Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Lessons for sustainable performance

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-02-17

I love it when Harvard Business School publishes research that contradicts the dearly held dogmas managers and executives use in self-congratulation and self-justification.  A new paper is a beauty, suggesting that "decisive" managers aren’t all they are cracked up to be, that long-term success requires an entirely different way of thinking from that valued by most of the business community, or a citizenry.

Given that senior politicians are essentially CEOs and senior executives, there are obvious lessons for political process.

First, a bit of personality theory and common business practice.

Personality indicators (e.g. Myers-Briggs) are often used by businesses when placing people in positions.  One of the Myers-Briggs’ axes, P/J (comfortable decisions involving "shades of grey", versus most comfortable with "black and white" issues and absolutes) is often used to determine who goes into senior management ("J" types), while the "P" types, the wonks and geeks, are rarely promoted to senior management or executive positions.

Exhibit 1: "Executive Summaries" rarely discuss issues, but only present a short list of options, thus prompting me to ask ¿What’s the difference between an Executive Summary and the Preface of an Idiot Guide?

"Embracing Commitment and Performance: CEOs and Practices Used to Manage Paradox" (2008-02-15, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge) goes through a study of how to get commitment for sustainable performance, rather than mere commitment to executive strategy that might be unsustable, by investigating …

major companies in North America and Europe that had a history of sustainable, above-average financial performance, and where there were indications of the companies being high-commitment organizations. They then conducted in-depth interviews with 26 CEOs of such companies, asking about activities and practices that help create commitment and performance

Guess what?  If you want sustainable above-average financial performance, the yes/no, either/or, top-down dictatorship doesn’t work, therefore the personality types of most senior executives are unsuitable.

The full research paper 08-052 has some surprising categorical statements.  As you read them, (1) consider the qualities of the "strong leader" most people vote for, and whether this is best for the long-term advantage of a country; and (2) perform the search/replaces in your mind for CEO/politician, employee/citizen: (Emphases are mine),

  • Indeed, research has shown that a high level of engagement from employees is positively correlated with financial performance.
  • Instead of speaking in terms of "either-or", they spoke conciously of their ability and understanding of how to do "both-and".  They argued that seemingly conflicting outcomes cannot be made the subject of choice, nor can they be balanced.  Instead, it is the role of the CEO to embrace the paradoxes and meet both ends at the same time.
  • Leaders that have a broader repertoire in handling these values and attitudes (and therefore demonstrate a high level of behavioural complexity) tend to produce better financial performance.  The authors focus on competing values that the leader is able to reconcile.
  • This involves having very difficult discussions that may cost them their jobs…. it is better to go down doing something honorable rather than staying under the wrong conditions.
  • CEOs with strong convictions can become victims of their strong views and turn into "Messiah" syndrome, unilaterally advocating their beliefs and stopping to take in other people’s ideas or reactions.  Despite long tenures in very powerful positions, they were able to talk openly about their mistakes, erroneous decisions, or poor judgements about situations or people.  The capacity to see and admit being wrong vaccinates them from becoming heroic unfailing figures and lessens the risk that they become insulated from accepting negative feedback.  Without the capacity to accept their own imperfection, they would be unable to build a sustainable institution.
  • The CEOs we interviewed report having to work against a continuous effort from lower levels to "delegate upwards" – to push decisions up to them in order to establish real responsibility and accountability for performance at lower levels.  The organization, these CEOs feel, is better served if more people are allowed and empowered to make decisions.
  • …although the organization’s mission is to create wealth, its final objective was to work for the greater good of man.
  • I want a purpose other than only making money.  Making money is for me an effect of what you do.  If you do something realy well, it results in you making money… For me, the work in the organization has a soul and values and a purpose that transcends only making money.  I am completely convinced that if you get that right, you make money.

And this is all from a business-focused school, one of those most respected by the general business community!

Of course, these observations imply a responsibility on a citizenry not only to be engaged with government (such as contributing to government inquiries), but changing the "accepted wisdoms" used to select political figures.


2 Responses to “Lessons for sustainable performance”

  1. Jacques Chester said

    Personality indicators (e.g. Myers-Briggs) are often used by businesses when placing people in positions. One of the Myers-Briggs’ axes, P/J (comfortable decisions involving “shades of grey”, versus most comfortable with “black and white” issues and absolutes) is often used to determine who goes into senior management (“J” types), while the “P” types, the wonks and geeks, are rarely promoted to senior management or executive positions.

    Which is cargo cult psychometrics, incidentally. There are probably five, possibly seven, dimensions of personality that can be distinctly measured. Most of the dinky personality tests I’ve seen in use in corporate life try to shoehorn people into one of only a few categories.

    At one of my employers we were all Reds, Greens, Yellows or Blues. Funnily enough I failed to fit into any of them. The HR manager’s theory was that I was a secret Blue actings a Yellow or somesuch horseshit. What I wanted to yell was that her model was retarded and monopolar; of course I didn’t fit, it didn’t have enough dimensions of measurement.

    People are still to complex, too subtle, too varied, too differing for psychometrics to be useful for anything other than trying to prevent psychopaths getting into the organisation. Which is a problem because a) psychopaths are good at acing personality profiles (they just lie) and b) a lot of businesses think that the ruthless monomania of a psychopath is good management.

  2. Dave Bath said

    You are correct. A four box red/yellow/blue/green is unbelievably bad. (What, no oranges/aquas/purples/limes?).

    Psychometrics, as with all biometrics, need interpretation, and most importantly, an appreciation of the limits of the test. The Body Mass Index (BMI) would consider Gary Ablett of Geelong as obese, and myself “perfect”, even though we are similar heights, because all his extra mass is solid muscle.

    Apart from the axes Myers-Briggs (MBTI) doesn’t evaluate (neuroticism being one, and this is a good thing, because such tests are inappropriate for HR as they can be considered “medical”), a key weakness is that questions are presented as “yes/no”, making them totally wonky for those people (25% of the population, I think) who see things in shades of grey. This is remedied with the DDLI (software available as source K&R C, get v 3.4.1 at least), which allows a graded response for the strength of the preference (or no preference at all). The software also indicates where it may have erred in interpretation. Quantitative results allow those balanced on an axis to be classified as such, and “mild” v “extreme” scores understood. (I’m xNTP, with EXTREME NTP, rather than INTP or ENTP).

    When I wrote software to run the MMPI back in the late 1980s, I spat out reports that flagged possible problems, and also printed caveats. (I was flagged for some problems, the caveat said “unless there is unusual stress”, which reflected the situation of my then wife hospitalized for post-natal issues, I was working full time, and looking after a young baby 24×7). The report was always passed to a clinician, who used it to make the most of the time spent in an interview.

    The best tests for “business psychopaths” are those in the vein of the Thematic Apperception Test, which is relatively expensive, requiring highly-trained humans to administer and interpret the test. Thus businesses won’t use it, even though the long term costs of damage done by such folk far exceeds the cost of the tests. Besides, in the short term, such a*holes give metrics that make executives happy.

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