Workplace Reality #1: Organizations care for value, not you

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #1: “Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create“.

A job is a financial arrangement: you offer to provide value, and the organization pays you for it. Like any other business transaction, the organization expects to make more money off of the value you create. When you start adding more value, organization pays you more, resulting in salary hike. When you start adding less value, organization tries to help you produce more (training, counselling, transfer, etc.), or tries to get rid of you (since it can’t reduce your salary!). The difference in the value you create and the cost incurred on you is the ROI (Return on Investment) for the organization. Organization will want to maximize this ROI as much as it can. This is the essence of this reality.

Keeping the ROI equation in mind can help explain lots of organizational behavior. Look at these points:

  • Organizations don’t need to care about individual’s career growth if it doesn’t impact ROI positively. They may care if ROI becomes negatively impacted (to recoup their investment), or when they are confident it will increase the ROI.
  • Organizations will use stack ranking, bell curve and all other means to differentiate performance. This is how they improve their ROI, reward better performers and fix or let go worse performers, keeping average ROI improving all the time.
  • Training is a known way to improve ROI since cost of training is assumed to be less than the skill improvement achieved. So organizations invest in training, and will stop the investment when they stop seeing ROI impact.

Many individuals, esp. those in IT in India, fail to look at a job in this way. They think they are so much in demand (because they are much cheaper than their European or US counterpart) that market pressures don’t apply to them. They seem to think they generate significant value just by showing up! Their behavior at workplace and expectations from it doesn’t keep ROI equation in mind. They follow a disastrous career path with unintended consequences. When they are let go, they are surprised and feel victimized.

So how much value does an individual create that warrants the salary he gets?

I teach organizational behavior at a business school. I asked one of the batches to identify and quantify the value they create for their organization. Most students didn’t even attempt to solve it – some said this is too tough a problem to solve, while others said this problem is unsolvable! Those who did attempt found it a very hard exercise.

Modern organizations have such complex inter-dependencies that it is hard to do the math of the value you create. One of the easiest (and crudest) measures is to look at revenue per employee. In general, the way is to understand how money is made and spent, and what role you play in that process. It is better to be in a role that directly and visibly contributes to revenue generation (sales, R&D, delivery) than the indirect ones (cost-saving, internal efficiencies, support roles, etc.).

Once you know how to calculate the value you create (even if approximate), you can understand and control the ROI equation in your favor, and that is one of the best ways of proactively managing your career.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #2: “Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other“. Stay tuned.

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

9 Realities of Modern Workplace

While talking to a project manager in a services company recently, I was reminded of how little people (even those with 8-10 years of experience) understand modern workplace. We were talking about promotions and bonuses and she was lamenting the fact that promotions very rarely happen in the mid-year review. When I asked her why that might be (it is the case in most companies – it is an exception to get promotion in a mid-year review), she offered a few: it gives more time to people to prove themselves in case they missed out in the last review, it is too early, etc. but nothing convincing, even to herself. I left it as homework for her to figure this out but it left me thinking.

If someone is serious about building a career, they need to understand modern workplaces. While there are lots of management books about workplace and organization behavior, very few people bother to read them, preferring instead to somehow manage their way through the workplace. This puts them at a serious disadvantage. Many times, people think their current workplace is bad because these factors exist and think that their next workplace will be much better. The sad reality is that most workplaces are similar in these aspects and their next workplace is unlikely to be any better than current one. From career management perspective, it is much better to stay and try to figure out how to excel in the presence of these realities rather than trying to run away from them.

Here are 9 realities of modern workplace that everyone would do well to keep in mind and plan to tackle.

  • Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create
  • Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other
  • Most performance review systems are broken and useless
  • Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance
  • There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these
  • The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology
  • Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful
  • There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa
  • What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

Here are 7 personal rules that career-savvy engineers try to live by and work around these organization realities:

  1. I don’t work for my manager, I work for my organization
  2. I don’t listen to leaders, I only observe them
  3. I make things happen, I don’t wait for them
  4. Every obstacle is an opportunity to learn something new
  5. I always explore opportunities to learn new things that are aligned to my goals
  6. I measure my own career growth, I don’t rely on performance management systems
  7. I always produce the best I can produce, independent of how the organization makes me feel

Later posts will delve deeper into some of these realities and rules. I am very interested in listening to what your experience has been with realities of modern workplaces, and how you have dealt with them. Please post your comments.

