Article: You need a 'CPO' to face the future

Strategic HR

You need a 'CPO' to face the future

No, it’s NOT a chief people officer that you need for steering a course through uncharted waters half a century later. Who’s this mysterious new presence in the C-suite?
You need a 'CPO' to face the future

Almost fifty years have gone by. We are in 2066 and visiting the headquarters of a large company. We walk to the corner office on the top floor and find the familiar 'CEO' descriptor below the name. But, what’s this? Where we would have expected the CHRO and CFO cabins, is one as large as both would have been together. On the door is the legend 'CHO' which, we later discover, stands for Chief Happiness Officer – happiness (of customers, employees, investors and society at large) having become the metric for measuring organizational performance.1  But here’s another puzzle: Just opposite and just as large is the room for the 'CPO'.

Could the wily HR guys have sneaked in a Chief People Officer after consigning the chief bean-counter to a tiny accountant’s cubicle several floors below? No fears. Successive waves of automation, productivity intensification and contractualization have brought the employee strength so low that the HR leader’s workspace is just as tiny as and next to the accountant’s. Maybe it’s that cheeky tech chap, claiming credit for all improvement, congratulating himself publicly as the Chief Progress Officer.

It couldn’t be, though. All the worthwhile tech has long since been outsourced. That must be it, then. Since the traditional corporation has been fissured2  beyond recognition and most of the juicy bits now lie outside its boundaries, it’s the Chief Purchase Officer who must have grabbed pole position. Not at all. The purchase head honcho has indeed become far more important but, even so, merits a place only on the next lower floor. Who then is this mysterious 'CPO' who holds no legacy from any function with which we are familiar today? 

Okay. Let’s end this futuristic suspense. "The next few decades could be a boom time for philosophy, as we make concrete many of the challenging ethical choices that trouble us… By 2062, every large company will need a CPO – a chief philosophical officer…"3  Toby Walsh’s concerns were primarily focused on the ethics of using Artificial Intelligence. As we shall see shortly, it is not only AI that poses ethical challenges and ethics is not the sole domain of Philosophy that can make a critical difference to large corporations. Best of all, none of these contributions need await the advent of the CPO, decades hence.

The epistemologically effective executive 

The fact that managers are often gullible4 only confirms the (sometimes doubted) fact that they are human. Trusting beliefs that we can comprehend (and, in many cases, even the seemingly profound ones that are incomprehensible) is the default setting for the human race. 6  Apart from the normal gullibility hazards to which Homo Credulens is exposed, today’s corporate environment adds three more. The emphasis on working cooperatively in teams makes even highly original minds hesitate to express independent, outlandish views. "The likelihood that a smart individual will behave foolishly (and gullibly) is, paradoxically, often increased when that person is participating in a group decision process that is made up of other smart individuals… Groupthink refers to a process in which individually intelligent people, when in a certain group context, convince each other of the rightness of an incredibly stupid course of action..." 7 The ability to stand up against group consensus requires considerable mental energy. The problem is that the same resource needed for standing up to peers (and, more so, to seniors) in Groupthink situations is "used for a broad variety of seemingly quite different operations, including making choices, taking responsibility, exerting self-control, showing initiative, and avoiding passivity. All aspects of self-regulation (including regulating thoughts, controlling emotions, managing performance, and restraining impulses) use this resource."8  The greater the pressure for performance and discipline, the less energy available for speaking against the consensus.

Finally, the large inflow of millennials, while doubtless losing an abundance of raw energy within the organization, also brings with it a huge stream of impulsivity and herd thinking. Given time, of course, several of them acquire the personal expertise that is the surest antidote to getting swept away with the tide of fashionable opinion.9  At any given point in time, however, the proportion of people who have acquired such expertise and the wisdom to deploy it effectively is strictly limited (which is one reason to hold on to people beyond their best use-by dates).10 

If the general run of managers face so many gullibility gulches, in the case of HR some of these become deep, beguiling valleys with few escape routes back to the plateau of common sense. The problem starts early. HR people are chosen (or self-select themselves) for their pleasant and agreeable personalities. In a fascinating study of the gullibility displayed by a towering intellect like Alfred Russell Wallace (who almost or, according to some, actually, beat Darwin to the theory of evolution), Michael Shermer surmises that it was his high (projected) score on the agreeableness dimension of 'the Big Five' that hobbled his ability to see through the fake claims of phrenology or of those claiming to communicate with the dead.11  Aiding this predisposition to gullibility that accompanies the agreeableness many HR people possess is their constant exposure to the smoothest talking of business developers. Perhaps it is because "[n]o other domain of management attracts as many charlatans, quacks and snake-oil-salesmen as HR" 12 that we are led down blind valleys from which the only escape is via the consultant’s bank. 

