Have you ever heard of “mild commitment,” “soft motivation,” “moderate consensus,” “peripheral values” or “balanced loyalty”? It’s unlikely. Business and management publications are replete with articles about strong commitment, deep motivation, wide consensus, core values and unquestioned loyalty. So in their quest for improved efficiency, continuous innovation and other business goals, companies have repeatedly launched programs to strengthen, deepen, widen or harden whatever quality that is perceived to be essential to success. When it comes to management issues, businesses are in love with the extreme. Mild is only lukewarm, and the half-hearted need not apply.
To make matters worse, companies have been continually raising the ante. Years ago, “motivation” sufficed as an important attribute of employees. Today, even “strong” motivation has apparently started to look feeble, and the pumped-up concept of “volition” has begun to gain currency. Can talk of “strengthening” or “deepening” volition be far off? Before that day arrives, though, managers might best ask themselves why they’ve been so fired up about highly involved employees in the first place.
Why the Drive for Intensity?
Theories of organizational behavior and economics offer several explanations. First, high involvement through loyalty and organizational culture is a way of ensuring that workers are not excessively opportunistic (that is, selfish), thus reducing the cost of monitoring their behavior. Second, hierarchies (that is, organizations) operate by rules and authority, which require employee commitment, motivation and identification with the company’s goals. Third, internal coordination is much easier when everyone shares strong values. Fourth, sustained cooperative behavior requires a high degree of consensus about organizational goals and legitimate authority, and strong cultures and identities stabilize such a consensus. Lastly, intense motivation, strong cultures and deep values help focus everyone’s attention on a narrow range of relevant issues, while also providing guidelines for group decision making.
To be sure, companies can reap valuable benefits from high involvement: maximum worker efforts, producing great efficiency in exploiting available resources; autonomous adaptive behavior, resulting in quick responses to shifts in market demands and other changes in the environment; and mobilization of individual and collective resources, spurring creative ideas that may give the organization an edge over its competitors. But does that mean that organizations always benefit from an abundance of employee motivation, commitment, loyalty and the like?
The Downside of High Involvement
The simple fact is that high-involvement strategies have numerous organizational risks. For starters, deeply motivated people can be a challenge for management because they tend to interpret organizational purposes in their own way, sometimes substituting their own purposes for the company objectives without even realizing it. Deeply motivated individuals are also likely to display strong resentment when the organization fails to fulfill the needs or desires they are so imbued with. Not surprisingly, deeply motivated people are not easy to get along with: They don’t comply with rules or policies that they don’t fully approve of; they feel they should have a say about almost everything; and they tend to behave like the owners they are not (but wish they were).
Similarly, people who are strongly committed are likely to develop excessive confidence in the face of difficulties. They can be blind to warning signs, which can lead to excessive delays in corrective actions. Strongly committed people are also prone to believing that the end justifies the means. And when they fall prey to that, they might stop at nothing, possibly not even at unethical actions that could jeopardize the entire organization. Case in point: Arthur Andersen Llp. Of course, there were many reasons for the accounting firm’s spectacular demise, but one contributing factor was that the firm’s employees were perhaps too eager to satisfy important clients like Enron Corp.
Although loyalty and trust are a sound basis for cooperative behavior, the problem with highly involved individuals is that their loyalty can’t be left unspecified. It often focuses on a specific leader or a restricted circle of close colleagues, resulting in the formation of cliques that are likely to be antagonistic toward other groups. Newcomers will have trouble integrating with such teams, and redesigning the group’s mission or routines will require tremendous energy. Furthermore, unquestioned loyalty to a leader can be problematic if that person leaves or is removed.
Interestingly, organizations with strong cultures often exhibit a dual attitude toward change. In some ways they are remarkably adaptive, while in others they can be excessively rigid. For instance, a firm could be innovative within its traditional areas of expertise but overly conservative when it comes to outside technologies. Many strong cultures are reluctant to learn from other groups; they despise standard or off-the-shelf solutions; and they develop idiosyncratic ways of doing things that they are convinced are superior to other approaches. Apple Computer Inc. failed to take advantage of a number of good ideas due to such an attitude. These characteristics can produce unique capabilities over the long term, but the returns often do not justify the costs. Indeed, some scholars have issued warnings about the downsides of strong cultures, but the advice is usually to replace one culture with another that is just as strong but more fitted to the evolving conditions.
Of course, values and identities are important: They help employees make sense of their tasks, missions and problems. But trouble can easily arise when people’s interpretations diverge sharply from that of the company founders, senior management or consultants hired to conduct a change program. Given all the potential difficulties, an organization needs to have effective mechanisms in place for keeping control of people once they are strongly, deeply and wholly involved. Otherwise, it had better make sure that its highly involved people are all moving in the right direction — and that it doesn’t need to change that course any time soon.