PS: So what is the answer to the question I posed to the PM at the beginning of this post? Well, it is simple: company’s annual budget incorporates the money needed for salary hikes and bonuses. If companies start giving regular hikes and bonuses during mid-year, financial planning will become quite complicated because salary usually constitutes a significant portion of the cost of a technology company. So to keep things simple, all such changes to money outlay is planned to be done once a year and money is allocated during budget exercise.

PPS: Here are the links to the posts for each of the realities:

  1. Organization doesn’t care about you, it only cares about the value you create
  2. Organization deliberately sets up goals for people and departments that conflict with each other
  3. Most performance review systems are broken and useless
  4. Promotions and bonuses are determined more by available budget and market conditions, less by your capabilities or your performance
  5. There is always a stack ranking and a bell curve of performance rating, even in companies that claim they don’t have these
  6. The new hire can replace you any day if your only strength is technology
  7. Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful
  8. There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa
  9. What leaders say can be very different than what they mean

Image: freedigitalphotos.net

Organization Politics – Tactics and other takeaways

This is the final post in the series about Organization Politics. In the first post Organization Politics – Truth or Myth, we presented some examples of situations which might be termed ‘political’ and proceeded to analyze these situations in more detail in the next post Organization Politics – Anatomy of Office Politics. In the last post Organization Politics – Dealing with Politics, we presented some strategies of dealing with politics at workplace and reasons why it is a good idea to deal with them rather than walk away from it. In this post, we will wrap this up with a discussion on what you need to do in various roles you play in a decision-making situation.

As we talked in the previous post, it is important to engage with political situation, it helps the organization as well as your career. We also presented a high level framework for dealing with such situations. In this post, let me get into the details of tactics you can use to handle politics by applying the framework.

Whenever you engage with a decision-making situation, you are in one of these 3 different roles:

  • Observer/Recipient – You are not part of decision-making team and you have to live with the decision. Usually this happens when some high-level organization-wide decisions are being taken, like reorganization, new goals for the organization, etc. This also happens when you choose not to be a participant.
  • Participant – Your input is solicited but you are not the decision-maker for the decision. This is the most common scenario when you either choose to walk away or engage fully.
  • Decision-maker – You are primary (or one of) decision-makers for the decision. This is the case when you are a leader or manager.

For each of these roles, there are actions that need to be taken in 3 phases: before decision-making happens, during decision-making, and after decision has been made.

Let’s see how each of these roles should be handled.

Observer/Recipient

When you are an observer, your goal should be to understand the decision (and its implication) as early as you can, as well as learn from the experience of others. It is important to understand the decision and its implication to your work, otherwise you will not be able to adapt to it in time, and sometimes it can cause significant issues. For example, if a reorganization within your business unit merges 2 groups into one, it is important to know the new leaders/influencers who are close to decision-makers and understand their priorities, otherwise you may be spending late nights on some project that is not considered important by them and which is likely to be cut.

Before decision-making
  • Understand the context and the problem to be solved
  • Identify decision-makers and influencers
  • Try and stay close to one of the decision-makers or influencers
  • Create your own hypothesis of what the final outcome should be
During decision-making
  • Get to know the discussions as they unfold
  • Make attempts to influence the outcome
After decision-making
  • Read up on all written material available about the decision
  • Talk to as many participants as you can
  • Compare final outcome with your hypothesis to explain the difference if any

Participant

When you are a participant, your primary goal should be to be in the best position to influence the decision and then proceed to do so in an ethical manner. You should also be in a position to justify your actions after the decision has been taken, so it is important to stay consistent and transparent, as much as possible.

