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Context is Key

“He’s a rockstar” “She’s brilliant” “He’s a good guy”

Whether we’re dividing people into INTJs and ENFPs, High Ds or Cs, or placing them on a 9-box grid, we love our categories. I’ve been reflecting on this over the last week, sparked by a presentation delivered by Mathieu Baril of DDI at HR Leaders Summit West. Baril’s presentation challenged traditional thinking on High Potential programs, suggesting that we need to broaden our definition of potential and recognize the individual bias at work when we go about identifying so-called Hi-Pos:

“We tend to underestimate the role of context in performance. Performance is less portable then we think.”

This isn’t an entirely new insight, but it is an important one that we continue to forget (or ignore) in favour of the myth of individual greatness (or mediocrity).

The tendency to see others as possessing static and enduring qualities, characteristics and potential, but seeing ourselves as more mutable has been credibly established. In ‘Me, Myself And Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being’ Brian Little writes:

“One of the well-documented findings in the study of attributions is that we are more likely to ascribe traits to others, whereas we explain our own actions according to the situations we are in.”

Feed the Eagles

What does it mean that we’ve woven this belief, that people have a fixed character regardless of context, through an array of human resources practices?

One implication is that we direct a range of resources and support to individuals on the basis of these characterizations. Alan Colquitt wrote an excellent post about zero-sum thinking in organizations this week titled ‘The World’s Worst Disease. Is Your Company Infected With It?’. In it he says:

“Employees compete for their share of fixed rewards budgets.  Best practice calls for maximum differentiation, with few winners and lots of losers.  Employees also compete for a small number of high-potential slots and for openings in elite leadership development programs.  A quote I read in a recent benchmarking report sums up this philosophy: “We are moving away from a spread-the-peanut-butter approach to one of feed the eagles.” In most companies if you are an eagle you get a disproportionate share of the rewards.  More for the eagles means less for the rest of us.  This philosophy is based on the assumption that top talent contribute disproportionately to organizational success (a point many researchers would dispute).”

Does anything say “People are our greatest asset” quite like throwing raw meat at our best employees while avoiding their dagger-like talons? I think not.

Colquitt goes on:

“Many organizations create work teams and develop competency models promoting teamwork and collaboration while pitting employees within the team against one another for top ratings and rewards. This is a sucker’s choice and employees are too smart to take it; employees don’t listen to your words, they watch your actions.”

The approach Colquitt describes is widespread, and I suspect the recent interest in abandoning performance ratings won’t help, as the allocation of resources (whether salary increases, bonuses, or advancement and development opportunities) will typically still be awarded based on perceived individual merit, influenced by our perception of individuals as inherently good or bad performers.

The “Good Guy”

Another consequence of this tendency to ignore context and see others as possessing fixed traits and qualities has been spotlighted by the response of organizations to #MeToo. It’s also come up frequently in the many interviews and discussions I’ve undertaken on this topic in the last several months. The notion that there are “good” and “bad” guys suggests that the propensity to engage in harassment is pre-determined by some kind of inherent quality of character. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

The first is that it “encourages a moral distancing that lets the rest of us off the hook”, as Thomas Page McBee writes in his article ‘The Myth of the ‘Good’ Man’. That is, it allows us to treat incidents of harassment as isolated aberrations that do not require further scrutiny, or an examination of our own complicity in the culture or system that led to their occurrence.

This makes harassment an unpreventable problem. If only “bad” guys harass, then we need only watch out for bad guys, who we can easily identify…once they harass people.

As McBee writes:

“That’s why we focus on Harvey Weinstein, but not how Harvey Weinstein (or Bill Cosby, or Jerry Sandusky, or Roger Ailes, or Donald Trump) became that way. It’s easier if there are “good” men, even if they’re harder and harder to find, than it is to ask the more meaningful question, about all of us: What is going on here?”

Which leads to another problem with the idea of “good” and “bad” guys. Since “good” guys don’t harass, when someone reports that they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of a person considered to be a “good” guy (by the organization, people in power, or the individual to which harassment is reported), dissonance ensues. Perhaps the accuser is mistaken. Surely they misunderstood. There definitely wasn’t the intent to harass…you just don’t know him. He’s a good guy

This black and white thinking may very well contribute to the significant under-reporting of sexual harassment and the high number of harassment complainants who indicated they experienced retaliation when they reported harassment.

We know that harassment is often about power, not sex (or not just sex). And yet, when we evaluate the credibility of allegations of sexual harassment we typically do so through the lens of our own position relative to the harasser. We ignore the context of the behavior in question. The reality is that men (and women) in our lives who we consider to be inherently “good” based on our own interactions with them may have a very different dynamic with others, in a particular context.

The Value of Context

Context makes things messy. It challenges our neat formulas and ‘best practices’ and demands a thoughtfulness we rarely have time for. But it also helps explain why those formulas and best practices so frequently fail to accurately predict outcomes and results. Ignoring it is dangerous and denies us the opportunity to understand the complexity and nuance in our organizations.

Read This Week:

Sexual Harassment & Closing the Gender Gap: It’s Time to Integrate Strategy – Sherryl Dimitry, LinkedIn

This wasn’t published this week, but I only just came across it and it’s excellent, bringing a true systems perspective to harassment in organizations.

“Rarely are gender issues treated as a “whole” – with harassment and discrimination seen as the visible, and actionable tip of the iceberg that is significantly driven by the stronger, but hidden undercurrent of culture and mindsets under the surface. By disconnecting harassment and discrimination from gender diversity initiatives, cultural norms remain embedded in environments allowing harassment to persist, creating stubborn blockages in the talent pipeline.

Sexual Assault, Harassment & Discrimination represent the “tip of the iceberg,” with the bulk of risk hiding beneath the surface in an organizational culture.”

Intersectionality 101: Why “we’re focusing on women” doesn’t work for Diversity & Inclusion – Jennifer Kim, Medium

A great primer on intersectionality as it relates to diversity and inclusion strategies in organizations.

“Imagine you’re a Black woman working for a company that touts “we’re focusing on women.” You’re being implicitly told, “sure, we care, but only a part of your identity, one that *we* are familiar and comfortable with.” Despite the good intentions, there’s an insidious implication behind the message — “Wait your turn. We’re helping the white women first.” And that’s what non-intersectional D&I work can often lead to.”

Companies like Starbucks love anti-bias training. But it doesn’t work — and may backfire. – Julia Belluz, Vox

Many are applauding the dramatic step Starbucks is taking in the wake of the arrest of two black customers at one of their locations; they’ll close all stores for a day to deliver anti-bias training to all employees. This article examines whether this training is likely to achieve it’s stated objective.

“…the evidence we have suggests trainings generally fail to alter racial biases and behaviors in the long term — and can even backfire. So this one may do no more good than Starbucks’s failed attempt to spark conversations about race by asking baristas to write “race together” on coffee cups.

These efforts are just window dressing,” Dobbin added, just as corporate sexual harassment trainings have become the default response to the #MeToo movement.

Any corporation that wants to be part of the solution, rather than the problem, needs to look beyond token gestures like trainings to the other measures that can begin to truly address inequality. They might be harder and take longer, but they’re a more sincere way to avoid damaging, hurtful incidents like calling the cops on customers of color.”

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash


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