maanantai 6. lokakuuta 2014

Who is the manager of the informal, hidden organization?

In addition to the formal structure and practices, all organizations also live and function on informal levels, with tacit rules and power relations. The informal reality introduces quite a challenge for supervisors, especially in multicultural work places. Managers must develop both strong cultural sensitivity and personal skills and courage to notice and also address interpersonal tensions, games, cliques, and disruptive communication including micro messages.

More than previously, employees (including managers) are dealing with rapid changes that may be in conflict with the formal organizational structures and their role division. In the midst of this ambiguity, people's daily lives tend to be colored by worry about their personal situation and their future. In this environment, and especially when employment is insecure, managing personal support networks becomes a question of survival, sometimes more important than job performance itself.

The unemployment statistics indicate who are the most vulnerable groups in terms of job security: minorities of all types, aging and very young employees, people with health issues and disabilities, and parents/potential parents of small children. Immigrants from distant cultures, however, seem to be at the greatest disadvantage. They do not know the tacit work-place norms and traditional ways of acting, and they cannot interpret the weak signals. In a foreign environment, they act solely upon the formal instructions and therefore misinterpret the emerging reality, sliding quickly to the out-group.

A good supervisor is able to identify the informal organization and make it visible to the community. S/he has the courage to look below the surface and read between the lines. S/he adheres to justice and sets equally high standards to others as well, does not close her/his eyes and ears when noticing tensions or cliques between people. A good supervisor also dares to ask directly one-on-one, and collectively if necessary, what is going on.

Existing often between the formal and informal organizations, the social media is strengthening its role, and has in many companies been officially established in many functions, such as marketing. In the area of HRM, social media has become increasingly important in recruitment and employer branding, but also in staff and retiree interaction. In most cases, communication is positive and appropriate but social media can also be used for destructive aims, such as harassment or discrimination, building in- and out-groups. Especially, the potential opportunity for anonymous communication opens the door for abuse that easily gets out of hand even when started as a joke. In many cultures, losing one's face puts a permanent shame on the person, which is often impossible to fix. Therefore, every supervisor, every manager has to be attentive and ready to take corrective action as necessary.

These are the moments when the supervisor has to stand up and address the behavior face-to-face, clear and loud, and set zero-tolerance standards to the entire community.

perjantai 9. toukokuuta 2014

Critical business benefits of language skills

Full utilization of multicultural resources seems to receive less and less attention in the current environment of economic pressures. Organizations struggle to survive, and staff members focus on retaining their job or finding a new one. Training is continuously reduced. The trend also applies to newcomer orientation: only the basic skills and safety regulations might be quickly reviewed or the task is left entirely to peers. This is common, even though the results of multicultural workplace studies repeatedly underline the importance of initial orientation.

First things to be cut often seems to be language training, including the local and/or work language of the organization - for budget reasons, and since “open language courses are widely available elsewhere”. In-house language training, however, is much more than just a language course. It’s a concrete signal to the participants that the employer cares about them, considers them worth development, worth investing in. Proficiency in local and work-place language is a key to wider learning, the full utilization of occupational skills, the membership of the community, mobility, career development, and also to external marketability when the circumstances call for it.

Employees without sufficient language skills, recruited and trained only for one specific task, are like cage birds, who have lost their ability to fly. For the employer, it is challenging – if not impossible – to find another task for these staff when needed: if the previous tasks become redundant, or when skills, motivation, or productivity no longer meet the changing requirements. If unemployed, the lack of local language skills creates a high barrier for a new beginning. For the society, the price is high. Even though there, indeed, might be a wealth of language courses available, they do not always meet the specific needs and communication style of work life. They also lack the special value of shared goals and sense of community that in-house training offer.

Typically, a significant amount of workplace learning takes place in practical master-novice relationships: experienced colleagues demonstrate hands-on, how the work is done. The two talk and listen, and together they build the newcomer’s work identity. Without a shared language this system does not work. Both parties get frustrated and may start avoiding verbal communication. From a multi-layered dialogue, the trainer may shift to simple instructions and commands to ensure that the basics get across. Under time pressure, fundamental differences in work practices and knowledge are easily overlooked. Misunderstandings and silence, sometimes caused by cultural differences, by respect or fear, go unnoticed and questions remain unanswered. Language proficiency is so much more than just talking: it’s reading between the lines, hearing silence, and the ability to read cultures. True communication simply takes time.

lauantai 8. maaliskuuta 2014

International Women's Day 8.3.2014

Why International Women’s Day, many might ask – isn’t gender equality already taken care of?