Before decision-making
  • Understand the context around the problem
  • Talk to other decision-makers and influencers to understand their positions
  • Identify potential allies
  • Prepare to present and defend your proposal
During decision-making
  • Understand others’ points of view and self-interests
  • Create coalition with like-minded decision-makers/influencers
  • Present inclusive solutions and use your influencing techniques
After decision-making
  • Clearly articulate your position during decision-making discussions to those who want to know.
  • Discuss with observers/recipients to understand their reaction and understanding
  • Compare final outcome with your proposal and study the differences

Decision-maker

When you are a decision-maker, your primary goal is to convey the sense that the decision will be taken by involving right stakeholders, using a well-known decision-making process, and will be in the best interests of the organization, and then adhere to it.

Before decision-making
  • Identify right stakeholders to be included in the decision-making process
  • Clarify how the final decision will be made (consensus, majority, etc.)
  • Create your own viewpoint about the decision but stay open for feedback
During decision-making
  • Understand others’ points of view and self-interests
  • Make the process inclusive by making sure everyone participates actively
  • Use your listening techniques to gather the most out of discussions.
  • Make final decision using the process identified before
After decision-making
  • Clearly articulate decision made and rationale behind it
  • Encourage participants and observers to learn more about the decision
  • Compare final outcome with your initial point of view and study the differences

When you are seen as ‘playing politics’

In spite of your best intentions and efforts, if you are a participant or decision-maker in a decision-making process, you may be labeled as ‘political’. This can undermine your personal brand and damage your credibility. Best thing to do in these circumstances is to over-communicate. Two things need to be communicated, using multiple channels ((emails, blog, videos, podcast, meetings, etc.) and multiple times:

  • Decision-making Process: Make sure people understand how the participants were selected, how were options generated and brainstormed, how were options compared and final option selected, etc. Understanding of the process helps give a sense of comfort and fairness.
  • Rationale for the decision – Communicate why this is the most optimal decision made under the circumstances. Everyone has their own version of ‘best’ decision, and it is important to share all the inputs that went into making decisions so that people can make a more informed assessment of ‘best’.

Key Takeaways

Frequently, you will participate in (or observe) a situation where you think you are being exposed to ‘politics’. It is tempting to say ‘this is politics’ and bail out of the situation, rather than take it on and learn to handle them. If nothing else, these are worth engaging because of the wealth of learning to be gained:

  • Discovering self-interests that drive stakeholders in a situation
  • Create inclusive solutions by focusing on AND of multiple viewpoints rather than get into debates about best viewpoint
  • Deal with difficult people and tough conversations
  • Make complex decisions with incomplete information and multiple right answers
  • Critical communication and listening skills

An organization is a complex system. It achieves optimal results when multiple perspectives (and interests) intersect and a collective, and best-for-the-organization decision is made. If people walk away from these conflicting situations citing politics as a reason (rightly or wrongly), organization suffers and gets destroyed in the long run.

It is best for the individual (great learning) and organization (best decisions) when individuals engage with complex situations (termed ‘political’ many times) and give their best.

Don’t get me wrong: Workplace politics is a real thing. When senior leaders have only self-interest in mind (and no thought about organizational goals), situations can turn messy and unmanageable. This is the office politics that you should be wary of, especially if you are not the political kind. However, situation is not always so bleak. What I am pushing back on is really the pseudo-politics that we think we are victims of – I want us to buckle up and handle it successfully.

Comments and suggestions on this series are most welcome and much appreciated.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Organization Politics – Dealing with Politics

This is a post in the series about Organization Politics. In the first post Organization Politics – Truth or Myth, we presented some examples of situations which might be termed ‘political’ and proceeded to analyze these situations in more detail in the next post Organization Politics – Anatomy of Office Politics. In this post, we will discuss why we need to deal with ‘politics’ as we see around us at workplace and learn a way to do so.

Let me reiterate a point I made in the last post: Every political situation is a decision-making situation.

So why should you even deal with politics? Why not just walk away and look for situations where politics doesn’t exist?

Deal with Politics – Why

There are a few reasons why walking away is not the best strategy all the time:

  • Every political situation is a great learning opportunity. Walking away means walking away from a lesson life is giving you. It is like bunking classes in the college for the hardest (and usually smartest) prof – you regret it later, and you have to still learn it, and usually in a much harder way.
  • Every workplace decision impacts your career. It is much easier to control your career growth when you can influence the decisions at workplace than when you are just the recipient/observer of the decisions being made by others.
  • Situations that get branded ‘political’ are very common. If you walk away from these common situations, you end up being a novice at workplace, someone who shirks responsibility, and will lose your credibility to lead and manage the organization.

