Beyond getting the horse to water

Over the weekend I had lunch with two friends from Rotman, and we inevitably got talking about organizational design. I summarized to them the key concepts of contingency theory (strategy orients the structure of an organization), the dominant logics, decision rights and the concept of fit between task and individual. We were all familiar with the congruence theory (between the formal and informal culture of an organization), so we did not discuss it in much detail. Where reached a deadlock was in if organizational design was supposed to incorporate individual motivation.

In reviewing my blogs, I have found that I seem to have been circling around this idea. The tools of organizational design, especially the concept of fit between task an individual, and the alignment between the people and the informal culture of an organization seemed to incorporate in a sense the motivation of the individual. But, there is a difference, as the proverb goes between getting the horse to water, and getting it to drink. In reviewing the cases and discussions from my past studies at Rotman, I still see that these tools and theories are admirably suited to designing an organization that accentuates and aligns the productivity of its employees with the achievement of corporate goals (getting the horse to water), but not specifically focusing on how to get a de-motivated individual to maximize his/her capabilities within a well-designed organization, or for that matter, bringing everyone to a certain level of internal motivation to maximize all the possibilities available (getting the horse to drink the water). The closest we get is in decision rights where we empower the individual to make decisions over issues that are within that person’s abilities and span of control. To a certain extent we can argue that this is also there in designing for fit.

In Power and Influence in Organizations, a course taught brilliantly by Jennifer Berdahl (at Rotman), we explored conceptions of power, and the most satisfactory one was defined as power being the able to control others’ desired outcomes. We usually see the power the employer or the boss having power over employees or subordinates respectively, but rarely do we acknowledge the power the opposite direction. The disgruntled employee, the de-motivated employee, the indifferent employee are all able to perform actions that control the CEO’s desired outcomes, often for the worse (think Mizuho Securities). In some cases, it may be actually the motivated employee, the morally-motivated employee, who then becomes the whistleblower (think Enron). Therefore, given the tremendous power that the employee potentially wields in an organization, should we also be explicitly considering how we can make people happy in a way that ensures that we mitigate the possible risk associated with making money. Here I am contrasting with the more common Krugman-like belief that the goal of a CEO is to focus on how we make money for the company (and not just make people happy). Of course, it is possible to make people happy with a free-for-all squandering resources that is counter-productive to the company’s financial goals. The trick therefore seems to be how to get people motivated to want to do their best in the job. Drawing from my experience as a teacher, I would say it is comparable to motivating my students to enjoy and build on the learning experience, despite the rigors of study, so that when they succeed, they will feel they have achieved something…and indeed they have achieved something special: the motivation to seek and conquer greater heights.

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