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August - 2007 - issue > People Manager
Staying out of the Great Jackass
C. Mahalingam
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
This was a famous exercise that Prof Levinson carried out in his lecture sessions. He would ask the executives to close their eyes for a moment, and to form a picture in their mind’s eye with a carrot at one end and a stick at the other. When these executives have done so, he would ask them to describe the central image in that picture. Guess what? Most frequently the image was that of a jackass!

Using this as a metaphor, Prof. Levinson coined the phrase ‘Great Jackass Fallacy’. This perhaps characterizes the motivational philosophy for most managers wherein the conscious assumption behind the reward-punishment model is that managers are dealing with jackasses who must be manipulated and controlled. We see this Carrot & Stick theory of motivation that treats subordinates as Jackasses widely prevalent even today.

Self-fulfilling Prophesy:
The characteristics of a jackass are stubbornness, stupidity, willfulness, and unwillingness to go where someone is driving him to. And by interesting coincidence, these are also the characteristics of the unmotivated employee. Unfortunately, this fallacy can operate like a self-fulfilling prophesy when people respond to the managers’ carrots and protect themselves from their sticks. As organizational history would vouch for, this theory has done more harm than good to the managers and the people they manage. Management curricula that are still archaic and taught as such in business schools tend to perpetuate this fallacy even in the so-called professionally trained managers.

Motivation Reality:
John R Throop quotes in his article titled “Mastering the ABCs of Organizations”, a study of computer engineers who were asked to rank top 10 factors that provided the highest degree of motivation in their jobs that ‘the programmers’ top three were: full appreciation for work done; feeling that they were “in” on things; and, sympathetic help with personal problems! In contrast, their managers, when asked what these factors would be, gave rather different priorities: compensation, working conditions, and fair discipline!

Let us take a look at another study by Lawrence Lindahl in early 1980s and 1990s. Managers identified good wages, job security, and promotions/growth opportunities as the primary reasons why they felt, made their employees work. But the employees had sharply different motivators, viz., appreciation for the job well done as first and “feeling as being in” as second factor for motivation.

Needed Mindset Change, for Managers!
Now, this explains why managers have so much struggle motivating their people. Jackass fallacy is dominantly at work. Unless managers change their mindset fully and consciously, they are very unlikely to succeed in motivating their people. Nothing frustrates people more than utter lack of sensitivity on the part of their managers in understanding what they are looking for. Great managers know at least one thing and know it well: People are people and not personnel. This has many implications in terms of mindset change. Let me describe a couple of examples which communicate the fixation with the mindset that needs a radical change:

Many managers refer to their people in every single conversation as ‘resource’. This is so very demeaning. If you, as a manager, have any doubt, please ask your team. You will be completely shattered with what you discover. Why cannot organizations ban the reference to people as ‘resource’?

Looking at employees in Pounds and Dollars. No exaggeration folks! Many managers, conditioned by the organization’s culture, see employees as: you are $ 1600 or $ 2400 for me. Can’t be people simply seen as invaluable assets?

The caste system in Software Companies divides people into billable and non-billable. What bothers employees (and should bother anyone in his right mindset) is the way many managers treat someone who is non-billable or not being billed. People working on projects and are being billed watch the plight of those that are non-billable and not feel very good about it. Well, decent managers understand why even non-performers have to be handled firmly, but fairly, leave alone the good performing non-billable people.

Please do not get me wrong. Businesses exist to delight customers with high quality service delivery and make money. But, does that license managers or an organization to treat people as commodities to be used up is the question to ponder over.

Wall Papers do not matter:
There is no dearth of “Company Values” slogans and statements decorating the walls on every floor of swanky offices. One of these values invariably is: “Our People are our greatest asset”. They serve as no more than ‘wall papers’ since how people are being viewed and valued in the day to day conversations and decisions of the managers reveals the reality.

HR Managers, wake up!
Wisdom dictates that we must ask if we are in doubt. So, if you want to know what your people think about your company, its culture (practiced, not professed) and how aligned they are with your company, I suggest a simple five questions survey:

*In our company, people are people, not personnel (numbers)
*I am not valued for the dollar tag around my neck, but as a contributing member of the organization
*I am being treated fairly and normally irrespective of whether I am billable or not
*When my organization boasts of its value that people are its most valued asset, they live it up everyday
*My manager is a great role model for me in terms of how he or she treats me in our daily dealings and conversations

If you do not get a positive score for all the above seemingly simple, but exceptionally effective questions, you will know that there is serious mindset change needed for the organization. Needless to say such mindset change must start with senior managers. Remember what management Guru Peter Drucker said: “The bottle-neck is always at the top of the bottle!” Jackass fallacy must vanish, if organizations have to become a nursery for talent.

The author is Sr.VP-HR with Symphony Services Corporation. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com
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