Thursday, June 24, 2004

Disengaged workers and bullying bosses 

Surveys, particularly those done by Gallup, have shown Singaporean workers to be a particularly disengaged lot. According to these surveys, the root of employee disengagement is poor management. In last year's survey, Gallup estimated that the lower productivity of actively disengaged workers penalises Singapore’s economic performance, costing between $4.9 and $6.7 billion annually.

An article from The New York Times, however, offers a different view. The article, titled “Fear in the Workplace: The Bullying Boss”, specifically looks at bullying of workers by bosses and concludes that on the whole, such poor management behaviour does not have a significantly adverse impact on worker productivity. The pertinent paragraphs from the article are as follows:

The mystifying thing about this pattern is that it does not appear to undercut productivity. Workers may loathe a bullying boss and hate going to work each morning, but they still perform. Researchers find little relationship between people's attitudes toward their jobs and their productivity, as measured by the output and even the quality of their work. Even in the most hostile work environment, conscientious people keep doing the work they are paid for.

At the same time, some employees withhold the unpaid extras that help an organization, like being courteous to customers, helping co-workers with problems or speaking well of the company. Yet this falloff in helpfulness and, indirectly, in performance is smaller than might be expected, because fear motivates different people differently, said Dr. Bennett Tepper, an organizational psychologist at the business school of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

In April, he reported the results from a study of 173 randomly chosen employees in a wide range of work. He found that in situations where bosses were abusive, some employees did little or nothing extra, while others did a lot, partly covering for less helpful peers.

“This is not what we expected,” Dr. Tepper said. “And we speculate that one reason people keep doing extra in these abusive situations is to advance themselves at the expense of others. It makes them look good and the others look that much worse.”

This article dealt primarily with bullying by bosses. As to why bosses bully their workers, the article cited Dr. Harvey A. Hornstein, a retired professor from Teachers College at Columbia University and the author of “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey” in concluding that most often, “managers bullied subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power”.

Such leaders are extensively discussed in the article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons” by Michael Maccoby. Published in the Harvard Business Review in January 2004, this article won a McKinsey Award, which is normally given to works that are deemed to be likely to have a major influence on the actions of business managers worldwide.

The article focuses on the personality type that Sigmund Freud dubbed narcissistic. It is one of three personality types identified by Freud, the other two being erotic and obsessive. The article describes narcissists thus:

Narcissists, the third type, are independent and not easily impressed. They are innovators, driven in business to gain power and glory. Productive narcissists are experts in their industries, but they go beyond it. They also pose the critical questions. They want to learn everything about everything that affects the company and its products. Unlike erotics, they want to be admired, not loved. And unlike obsessives, they are not troubled by a punishing superego, so they are able to aggressively pursue their goals. Of all the personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves at the moment of success. And because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies, sometimes degenerating into paranoia when they are under extreme stress.

The article also mentions that narcissists lack empathy. Combined with their “superego” and “aggressiveness”, it is no wonder then that they become bullies when given power.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

No job after training 

In The Straits Times yesterday, it was reported that several workers who trained to become aerospace technicians ended up doing general aviation work because there were no technical jobs available.

The workers had been given government-funded training with the help of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Workforce Development Agency (WDA). According to the report, some of the workers had left technical jobs in other industries “to pick up what they believed to be more relevant skills”.

It turned out, however, that neither the NTUC nor the WDA had guaranteed the workers jobs as aerospace technicians. According to The Straits Times, both parties acknowledged that “NTUC Joblink, in its briefings to job seekers, may not have been clear enough on the employment arrangements and could have given the impression that permanent positions would be immediately available after training”.

There are two problems here.

One is that of promising too much. This usually happens with salesmen, but it can also happen with any person whose job involves selling something — even a training place — to others. The temptation to stretch the truth is always there. Or it can be a careless omission of pertinent facts — less malicious in intent but not necessarily in effect.

The other problem is the government’s economic restructuring programme. Recognising the need to retrain workers for new types of jobs coming to Singapore, the government has been stressing on workers the need to take up training and upgrading courses.

Unfortunately, training is no panacea. There are numerous training programmes available on the market, many government-sponsored, many more not. Many individuals, in their eagerness to upgrade their skills and employability, go for such courses, only to find out that employers are still not willing to take them.

Sometimes, it is because the jobs are simply not there, as in the case for the would-be aerospace technicians. While workers need training to get better jobs — or any job at all, for some — getting workers to go for training only to find there is no job available for them is a waste of their time and money.

Other factors may also make it difficult for specific groups of workers to get better jobs. Age has been a frequently cited problem. Many unemployed workers above 40 years old find themselves discriminated against by employers.

The newspapers have recently highlighted yet another factor: Discrimination against part-time degrees from private educational institutes. Also in The Straits Times yesterday, it was reported that many employers are skeptical about the quality of education received from such institutes. To address this problem, the Economic Development Board and SPRING Singapore would be setting up an accreditation scheme for private schools in Singapore, according to The Straits Times.

This is really overdue. If training is really important to Singapore’s workers and its economy, then the quality of that training must be maintained and, equally important, be seen as such.

