Separating the dancer from the dance

Photograph by Soki

Photograph by Soki

Joshua Prager is a hemiplegic journalist. On a recent TED Talk in which he shares the story behind his accident, he revives a century-old discussion: how can we separate nature from nurture (the dancer from the dance)? And why does it matter?

Susan Cain is a former lawyer and she advocates for a better integration of introvert’s talents in our extraverted-biased society. In her work she separates and nuances another similar discussion, one that has antagonized psychologists for the past 50 years: Do personality traits exist? How can we separate the effects of the environment from our temperaments? Is there even a true self or are we just a sum of social masks we choose to wear ?

This animated debate launched by Freud and Jung gains momentum as the science of psychology evolves and as we peak into the neuron firings inside the human brain or the nucleobases that compound our genes. Underneath it all rests the unsettling question: How much free will do we really have?

“I don’t like to put people into boxes”

This is not an uncommon reaction to personality tests. In fact, what we mean when we say this is “I don’t like to be put in a box”.

We all prefer to believe in complete free will. We prefer to believe in our ability to master with the same ease as the next man any competence we set our minds to. The problem is that compelling evidence suggests just the opposite: our very personal inborn temperaments, genes, physiology, neuron wiring and current state affect our behaviours and ability to acquire new skills more than we wish to admit.

In order to respond to this complexity, we increase our efforts in studying human behaviours. We aim at discovering the perfect split between personality and environmental effects for each possible act. Just like salt is 23/58 Sodium and 35/58 Chlorine, it should also be the case for our tendency for introspection, caring or aggression, right? This knowledge would give us more insight where our efforts would yield better results. It would be the victory of pragmatism and performance!

The truth is, each one of us is neither a snow flake that is completely unpredictable nor a soulless collection of reactions to genes and external stimuli. All in all, both these extremist views are a diversion from encountering and tending to our true selves.

If any given personality test can indeed oversimplify the richness within us, combining several ones provides us with a rather insightful understanding of how we are in a large variety of situations. More important than that, it allows us to discover the other through different lens, to understand that we don’t see the same events the same way and understand the advantages and limitations of each of our life goggles.

The answer to the oversimplification of any psychometric approach is not abstinence but diversified exposure.

Intergenerational training

Intergenerational and intercultural seminars stimulate similar discussions.

“How can we simplify every individual behaviour to a birth period or to a national origin?” The answer is clearly “we can’t!” However, this does not mean that we should throw the baby with the bath water.

Serious studies on both fields provide us with a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives. The “dance” part of a person’s experience is a thug of war of several sociological and psychological influences: socio-economic conditions, family upbringing, culture of origin, environment, generation, amongst others. Generational approach is just another face of this large diamond of influences. Sometimes the light shines through that face, sometimes through another.

Another question I hear often is “Will Gen Y become like the previous generations as they age?” Again, the answer depends on another question: “In which aspect?”

Your experience (and reaction to life) is influenced by the moment in History in which you were born and grew up. Local and global events, especially during our formative years (that last up to 19 or 25 years-old), strongly affect our perception of the world: how we view and experience work, how we set priorities, how we communicate to each other and how we integrate technology to our lives. These are called generational factors.

On the other hand, since the dawn of mankind, the developmental order of the individual from infancy to maturity has been extremely constant and richly documented. Teenagers today rebel against their parents and still will do so in the years to come (the only thing that might change is the duration of each developmental stage as we live longer or the manner in which they do so). These are called age factors.

The challenge of a generational expert is to understand which behaviours are affected by generational factors, which are affected by age factors and which are affected by a mix of both. With time, generational factors tend to remain imprinted as deep-seated values, whereas age factors evolve.

The goal of diversity trainings should not be to predict future behaviour, “put people into boxes” or create dissent. The goal is to open us up to other ways of making meaning of ourselves and the world around. It gets us out of our heads and offers us the opportunity to experience other ways of thinking, feeling and expressing ourselves.

It is because we study separately the technique of the dancer and the rhythm of the dance that we’re able to marvel at the whole, without worrying so much as which gets the credit.

What are your views on intergenerational or intercultural trainings?

10 forces changing our workplace (I): Economy

Globalization Generation Y

These days it’s not uncommon to hear “the winds are changing”. Even in this blog you’ve probably noticed that nearly in every post there are references (and evidences) to those changes.

Still, it seems that in some companies and universities, theories about a need for businesses to undergo serious internal changes are met with the same scepticism as astrology, as if a changing world had to be proven scientifically over and over again. As Ken Robinson’s subtly mentioned in his famous “Bring on the learning revolution” TED talk: “If you don’t believe in a major climate crisis, you should get out more”.

