Frederik Anseel in the first Turner X-Over: ‘Riding the wave of a business trend is dangerous’

The first speaker in Turner’s new X-Over (pronounced crossover) webinar series was the enfant terrible of HR research: Frederik Anseel, Professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. ‘I continue to oppose the myths and misunderstandings surrounding HR, perhaps against my better judgment.’

Anseel enjoys questioning generally accepted opinions. Fifteen years ago, at the beginning of his academic career, the Flemish professor set himself the goal of eliminating all myths and misunderstandings in HR and management. But, after a few years, he had to back off of that goal. ‘The myths and misunderstandings are just too persistent, and they keep proliferating’, he says.

In fact, there may be even more now. Behavioural science has experienced a new period of growth, thanks to social media and the free flow of information – it’s a bull market according to Anseel. ‘But there is an excess of nonsense, hot air and hypes. And I will continue to oppose it, perhaps against my better judgement.’

Especially for the first edition of Turner’s X-Over webinars, Anseel made a new attempt to address these misunderstandings. He did not address all of them – there are simply too many – but selected the following three.

Myth 1: ‘Organisations will have to adapt to a new generation of digital natives with fundamentally different work values.’

The media loves talking about new generations and their specific characteristics. We have heard all about the me-generation, Generation X, Generation Y and the latest, Generation Covid, which is expected go for a different lifestyle than its predecessors. But, says Anseel, we’re bad at identifying generational differences. We confuse them with differences that are actually due to age and or to time periods. We can only say that a characteristic is specific to a generation if we continue to follow that generation for years, examining them not only when they are 18 but also when they are 28, 38 and 48.

Even Larry Fink, the CEO of Blackrock, made this mistake. He said that the current period of inflation will be an important lesson for ‘this very entitled generation’. Fink is in good company: Socrates said something similar about young people 3000 years ago. This means not only that both were wrong, but also that this mistake is made over and over again.

Winston Churchill’s idea was more accurate, according to Anseel. The English statesman is said to have stated that, ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain’.

The problem also comes from the generations themselves, said Anseel. ‘Every generation thinks it’s unique. While trying to define themselves and set themselves apart from other generations is positive, it seems that the differences within a generation are greater than those between the generations. It is therefore better to say goodbye to this idea. It is not a meaningful concept.’

Myth 2: ‘Managers are an unnecessary layer in an organisation that slows it down. If people and teams are able to organise themselves, organisations would be much more effective.’

In recent years, the manager and his or her role have come under attack. They are seen as rigid, and it is thought that they jam up the process, says Anseel. Even the well-known management thinker Gary Hamel once wrote an article with the headline: ‘First, let’s fire all the managers.’ Examples like Buurtzorg Netherlands, with its self-managing teams, and Semco, Richard Semler’s Brazilian manager-less company, are repeatedly cited.

But is this image correct? Anseel says no. It is tragic that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos (a well-known example of the phenomenon), died recently, but even before his death it turned out that the holacracy – which Hsieh advocated – did not work very well after all. It turns out that holacratic organisations are slow and rigid. There is actually a hidden hierarchy and coalitions often engage in power struggles for dominance. Nobody takes responsibility. ‘In fact, the law of the jungle prevails, and the old boys’ network gets to make the rules,’ says Anseel. Someone who worked a while for one of these companies said, ‘It felt like high school, where the popular kids decided the rules’.

There is an unintended side effect: women are less likely to apply to companies with a non-hierarchical structure because they realise that they will not do well in these old boys’ networks.

‘Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, has just established that an organisation’s results are determined by managers’ competencies and how their directions are carried out,’ says Anseel.

Myth 3: ‘Purposeful leadership is the new magic word in management. Organisations and their leaders contribute to a better world.’

‘The idea behind this statement is that the company no longer exists to make a profit for its shareholders but must contribute to our efforts to create a better world,’ says Anseel. And although ‘purpose’ has found a lot of acceptance thanks to Simon Sinek, among others, it is still an idea that can be questioned, Anseel believes. ‘As a psychologist, I know that people are motivated by the why,’ he says. ‘That is the basis of intrinsic motivation. But problems arise in the implementation of the idea and in the excesses.’

Not so long ago, a CEO or a Board of Directors was supposed to be neutral, but they now have to take positions on diversity, on the climate, and on democratic processes. ‘It’s not easy,’ Anseel continues. ‘You are always going to step on someone’s toes.’

He also questions the claim that purpose and profit reinforce each other, saying that there is no evidence that they actually do. Alex Edmans, the author of Grow the Pie, which Anseel thinks is a good book, also had to acknowledge that it has not been proven that a company will perform better if it has invested in purpose. It can, but it often doesn’t, simply because not all employees are aware of the purpose.

