The Fads and Tales of Human Resources

March 26, 2024 thehrobserver-hrobserver-openoffice

As part of a complex experiment, five monkeys were placed in a space featuring a ladder positioned centrally with bananas atop it. In the course of the experiment, researchers employed ice water to douse all the monkeys whenever any attempts to ascend the ladder to reach the bananas.

After several attempts, the monkeys “learn” their lesson and cease their efforts to reach the bananas. Subsequently, the researchers begin to introduce new monkeys, gradually replacing the original ones, one by one, with the newcomers.

The newly introduced monkeys, unaware of the ice-water protocol, instinctively attempted to reach the bananas, only to be thwarted and occasionally mistreated by the other monkeys who had endured the ice-water ordeal. Over time, all the monkeys were replaced, and despite none of the “new” monkeys have undergone the ice-water abuse, they still prevented any newly introduced monkey from attempting to access the bananas.

Conclusion: despite never encountering or witnessing the ice-water abuse themselves, through observing the behaviour of others, the monkeys adopted a “learned behavior,” essentially following the crowd. This experiment exemplifies a classic case of mimicking the actions of the group.

I have heard this story multiple times across various platforms: in training sessions, online courses, meeting venues, and even in speeches and keynote addresses. Interestingly, I perceive the tale of the monkeys as more than just an anecdote. It serves as an apt illustration of management fads that emerge seemingly out of nowhere, which gain traction until they become the new benchmark and standard “best practice” that everyone is following.

The monkey story has one glaring issue: it is entirely fabricated. The narrative is a fictionalised version of the genuine research conducted by G.R. Stephenson in 1967. Interestingly, the crucial elements of the tale—the ladder and bananas—were absent in Stephenson’s experiment; they were “inspired” by another study conducted by Wolfgang Kohler in the 1920s.

Despite its fictional nature, the story is being utilised by experts such as Michael Michalko at one point. The reason for its endurance is quite clear: it is an engaging narrative. While it can be argued that this fictional story has inspired positive outcomes in innovation, social sciences, HR, and culture management, the same cannot be said for several other anecdotal “stories” that have infiltrated the HR landscape. Many of today’s prominent HR fads are founded solely on such “stories,” akin to the one featuring the monkeys.

Open workspaces are great for fostering communication and collaboration, annual appraisals help improve performance, bonuses, and monetary rewards yield better motivation, engagement, and overall results, Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) work as intended and result in behavioural change, calling references provided by candidates is a reliable method for assessing an applicant’s quality.

These are all fads yet, what ties all these notions together is their dubious legitimacy, akin to that of fabricated monkey tales.

Open workplaces are amazing, or are they?

The premise behind this trend suggests that open workspaces encourage increased face-to-face interaction, enhance communication, and expedite creative collaboration. It’s an appealing narrative, undoubtedly sounding plausible. However, the stark reality is that open workspaces largely achieve the opposite of what was promised.

“The Influence of ‘Open’ Workspaces on Human Collaboration” is a research paper authored by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban. Their findings reveal that open workspaces don’t result in increased face-to-face interaction; instead, they lead to a 70% decrease in overall communication, both face-to-face and digital.

Adam Grant, a distinguished professor of Organizational Psychology at Wharton, illustrates how open workspaces correlate with a 27% increase in sick days and a 14% decline in cognitive performance. Additionally, psychologist Matthew Davis’s research highlights the detrimental effects of open workspaces on employees’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, as well as overall satisfaction and morale.

Modern performance management practices (established in 1945)?

In 2016, approximately 82% of companies employed annual performance reviews. The positive development is that this figure has since decreased to 49% by 2023. However, the concerning aspect remains that it persists at 49%.

In accordance with proper scientific analysis, it has been revealed that annual reviews and the application of a bell curve to categorize results into a 9-box performance grid are highly flawed concepts.

What few acknowledge when extolling the modernity of annual appraisals is their origin during World War II—an even less palatable fact being their development by and for the military. 

While annual appraisals prove efficient for military personnel, tailored for groups engaged in uniform, repetitive, and primarily physical or manual tasks, their application to knowledge workers yields dismal results. According to Gallup, current performance management systems inspire less than 14% of employees to make any improvements or behavioral changes.

Motivating employees by killing their creativity?

Daniel Pink references Sam Glucksberg’s research, which compellingly demonstrates that monetary incentives stifle creativity and diminish performance in tasks requiring cognitive engagement. 

Glucksberg’s series of cognitive and creative exercises unequivocally indicate that financial rewards function as anticipated only in purely manual tasks; however, the introduction of even basic cognitive elements results in decreased performance with monetary incentives.

Furthermore, the research underscores that a blend of purpose, mastery, growth, and autonomy constitutes the optimal trifecta for enhancing employee engagement, motivation, and performance. 

Despite these conclusive findings, many companies persist in incentivizing their employees primarily through larger bonuses and monetary rewards.

PIP: the most reliable employee turnover machine known to man.

Even now, within my consulting practice, I encounter clients who continue to implement performance improvement plans (PIPs) despite the clear verdict: 90% of these instances culminate in the employee departing the company shortly after being placed on a PIP.

An article published on Indeed.com, which monitors the performance of thousands of companies and their HR practices, reveals that Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) yield success solely when dealing with quantitative objectives such as sales targets or quality standards. 

Even within these scenarios, PIPs prove effective only occasionally, and they still fall short of the effectiveness achieved by a comprehensive performance development framework centered on regular one-on-one meetings, managers equipped with strong coaching and feedback abilities, and performance evaluations conducted more frequently than once a year.

Is .13% really that reliable?

Have you ever requested references as part of a candidate’s job application?

The majority of schools, along with a significant portion of headhunters and talent acquisition experts, continue to request references. They depend on these references to evaluate the candidate’s character and suitability for a given role.

As per CIPD and Beardwell et al, the reliability of references provided by candidates is less than 0.13%. 

In contrast, smarter and more data-driven companies opt to task candidates who reach the final interview stage with assignments or case studies, which have been shown to be significantly better indicators of candidate quality. 

Some companies even compensate candidates for their efforts. 

Why this approach? It’s simple: the minimal cost of compensating candidates for their time pales in comparison to the expenses incurred from making poor hiring decisions.

Trust science not stories and fads

The array of narratives surrounding what constitutes effective practices extends far beyond the scope of this single article.

However, it is important to note that HR departments must recognise that these narratives are just that—stories and fads. Simply because some or even most companies adopt certain approaches doesn’t inherently make them correct or efficacious.

Ultimately, nothing surpasses a thorough research and a deep understanding of the underlying reasons and methodologies before making decisions.

Adham Abdelsalam

People and Culture Consultant

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