Article: Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR

Strategic HR

Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR

No other domain of management attracts as many charlatans, quacks and snake-oil-salesmen as HR. So, what can we do to change this?
Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR

Pyrrho the Skeptic accompanied Alexander the Great on his expedition to India in 327 BCE. Diogenes Laërtius states that Indian gymnosophists – naked philosophers – influenced Pyrrho greatly and that he got his ideas about agnosticism and the suspension of judgment from his trip to India. Perhaps it is time to invite his spirit back to cast a skeptical look at some of the extravagant claims and fads that tend to vitiate HR in India. Would an eye like his not discover the bareness behind the fashions flaunted by the emperors of HR?

No other domain of management attracts as many charlatans, quacks and snake-oil-salesmen as HR. Perhaps as a result of rubbing shoulders with too many such hucksters, HR practitioners too either become cattle-manure carriers or acquire the reputation for doing so. Unfair as we may find it, an anonymous poll of our peers will, more often than not, give HR the 'razzie' for being the best con-artist of the corporate world. For a function where credibility is absolutely indispensable, such an image can be lethal. What can we do to change it? Here are some mandatory questions to ask before implementing a program that its purveyor promises is even better than sliced bread.

Is the internal logic consistent and based on sound fundamentals?

Let’s start with Logic 101 and check the proposal’s internal logic. Those of us without a formal exposure to ‘logic’ can Google for a list of logical fallacies and check the proposal’s reasoning against them. Some sites1 have free posters that can be printed and put up for regular reference.

The change HR drives should be an integral part of the HR strategy which, in turn, has to emerge from the business or corporate strategy

Simultaneously, the proposal needs to conform to sound principles of Behavioral Science. One needs to be particularly suspicious of solutions attributing all of the organization’s shortcomings to a single cause. Here, unfortunately, no poster can substitute for a grasp of the fundamentals of the Behavioral Sciences. Those who don’t possess it should turn to a team member or professional peer who does.

Of course, the smarter sellers don’t openly lay out their logic or first-principle base. Requests for details are met with appeals to IPR. Such secrecy is best countered by generously sharing one’s proprietary know-how of directions to the exit gate with the seller. Then there is the bolder variety of seller who operates on the Goebbelsian dictum that "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." The exits of such vendors can be even less ceremonious than the ones accorded to the secretive Gnostics.

What is the robustness and validity of the supporting empirical evidence?

The first question to pose after screening for logic and fundamentals is the empirical research upon which the proposal is based. If the response is several papers from reputed journals (no, the vendor’s house journal and 'vanity press' journals do not count), one is off to a good start. Even so, it is necessary to scrutinize the size and type of sample used for the research as also the precise methodology and its proximity to real corporate life. Most of the better Behavioral Science publications are from the West. An Indian reader, therefore, has to make a judgment on whether cultural and environmental differences will throw doubt on the findings in our context.

One of greatest pitfalls to avoid is the confusion between correlation and causation. We laugh when we read about the high statistical correlation between stork populations and baby births in Europe2, but accept far more egregious linkages or reversals of causality when evaluating the factors for organizational success. Reputed publications will usually not permit invalid causal inferences but several management journals walk a very thin line in this regard. Of course, when CEO or corporate success stories are being presented, there is not even the pretense of statistical validation. In a classic exploitation of the survivorship bias (i.e. the error of concentrating on people or organizations that 'survive' and overlooking those that didn’t), we are asked to draw lessons and pay for management mantras based on these. For a potent course of inoculation against such delusions, read Phil Rosenzweig’s book, The Halo Effect. It shows why it is not possible to identify what makes for excellent performance simply by studying and imitating already-performing companies and people.

Till now we have confined ourselves to information provided by the vendor. For proposals that cross the checks we have conducted so far, however, we must take the trouble to uncover further evidence ourselves. When checking with other organizations that have already evaluated the nostrum on offer, it is important not to limit oneself to the references the seller provides or cherry-pick only those that have completed the implementation successfully. It is equally valuable to understand why some organizations didn’t opt for the solution or abandoned it midway. While a few such leads can be obtained through smart surfing, the best sources for such counter-examples can be professional peers from other organizations or the vendor’s competitors.

Is there a smell indicating an overfed bull has been around?

The methods described above can be fairly time-consuming. Are there any short-cuts, if one doesn’t have the time to analyze all proposals in detail but still doesn’t want to be suckered? In this situation, as Toba Beta pointed out, "To recognize bullshit, nose is better than ear". Here are some heuristics for a quick and dirty (it’s BS after all) sifting, always bearing in mind that one may end up throwing away some useful solutions in the process – the converse shouldn’t happen, since the surviving proposals will go through the more detailed checks explained above. 