You can also make mistakes with it, shows Anseel. Three weeks before the war broke out in Ukraine, Ben & Jerry’s tweeted that American President Joe Biden should not be involved in preparations for a war. That tweet boomeranged back on the activist brand.

Social involvement has another problem, says Anseel. If the words do not match the deeds, you are ripe for accusations of hypocrisy. And that is a reproach that lingers for a long time. ‘Think of Boris Johnson and the parties on Downing Street.’

Even the generally accepted claim that varied teams perform better has not really been proven. The big question is whether you should present a business case in such cases, says Anseel. ‘Diversity has value in itself, doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be supported by a business case, does it?’

Conclusion

‘Riding the wave of a business trend is dangerous’, concludes Anseel. An audience vote reinforced this idea. The audience chose between ten trends, and concluded that the worst were cultural programmes, leaderless organisations and fads in office furnishings.

Nevertheless, managers’ seeming need for trends to follow is still an interesting phenomenon. Anseel has an idea where that comes from. ‘One of the explanations is that managers feel a certain pressure to appear competent to others. That’s why they’re focused on new trends. Research shows that managers who follow trends are even rewarded better. In short, it pays to follow them. And organisations that have adopted a trend turn out to jump on new ones more quickly. They appear to be more susceptible to it. This is how the system maintains itself.’

TURNER X-OVER: FRESH INSPIRATION AND PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Turner presents an exclusive crossover series for those in its network. Leading speakers, including scientists, thought leaders, and top executives, will share the latest insights from psychology, ethics, HR, behavioural sciences, theology, leadership and artificial intelligence. It’s all about fresh inspiration and pushing the envelope, because strategy execution is a multidisciplinary subject that is increasingly about being able to combine disciplines and perspectives. The lectures are short enough to listen to during lunchtime or at the end of the day. You can often choose between digital, live or hybrid.

What else can you look forward to in this series? Peter Meyers (Stanford) on Story Telling, Francesca Gino (Harvard) on Talent Management, and George A. Kohlrieser, (IMD Switzerland) on Personal Leadership.

Follow us on turner.nl/x-overs 

Would you like to learn more about Turner Strategy = Execution? Visit turner.nl/en/strategy-execution

TURNER X-OVER: FRESH INSPIRATION AND PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
Turner Strategy=Execution organises an exclusive crossover series for its network. Leading speakers, including scientists, thought leaders, and top executives, will share the latest insights from psychology, ethics, HR, behavioural sciences, theology, leadership and artificial intelligence. The lectures are short enough to listen to during lunchtime or at the end of the day. You can often choose between digital, live or hybrid. The next Turner X-over will feature a very interesting speaker and will take place in the autumn. We will keep you informed. 

Myths translation

 

Which three myths do you think are the most catastrophic?

  1. Leaderless Organisation
  2. Purposeful Leadership
  3. Generational Differences in the Workplace
  4. Diversity
    Working From Home
  5. Office Design
  6. Selection
  7. Entrepreneurship
  8. Leadership
  9. Cultural Programmes

 

Participants in the X-over ‘Myths and Misunderstandings in Leadership and HR’ chose the following three myths as the most catastrophic:

Myth #10 Cultural Programmes. The myth: Everything is about culture.  The reality: Never do a cultural programme.
Myth #1 Leaderless organisation. The myth: Managers are an unnecessary layer in an organisation and slow everything down. The reality: They aren’t and they don’t.
Myth #6 Office Layout. The myth: Open office layouts improve communication and teamwork. The reality: The global adoption of open offices is perhaps the biggest blunder in the past 40 years of business operations.

 

Would you like to learn more about the myths?

  1. The leaderless organisation. The myth: Managers are an unnecessary layer in an organisation and slow everything down. The reality: They aren’t and they don’t.

 

Foss, N.J. & Klein, P.G. (2022). Why Managers Matter: The Perils of the Bossless Company. Public Affairs. Available at Amazon.

Bloom, N., & Van Reenen, J. (2007). Measuring and explaining management practices across firms and countries. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122(4), 1351-1408.

 

  1. Purposeful leadership. The myth: Purpose is the new magic word. In principle, it sounds good: there doesn’t need to be a contradiction between sustainability and shareholder value. The reality: It isn’t magic.

 

Edmans, Alex (2020): Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver Both Purpose and Profit. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, UK).

Gartenberg, C., Prat, A., & Serafeim, G. (2019). Corporate purpose and financial performance. Organization Science, 30(1), 1-18.