To cement the discussion, the first chapter of the very well documented “The 2020 Workplace” book by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd introduces the 10 major forces (and challenges) changing our workplace now. Throughout the next 3 posts, we will revisit them in 3 subgroups (Economy, Technology and Society):

1.       Workforce demographics

In demographics there are four superposing trends in developed countries responsible for an accelerated increase in generational, gender and ethnical mixity, and requiring employers to learn to manage a more diverse workforce.

a) Declining fertility rates and shrinking workforce population

b) Higher portions of immigrant population, due to accentuated migration inside Europe and higher fertility rates in the last decades compared to originally local population (Latino and Islamic portions tripling in America and Europe respectively)

c) Increase in older active population (55 years-old and above will represent 1 out of 5 employees in 2020), due to increased life-expectancy and pension cuts

d) Massive arrival of Gen Y in the workplace representing in most developed countries half of the working population by 2013.

2.       Knowledge economy

There’s an increase in complexity of skills to get a job in the new developed markets. As companies streamline, automate and outsource some transactional jobs, the tacit workforce segment (positions that require problem solving, judgement, listening, data analysis, relationship building and cross-cultural collaboration) grows 2,5 times faster in developed countries as the transactional jobs. According to Forrester Research, at least some 3.3 million white-collar jobs in the US will shift to BRIC countries by 2015.

3.       Globalization

Globalizations most known forces are the opening of markets and competition in labour cost, but it certainly does not stop there. Globalization has added to business complexity in several other ways, altering forever the dogma of the “established organization”. Century-old companies have met demise and severe restructurings. In fact, whole industries have disappeared or entirely changed business model (take for example the different directions taken by Fuji and Kodak).

A clear example of the uncertainty of a company’s continuity these days comes from Fortune 500 list. If a company was on the list in 1980, there was a 56% chance it was still listed in 1994. Of the 2007 list, only 30% of them were there in 1994 (and that’s before the 2008 crisis). Moreover, between 2005 and 2009, we’ve moved from a world with a strong hegemony by US, Japan and Europe (from 77% to 68% of Fortune 500 headquarters) to a multi-polarized world in which BRIC grows from 4% to 14% of Fortune 500 headquarters.

The implications in labor relations are enormous. First it means that managers are no longer leading by proximity, clear hierarchical lines and face-to-face coaching, but now balancing complex cross-departmental relations in a matrix structure, an independent or virtual workforce and multi-location employees. Secondly, as new businesses rise and compete from different areas of the world, the old assumptions of “correct” people management are put under the microscope and seen under new light. Cultural management becomes a new and inescapable phenomenon to competitive organizations (to which generational management is only a part).

How has globalization changed the way you manage your team?

The broken “just-in-time” sourcing model

If you read newspapers and business blogs, there’s much being said about talent shortage in the midst of one of the largest unemployment crisis in the developed world (9% in US and hovering around 11% in Europe). How is this even possible? Are we living in an era of lack of talent or lack of recruiter’s flexibility?

 So what do businesses do when, in theory, skills becomes rare?

  • They work with local colleges to develop the necessary skills in their communities,
  • They put in place strong retention and development programs such as rotational traineeship
  • They multiply cheap “learning-on-the-job” solutions like cross-departmental projects
  • They focus on transgenerational mentoring programs to guarantee intellectual property is not lost and talent pipeline is filled
  • They train recruiters to hire on motivation and past achievements rather than experience,

Right? Wrong!

The pervasive “just in time” recruiting model is gaining immense popularity. According to Taleo, a talent management tool provider, 2 out of 3 vacancies in the US are now filled externally, whereas a generation ago external hires represented only 10% of vacancies. The fallacy behind this approach is that it allows businesses to find the precise workers needed, just at the time they’re needed and letting them go when needs change. It relies however in the opposite premise of recruiters’ main complaint: an unending “buyers’ market”.

In reality, this is an expensive and ineffective shortcut as external hires when compared to internal peers are paid in average 18% more, get promoted faster and take 3 years to attain the same performance levels (mostly due to the adaptation into the company’s culture). This is not taking into account the lost opportunities and sunk costs linked to months of search to find the perfect candidate.

Moreover, there are much more pervasive and damming consequences to this practice. After reading Peter Cappelli’s HBR article, I’ve summed some of the consequences of this broken model into a graph called the dramatic rose, composed of a macro-economic, an organizational and an individual “petals”.

Outside recruitment effect over Gen YFirst of all, “just-in-time” recruitment is outdated and unsustainable in a macro-economic level because it relies on previous experience rather than the potential to learn. Hiring exclusively on previous experience in a fast changing world (where new skills and roles are invented on a daily basis to fit specific business needs) is a dead-end solution. It is not by hiring people to do a job they already do (thus creating compartmentalization of business realms), nor encouraging individuals to job-hop that we’re going to solve serious economic and social crisis and nurture innovation.