Unfair as we may find it, an anonymous poll of our peers will, more often than not, give HR the 'razzie' for being the best con-artist of the corporate world

To start with, one should identify the epistemic parentage claimed by the solution. If the home discipline is questionable, one can, without too much risk, dismiss the progeny. Speaking for myself, eliminating any offering with an NLP or graphology lineage, for instance, has saved me huge amounts of time.

Even where the solution is grounded in an established discipline, one can give it summary dismissal if:

  • The claims for it are over-extravagant. Mark Twain noted, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." One must beware of consultants who have single panacea for all organizational ailments. There is a risk their hammers will smash China that only needed a gentle polish.

  • The locus of expertise does not lie with the people delivering the solution.  This is almost invariably the case when senior partners of large consultancies pitch for business and the delivery is in the hands of far more junior and less experienced staff. The same thing happens when local franchisees of weighty international brands are appointed primarily for their business development skills. As Charlie Munger words it, one must distinguish between the in-depth understanding of a subject – 'Planck Knowledge' – and the reflected appearance of it, or 'Chauffeur Knowledge' (Google for the anecdote on which this terminology is based).

Speaking of business developers, one should obviously watch out for the standard tricks that many salesmen employ – and internationally renowned experts, or CEOs who are in a selling mode, are no exception. Here’s a pretty standard combination that yields high results (for the seller):

  1. A grim diagnosis of the problems facing the business based on a generic compilation of what ails most corporates.

  2. An equally general but positive Forer list of the great qualities of the senior-most decision-maker (preferably the promoter or the CEO) who alone can turn around the situation – with the aid of the proposed solution, of course. Incidentally, most of astrology is also based on the same Forer effect which causes people to think vague and general descriptions of their personality, that could apply to a wide range of people, are very accurate.

  3. A limited time or availability constraint for the solution that demands a quick decision – quick decision-making, naturally, being one of the traits listed in 2 (above).

  4. A listing of the who’s-who of the world of business who have already embarked on the solution or are about to.

It bears repeating that these time-saving sniff tests cannot take the place of more detailed examinations before taking a final decision.

What are the vested interests and blind-spots in play (including our own)? 

More often than not, HR is not the sole decider of major organization-related investments and solution procurement. Assuming that the CEO and top team have bought into a business-aligned HR strategy and key HR imperatives, there should be little dissonance about which programs deserve to be prioritized. When it comes to make-or-buy decisions and choices between vendors, however, there can be powerful decision-makers or influencers who have a particular bias or axe to grind. In such cases, simply presenting the facts in favor of the 'go' or 'no-go' decision one may have arrived at will not suffice. The more cogent the arguments one presents to such stakeholders, the more they 'rev' up their cognitive dissonance pumps or camouflage their self-interest in noble-sounding verbiage. Outflanking or overwhelming such opposition that is impervious to reason requires political skills as well as the expenditure of previously acquired goodwill and power – methods that must be deferred to a future column.

It is the naysayer on my team who has all too often prevented some of my crazier ideas from taking birth and adding me to the list of maternal mortalities

None of these methods will work, however, when the bias lies within oneself. We are at our weakest when we evaluate our own ideas. People have often asked me why, in my various corporate roles, there has always been one member of my team who was virtually a cynic, always ready to put the worst interpretation on what had transpired or the gloomiest prognostication on how a program would turn out. Why, they would ask, didn’t I get rid of such a negative presence? It’s because I have found such a person as valuable as those enthusiastic votaries who have run with my ideas and made them happen. It is the naysayer on my team who has all too often prevented some of my crazier ideas from taking birth and adding me to the list of maternal mortalities.

Innovate for your own needs

While I have been critical of the neomaniacal (Nicholas Taleb’s coinage) pursuit of fashionable, flavor-of-the-month HR programs, I hope I have not given an impression that change is to be avoided. Quite the contrary! Driving effective change is at least half the justification for HR’s existence. The change HR drives, however, must possess at least the following hallmarks:

  • It should be an integral part of the HR strategy which, in turn, has to emerge from the business or corporate strategy.

  • It should be internally designed or, if that is not feasible, at least very closely partnered by the CEO and CHRO (who can never relinquish their prime responsibility for making the right kind of change happen).

  • It should be driven to its intended outcome over a sustained period of time regardless of the distractions of seemingly more tempting initiatives launched by the Joneses.

It does require some discipline to follow these seemingly simple, self-evident suggestions and to put each proposal for improvement through the Pyrrhonic principles prescribed in this column. When we do so, however, HR goes long way to gaining support for the really important changes it champions instead of being ridiculed as the regurgitator of ruminant refuse. 


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Topics: Strategic HR, Leadership

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