environment. But when provision completely overwhelms purpose in that environment you destroy morale and encourage conflict.

Employee awareness, understanding and transparent communications are natural, logical, inexpensive and classical methods of solidifying employee involvement, willingness and commitment. They can fruitfully replace any of the song and dance hype-filled distractions that have become regular flavours on the consultant’s menu.

In addition to his undoubted prowess as a game changer in large SOE’s, Molefe may find some comfort in the miracles which staff are capable of performing in turning around ailing organisations – from the design by American labour leader Joe Scanlon of flexible pay to save his employers; to the Ohio employee buyout ventures. The difference there was that the initiative came from labour themselves, but the similarity is that staff came to the rescue when all hope was lost.

In many other respects, Eskom may be fundamentally different, but clearly Molefe has to have the entire workforce solidly behind him. In that he has the difficult task of rebuilding without PR spin the Eskom brand as soon as possible. This has to go far beyond a clichéd “we are doing our best under the circumstances”.

A good brand is an essential tool in motivating staff. Indeed it is the only one that counts.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Of burning shops and falling monuments

Forming factions to inflame polarisation in a diversified society.

The world is at war. It may not involve direct conflict between super-powers that will deny current turmoil the description of World War III but you would be hard pressed to find a place in the world where a war or factional skirmishes are not taking place, or where it is not affected by neighbouring turmoil. (See summary here.)

In numbers of countries and people involved it may be approaching in human desolation that of previous world wars. The entire Middle East for example, is now fully at each other’s throats, from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East to Saudi-Arabia in the West, spreading over to most of North Africa and further south into sub-Saharan Africa. Yemen has become the latest country to be embroiled in a full scale civil war, dragging in ten other countries in a coalition against the Houthis, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Morocco. If you add Russia and Ukraine; the spill over effects of refugees flooding into Europe, and the involvement of the United States, Britain, Europe and Russia either directly or indirectly, then much of the globe is involved in armed conflict.

Millions of people have perished in the past five years and tens of millions displaced and forced into severe deprivation. In Syria alone some 250 000 have been killed, and more than 10-million displaced.

It’s an onion of many layers, which may explain media fatigue in its coverage and an inability to take a satellite view of the turmoil, connecting the dots and identifying a common thread. On the surface, they all seem to be separate: sectarianism involving Sunnis and Shi’ites; religious fanaticism such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda; other factional skirmishes or simply just popular rebellion for regime change often involving super-powers and leaving even greater devastation in its wake such as in Iraq and Libya.

One can only marvel at our awe of the destructive force of nature. An earthquake, cyclone, flood or tsunami in which tens of thousands may perish will occupy our news headlines for weeks. A biological threat of some virus or epidemic such as Ebola will likewise capture our attention, with each new case justifying a headline, closing airports and disrupting travel. Apart from the 5 great extinctions, none of our more frequent natural disasters can compare to what we do to ourselves. Nature is far kinder to human beings than they are to each other.

Close to the core of that onion is something very near to a virus. It is factionalism – that force which forms groups either out of fear or fervour, inevitably creating defensive groups in others and ultimately pitching themselves into open conflict; as deadly as any epidemic nature can inflict upon us. Polarisation presupposes the forming of factions. They come in many guises such as cross border sectarianism; religious convictions and extremism; nationalism; patriotism; racism; tribalism; xenophobia and even political parties and rival trade unions. What they have in common is the extrapolation of unbridled individual self-interest to a group united under a self-righteous flag. They are also very susceptible to manipulation of individual willpower by fanatical leaders or despots.

In the majority of cases factions are an expression of our survival extinct at the expense of the more noble instinct of empathy. They inevitably reflect the worst in us, not the best. Of course it could be argued that forming factions is in our nature as social beings. But we should also see them for what they are – potentially serious threats to social cohesion. To prevent them from becoming radical, their concerns have to find some expression in the more benign social formations.

Factionalism will thrive in an environment of marked material disparities, especially where privilege is perceived to be linked to simply being a member of another faction or group, including race, nepotism or inherited status. It will also finds its roots in history and tradition. There is a touch of cynicism in those who believe that simply teaching history will enable firmer common ground for cohesion. It is not only the way that history has been written and presented that shapes responses, but also its interpretation. Even well versed historians can be in conflict on issues of the past.

Historians often insist that its takes at least a number of decades before events can be placed in proper context. Current events show that this may be an understatement – it could take centuries! Only now, for example, can one start arguing that 19th and early 20th century colonialism may rival the industrial revolution in its impact on the world. Certainly the divisions in the Middle East can be traced back largely to the betrayal of Caliphs and the wanton divvying and swopping of territories between the colonial powers of that time. Most of Africa suffered the same fate because Colonial powers had far greater concern about territory and resources than the interest of indigenous populations.

Factionalism and polarisation have to be contained or muted by addressing both current circumstances of hopelessness, purposelessness and despair, as well as behaviour shaped by tradition and different interpretations of history. Much has been written about the first as certainly one of the critical global issues of our time. The second is perhaps more difficult, but life coaches have a simple formula which can be applied at a societal level.

It embraces a principle that one should never allow the past to destroy the future. You cannot re-write your personal history, but you can certainly reinterpret it by reflecting on it, seeing the benefits even from trauma, and carrying the best forward. With that comes an even more difficult task of accepting accountability for the choices you have made.

