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Personal Change for the Information Age

by Michael Maccoby

Printed in: Research Technology Management, Vol. 37 No. 3 May-June, 1994 pp. 56-58.

It is easier to change strategy, structure and systems than it is to change people.

Most corporate managers grew up in the industrial bureaucratic world. Educated in engineering, sciences or finance, they express the character traits of the expert with a strong need for individual achievement.

As I explained in my book, Why Work the expert character values utonomy for him or herself at the same time as they seek control over subordinates. The expert's dominant drive is mastery of knowledge and other people as a means to move up hierarchies and gain recognition. Experts are not very introspective, and they favor doing over being, action before understanding.

Teamwork is uncomfortable for them. Typically, experts like games such as golf where they can compete against others by improving their own scores. For example, one company president described his executive group as a golf team in which each vice-president tried to produce the best score, but everyone hoped that the combined scores would result in a winning team. Everyone knew who were the best performers, and if the team lost, everyone knew which executive to blame.

In the past, this approach worked well enough for highly functionalized industrial bureaucracies. At each level, managers coordinated work done by individuals on a lower level down to the highly formatted production jobs. Little horizontal communication was required.

More Basketball than Golf

Today, different behaviors and attitudes are required for the kind of teams that must strategize together, design products and manage complex companies so as to create cost effective synergies. Even on the front line, team members should share information they learn about customers, and they are being asked to take over management functions. The corporate game has become more like basketball than golf. Team members must support each other. They must pass as well as dribble and shoot. They must agree on plays, react quickly to competitors and share responsibility for diving after loose balls. Therefore, a key problem for the corporation is to transform individualistic experts into team players.

Corporate measurements and rewards can help. If you reward basketball players on the basis of scoring alone, they will be less likely to pass the ball than if rewards are also based on numbers of assists. But is it enough to design measurement and reward systems that reward teamwork? Will this cause corporate managers to listen and understand the needs of people they should support? Will it produce the behavior needed to create good teamwork? Will it replace a win-lose view of interpersonal relations with a win-win attitude? I doubt it.

Expert attitudes are too ingrained. Learned in family and school, they are hard wired in the expert psyche. This is particularly the case for managers raised in families headed by a single male wage earner and educated in schools where they have been graded according to a normal curve. That comprises about 80 percent of the executives I have interviewed in technical companies.

For traditional corporate executives to become good team players, incentives are not enough. Nor are exercises in teamwork, even though these can demonstrate what impedes teamwork. Individuals must want to improve themselves. And they need tools to work with, good concepts and practices they can use to facilitate personal change.

Effective People

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (Simon & Schuster, Fireside Edition, 1990) appears to satisfy this need for many managers. Three and one-half million copies of 7 Habits have been sold, and the book has remained on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 145 weeks. Covey and his disciples have given lectures and workshops to managers throughout the country and have certified official trainers within companies. Some companies, such as AT&T, have invited employees to bring their spouses to the workshops, since Covey's habits are meant to develop effectiveness in family as well as worklife. What does this book say, and how well does it achieve its purpose?

1. The first habit is to be proactive. This means taking responsibility for one's fate as opposed to being reactive and blaming circumstances or other people. No one will change habits unless he or she feels free to take the initiative and believes it is in one's interest to do so.

2. The second habit is begin with the end in mind. Stated simply, Covey's point is to envision the goal before starting the journey. This is usually good advice, especially for managers, since it helps strategic thinking. It fits well with Russell Ackoff's guide to interactive planning which I have described in "What Should Learning Organizations Learn?" (RTM May-June, 1993)

Creative scientists might argue that this is not always an effective habit. Creativity sometimes involves playing with hunches and intuitions without a clear-cut end in mind. The late physicist Leo Szilard once confessed that he applied for grants by proposing research he had already completed so that he could use the money to explore half-formed hypotheses which would never get funding. This worked until a National Science Foundation grant-making committee rejected a proposal on the grounds that the proposal was impossible to do. Szilard was so taken aback that he admitted he had already performed the research successfully.

However, Covey speaks pointedly to the typical technical expert by emphasizing that we should envisage who we want to be as well as what we want to do or produce. What kind of person are we trying to become? The ability to create trust depends on being a person who can be trusting, and this means acting according to principle rather than short term expediency.

3. The third habit is to put first things first. This means more than prioritizing. Covey offers worksheets and diagrams to focus the managerial mind on not just meeting deadlines and fighting fires, but organizing, delegating, and avoiding problems. He points out that by paying more attention to quadrant II, in the diagram below, we avoid getting stuck in quadrant I.

