The Cost of Social Comas

This blog is a bit longer than others. You may want to get yourself a nice latte or something that gets you to a quiet place. Doesn't matter what, just get comfortable. At the end there are three Ted Talk links you might like.

We think of comas as an individual experience. But societies experience comas too, as do organizations. In a sense, social comas are the opposite of mindfulness—being fully aware of ourselves and our environment in the present moment. Social comas—periods of apathy, indifference and unconsciousness—can be costly. Let's start with advertising as a useful example.

If you're like me, you record your favorite TV programs at home, and then fast forward past the ads. Even though few of us watch the ads, companies keep paying for them, television keeps running them, and we all have to deal. When the Internet came along, this gave us the ability to search for products and services we wanted. In that moment, the need for advertising diminished, well, essentially vanished, but the use of ads did not. For a variety of reasons, we continue a behavior no longer warranted.

There is a cost to any social coma. Avoiding the bombardment of ads takes a psychological toll. The energy spent deflecting the endless barrage of mind pollution is real. The continuous onslaught of ads drains our system, creates depression, and obstructs our mental clarity. So why do we continue this illusion of need? Mainly because we are stuck in a paradigm that says we need to do this. And then there's the economics. It's good for the economy, never mind the impact on human beings. 

On a national level, comas manifest as allowing “leaders” to do things to us that are not actually good for us or our nation. In our organizations, coma symptoms abound, like the dreaded annual ritual of performance reviews and the corresponding development plan. Even though year after year we know there was no follow through, we continue to go through the motions in a coma-like state, and this is not the only aspect of HR where the coma prevails. 

HR trends are not something I normally track, but I was asked to do so by a colleague. Out of curiosity, I Googled trends in HR. Turns out there are a lot of stories about trends in HR. Trends in HR have become a trend. Who knew. HR, it seems, is in a constant mode of change, renewal, and re-creation. But why?

Here’s one perspective. HR as a function died awhile back, but the darn thing is in a coma and doesn’t know it. What happened to HR? The most critical mistake was one of credibility. HR posed as a friend of the employee while being manipulated by leadership to get what they wanted out of employees—think employee surveys and performance evaluations. This misrepresentation cost HR its credibility, and employees never trusted the function again. Second, technology has automated key HR functions and enabled the delivery of most people related services as on-demand, online, and self service.

This change process increased HR’s irrelevance. I realize that irrelevance is a strong word, but let’s not confuse the people of HR with the function. I am talking about the function. People are never irrelevant. We just have to find better things for them to do. By the way, if you want to make people feel irrelevant, refer to them as resources. Human Resources is a term I have always found to be insulting. What is an organization? It is people. We are not resources. We are the organization. Calling people human resoures is like putting people on the same level as capital or real estate or some other asset. End of rant.

Technology, including HR systems and software and web-based services, has changed the landscape of HR. All functions from hiring and compensation to benefits and training have transformed. Self service is a reality. Today, HR functions can be carried out at the business unit manager level, where critical decisions are made anyway. They can be done with a phone, or a bigger computer, because after all, a phone is now a computer.

Sidebar Commentary: When you think about it for a moment, isn't it weird that we call our modern day powerful mobile computing device a phone? Is it not time to rename this powerful multipurpose thing? A “phone” today performs the functions of a professional camera and video camera; web browser, email, all things Internet; computer apps of all kinds that organize our lives; an endless stream of apps like a flashlight, mindfulness programs, design this and that, a thousand other possibilities; and ya, it's also a voice communicator. We need to call this thing something other than a phone! How about a contest to rename this. Let me go first. My choice is “handi”, short for handheld information device. "Can I borrow your handi?" Yep, that works. So who can create this contest and get us going? This could be a great social exercise, renaming the phone. On that note, time to leave the sidebar and get back to our main topic.

Our world is changing rapidly. We’re reinventing the world, but we’re not reinventing the organization, not enough to keep up. We need to apply disrputive forces to the design of organizations, and HR as a function is a good place to start. After all, most business managers are all about reducing costs that do not provide a good return on investment. Once you take OD out of HR—where it never belonged, where’s the value? Let’s take a look at the classic functions of HR: hiring, compensation, benefits, and training. 

When it comes to hiring, if a manager needs talent, they know what they need better than someone in HR. Managers can post positions on LinkedIn, GlassDoor, Indeed, and the list goes on. Hiring needs to become a basic function of being a manager, at the business unit level. After all, the manager’s group will need to do the interviews and they’ll need to schedule their people based on their calendars. And if a manager keeps losing people because of their lack of relational skills, doesn't it make sense that the burdon of hiring falls upon them? Once a hire is confirmed, the manager should be able to input the new employee, including compensation, into an HR system and the system can get them onto payroll. Employees can then self select benefits in the same system and there you go. This is, after all, the promise of enterprise systems—self service. 

