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Chaos & Control, Autonomy & Power in HR

A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I came across this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.

Happy Easter! By the time this post is published I will be deep in a food coma after family dinner, to which we contributed garlic rapini, and homemade cheesecake (I like embracing opposing tensions). This weekend definitely did not fit my macros, but tomorrow is a new day…Pre-food coma, here are a few things that got stuck in my brain this week:

Control and Chaos

Autonomy and Power in HR – Laurie Ruettimann

Speaking of opposing tensions, this is one that has been stubbornly infiltrating my thinking for several months. Every time I log into WordPress to post this weekly round up of thoughts I see an almost complete draft titled ‘Chaos and Control’ patiently waiting for me to deem it ‘good enough’ to hit ‘Publish’. Maybe next week… For now, it came as no surprise that when I looked at the links I’d saved this week, and the feverishly tapped out, disjointed notes that accompanied them, that they all aligned with this theme.

Laurie’s take on this is from the viewpoint of the HR professional, and the challenge we can experience being in a role with (relatively) high autonomy, but low power and leverage within our organizations.

She’s right that this can create a special kind of fear and frustration. Her recommendation to handle this is wise.

So, if you want to survive the trenches of HR and boost your engagement, it helps to have a non-judging mind. If you’re at the intersection of “my CFO is an asshole” and “nobody listens to me or consults me on important issues,” don’t judge it. Don’t try to fix it right away. Be a journalist of your own experience, and ask yourself questions like, “Is how I feel actually true? Why does this keep happening to me? How can I do this differently, next time?”

Organizations are almost always far more complex systems than we give them credit for. And the thing about systems is, the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. Not knowing this often leads us to prescribe ‘just trying harder’ in situations where we are not achieving the outcome we want. In the context of HR (and people in general), just trying harder to achieve our aims regularly leads others to become further entrenched in their own positions, creating adversaries rather than desired outcomes.

The non-striving mind in HR will help you, too. The world works against those who try too hard. The more you endeavor, the harder it is to succeed. If you find yourself pushing up against power and losing, return to your non-judging mind. Watch how power is expressed — and contained — within your company. Try to understand how decisions are made in your organization and copy those behaviors that are healthy and productive.

Laurie’s post made me reflect on how much improving the way we work is about working on ourselves. When LeadWise Academy started a couple of weeks ago, a fellow participant in the course recommended this TED talk. The speaker, describing her experience transitioning her organization to a self-managed model, says that  “New work needs inner work.” That is, for effective collaboration between highly autonomous individuals, such as that required in a self-managed organization, the individuals involved need to really know themselves, be capable of real empathy, and have the ability to see things from multiple perspectives.

The No Rules Illusion – Koen Smets

Our LeadWise Academy assignment this week was to develop a personal mission statement and a social contract in our groups, which one could describe as alternatives to traditional forms of control used in organizations. I’m interested in alternatives, and I know that I’m not the only one. HR, and organizations in general I think, are grappling with the need to hire, enable, and motivate workers to do creative and cognitively demanding work in an increasingly ambiguous world, but in many cases they are still stuck in outmoded command and control approaches that seem to have greater costs (literal and figurative) than benefits. Of course, there are a range of real world examples along the spectrum of ‘control’ and ‘chaos’. I came across this excellent post  from Koen Smets this week while I was reflecting on some of the examples we’re discussing in my LeadWise cohort.

We may generally prefer more freedom over less freedom. But we are also quite happy to trade some freedom in return for security and clarity, so that our cognitive systems can focus on the job, rather than on worrying whether we’re transgressing some unwritten convention.

It’s seems likely that organizations on the far point of either end of this spectrum won’t be for everyone. And as I outlined above, to work effectively in a highly autonomous, self-managed organization, one might need to be sufficiently personally equipped. Smets appears to agree:

And it is also hard work for the employer. It is crucial that they only recruit people who totally fit the mould, so there is the constant concern that they may have accidentally hired a not-so-adult person. And there is the challenge of giving meaningful feedback to employees, when there are no objective expectations with which their behaviour can be compared.

These are excellent points. So, reducing ‘rules’ generally is unlikely to reduce the effort and diligence required by the employer or the employee. There is also the risk that employees may feel that rules exist, but that these are unwritten and therefore adhering to them is more difficult than if they were simply articulated clearly as requirements, and that failing to do so might have adverse effects. This would clearly be counter-productive and unfair. Yet I can’t help but feel that these two options (clearly communicated rules and directives, or a lack of transparency about rules) may be a false dichotomy.

Smets offers a compelling hint at what might be a middle way:

Rules are, at best, the distillate of relevant wisdom: they provide guidance where our own knowledge is insufficient. They are like collective heuristics that help us make the right trade-off, and choose the right course of action without the need for costly deliberative decision-making.

While we typically imagine rules to be imposed, often from ‘above’ in our organizations and institutions, his description of them as “collective heuristics” is one that could be applied literally. Whether via an informal group charter, or a more formal ‘social contract’, might these ‘rules’ be generated and agreed to together? Wouldn’t this offer the “security and clarity” that formal rules may offer, without clearly designating someone(s) as the enforcer, and the rest as individuals subject to these rules?

I don’t know for certain, but I’m thinking about it a great deal at the moment, and I’m not sure that “security and clarity” often don’t become, over time, an abdication of personal responsibility to think deeply about the principles behind rules, and how one can hold oneself to those.

The Gig Economy’s False Promise – The New York Times Editorial Board

Just in case you thought I was going to stick to talking about the ‘chaos’ side of this tension for the entire post, here’s one hell of an example of control. The gig economy darling Uber has been buffeted by one PR hit after another this year, and it seems that it’s not the super villain among a cast of angels. This NY Times story highlights practices that, I think, should make us very uncomfortable:

The promises Silicon Valley makes about the gig economy can sound appealing. Its digital technology lets workers become entrepreneurs, we are told, freed from the drudgery of 9-to-5 jobs. Students, parents and others can make extra cash in their free time while pursuing their passions, maybe starting a thriving small business.

In reality, there is no utopia at companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart and Handy, whose workers are often manipulated into working long hours for low wages while continually chasing the next ride or task. These companies have discovered they can harness advances in software and behavioral sciences to old-fashioned worker exploitation, according to a growing body of evidence, because employees lack the basic protections of American law.

So, software + behavioural science + lagging labour laws = worker exploitation?? Hold my green tea while I dramatically faint onto something soft and not dirty.

Here, we see the not unexpected result of a lack of rules (in this case, labour laws which contemplate the limbo-category gig workers currently occupy) between actors with different interests and agency, as well as an interesting (albeit disturbing) example of how organizations can employ an insidious form of coercion even in the absence of written directives for their employees (or quasi-employees).

If you want to read my post from earlier this year about the risks of gig-worker exploitation it’s here.

Heavy stuff this week. What do you think? Are social contracts and team charters the stuff of utopian daydreams involving kumbaya sing-alongs? Or are rules a hold-over from the era of command and control…and is that necessarily a bad thing? Given the choice, would you add more control, or chaos, to your worklife? Tell me about it in the comments!

Image Credit: Eaters Collective via


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