Time Management Matrix

4/5. The fourth habit is to think win/win, which really requires the fifth habit, to seek first to understand, then to be understood. Win/win thinking requires the ability to listen in such a way as to understand the other person's position. Covey writes that when another person speaks, we are seldom trying to understand what he/she is saying. Experts in particular often listen only enough to formulate their own position, especially when they are thinking win/lose. But as Covey argues, empathic listening combined with win/win thinking makes you more effective in closing deals, leading others, and getting along with spouse and children. He might have added that there are times when one must fight for good principles and the principle of integrity calls for win/lose.

6. Habit 6--synergize--follows logically from win-win. The team can be more effective and creative than any single individual.

There is an exercise called "Desert Survival" (published by Human Synergistics) which I sometimes use with management teams to demonstrate problems in team decision-making. It presents the team of 5 or 6 people with a crisis. They have crashed in the Arizona desert and must decide together how to survive. Their main task is to prioritize 15 items saved from the wreck. How the priorities are determined depends largely on the survival strategy adopted. Before they prioritize as a group, each member does so individually. The score of a good team will be better than that of the best individual.

Once I used the exercise with an executive team, headed by a CEO who had not yet learned to listen to his vice presidents. In this exercise, he insisted on a strategy which according to the experts would have meant probably not surviving in the desert. One of his vice presidents had an excellent individual score, but the CEO would not listen to him, and the others went along with the boss. However, I have also witnessed a situation in which a top executive had a good solution, but listened to and followed an erroneous team consensus.

Listening empathically may be essential to win/win synergies, but without knowledge and courage, it can cause lose/lose agreement. Agreement and feeling good about it does not make an idea or conclusion a good one, a point missing from 7 Habits.

7. Finally, we reach habit 7, sharpen the saw, meaning we should continually renew ourselves. According to Covey, we should spend a minimum of one hour a day working on our physical, spiritual, and mental dimensions. For those employees who are victims or in fear of corporate downsizing, Covey has a direct message: "Your economic security does not lie in your job; it lies in your own power to produce - to think, to learn, to create, to adapt. That's true financial independence. It's not having wealth; it's having the power to produce wealth. It's intrinsic."

Recycled Cliches?

According to Business Week (December 6, 1993) these principles work very well for Covey. He and his Leadership Center in Provo, Utah take in about $50 million annually for speeches, sales of videotape and a newsletter. However, Business Week takes a somewhat cynical tone in describing Covey as "Dr. Feelgood" and telling us that "In truth, the Covey message isn't much more than recycled clichés, translated into business-speak and updated with charts, tables, and illustrations."

Although the 7 habits are not original and are not based on new research on what effective people do, I believe they include mostly useful counsel, well stated with fresh illustrations. Business Week dismisses Covey's ideas as "rooted in religious teachings - he is a devout Mormon with nine children." Does this negate the value of Covey's message? Whether or not one shares Covey's religious beliefs, I think it is possible to derive his principles from observation and analysis rather than revealed truth.

Covey's principles are consistent with the message of the great religions: We are born with free will, and we gain a sense of harmony and fulfillment by taking responsibility for ourselves and overcoming our egocentrism to care about others. Furthermore, good habits and rituals keep us on a path which strengthens our will to live according to our best ideals.

The Hewlett-Packard Way

Twenty-five years ago, when I began to study corporate managers, I asked Bill Hewlett to reflect on the kind of people that best fit the H-P Way which emphasized teamwork, integrity, and excellence. HP was ahead of its time as a technoservice company meaning that its products were created to respond to the needs of customers. It was organized with heterarchical marketing, development and production teams that worked closely with knowledgeable customers. His answer: Mormons, because they have a strong work ethic and build strong families and communities.

The 7 Habits does not appeal to everyone. The Covey message and illustrations tend to be paternalistic. The prototypic Covey manager is male. In stories he relates about his family, Stephen Covey is the breadwinner, while wife Sandra runs the household and serves as a volunteer for good causes. It is inevitable that lessons for good living express the character and culture of the teacher. This is what differentiates psychology from the hard sciences.

When evaluating the advice of 7 Habits, it is helpful to understand the influences that have formed Covey. While this book is not the last word on the personal development required by the information age, the habits or principles (the concepts are not sharply differentiated) seem especially useful for the technical experts bought up in the male dominated hierarchical organization who need to adapt their social character to the information age.

However, each of us should be proactive and decide what is useful for him/herself.

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