flowing motion

The hidden tricks of high level HR

Posted on: June 28, 2009

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Have you heard of Elliot Jaques?

I was on Brunel University campus on Monday and glimpsed the Elliot Jaques building.  Elliot Jaques was blazoned in large letters across the side.  Of course, in the grand tradition of prophets not being respected in their own land, Jaques’ work is barely know to British HR managers and occupational psychologists.

Jaques on organizations

Jaques wrote about large organizations and the role of each level of the hierarchy.  What does the Colonel do that is different from the Captain and what does the Captain do that is different from the Lieutenant?  And more to the point, are these differences also found in a hospital?  What does the Consultant do that is different from the Registrar and is that different from the Houseman does (what do they call housemen these days?).

Jaques in practice

Understanding these differences is useful to organization practitioners for three reasons.

1.  To design jobs so that we aren’t tripping over each other or talking over each others heads.

2.  For designing pay systems (I did say that British organizational gurus seem to have skipped Jacques).

3. For designing training & development programs and by implication assessing where people are on their development path.

The system was modified slightly by a fellow called Patterson to take into account very large organizations like the Royal Mail and Tesco’s who train their staff from absolutely basic level jobs.  Let me explain the expanded Patterson system because when I looked for a good link on the internet, nothing much came up in the first three pages.

Patterson job levels

  1. Unskilled work.  I can show you how to do the works in a few minutes and I can see “from the outside” whether you have done it.  British pay rates are about 6 pounds an hour – the minimum wage.
  2. Semi-skilled work.  You need to be trained, much like learning to drive, but once you can do the work, you do it without thinking.  Your work is checked more by quantity and usually checked at the end of an shift.  Much of work in the British public service seems to be in this category.  Check the box.  Unless the equivalent of a car-crash has happened, it is counted as done.  That’s not to say it is not important.  It’s very important.  It’s simply done at this level of complexity and is the big difference between the work done in a Japanese factory and an Anglo-American factory.  British pay rates are about 7 pounds an hour which you will notice is 1.16 or 16% more than the first level.
  3. Semi-skilled work with responsibility.  In this category, you may have slightly more complicated skills, like driving a long-distance goods truck.  You are on your own and the damage you can do if you don’t achieve minimum levels of performance is fairly considerable.  Alternatively, you might supervise people at levels 1 & 2.  You will dole out their work and check they have done it.  But you are unlikely to train them or be able to vary the system.   I’ve just looked up a driver who carries cash and the pay rate seems to be 9.50 an hour.  This is about 36% higher than the last level.  Interesting as it was the same organization as the first.  I’ll comment on that in another post.
  4. Skilled work.  All skilled workers fall in this group, be they nurses or doctors, mechanics or engineers, accountants or teachers.  Generally, it takes 3-5 years training to acquire the skill and in each and every situation we encounter, we have to work out logically what we have to do.  So the mechanic has to look at your car and decide how to service it (does this still apply?). The hairdresser looks at your hair and decides how to cut it.  The GP finds out your story and takes some readings and dispenses some advice.  British pay rates at the entry level are about 11.50 which is about 25% more than the last rate.
  5. Skilled work with responsibility. Yes, skilled work is responsible.  All work is responsible.  At this level, we have enough experience to work on our own and enough experience to supervise people at level 4.  Note well, there might be trainers and supervisors at level 4.  Lieutenants and sergeants fit into level 4 this category because their basic skill is supervising.  Lieutenants are trained to do this from the outset and sergeants have come up through the ranks.  At level 5, we include the trial balance bookkeeper who runs everything efficiently, the CEO’s PA, the ward sister, the Registrar who has ‘been there and done that’, and the Captains and Majors in the Army.  Pay rates in the UK are about 15 pounds an hour which is about 30% more than the previous level. (Note the Army pays more.)
  6. Middle management.  The middle manager coordinates the work of several skilled people.  Each person is experienced and used to reading the situation and applying their professional know-how.  And they are quite capable of supervising the novices at level 4.   The big question is how does the jigsaw puzzle of these jobs fit together and as this is not a jigsaw puzzle but more like air traffic control at Heathrow, what do the skilled controllers need to do their job well and what degrees of freedom do you have for altering circumstances under which they work?  Some factors like flights coming in are not under your control, for example.  Which factors vary and are under your control?
  7. And the roles after this include middle management with responsibility, senior management (2 levels) and top management (3 levels).  Another day, another post.

Why is it important to get these levels right?

Let’s take something we look out for in assessment centres.

What level are you communicating at and what level have you assumed the other person to be?

When a skilled person becomes competent, they are able to explain what they do.  When they work with a novice, they point out the features of the situation that are important, ask the novice for a plan to check they are using the right professional know-how and to relieve the novice’s anxiety that they have understood, and then set a time to review when the novice has had a chance to try out their plan and to see if their efforts work.

Let’s be clear.  If you haven’t had similar training, you will not understand what is being said.  If you have been around a while, you might be   able to ‘follow’ without doing, just as a pilot understands what an air traffic controller is doing without being able to do it ‘himself’, and vice versa.

Difficulty 1.

The 1st difficulty comes in when the senior person simply doesn’t have the experience themselves to communicate clearly how situational details and professional know-how comes together.  Hence the rules to young lieutenants – listen to you sergeants, listen to your sergeants, listen to your sergeants.   To take the air traffic control example, an air traffic controller who is not totally fluent shouldn’t be supervising someone who is in their first 1 to 2 years service.

Difficulty 2.

The 2nd difficulty comes when the senior person tries to communicate with someone who is not trained in their area.  They are in for a shock, aren’t they?  That is a whole new experience set and takes time to learn.  Imagine an air traffic controller talking to the cleaner.  It takes a little work to understand that, no, it is not obvious to the cleaner why they shouldn’t put the paper strips in the waste.