A good example of the absurdity of this practice was a job interview I had a few months ago with a Belgium government agency. They were looking for a Knowledge Transfer Manager to prepare the retirement of their Boomers. With an endless list of pre-requisites filled, my recruiter was inflexible on the fact I did not have 5 years of experience in knowledge transfer. Despite my reminders that I had a 5 year-experience in cross-generational education, 4 years in project management, an understanding of Yers and above all a real passion for the challenge, she stood her ground and continued her search for the perfect candidate. I wonder how much longer she’ll look for a candidate to fill this impossible pre-requisite; given 5 years ago not a single Belgium business was facing a massive retirement wave to bother creating a knowledge transfer position.

Secondly, on an individual level this approach neglects human’s desire for change, interest in learning new things and it seriously disengages employees. Frozen by fear of being replaced or discouraged by top positions filled exclusively by external hires, employees will settle for the minimum service (especially Yers). Risks will be avoided and information will be hoarded in an attempt to obtain bargain power with the company. The organizational result is decline in innovation, loss of intellectual property as turnover increases and an even greater dependency on external hires.

At this point, the company will redirect their humble investments in learning and development to maintain an ever-growing bubble of recruitment and severance, reinforcing the tragic cycle.

Is this the fault of schools that didn’t teach well, of Yers that job-hop looking for meaning or of businesses that started to look outside of their ranks encouraged by the motto “if employers invest in their people, they will take the investment and leave”. Instead of searching for the one to blame, I encourage businesses to break the model and take a leap forward in faith (using the recommendations of the beginning of this post).

The principle of “Giver’s Gain” states that there are indeed a few takers in the world that will just leave, but those who will stay will return the investment tenfold in engagement, commitment and innovation. Are you ready to trust?

What’s your company’s main hiring practice? 

How has this practice influenced employee motivation? 

Lost in Translation (II): Why Boomers and Yers see businesses differently

You might have never heard about Carl Icahn but rest assured that he has done more to change the way businesses are seen around the globe than most people you can think of.  Carl Icahn was part of a group of people who in the early 1980s shook the foundations of traditional businesses: they were the corporate raiders.

Until their arrival, the view of the business world (that of Boomers) was quite different from the one we see in the media these days. A company was a group of individuals that shared a common vision for society offering their innovative products and services, most often than not in a family environment. Companies were quoted in the stock market to attract investors and those investors had a quite passive participation in the way businesses were run.

In the 80s, all of that changed! Since many companies were diluting their stocks in the market, corporate raiders saw a unique opportunity to take control of corporations and turn their humble profits into high margin operations.  It was the beginning of the hostile takeovers and from them on, businesses acquired a newfound respect (or fear) of their investors: the “family business” model for indexed corporations was under serious threat. Moreover, with the end of Cold War and new cheap labour found in the Southeast Asia, companies started to restructure and downsize in order to increase their bottom line.

It was precisely at this time that Yers came to the world. Every night at the dinner table they would hear their parent’s stories about restructurings and massive lay-offs. Later at the evening news such stories would be painted with images of distress and rebellion. In school, teachers with little knowledge about the business world would cement negative preconceptions. Later in late adolescence, Yers would get student jobs that would exploit their cheap labour and provide few learning opportunities. After several years of college education and despite their over qualification, a fourth of those students would struggle to find a first job, blocked in their genuine aspirations by unrealistic demands from recruiters.

If self-fulfilment and self-actualization is the main priority for Yers, it’s only understandable that after such bombardment of information they’d have a hard time conceiving that those could be found in the workplace. Much like Generation X, Yers are indeed extremely sceptical about the business world because in their eyes business does not mean a group of people following a vision or a positive contribution to society, but fulfilling financial needs of greedy investors.

The truth is every one of us does not want the workplace to be reduced to this. As humans we all have dreams and hopes and we’d expect that the 8 hours (or more) that we spend everyday at work amounts to something more meaningful. Here are some ways in which HR can change the way your Yers (or Xer) see your company towards a source of fulfilment:

  • Allow only interns for positions that can be filled with jobs with real learning opportunities. We know the temptation for cheap labor is big, but the bad press you’ll get on school campuses is not worth it. Remember that if not your future employees, they’re your future customers.
  • Prepare a solid induction program and make sure new employees have all their work tools from day one. Collect info and fix induction bugs through Astonishment Reports.
  • Encourage helicopter view and meaning through a brief rotational traineeship for newcomers. Not only it builds cohesion and increases cross-fertilization, but the fact of understanding how one’s work impacts a whole organization and the final customer is a great source of meaning.
  • Encourage recruiting from within (that includes interns) and promote horizontal jumps. To most Yers, self-fulfilment comes from trying out different positions before settling for the one they love.
  • Make sure you know everything the internet and employees are saying about your company and don’t make claims about your company culture that don’t match those views while interviewing a candidate. Yers appreciate transparency more than corporate publicity.