Let’s tackle the upfront part of hiring: HR as the gatekeeper. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that HR people have some special ability to understand the human condition and human behavior and human personality so much so that they can decide who should come through as a candidate, more so than anyone else. I’m a psychologist, and I don’t believe I have that kind of special ability. Is it possible that HR in the gatekeeper role of selecting candidates for interviews was a mistake in functional role design, which then influenced every selection going forward? I think so.

We know that organizations get things done in teams. Teams can hire the people they need better than anyone else, and they are often the ones doing the interviews anyway. So let’s bring that task down to the team level. While I'm on this stream of consciousness, let's tackle performance reviews. Stop it! Personally, if a manager values our relationship and the work I'm doing, great. If not, let me know and I'll be happy to go somewhere else where I am valued. I don't know any managers who want to use their valuable time for performance reviews. Why not make this a normal part of an ongoing conversation between a manager and their employee, all year long? Isn't it time to end this parent-child relationship pretense. We're all adults. Let's make the relationship so.

When it comes to compensation, responsibility needs to be revisited. People need to take responsibility for their compensation. I look at it like this. We have to know what we are worth based on our skills and knowledge and experience. I state my consulting rate or salary requirement upfront. If an employer wants to pay less, they can hire someone else. That’s fine. I’ll seek another position. I ask about compensation in initial conversations to avoid wasting anyone’s time. In this way, when I’m hired I can focus entirely on delivering value to the organization and to my team, and this is because I’m getting paid what I know I’m worth, and they are getting what they expect from my role. I view this as a simple agreement upfront about what compensation I need. Once agreed on, that amount is entered into a system by a manager as I’m brought onboard. Done. If at some point I need to negotiate, I'll have the conversation. Everyone needs to learn to represent themselves in such conversations. This is leadership development. 

Let’s talk about training. I think HR had this wrong from the beginning. This is about learning. Individually, it is the responsibility of the person to have the right knowledge and skills for a position and to continue their learning on their own personal career path. Let’s teach peole to fish, if you get my drift. What organizations can do, and some are doing this already, is help people achieve their own personal development plans. Let’s face it, organizations have a long history of not being great at people development. Have you ever had a development plan that was, ah, under developed? I see raised hands. It’s amazing what we do year after year even though we know it’s not working. Even after not doing last year's plan, managers will ask an employee to develop another, year after year more heads nodding. Personally, I need to be able to bring value to an organization. Continually upgrading my skills and knowledge is what allows me to ask for the compensation I want. I’m happy if an organization supports my path of learning. But let it be my responsibility. Remove the function of training from the organization. Let others do this. More savings for the organization. Is Wall Street listening?

The role of organizations delivering benefits has troubled me from day one. When I think of healthcare, I think of everyone having the same level of service as everyone else. What I have never understood is how our nation’s signup process for healthcare programs and services landed in the organizations where people work. What does healthcare have to do with our work? Healthcare and work are two separate aspects of our lives. So why then is healthcare tied to an employer? The relationship makes no sense and is problematic from the start. People change employers more and more. Each time this happens, this creates a whole bunch of red tape and delays and costs, entirely unnecessary. Let's remove healthcare benefits from the care of employers, period. It is an unwarranted relationship desperate for divorce. It is inefficient and a cost to organizations. In addition, this dysfunctional relationship provides corporations with an unfair leverage over citizens, who should all have healthcare regardless of employment. Healthcare administered by HR within the organizations where we work is a social coma whose time has come. Remove the oxygen and let go. We have better ways to handle healthcare as a nation.

Organizations and learning.
I don’t believe in the concept of organizational learning. Organizations are people. People learn and they learn individually. A team may be doing something together, and they may be learning together, but the actual learning is happening on an individual level. Each person on the team is incorporating the learning into their own personal history and experience, and so learning is different for each of us. 

I believe learning is the primary role of every individual and every organization. I know. I just said that organizations don’t learn. Yes, and that’s true. Think of the concept of organizational learning as the total awareness, knowledge and experience of all its people. How well all of this is integrated and shared is essentially organizational learning. It is the ability to learn as an organization that enables all other capabilities. With the exception of the Peter Senge “learning organization” movement and the companies who understood this and followed the lead, most leaders have simply missed the boat on this one. One of the paradigm shifts that we need to make organizationally is to refocus the organization on learning as its primary task—essentially, sharing of information, a task of communication. We hear wave after wave of the new language about what organizations need to prepare for next. Today it is the digital revolution, tomorrow it will be something different, but it can all be distilled down to learning. Learning is the key. How fast can you observe, learn, and change, as a process of continual transformation? This is the key to creating the most vibrant cultures and the most productive organizations.