No, not quite, not everywhere, and not for all women, even though the situation has improved. Hidden behind the improvements in education, health and economy, there still exists another, different reality. According to a recent study conducted in the European Union countries, Finland is the second most violent country for women in the EU, Denmark and Sweden in first and third place, respectively. Although the results may partially reflect the differences in awareness, the lower tolerance for violence and minimal barriers for reporting abuse, these results are still eye-opening. If this is what takes place in the Nordic societies, what about the less developed, corrupted, and war-ridden countries where women can’t even have the basic ownership of their own home and body.

Globally, gender and race are the most significant factors generating inequality. These inequalities cut through all areas in life, from basic human rights and poverty rates to the subtle micro-inequities in professional settings. Their importance is evident from the first moments of life - Is it a girl or a boy? How fair or dark is her/his skin? - and they greatly affect the future of the child.

In addition to individual characteristics, a person’s destiny is also shaped by her/his social reference group – does s/he identify with a majority or a minority group. Does s/he belong to the power holders, the priviledged or under-priviledged class, does s/he represent the “norm”, or perhaps a marginalized category in the society? What has been her status inside the family? In many cultures, the individual is, in a sense, handed an unchangeable fate as a birth gift. From there, majority members build a different identity than minority members. Individuals accept and adopt their designated role, and evaluate their rights and opportunities from that angle.

Characteristics of the majority draw advantages like a magnet, often monetary ones, but also less visible forms. Similarly, minority-related disadvantages tend to cumulate. These factors get tangled up, and gradually one aspect cannot be separated from another anymore in analyzing causes and effects. Continued discrimination leaves its mark and in the end, opportunities might be hard to seize, even when they are handed to the person. Inequality in the society shapes the identities and lifestyles for both sides of the play. Equal rights do not guarantee equal opportunities and equal opportunities do not guarantee inclusion, unless people are empowered to take the benefit of them. Thus, ensuring active support, role models, mentors, and coaches to anyone coming from disadvantageous backgrounds is the key to truly leveling the playing ground.

lauantai 1. helmikuuta 2014

Is objective performance assessment possible?

The season of performance appraisals is getting close again. In the Finnish working culture of short power distance and relaxed relationships between managers and staff, assessment discussions are well established as a developmental instrument. In multicultural workplaces, the exercise may be an unknown territory for many. The nature and purpose of the assessment – the idea of mutual feedback, exchange of expectations, and a dialogue with the supervisor – may sound impossible for those coming from authoritarian, long-power-distance cultures. People have different expectations and a different understanding of their own role in the process. Critical feedback does not always sound developmental but rather frightening to anyone trying to build a new life in a foreign country, dependent on this one job and employment contract. In many cultures, it is also a issue of self-esteem, pride and public face.

From a supervisor’s perspective, staff diversity proposes a challenge they are not always trained or experienced in. Regardless of systematic HR practices, human nature plays a role in the assessment. Everybody has some hidden or explicit biases in their mind. These subtle biases and stereotypical beliefs influence the way we see, hear, and feel other people’s performance. We tend to value skills and behaviors that are similar to ours. We feel comfortable with people who are like ourselves. Unconsciously, we overlook unfamiliar qualifications and, especially, unfamiliar manners, behaviors, communication styles, and even accent and dressing-up. Stereotypes and personal preferences do injustice to individuals.

Typical biases in performance assessment relate to gender, age, race/ethnicity, skin color, religion, and language skills. This also applies to physical ability. We cannot easily see the competencies and growth potential behind a wheel chair or limited vocabulary. Our blind spots have an impact on the way we see peoples’ skills, output, effectiveness, productivity, abilities, and talent. Even more, they influence the assessments of long-term career potential: managerial traits, commitment, loyalty, drive for results, ambition, motivation for progress, sense of responsibility, confidence, credibility… Therefore, we need instruments that help reduce subjectivity.

How to minimize the risks of stereotyping and subjective biases in performance assessment?

1. Make performance criteria specific, concrete, measurable, driven by agreed objectives, and focusing on strictly professional aspects rather than personal characteristics.
2. Link the assessment to concrete and time-bound development plans and apply follow-up programs to enhance individual and collective performance and well-being.
3. Ensure diversity management training and awareness building for every supervisor.
4. Make diversity management an essential element of supervisory performance standards.