Difficulty 3.

The 3rd difficulty comes in when the skilled person is promoted to the next level up and they haven’t understood their new role.

They are now supervising skilled people who know what they are doing.  Contingent leadership theory covers this well.  Don’t give detailed instructions!  Don’t try to motivate!  Delegate!  Just indicate what needs to be done and how it fits in with other work going on in other sections. Your skilled staff will take it from there.  If you’ve explained the overall situation well (and believe you me, we all mess up from time-to-time), your staff will deliver.

The sign of the inexperienced manager is that they forget there are many different situations and they assume their interpretation of the situation is relevant and start instructing their staff as if they are novices.  Interpreting the situation is the skilled person’s job.  The skilled person is on the spot and has immediate information about the circumstances.  The manager does not have this information and is likely to make the wrong call.  Third, the manager’s job is to provide the resources for your staff to respond to situations as they arise.  That’s the manager’s job.  Don’t wander off the job and start doing someone elses job just because it is in your comfort zone!

Take air traffic control again as an example.  Imagine an air traffic controller manager hears the voice of an traffic controller become more urgent.  The worst thing in the world would be to take over.  If, to take an extreme example, it was clear the air traffic controller was having a heart attack, the manager would get another controller to take over the station.  If the manager takes over, he or she would not be doing thei job – which is to monitor the overall situation and the interconnections between the jobs. It there was some tension at a station, they might walk over, but not to interfere – but to be immediately available to receive requests for more resources.  The picture from Zemanta illustrates beautifully – two senior people are standing-by to take instructions from the skilled person on the job. They haven’t taken over and the next scene will be them turning away to organize what the air traffic controller and the pilot needs to resolve this crisis successfully.

In business settings, the relationships may not be so clear.  If you walk past someone who is doing something you don’t like, don’t interfere and don’t start to comment. To keep yourself oriented, ask yourself these questions.

  • How does this job fit into other jobs?
  • Does the person doing the work understand how the jobs fit together – or better still, have we forgotten to tell him or her something?
  • Ask yourself what you are reacting to – your inexperience, or a real danger that the jobs won’t fit together at the end of the day?

Can you maintain your role?

This is a tough one for people moving into management, especially if they haven’t had good role models in their own managers.

To judge where a manager is a on the learning curve,  psychologists get quite sneaky in assessment/development centres.  They’ll drip feed you ‘rumours’ that a skilled person is not working in a skilled way, and then see if you can maintain your role.

  • Can you maintain your focus on how the outputs of all your level 4 people fit together and work together to achieve a good collective result?
  • If not, why do you think that the situation is so alarming that you have to do the equivalent of interfering with an air traffic controller as they speak to an aircraft?
  • Is your reaction based on professional information at this level 7.  Or, is it based on panic because the skilled person has a different style from you?

I remember one superb candidate in an assessment center who disregarded the ‘dripfeed’ and began a performance review of a senior salesperson “how is the market, John?”

Brilliant question.  To state this in a general abstract way. Ask “how are you finding the situations that you were appointed to manage?”

This exceptional candidate received a full report from her ‘subordinate’, listened to it carefully, and responded to it in its own terms.  Then, once they were both oriented and playing their own roles without muddle, she attended to rumors that he had been using a company car for personal purposes.  She didn’t muddle the issues and she didn’t let him off either.  She made it clear in a cheerful but implacable way that the car was not to be used in that way and she didn’t get into the excuses.  When one of the excuses was dissatisfaction with pay, she put that aside to discuss that later.  That was important and very much her job.  But it had nothing to do with cars and cars had nothing to do (really) with how much work it was taking to achieve sales in that sector.

She was only able to achieve this clarity because she was clear at the outset about their respective roles and she didn’t fall for the temptation of giving her opinion on matters that were irrelevant.

Rehearsing for your middle management job

Finding the right question is qhard though.  I wonder how many psychologists serving assessment centres and HRManagers interviewing could phrase them.

So figure out your question.

Let’s imagine an air traffic control manager was following up a complaint about a skilled air traffic controller.  Yes, it is tempting to jump to the complaint.

  • Begin with the responsibility of the job.  How is sector ABC?  Find out what is going through the air traffic controller’s mind.
  • Then it is easy to begin with – I’ve had a complaint about this.  And wait to see how it all fits in.
  • It’s very likely you will learn a lot.  Keep the conversation at the level of managing sector ABC and how ABC sector fits in with DEF sector and GHI sector (and of course, with finance, marketing and HR).

Sometimes there is no issue except panic and the panic is yours. So deal with it.  And thank your stars you have a light day today!

Going back to Brunel and Jaques

Yes, I am surprised that local HR gurus don’t know their Jacques. He’s handy for structuring thinking about big organizations in all three areas – job design, pay and development.  We can take it as said the pay scandals wouldn’t have happened if HR had been reviewing their handiwork with his principles and those of his descendants.

I have another question though.

How do hierarchies fit into social media?

We know the old dinosaurs of large mechanistic companies have to change their ways.  GM is on life support.  The banks in Britain are alive mainly because of the massive ‘blood transfusion’ from the rest of economy that may kill us instead.  The organizations of the future will be smaller and networked but there aren’t enough around yet to see patterns – or are there?

Yes, in a sophisticated networked organization, most students join us around levels 2 and 3.   Graduates should be trained for level 4 (skilled) with the idea they will be at level 5 in 3-4 years (skilled and able to supervise novices).  I think this pattern will remain much the same.

Thereafter, do we have hierarchies?  Maybe – it’s possible to conceive managing networks the same way as managing hierarchies.  Or are we going to have to understand the complexity of organizational life differently?

Is the Elliot Jaques sign at Brunel University just a curiosity like the lace buildings in my town?  What do you think?

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