Lately I have dedicated considerable time and effort to a study on impartiality and ethical decision making among HR professionals. The data for the study were collected a little while back with one of my then graduate students, Tim Kozitza. I'm currently working on the data analysis with my brother, Professor Carlos de-Mello-e-Souza, from Seattle University. The purpose of the study is to investigate two main questions:
As I write the first question, I can already hear my readers' "duh" response. Of course, you'll say, people are likely to favor their friends. Next question please.
Not so fast. First, the sample will include HR professionals only - we plan to eliminate from the sample participants who do not work in the field of HR. Most HR professionals will agree that "fairness" is an important value in the profession - you are expected to treat employees impartially and in accordance to organizational policy. For instance, the SHRM Code of Ethics states that HR professionals should "develop, administer, and advocate policies and procedures that foster fair, consistent, and equitable treatment for all." Second, the sample includes a large number of individuals with managerial responsibilities - and managers are also expected to be fair and equitable in the allocation of resources and application of organizational policies (we will be reviewing the data to see the impact of managerial role). Third, the dilemma proposed in the survey was a professional one. It did not involve outside friends, family, etc. One might expect "fairness" to be a more important motivation in the world of work than in one's social interactions.
The second question, however, is undoubtedly the most interesting one. Clearly, not everyone is likely to favor the friend. We are exploring variables such as personality traits, gender, and managerial status as we review the data.
Before I see the final results, though, I'm spending some time reflecting on the limits of impartiality. Yes, we advocate for it. We insist that we are capable of it. When push comes to shove, however, how impartial are we really? For instance:
In other words: When we think of "impartiality" we often think of big and clear decisions. The true test of impartiality, however, could lie in the little ones. These little decisions, however, might matter. They might make a difference between someone's success or failure.
What do you think? Can you bring examples of moments in which you favor those you love in the little things? What is the impact of your own partiality? What solutions might you offer?
I lied to my students last week.
At the time it didn't feel like a lie. I thought I was being truthful, honest, transparent. I thought it was ok to reveal myself as I really was, flaws and all.
Sure. But it's not ok to invent flaws.
Fiction: I am the picture perfect absent minded professor - a bit flighty, a tad scattered, forever losing my clicker, designing convoluted class plans I cheerfully ignore. I try to be organized, then give up. I mix up my handouts. Take me as I am.
Fact: It's true that I cheerfully ignore my plans - and it's also true that I keep losing the clicker. It's not true, however, that I'm disorganized. In fact, I'm almost absurdly organized at work. I'm always prepared for class, often with several days to spare. I review everything multiple times - plans, slides, materials. I create beautiful handout packages, including everything my students could possibly need (no power point handouts for this professor!). I plan my time methodically, making a list, checking it twice, regularly estimating the urgency and importance of each item. Time management and discipline keep me sane and productive, even as I handle a work load that would daunt most of my friends and well-wishers.
Why the fiction, then? As I puzzle over this question I consider the great work of two authors: Dan McAdams and Sheryl Sandberg.
Psychologist Dan McAdams describes a three-layered model of personality. The first layer are the traits - the so called "Big Five" neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Traits tend to change little in adult life - a young agreeable child is likely to be an equally agreeable adult. The second layer includes values, goals, and motivations. Those change as we age, as we contemplate adult responsibilities and our own fears of mortality. The third layer? Life stories. These are the films we watch (and direct) in our head, the characters we want people to see (Read about McAdam's life stories here).
Perhaps that's where my absent minded professor character comes from. I make it up - oh, using grains of truth and traits I really do possess. I exaggerate a natural propensity towards complexity. I laugh at the number of pieces I bring to class - index cards, post its, game pieces, and so on. I have a bit of fun with my extensive plans - the ones I change so happily on the fly.
Problem is - my life story is a caricature. This caricature ignores my real strengths - imagination, flexibility, the ability to read the class and notice a change in energy, a need for more movement, an interest in something new. The caricature ignores years of teaching and training experience guiding necessary changes in plans.
Sheryl Sandberg's great book Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead suggests another source for my life stories: Fear. Fear of power. Fear of competence and experience. Fear of leadership. It's easier to put myself down, pretend that I'm weak and distracted. It's easier to pretend I'm not in control.
As I write this blog, I wonder who else is out there - who else is reading this and recognizing herself in my experience. I'd love to hear from you. Are you too sharing a fictionalized version of yourself? If so, why? How can we help each other tell the real story?
Don't miss the Disney movie Frozen. The movie is a joyful modern fairy tale, with gorgeous Broadway-style music, amazing voices, and yes, powerful lessons of engagement and leadership.