How can your HR change the way Yers are viewing your company?

From Change Management to Generation Y (Eduardo’s story)

First of all, let me introduce myself. My name is Eduardo Estellita and I’m from Generation Y.

Born and raised in Brazil, I’m an engineer and mathematician with a double degree in Brazil and France. From my early days, I’ve dedicated my energy to a wide range of projects (often simultaneously), driven by the wonder of discovery and a thirst for the acquisition and transmission of knowledge.

Not surprisingly, my career debuted in Education. For 5 years, whilst still at university, I was a private and group tutor to high school students, a university assistant teacher and a volunteer teacher in a community preparatory school.  Weekly, I’d see myself animating classes up to 40 students and would take great pleasure in having an active role in the learning process.

The following 5 years, I’ve held several functional positions in France and Benelux within big multinational organizations: from purchasing and logistics to sales and business development. The common point between each of those experiences was change management.  I was that guy moving across departments, locations and hierarchical levels, gathering colleagues and external partners towards a common organizational goal: “the future”. This future was invariably translated into change and I couldn’t wait to put it into practice.

Soon enough I’ve realized that my company leaders did not envisioned the future in all its details. To them it meant a series of new routine activities, a customer reaction, a deadline, and (if I was lucky enough) a budget.  A crucial element was usually left out: the people.

The people were the ones who would acquire and apply those new routine activities (and absorb its impacts), who would comfort and explain the changes to each customer, who would free up their agendas and open their spirits in order to reach the deadline, and who would put to good use the budget invested in it. Over and over again, I was surprised not by the technical challenges, nor the complexity of cross-functional and cross-cultural project management, but by the immense resistance on individual level. Under such conditions who wouldn’t resist?

In my experience, a project manager receives a very concrete frame and is entrusted to invite each project member into creative painting of what the tableau of future will look like. His first role is to welcome different painting strokes and desires for the final outcome. His second role is to organize the group so they combine the strokes and designs that best fit into the frame. His last and most ignored role is to accompany in their mourning those who had to adapt their stroke, give up their own original design and were invited to paint within the frame against will. A successful change project will advance as fast as the last person mourning.

Enriched by those projects I have arrived to two conclusions:

1)      Like in my story, Generation Y has a very special role as catalysts of change in businesses and society at large.

Gen Y grew up learning to adapt to waves and waves of disruptive changes and were often raised in consensus-driven and collaborative environments. On top of that, thanks to the communications and transport revolution of the last decades, they’ve had the luxury to be early on in contact with different cultures and have acquired the skills to welcome and combine diverging viewpoints.

2)      Generation Y and HR have the potential to create a powerful strategic alliance if only they stop treating each other as enemies.

I cannot imagine that someone would want to go into HR because they don’t care about people. It just makes no sense! Then how come have we arrived into a situation in which HR is generally viewed by employees (especially those from Gen Y) as a powerless “payroll and compliance” function? When did companies decide that more than 50% of their assets (their people) would be seen as 40% of their cost? When did we start looking at the glass half-empty and how could we start seeing it otherwise?

By constantly issuing “unrealistic demands”, questioning the status quo and insisting for change, Gen Y will challenge HR out of their support function into a more strategic role within the company. In turn, HR has the power to hire and develop the kind of people that will bring the human back into the center of business.

Show me a company with a strong Y culture and I will show you a powerful, strategic HR team with a long talent pipeline.

If a partnership between Generation Y and HR is the key for change, my next concern was to define my role in all this. This question led to a series of transforming decisions.

To keep accompanying people in their crossroads and approach both sides of this partnership in a co-creative manner, I’ve enrolled myself in a training to become a certified coach.

To lead an unbiased quest for the steps into this partnership, I’ve given up on my own prejudices against HR. I’ve admitted how little I know about HR’s challenges and opportunities within companies. I’ve stopped complaining and became part of the solution by listening to what HR has to say.

Finally, to gather a significant and varied sample of Gen Y and HR experiences, I’ve quit my job and decided to dedicate a year on this research.

The results of this newfound passion shall be seen in the months to come. It is with absolute conviction about the importance, timeliness and impact of those 2 conclusions that I embark on this project.  Most of all, I believe that the successful integration of Gen Y in our companies is an essential piece to the puzzle of our current economical, educational and environmental crisis.

Whether my endeavor plants enough seeds of change, it depends as much on my efforts as on your valuable contributions with your own stories and opinions. To get the ball rolling, I’d be thankful to hear from you:

How does your life story weaves into the story of changes bigger than yourself?

In which aspects are you and Generation Y alike?

(Click here for my definition or a video in French about Generation Y)