Furthermore, the government intends to make Singapore a regional education hub. Foreigners who come to Singapore to study must be able to rely on some sort of quality assurance for the educational institutes that they go to. Otherwise, foreigners may become disillusioned with the quality of education in Singapore, which would surely have spillover effects on Singapore’s reputation as a whole.

And let’s not forget: Trainees are not the only ones who need jobs. Without the trainees, the trainers would not be able to keep their jobs too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

No glamour in entrepreneurship 

Before the Singapore government goes any further with its scholars-turned-entrepreneurs scheme, perhaps it and its scholars should read this post at BusinessPundit.com, “No Glamour Here: The Truth About Entrepreneurship”.

High-flying government scholars are usually put on an accelerated career path in the civil service. Once they become entrepreneurs, would the government be prepared to continue to provide assistance? If it is, then it can hardly be called entrepreneurship. If it is not, the scholars/entrepreneurs would have to slog it out on their own.

Would they be able to make the necessary psychological adjustment?

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Can scholars become entrepreneurs? 

There were more stories in The Straits Times yesterday on the release of scholars from the public sector to the private sector (see also Friday’s post, “Too much talent in government”).

“Overwhelmingly, business people, civil servants-turned-businessmen and current scholarship holders are opposed to the idea of creating a system to turn scholars into entrepreneurs,” The Straits Times reported.

While most of those interviewed “welcomed the idea of letting the private sector have more brains”, they had misgivings about getting them to become entrepreneurs.

Ron Sim, founder of health product firm Osim, thinks they will need to change their mindset. He said: “They may have to shift from thinking administration to execution. You can’t calculate everything, unlike writing a policy paper.”

Scholars may also be reluctant to leave the civil service. Loss of pay, privilege and financial stability would be deterrents to a civil servant quitting to go into business, especially for those who have hit superscale grade, where salaries may be higher than most top performers in the private sector.

Another problem for civil servants is their lack of knowledge of the market. Some think that it would be helpful for scholars to spend more time in attachments to the private sector.

Whatever scheme the government decides upon — assuming it does proceed with the idea of getting more scholars to become entrepreneurs — it must also bear in mind the personality traits that make good entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship is not about intelligence or intellectual capabilities, the hallmarks of scholars. Rather, entrepreneurship is about passion for the business, a point made frequently in Singapore.

However, more importantly — and less-frequently mentioned — entrepreneurship is about the drive for independence. Entrepreneurs are willing to take risks with their businesses and careers because they need independence, freedom from control by others.

Scholars who do well in a government organisation are likely to be organisation people and probably make good managers. Are they likely to exhibit the independent streak that entrepreneurs have?

Friday, June 11, 2004

Too much talent in government 

In an interview broadcast on television on Tuesday evening, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that in global competitive rankings, Singapore scores very highly on its public sector systems but not on criteria such as the level of entrepreneurship and venture capital. He suggested that there is “too much concentration of talent, drive and energy in the public sector”.

His remedy? “Let half go, let one third go and get them to be entrepreneurs, not just managers,” he suggested.

Will the suggestion work? Doubts exist.

In an editorial today, The Straits Times pointed out: “Business leaders and aspiring businessmen have on occasion assailed civil servants for being rule-bound and tone-deaf to the dynamics that drive businesses. The two categories of talent and energy are as different as chalk and cheese.”

Nevertheless, the editorial acknowledged that with talent so scarce, the government would have to allow more to move into the private sector.

“In the end, it could boil down to making the public service less of a cocoon,” the editorial suggested. “In some positions, it pays much too well relative to what firms pay. There is security of tenure. Bureaucrats do not face the terrors of market appraisal to the extent found in companies.”

What was not mentioned explicitly by either SM Lee or The Straits Times is that a re-allocation of talent from the public sector to the private sector can raise the overall efficiency of the economy, regardless of whether they become entrepreneurs or not.

The government bureaucracy is an inherently inefficient form of organisation. Whatever services it provides, it does so as a monopoly. Therefore, there is no proper, free-market-based measure of the value of the services, and hence, no proper measure of the value of its output. That in turn means that there cannot be a proper measure of the efficiency of a government bureaucracy.

As the management slogan goes: “If it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed”.

So government bureaucracies cannot be properly managed. Having talented management in government probably reduces mismanagement, but it cannot reduce it to the same level as it potentially can in the private sector.

However, governments cannot be done away with altogether simply on grounds of its inefficiency. Law and order can only be provided by a government. The same with national defence. And natural monopolies will arise even in a free market; some sort of regulated, arbitrary management will always be required for such services.

The only viable solution is to limit the role of government as much as possible in order to avoid its inevitable inefficiency. This in turn means limiting the amount of resources, including the amount of talent, going to the government.

The resources and talent can instead go to the private sector, where they can potentially be more efficiently utilised.

If this is what SM Lee’s suggestion leads to, then I am for it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Fast food, fast payment 

"Ez payment for fast food: McDonald's and McCafes customers can make use of the ez-link card to make payment for their food."

I guess it makes sense: Fast food goes with fast payment.