Georgeac, O. A. M., & Rattan, A. (2022, in press). The business case for diversity undermines LGBT individuals’ and women’s sense of belonging and interest in joining organizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

 

  1. Generational differences in the workplace. The myth: A new generation of young people has entered the labour market and they have fundamentally different values and working styles. This means that they must be guided, motivated and rewarded differently. The reality: They aren’t that different.

 

Stassen, Lieze, Frederik Anseel, and Katia Levecque. “Generatieverschillen op de werkvloer: een systematische analyse van een mythe.” Gedrag & Organisatie 29.1 (2016). In Dutch. Title in English: “Generational differences on the work floor: a systematic analysis of a myth.”

Rudolph, Cort W., Rachel S. Rauvola, David P. Costanza, and Hannes Zacher. “Generations and generational differences: Debunking myths in organizational science and practice and paving new paths forward.” Journal of Business and Psychology 36, no. 6 (2021): 945-967.

 

  1. Diversity. The myth: The benefits are great and well supported. The reality: they aren’t. And by the way, neurodiversity is much more interesting.

 

Marx, B., Pons, V., & Suri, T. (2021). Diversity and team performance in a Kenyan organization☆. Journal of Public Economics, 197, 104332.

Roberson, Q. M. (2019). Diversity in the workplace: A review, synthesis, and future research agenda. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 6, 69-88.

Bezrukova, K., Spell, C. S., Perry, J. L., & Jehn, K. A. (2016). A meta-analytical integration of over 40 years of research on diversity training evaluation. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1227–1274

Paluck, E. L., Porat, R., Clark, C. S., & Green, D. P. (2021). Prejudice reduction: Progress and challenges. Annual Review of Psychology, 72, 533-560.

 

  1. Working from home (WFH). The myth: There are mainly disadvantages. The reality: WFH is here to stay, obviously, but if anything, requires a differentiated approach.

 

Bloom, N., Liang, J., Roberts, J., & Ying, Z. J. (2015). Does working from home work? Evidence from a Chinese experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(1), 165-218.

Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N., & Davis, S. J. (2021). Why working from home will stick (No. w28731). National Bureau of Economic Research.

 

  1. Office Design. The myth: Open office layouts improve communication and teamwork. The reality: The global adoption of open offices is perhaps the biggest blunder in the past 40 years of business operations.

Seddigh, A., Stenfors, C., Berntsson, E., Bååth, R., Sikström, S., & Westerlund, H. (2015). The association between office design and performance on demanding cognitive tasks. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 42, 172-181.

Kim, J., & De Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. .Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26.

 

  1. Selection. The myth: It needs to feel good. The reality: What feels natural is not necessarily effective.

 

Sackett, Paul R., Charlene Zhang, Christopher M. Berry, and Filip Lievens. “Revisiting meta-analytic estimates of validity in personnel selection: Addressing systematic overcorrection for restriction of range.” Journal of Applied Psychology (2021).

 

  1. Entrepreneurship. The myth: We need to learn from entrepreneurs how to lead within organisations. What can we learn from the success stories of top entrepreneurs? The reality: Practically nothing.

 

Frank, R. (2015). Success and Luck: Good fortune and the myth of meritocracy. Princeton University Press. Available at Press Princeton.

 

  1. Leadership. The myth: Leaders must inspire us above all. The reality: Charisma is overrated, reliability and safety are everything.

 

Gottfredson, R. K., & Aguinis, H. (2017). Leadership behaviors and follower performance: Deductive and inductive examination of theoretical rationales and underlying mechanisms. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(4), 558-591.

 

  1. Cultural Programmes. The myth: Everything is about culture. The reality: Never do a cultural programme.

 

J. Pijl (2016), Strategy = Execution, Pijl (2019), Strategy = Execution, §2.2.2 Soft is hard and hard is soft: Balance is everything

Ogbonna, E., & Wilkinson, B. (2003). The false promise of organizational culture change: A case study of middle managers in grocery retailing. Journal of Management Studies, 40(5), 1151-1178.

Birken, S. A., Lee, S. Y. D., & Weiner, B. J. (2012). Uncovering middle managers’ role in healthcare innovation implementation. Implementation Science, 7(1), 1-12.

Radaelli, G., & Sitton‐Kent, L. (2016). Middle managers and the translation of new ideas in organizations: a review of micro‐practices and contingencies. International Journal of Management Reviews, 18(3), 311-332.

Hastings, B. J., & Schwarz, G. M. (2022). Leading change processes for success: a dynamic application of diagnostic and dialogic organization development. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 58(1), 120-148.

Online talk.

Would you like to learn more about Professor Anseel?

Read his columns in De Tijd (in Dutch) or watch his 10 Minute Videos.

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