Monday, November 14, 2011

With whom am I working, please? Person or process?

Many commentators talk about the shocking levels of worker disengagement.  According to the results of one Gallup survey published earlier this year only about 27 percent of workers worldwide are satisfied with their jobs.

There are, of course, many factors contributing to this phenomenon, but I want to highlight something that has been on my mind for some time.  I am concerned that our work cultures (and our wider cultures, for that matter) have become technique and process-obsessed. When I go to a restaurant, I am very aware that I am being absorbed into a well crafted process for greeting, sitting, and serving me.  When a salesperson calls me, I can hear the clanking of the process he or she is following, and the techniques most likely to be employed to get me to ‘Yes’.   I am fully aware of the value business processes bring to efficient operations, but when technique and process become all-pervasive in our interactions with one another we’re in trouble.
Let me back up. By process, I mean a sequence of steps/procedures taken to achieve a defined result.  By technique, I mean a specific method, routine or skill for accomplishing a task.  Technique and process are closely interlinked – a technique can be part of a process or a technique can be made up of processes. From now on, I’ll talk about processes and techniques as PTs.

The problem with PTs in our interactions is how reductive and alienating they can be. PTs are all about ‘ends and means’ so that in a PT pervasive culture we can easily feel that we are being manipulated as a means to someone else’s end. You don’t interact with me as a person, but as a means to your end.  I only become of value if I help you meet your goal. I seek to be known as an individual and relate to you; you seek to apply calculated, routine, and predictable procedures – devoid of context - that you think will lead to your desired outcome.  

In a PT world, understanding of complexity is a distant second to application of pre-programmed thinking and actions. These types of interactions are, of course, alienating and dehumanizing, and unfortunately management has become synonymous with PTs.  To try and escape engaging with real people, we have only succeeded in destroying emotional engagement and breeding cynicism.

In managing complexity and getting the very best from our people, we are increasingly dependent on collaborative relationships.  Process and technique will always be important to getting work done, but let’s take a more sophisticated and mindful view about where they add value and where they undermine its creation.

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