"A leader should be an architect of a system that produces great results."
Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author or Co-Author of Thirteen best sellers talks to Aamir Nowshahri about the importance of leadership and the benefits of simplifying it.
Aamir Nowshahri | Issue Date - 01/10/2011
Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business where he has been teaching since 1979. Although he is famous in academic circles for developing resource dependence theory (The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence-Perspective), he has done substantial theoretical and empirical research on several subjects which include power and politics in organisations, evidence-based management, the knowing-doing gap, leadership, stratification and labour markets inside organisations. In fact, he is the author or co-author of thirteen books and has won numerous awards for his scholarly contribution to the field of management. In an exclusive conversation with DTDIY's Aamir Nowshahri, Prof. Pfeffer talks about the importance of leadership and how simplifying it can help organisations achieve better results in the long run. Excerpts:
Q. You have delivered lectures in 34 countries. What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt while dealing with different cultures when it comes to organisational behaviour?
A. I think what I have learnt is that there are more similarities than differences. Human aspirations and human motivation are very similar regardless of the place; people want to feel good about themselves, they want to participate in decision making process, they want to have a stake and say in the place that they work, they want to be treated with respect and dignity, and it’s true when you talk of any place in the world.
Q. Is there a common way to solve these problems, or do you think different cultures need different approaches?
A. I think there is a common way. While going through my book The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First, if you look at the research on countries (not just the United States but the United Kingdom, Japan, Korea, Germany, Philippines, Spain and others) the factors that produce effective organisational performance tend to be the same. Employment security, investment and training, rewards that are shared based upon the organisation's overall performance, sharing information, delegation and decentralisation of decision making, self managed teams and so forth, these things have been found to work pretty much everywhere. The reason is simple. Human psychology is the same across the world and people want to accomplish the same things everywhere.
Q. You have written and talked extensively about overcoming the knowing-doing gap. Why do you think it exists and what needs to be done to overcome it?
A. I think it exists because many people and companies know the things (that I just mentioned) but they don’t actually implement them. I think it’s because there is too much fear, mostly due to the tendency to benchmark and to say "I don’t want to do things differently than what everyone else is doing." I think this is a kind of "follow the crowd" mentality and also because people often do not fully trust and appreciate the people farther down in the organisation – their abilities, capacities and capabilities.
Q. What could be a simple solution to the problems you just mentioned?
A. A simple solution to the knowing-doing gap is to measure it. I think it has a big effect on things. If you actually measure what you ought to be doing and what you are doing, that would highlight the gap between what you should be doing and what you aren’t doing. This way you will probably reduce that gap with time. So I think measurement could be the first and simple step that companies could take.
Q. Your research deals with the correlation between how organisations deal with their people and success. Could you throw some more light on the importance of dealing well with employees?
A. There is an enormous body of high quality research, accumulated over the last 20 years, which shows that the use of high performance or high commitment work practices always results in a 30-40% improvement in productivity and quality. This research has also been done in countries other than the US and the results are quite consistent.
Q. How important is leadership when it comes to achieve high-performance and high-commitment levels at the workplace?
A. I think it’s important for leaders to put in place the right systems and processes. It’s not that leaders will automatically make everything happen perfectly. In fact, the biggest thing for a leader to do is to be an architect of a system that produces great results. For instance, the Toyota Production System (TPS) produces great manufacturing results, regardless of what it is applied to and regardless of the people who are working in it. So, effective leaders would understand what high-performance and high-commitment management entails, and then design a set of management practices accordingly.
Q. If this is the case then why do you think leaders make bad decisions?
A. I think leaders are too filled with ego and they have overconfidence in their own judgments; that is the simplest answer. So I think we need to select leaders who are more modest about what they know. Also, there are many leaders who really don’t approach the aspect of organisational leadership as a profession.
Q. You have developed a course called power and politics in organisations. So, how does power and politics impact work culture?
A. Power is necessary. People don’t like power, but it is an important part of all aspects of social behaviour. It has been true for hundreds of years and it will be true for hundreds of years more. So, instead of avoiding it people should learn to use power to get things done. Politics is inevitable too. You can rail against it but you definitely need to understand what it is and how to manage it, and that’s true for managerial politics as well. There is a lot of research that shows that political skills are a very important factor in determining career success.
Q. India is a nation of entrepreneurs, with most of them being family-owned businesses. What is your word of advice for the leaders of these businesses?
A. I think family owned businesses have the same issues and face the same challenges of managing the work force as any other business. They need to be sure what the relevant research and literature is so that they can act on the basis of the best data and information. They need to implement the high performance-high commitment work practices that I just talked about.