Last point is worth repeating: in my opinion, many of us use politics is an ‘excuse’ to shy away from tough situations rather than build a career the hard way. This is what distinguishes a great career from a mediocre one. Anyone who wants to grow their career must be willing to engage in situations that others (or you) may brand ‘political’.

The picture above illustrates the engagement vs. outcome scenarios when you face a political situation. When you have low level of engagement, you just react to the decisions made. When the outcome is favorable, it probably works out fine for you. However, when it is unfavorable, it becomes frustrating and career-limiting, esp. because you didn’t have any say in it. This can give rise to ‘it was politically motivated’ thought. When you have high level of engagement, you feel more in control. Outcome may still be adverse, but still the participation provides better understanding (and it is like any other unsuccessful project you work on) of the decision. When the outcome is favorable, it provides confidence in one’s ability to influence outcomes. Irrespective of outcome, high level of engagement ensures better learning experience and prepares you for successes down the road as you engage more.

Deal with Politics – How

3 steps need to be taken to handle political situation (or any other decision-making situation) effectively.

Increase Awareness

It is important to understand context, as well as stakeholders, involved in a situation. Understanding an organization’s context means knowing about culture, process, and people related to the situation at hand. For example, in situation #2 presented in first post about quality process, it is very important to know how organization (various divisions which need to collaborate) define and perceive quality, how they feel about process compliance, how have cross-functional teams succeeded (and failed) in the past, etc. Similarly, identifying and knowing stakeholders will mean understanding who all impact and get impacted by the decisions made in the given situation. For the stakeholders involved in decision-making process, it is important to know their goals, values and incentives that they stand for. Such understanding is crucial for the next step of analysis. This is really a data gathering step.

Analyze Goals, Values and Incentives

Once you have most of the data, it is time to analyze it to come up with a plan of action. Politics (and most complex organizational decisions) is primarily about stakeholders trying to maximize their personal incentives at the cost of others’ incentives and sometimes at the cost of organizational goals. It is possible (though hard and time-consuming) to come up with decisions which maximizes collective incentives and doesn’t jeopardize organizational goals. To do this, it is important to understand various goals and incentives at play in a given situation, and come up with various possible alternative options. It is also important to understand the values exhibited by the individuals involved in the situation. For example, if CTO is passionate about high quality of software the company must produce consistently, he may be willing to let go of some of his personal incentives, and will be pushing hard on others to do the same, if a decision is going to undermine the quality in some way. There may be similarly powerful personal values that need to be factored into possible alternative options.

Influence and Persuade

Once you decide to be part of the solution in the given situation, you need to display strong influencing and persuasion skills. A lot has been written on this topic – see Five Steps to Increase your Influence and the book Art of Woo. Once you have some plan of action (and multiple options for the decision), you need to be able to influence the stakeholders and persuade them to accept one of the proposals. While doing that (maybe using some of the skills and styles mentioned in the references above, or your personal style), it is important to keep the relative authority/power wielded by the stakeholders. Sometimes, knowing who to influence (or persuade) is more important than knowing how to. For example, if you can get the CTO who is passionate about quality to become the sponsor and champion for your quality process initiative, you will avoid many influencing sessions – the CTO will do that for you. Similarly, if you have CFO batting against your proposal, it is critical to persuade him first, even if it means modifying your proposal a little bit to get him to your side. Such trade-offs are good for the organization too, since a proposal vetted by a senior leader is much easier to execute (and hence the organization gets the return on its implementation quickly).

In the next (and final) post, we will wrap-up by converting above details into a set of tactics that can be employed in various situations. Stay tuned!

How I earned my Independence

Today is Indian Independence Day, and so the idea of this post is to recap my experience over last 6 months when I gained my independence – moving from working for others to working for myself. It is a long story but I will try to keep it short. Anyone interested in the details behind the points should feel free to contact me. I hope this post nudges a few of you forward, in putting that last ounce of doubt away and become independentJ.