First, a brief synopsis of the story: Young princess Elza's magical powers allow her to create winter at will. Elza and her sister Anna have a lot of fun with Elza's magic - what child wouldn't like to instantly create enough snow and cold to build snowmen, play with snow angels, or ice skate? One day, however, Elza accidentally hurts Anna. After that incident, Elza becomes desperately afraid to hurt others. She refuses her sister's friendship, hides in her room and wears gloves when in public.
When Elza's parents die, she becomes the Queen of the land - and must, at least for one day, show her face to the world. During that day, people discover Elza's magical powers. Elza now has nothing else to lose and realizes that she can "let go" of secrets and lies. If you haven't seen the movie, watch this one scene below.
Like Elza, we all have special powers. Some are able to plan and follow their plans to a "T." Others need no plans at all - they move freely through their days, tackling several tasks at once, surprisingly able to keep them all straight. Some are quiet and contemplative, thinking before they speak, observing before they reach a conclusion. Others are bubbly and outgoing, thinking as they speak, relying on the energy of others to help them go through the day.
Yes. I am talking about personality.
Few people would see anything wrong with the picture I painted above - in theory. Practically speaking, however, we value certain personality traits over others. In fact, deeply embedded cultural norms may determine which personality traits are seen as "better." In the U.S., for instance, extraverts are clearly favored over introverts (check out an interview with Susan Cain on this topic). Other U.S. culture preferred personality-related characteristics (some connected to a blend of traits) may include ambition, energy, calmness, focus, and organization.
Fortunately, most of us are able to stretch. Introverts can act extraverted for an hour or so, during a party. Free spirits learn to create plans and follow them - at least during a critical meeting with the powers that be. Original souls force themselves to implement - again - blueprints of a project they would really like to toss and start over. We wear gloves. We pretend.
To be clear: There is nothing wrong with occasional stretching. In the real world, people must learn to do things they may not like so much. It's part of growing up. The problem is when occasionally becomes always. When we are asked to develop traits we are not wired to express.
Here are a few key lessons for leaders about human personalities:
What about you? What strengths are you hiding? How effective would you be if you could take off your gloves?
A couple of weeks ago a young high school student asked me to speak about "my passion" at his class. I've been reflecting on this assignment ever since. Is it even possible to follow my passion as an adult? Have I left it behind with youthful dreams of Opera houses and Broadway musicals? What is my passion now?
This question matters. It matters that I have to think about passion, that I don't just know - immediately - that I'm doing what I was born to do. It matters if I slowly allow my gifts to slip away.
Take a look, for instance, at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's brilliant work on Flow. A person is in "Flow" when her work is so challenging, so enriching, that nothing else seems to matter - at least for that moment. Perhaps Warren Beatty was thinking of Flow when he said: "You've achieved success in your field when you don't know whether what you're doing is work or play."
Tomorrow, I want to wake up and focus first on that which brings me to Flow. The discovery of research. The pure joy of learning something new. The excitement of finishing something I care about. Let me declare Wednesdays my Flow days.
How about you? What brings you to Flow?
To learn more about Professor Csikszentmihaly's work:
Happy Flow Day!
During the last few weeks, I have focused my R&D efforts on a new program on Innovative Leadership. Developing this program has been an interesting ride, as I tried to "connect the dots" between topics such as systems thinking, adaptive leadership, innovation, creativity, and personality. I know - quite a smorgasbord. In fact, one of the toughest parts of the development process has been to use such complexity to build a rich program - but then to simplify the content for best possible results.
Here are a few "lessons learned' from this process:
In other words: Building an "innovative organization" is hardly possible if one only focuses on "individual creativity" workshops. These workshops, however, can still be useful. For instance, we're including in ours a review of a participant's unique path to creativity - his or her talents, personality traits, values, and expertise. One could also use workshops to support the development of innovation related competencies such as relationship building, information sharing, and making connections.
The last competency - making connections - brings me back to the main topic of this blog. It's impossible to be efficient if we constantly branch out of our areas of expertise. Thing is - making connections is at the heart of innovation. Amazing ideas come from the "odd bridges" that we build between our fields and others', between the immediate, the practical, and the "I'm not sure how on earth I'll use this" pieces of information.
So here are two questions to readers of this blog:
1. How much time do you dedicate to "impractical" or "out of your area of expertise" topics?
2. Once you "branch out" into different areas, how do you then bring yourself back and... make it simple?
(1) de Sousa, F., Pellissier, R., & Monteiro, I. (2012). Creativity, innovation, and collaborative organizations. International Journal Of Organizational Innovation, 5(1), 26-64.
About the Author
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Assistant Professor at Drake University, where she coordinates and teaches at the Master of Science in Leadership Development.