I tell my son to pause the movie, and to go up and take his bath. If he does not do it immediately, then I turn off the movie for the rest of the night (stick) and if he does do it in a highly responsive way he can come down after his bath and finish the movie and stay up a few minutes past his bedtime (carrot). It works for my son, and truth be told it works in pretty much every level of the business environment. The challenge appears when the system is out of balance in the work environment. The ‘Carrot and Stick’ approach has been around a great deal of time. The pro’s and cons of which approach leads to greater productivity has been researched, debated, and written about again and again.
Going back to the example above, my son is 6 years old. He doesn’t have the knowledge or self discipline to know how much more difficult everyone’s life is going to be including his own if he doesn’t get a very long night’s rest. This is very different from our professional lives, where in many instances Professional Individual Contributors know the situation better than the decision maker. They do have the knowledge and self discipline to do what is in the best interest of the task or the organization they are engaged with. But even if PIC’s know better they are required to follow through with the instructions and direction of the superiors. Sometimes there is a greater purpose, but sometimes it’s just ignorance.
We have no stick for our superiors, but that can be a good thing.
One of the challenges that face the Professional class of individual contributors is that we don’t have much of a stick with our boss. PIC’s tend to be in a better position than classic line level employees with zero training. It’s easy to dump a cashier in favor of someone else who walked in and filled out the application. But like our unskilled brethren, we mostly only have the carrot technique. We will put in the extra hours when asked, we will achieve the sales numbers if possible, and we will hope and pray that we did enough to get that thing we want most.
There are some potential sticks that a PIC can use but in many instances they can hurt us as much as they hurt the boss. We can walk away from our position, but then if we do that we lose health care benefits and income. This works fine if we are independently wealthy and had the ability to purchase our own or if the social safety nets provided for these basic needs. But even though these societal constructs are endlessly debated, the political climate this generation won’t allow for their existence. In theory we could sabotage our work, but for the most part that is illegal and can have serious ramifications. Then there is always the politics route, assuming your position is safe enough.. Delay, not play nice with others, make multiple requests, and stonewall. Again, not a very good tactic for longevity, as eventually someone or something will change the situation.
The first challenge is well known. The balance, or imbalance as the case may be, has gone back generations. We do what we are told until we ascend to a position of responsibility over others then we have the opportunities to wield both the carrot and stick. One day my son will have his own children and he will use his own tactics to get them to take their bath without throwing a fit.
The part that’s good about the boss wielding the stick is that the boss can allocate attention, resources, and and direction to an area that may be important to us. We put together a new process, if the boss believes it in, he directs everyone to use the new process. If we have a new project demanded by the customer then the boss gets everyone involved, like it or not. But what happens when there is another boss..
The real challenge of the modern individual contributor. No Stick by anyone.
The biggest challenge to ‘flat’ organizations is that we don’t have a stick with anyone else (that’s why we are professional INDIVIDUAL contributors). This is the crux of this post. In our personal lives, assuming marriage or some form of partnership status and we are interdependent on each other. This is necessary for everyone to succeed, for the sum to be greater than the parts. In our friendships, and social relationships the same balance exists. But these are intimate type of relationships. Yes, we have our own goals and opportunities, but This does not exist in the workplace. There was a time when this did exist, when labor unions reigned supreme. The balance existed between management and labor, and even though management had some unique perks, the biggest ones were aligned with what was given to labor. My father for instance, a marketing professional his entire life had a pension. So there was more balance in the past, but there was still stick
I’ve recently managed a very large project that included well over a dozen partners / stakeholders. The areas I was responsible for were executed very well. The challenge was my partners, they didn’t execute on their own parts. I had a hard time comprehending their lack of commitment as ½ of the entirety of the project was for their own benefit. Again, this was a massive undertaking. The whole experience is a bit like being a helicopter parent when it comes to your kid’s schooling. Imagine paying for tutoring and study skills development for years so they can go to school and have the ability to choose anything they want to study and be successful at it, and they decide to drop out as soon as they are given the option.
If it’s your kid you can read them the riot act and move on. You are family afterall and not much is going to change. The problem in the professional world is that if you choose to try and use a stick you don’t officially have it can also have tremendous negative ramifications when it comes to creating organizational enemies. At the end, it came down to the age old question: Is this the hill I wanted to die on? I chose not to. That being said, I have not forgotten and have learned a valuable lesson about how my organization works. I will definitely modify my activities in the future to keep the same thing from happening again.
If there was a boss with a stick, or if I were given a stick for this particular project ala six sigma empowerment, then I would have been able to make organizational and personal changes. It would have come down to that because everyone would know there would be significant negative ramifications if they didn’t follow through (baring the really good reason to not follow through, which does happen.. *it happens in business as well as life)
It’s this reality of less management this type of situation, where nobody is responsible yet everyone is responsible, where uncertainty happens. Then the lack of truly informed management means that it’s never really clear where the ax is going to fall when *it happens. It’s also where frustration happens on the part of the PIC. This is one of the moments where the professional will eventually say to themselves, screw this.. I’m out of here. Like the low income, low skilled proletariat who thinks that every new apartment complex will make their life better because it won’t have that old mean landlord, the professional is open to hearing the story spun by the next employer who just needs someone to “take this one on and make it happen”. This tendency to believe the organizational grass is greener tends to be rooted in frustration in areas like lack of clarity and empowerment than the grass actually being greener.
Ambiguity has always happened in the professional world. As we thin out our management ranks, and put more on the shoulders of the individual contributors, this lack of empowerment creates new challenges in allowing us to meet our goals, manage our projects, and just be generally feel and be effective in the professional environment. That’s a tough way to spend 10+ hours a day.