Even though there are many risks in being independent, they essentially boil down to 3 questions:

  • Do I have enough saving to last 12 months without any earning?
  • Do I believe passionately in the idea that I want to pursue?
  • Will I learn more than my peers even when I fail in my ‘independence’ march? Continue reading

Why do we work – When individuals care about careers

In my last post on when organizations care about careers, I talked about various things an organization can do in order to utilize their employees effectively and in the process, help employees realize their career goals.

However, not all companies care about careers, and when they don’t, individuals suffer. It is essential for everyone to be focused on their own career goals and manage the career proactively, with or without explicit support from the organization. In a previous post last year (managing career proactively), I described a process to do this. In this post, I want to highlight a few of the areas that individuals should target.

  1. Create and manage personal performance management system – External indicators of high performance include bonus, raise, promotion, rewards, etc., all of which depend on availability of budget. Therefore, absence of such indicators (for example, no raise company-wide because economy is in bad shape) can’t be taken to be a low performance indicator. Reverse is also true: a solid raise (just because company did well and economy is going strong) doesn’t always indicate a particularly high performance. However, many individuals are unable to keep this distinction clear in their head and end up getting a false notion of career growth (or lack of it). It is important for individuals to create their own measures of their performance and use it over a period of time. Learning goals (and their attainment) are usually the best indicators of career growth, but other measures can be used too, as long as the variables are in your control. Continue reading

Why do we work – when organizations care about careers

In the last post on Career Stages, I described a few key attributes for evaluating career progression that organizations and/or individuals need to take care of if they want to effectively manage the career, esp. of their senior employees. Low engagement level, ‘through others’ contribution mode, and # of real working hours are key points an organization need to care about if they want their senior employees to contribute significantly.

The definition of ‘senior’ is vague, and will vary from company to company. However, most companies know their ‘senior’ employees, and most ‘senior’ employees know they are ‘senior’, and so we don’t need a precise definition for now! J

So what can an organization do?

  1. Upgrade recognition and project assignment systems: Most senior people (by above vague definition of ‘senior’!) are asset to the company. They have contributed a lot to the organization in the past and have gained immense domain knowledge that they are always eager to share and give back to the organization. As they meet their basic needs from the job (personal security, financial stability, health and well-being, etc.), Continue reading

Personal Excellence

Why do some individuals always try to do their best in a situation, while others don’t? At work, why do some people bemoan their work, and still do an outstanding job, while others seem happy with their work, and still produce mediocre results? In my experience, this can be traced to one of the important traits of an individual: desire to seek excellence in whatever they do.

Everyone wants to be best at what they do, but it is not always easy to do so. Those with a healthy dose of this trait will continue to pursue excellence even when given a boring assignment or challenging environment, while others will give up and settle for mediocrity. So why do some people pursue excellence? Vince Lombardi (great football coach) suggests, “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”. For Indian movie fans, Amir Khan character in 3 Idiots says, “seek excellence, success will follow” (more on 3 Idiots). Continue reading

Managing career proactively

In my last post Is your manager killing your career aspiration?, I raised the issue about good careers getting jeopardized when people read too much into manager’s feedback and kill their career aspirations. It triggered many comments from my friends on facebook, and it has taken me a while to internalize those comments and formulate my opinion and response. The discussions touched on the topics of ‘how much of the blame goes to manager, how much to the individual, and what role does organization’s culture play in all this?’. I also got some feedback on the lines of ‘this applies to me, I am in the same situation, what should I do, and how should I avoid it when I join another company’?

This post is an attempt to analyze why someone gets into this situation, and how they can be careful and avoid this fate.

Here are some of the things that went wrong for the person in the story:

  1. Job requirements are not aligned to what this person can offer or want to offer.
  2. Person is not able to put the feedback in perspective, and unable to see that the feedback is about the role and not always about him
  3. He doesn’t know what he wants from his job – this lack of direction leads him to believe everything what the manager says
  4. He doesn’t know what he needs to change in order to be excellent at the job, so he continues to follow what his manager tells him to do.

If you read this carefully, you will notice that everything points to a reactive approach to career in this story. A reactive approach happens something like this: Continue reading