Abstraction and Faking
Although companies seldom acknowledge the problems of high involvement, they still must deal with the contradictions of such policies. Many organizations with highly involved employees purposefully try to maintain a careful fuzziness; for example, motivation should be deep but not attached to anything specific like a product or a task. Motivation can thus be activated, directed and redirected at will. Similarly, identities should provide a full and enduring sense of self but be elusive enough to enable painless change. Cultures should be strong but still highly flexible, whatever that means. And that’s why so many mission statements, company values and principles are almost devoid of meaning. Abstraction, it seems, is the only way to avoid contradiction. Of course, abstract platitudes are unlikely to boost efficiency, increase innovation or achieve other positive business results. In fact, surveys show that most managers don’t believe that their company’s statement of purpose accurately reflects reality or that it significantly influences their day-to-day decisions.
So faking becomes the standard mode of operation at many highly involved organizations. It may seem unethical — and, of course, it can be truly unethical in some cases — but when people are faced with contradictions they can’t resolve by themselves and they still want to do their jobs properly without overtly violating unrealistic requirements or principles, they have little choice. For them, faking becomes a reasonable behavior.
In such matters, the most pragmatic people are often line managers, who might be publicly enthusiastic toward employees’ high involvement but privately leery when the strong commitment, deep motivation, unquestioned loyalty and intense attachment to values are genuine. Aware of the unstable and ambiguous ground on which they stand, middle managers generally like high involvement only when it is faked. They themselves will fake it to their bosses, and they expect others —especially their subordinates — to follow suit.
By faking, people demonstrate that they acknowledge the expected behaviors and requested efforts, and they signal to others that they are ready to comply with the rules of the game. But because those guidelines are unclear and likely to be reinterpreted or modified, managers must be vigilant in anticipating people’s reactions to the unexpected. The trouble with subordinates who are truly and deeply involved is that they are likely to react badly to any changes in the rules of the game, such as a reinterpretation or modification of the company’s mission. They might quit or, worse, they might stay and loudly voice their complaints, becoming depressed, reluctant or aggressively defiant. In any case they will make management uneasy because their reaction will expose the gap between the publicly displayed attitude and people’s true feelings. To avoid such nasty situations, managers will tend to favor subordinates who have subtle faking skills, bearing in mind that strong, heavy, deep and massive faking comes with its own fair share of problems.
The Need for Moderate Adherence
Given the various downsides of high involvement, why are so many organizations caught up in its relentless pursuit? Perhaps the cycle starts at the top. When executives are deeply committed and motivated and have the utmost faith in themselves and their purposes, they tend to think that such intense involvement is the key to success, and they project that bias upon other individuals. When they can’t find those qualities in others, they want to implant it. Competitive pressures intensify the process. Anxious about falling behind, top executives demand ever increasing involvement from organization members. Consultants, meanwhile, are only too happy to market new concepts that convey a sense of intensity and power. And when those programs don’t deliver the promised results, the failure is blamed on other factors, careless implementation being a perennial favorite.
Instead of longing for increased dosages of intensity, might companies be better off exploring the power of moderation? This is not to say that they should begin rewarding mindlessness, passivity, entrenched individualism, lack of concern and sloppiness. But moderation does have its virtues, as do the attributes of mildness, lightness and shallowness. Strong adherence to values, cultures, identities, objectives or leaders is fine when top management itself sticks to a stable and defined course of action. Southwest Airlines Co., for example, has succeeded in building a multibillion-dollar business based on the high involvement of its employees because the company has maintained a stable sense of direction over the years. Many organizations, however, don’t or can’t do that because they have to respond continually to shifts in ownership, variations in the stock market, arising stakeholder concerns, new competitors or emerging technologies, to name just a few sources of turbulence. When employees are likely to be transferred from one project to another without much preparation, they need to be quickly and easily removed and reintegrated without a number of adverse consequences either for them or for the teams involved. Even when people’s positions are relatively stable, they still need to adapt to the rapidly changing agendas of their bosses — and their bosses’ bosses. And those managers can move on and be replaced, too.
That’s why organizations should learn to manage people on the basis of the concept of sticky notes, the pads of paper known for their low self-adhering power and reusability. The problem with strong adhesive is that it can tear things when the note is removed. On the other hand, if the adhering power is too weak, the notes will get lost. From a company perspective, commitment, motivation, loyalty, trust, values and identities should be like mild adhesive that will reliably endure repeated removals and reattachments. In other words, building and sustaining moderate adherence is the key to managing in turbulent times, and in the long run most companies are better off with sticky-note employees. The trouble is that many organizations are convinced they need superglue people.