Yet, the coma continues and we continue to do things that don’t really make sense. Why? You know the answer. People prefer the comfort of keeping things as they are, even though nothing stays the same. “Why change if we don’t have to?” Hmm … well, because everything else around us is changing, everything, all the time. The nature of reality is change and process. Denial does not change reality. When denial doesn’t work, we have a tendency toward coma mode, a state of unconscious indifference.

One of the reasons for social comas is what I’ll call the standing paradigm theory. Once a paradigm—a set of current beliefs—becomes a cultural norm in terms of beliefs, this standing paradigm is difficult to unseat because so many have an investment in this particular set of beliefs. The scientific belief that the world was round was actually difficult to sell, way back when, because so many leaders and scientists had staked their careers, their entire lives, on the belief that the world was flat. The simple reality is that most leaders are not experts in either learning or change. Diffusing a long standing function like HR into the rest of the organization seems like a monumental task if your head is always buried in the busy-ness of revenue and profits.

In terms of origins of social and organizational comas, one final reason. With change comes risk, or so the perception goes. It is true, but there is just as much risk in not changing or waiting until there's no longer a choice, and maybe more. People worry about their jobs if things go south. Unfortunately, the understandable desire to keep one’s job drives far too many decisions and drives what is not invented and why change does not happen. This change in HR has been coming along, organically, for some time, yet the unconsciousness continues. There is a reason why so many articles continue to manifest on Trends in HR. As William Bridges pointed out in his well traveled Transitions book, there are three phases to a change. First, there is a letting go. We must let go of something. Then there is this messy phase, this time of uncertainty and discomfort–essentially the bargaining stage of grief. And finally, the new form emerges and transformation is complete. 

Psychologically, this is about fear, the fear of making decisions that may come with personal loss, like derailing one’s career or the loss of one’s job. And so, organizations continue to suffer, progress suffers, and people suffer through meaningless work. As we’ve seen so many times, organizations resist change for as long as they can, until they can no longer afford to not change. By then, it is imperative. People scramble, budgets are approved, a charter is created, people are hired, the kick off meeting occurs, and somewhere in the middle of all this commotion, someone calls an organizational change consultant like myself. Imagine if we could eliminate fear. How would the world differ? How would decision-making differ? The possibilities are unimaginable because we've been so far from that possibility for so long.

Part of the solution is for we as a society to create an environment where people can willingly sacrifice themselves—their positions—for the sake of the greater good, for the organization to progress. Who wants to improve the way things are done if the end result means eliminating their own job? I think people are capable of doing this, even happy to, but our system doesn’t have a safety net to cover them. The system doesn’t encourage courage. What a shame, because this reality is the cause of comas and the constraint that eliminates or slows the invention of better solutions. Sadly, this occurs on such a grand scale that if we were to take a closer look and be honest with ourselves, we would feel shame for all the lives we’ve nearly bored to death from work that has no meaning.

Do we really have a choice not to change? How about we adopt the Starship Enterprise mission: “To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before”. Organizations are stuck in a paradigm that no longer supports human needs of learning, connection, and community. We can do better. We can boldly go where no one has gone before and reinvent the organization’s mission and structure in relation to society.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the structure of modern organizations is at odds with the chaotic, fast-changing reality of today’s world. Corporations still tend to be built on an industrial-age hierarchical model that seeks to achieve stability and success through centralized control and up-front planning. It’s a model that was effective in the simpler times for which it was designed, but as management expert Gary Hamel points out, ‘The world is becoming more turbulent than organizations are becoming adaptable. Organizations were not built for these kinds of changes’” (Allen, 2016).

Suffice it to say that organizational structure needs to change. There are new models, less structured and more collaborative. The Holacracy model used by companies like Zappos, the David Allen Company and hundreds of others is one. It's too early, though, to know whether these new forms will succeed in creating the learning capability and the ability to change, in step with the changes around them. We have along way to go. We cannot afford to hold onto the comfort of structures that we know when they do not allow the organization to change and flow with everything around them. 

Yes, I believe that the function of HR died a couple of decades ago, and the darn thing just doesn't know it. All these trends in HR are symptoms of the need for change, but it is a different change than all the swirl we see today. The coma will end only when we find the honesty and courage to make the right decisions around structure. This includes larger structures of social change, as in social structure change.

To bring this to fruition, we need new social structures to protect people’s income in the midst of constant change. We need to embrace the process of transformation as the way of life for organizations, just as it is for everything else in our world. We need to shift the organization and its activities toward learning. Everything that's happened since the coma has been a desperate attempt to keep something alive for the sake of comfort, for fear of change, and for economic and political reasons. Until we find a way to be honest with what’s going on in organizations and honest about the influence and impact of money and fear on decisions, we’re going to keep circling around and wasting precious lives. A perspective.

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