It may be a substantial, if not close to hysterical leap to link the defacing of statues and burning of KZN foreign owned shops to the human inferno in the Middle East. Perhaps Professor Jonathan Jansen of the University of the Free State is right in his assessment that the monument protestors are a small minority and South Africa has a solid middle class that will sustain stability. The same could be said of the xenophobic attacks in KZN. But factions do not need a majority and democratic and legal restraints to wreak havoc. The monument controversy carries the germ of factionalism, and certainly xenophobia in KZN is a fully blown symptom of the virus.

Given our diversity we may want to question whether in the interest of freedom of speech, public protest and acceptance of realpolitik we are not becoming too blasé about the inherent dangers of humankind’s greatest scourge.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Psychopathy and leadership

Should leaders be given brain imaging scans for symptoms of psychopathy?

It may be a bit of a provocative headline but recent research gives interesting perspectives on whether certain leadership positions attract psychopathic behaviour. It’s an easy conclusion to reach when we witness the conduct of some political leaders, but does the modern business not do the same?

The modern business is predominantly seen (falsely in my view) as an institution existing primarily for the material self-gain of its owners or investors. It is overwhelmingly driven by the profit motive and has in the past few decades in effect been dehumanised (see article here) by paying homage to an entity called capital and viewing all other factors involved, including customers and employees as exploitable resources. In recent times this perspective has been greatly enhanced through the growth of big corporations, especially in finance; greater oligarchical centralisation of economic power and the pursuit of maximum returns in the shortest time possible – also called short-termism.

This may sound excessively disparaging of the modern business, but even if we remove innuendo, that description will fit modern organisational theory and practice.

The leader clearly has to fit this remit and be convincingly able to chant the mantra: “It’s not personal; it’s business.” He or she has to be focused fully on shareholder value to which end he or she is rewarded handsomely (some may argue excessively) in achieving profit and investment performance criteria. Even where these are tempered by law, governance and ethical requirements, the latter are viewed as constraints that have to be managed, if not exploited to become a competitive edge. Everything is viewed as resources that have to be managed and squeezed to ensure maximum returns.

Apart from obvious qualifications such as knowledge, experience (and even ethnic prescriptions in South Africa) modern business executives should have certain personality traits such as strong, at times even ruthless leadership skills; be charming, persuasive, charismatic, convincing, and perhaps even manipulative.

The above apply particularly to those leaders falling into the category of “professional manager” which make up the bulk of executives in business today, especially in the large corporates. In an earlier article (see here) I drew a clear and very important distinction between them and creators and builders in business, those entrepreneurs who have made a difference to our lives and changed the business landscape.

The popular view of psychopaths is a rather scary one: killers, rapists, conmen and criminals. The formal view is just as unflattering, describing it as a “personality disorder characterised by a lack of empathy and remorse, shallow affect, glibness, manipulation and callousness” or someone possessing “superficial charm, pathological lying and a diminished capacity for remorse.”

There is also a scientific diagnosis done under brain scan imaging which reveals that normal mirror neurons which are stimulated to trigger empathy are not activated in psychopaths, but rather disturbingly according Science daily “show an increased response in the ventral striatum, an area known to be involved in pleasure, when imagining others in pain.” It’s been shown that only 1% of the population have this condition, although up to 25% of criminals diagnosed in American prisons have the disorder. So even if they were in high demand, it’s doubtful whether leadership positions contain many of them.

But it is not as simple as that either. Latest research conducted by Dutch neuroscientists (see BBC News report here) shows that while psychopaths do not spontaneously and instinctively respond empathetically to the emotions and distress of others, they have an empathy switch which can be turned on, not by simply witnessing distress in others, but by imagining themselves in that situation.

This gives perspective to the findings of American neuroscientist, James Fallon, a self-diagnosed psychopath who calls himself a “pro-social psychopath” (see published interview here). He distinguishes between instinctive empathy as being “emotional empathy” and the “switched on” empathy as being “cognitive empathy”.

This may explain why psychopaths can be highly effective in any given situation. After all, skilled actors when adopting a character role for a performance can be more convincing than a purely emotionally charged response. In most of us cognitive empathy exists side by side with emotional empathy with psychopaths simply not having the latter. Fallon says psychopaths display some 20 different traits, not all of which are negative or even dangerous. One which is highly sought after in leaders, is called “fearless dominance”.

He believes that cognitive empathy was a significant attribute of many great leaders such as Ghandi, Mother Theresa and Nelson Mandela (his examples). This is not to say that they did not have emotional empathy to begin with; simply that their effectiveness was most likely enhanced by regular use or perhaps even permanent opening of the cognitive empathy switch.

Clearly cognitive empathy is an essential trait for the modern business executive. But if it is not tempered by emotional empathy and guided by a strong clear moral compass, it simply becomes a manipulative tool for self-gain that could cross the line into being severely damaging to others or even becoming criminal. On the other hand, psychopaths, because of enhanced strengths that accompany the condition and who have become adept at practicing cognitive empathy will most likely be more attractive to lead a modern business organisation.

It could be argued then that someone who practices habitual cognitive empathy to the point that it becomes virtually instinctive, will be just as functional, if not more so, than someone who relies mostly on emotional empathy. The real danger is that someone who relies solely on cognitive empathy will be able to switch it off once he or she believes it is no longer needed. This could explain why absolute power often corrupts the holder.

Given our increasing knowledge of the brain and the danger that psychopaths inherently present, a strong case can be made for routine brain scan imaging of any incumbent or potential leader or executive.

Of far greater concern is the extent to which our understanding of business does not require a suppression of emotional empathy. The even more frightening question is whether modern life itself is not forcing humanity to do the same.