The most persuasive partners consulting firms possess are, of course, reserved for luring CEOs into costly commitments. Management gurus have even greater access to CEOs and the latters’ unwillingness to appear intellectually wanting makes them tolerate twaddle they would never accept from team members. 13  Even internally, CEOs have to contend with 'players' who can divine the top person’s mind and 'boss-speak' before s/he can. It is then not surprising that "[t]hey can become mentally rigid; have business tunnel vision; even fall into group-think with their 'trusted team'. The most dangerous reaction is to resort to the pre-, quasi-, anti-scientific world of gurus, mantras and soothsayers who confidently promise magic silver bullets to cure all ills. They certainly are tempting. Perhaps that is why so many otherwise reasonable, rational people fall victim to weird wackiness." 14

The answer, obviously, is not to become disagreeable, closed to new ideas or distrustful of everyone. As Carl Sagan put it: "What is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously, those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you're in deep trouble."15  It is precisely in achieving this balance that Philosophy springs to the aid of the corporate executive. 

Throughout the centuries, it has been the task of Philosophy to pierce through the wall of currently dominant belief with the crow-bar of skepticism. Pure Pyrrhonism no more suits our purpose than dogmatic rigidity. Starting with Socrates’ salutary admission of his own ignorance, battling Descartes’ demon for a minimum of thinking space, being awakened by Hume, the passionate skeptic, from dogmatic slumber and then, like Kant, building the foundations of pure reason which have been used, in the last two centuries, as a launching rampart by a galaxy of brilliant thinkers to craft a habitable (if far from waterproof) epistemological house. Epistemology (the philosophical study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge) is just one strand of the astoundingly rich legacy of Philosophy. To tap it we only need to understand the core lessons (leaving to our philosophical guides the detailed arguments on which the conclusions are based). This dose of Epistemycin, taken under a philosopher’s direction, will allow us to think clearly and independently without being swept off our feet by emotionally charged language, to trust people without being gulled by those who wish to turn that faith to their personal advantage and be simple and direct without becoming simpletons or dictators. 

The moral manager

Was Philippa Foot really responsible for the death of thousands of fat men? Indirectly, certainly. Her essay16 spawned the whole genre of trolley problems of which a substantial branch line delighted in dropping (or not) fat men from bridges onto wayward railway trolleys to save a larger number of people tied to the tracks where the trolleys were headed. Incidentally, while she made no mention of a fat person in her essay’s thought experiment about the tram (British, you see), she did pose the question of blowing up a fat person blocking the exit to a cave where flood waters were rising. Talk about being sizeist! There is a good reason the trolley problem has raised serious debate and even more books, papers and lectures than the potential number of the obliterated obese. "The aim of trolleyology is to provide a principle or principles that make sense of our powerful reactions and that can reveal something to us about the nature of morality."17  Specifically, to what extent is it permissible to sacrifice the interests and rights of a few individuals for the sake of the well-being of a larger number? There is almost no people policy I can think of that is free from implicit assumptions about this question. Yet, there is also almost no occasion that I can recall where these assumptions were made explicit and debated. 

The moral choices we make as managers are not as often between what’s clearly 'good' and 'bad' as between differing amounts of either vector i.e. the least bad or the most good. It is when principles clash that we need the capacity to make fine moral distinctions and be in a position to explain them convincingly to the employee population at large.  

Another area where choices become difficult and emotionally fraught is in dealing with misdemeanour, punishment and clemency.  All of us feel uplifted when Bishop Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel tells the gendarmes to release Jean Valjean who they have found with silverware stolen from the Bishop’s house. Our hearts positively soar when the Bishop pretends additionally to have gifted Jean a pair of silver candlesticks and which, he insists, the latter should carry away as well.18  Where does that heart of ours go when we are about to pass terminal judgement on employees who have committed serious misconduct? I am not suggesting there should be no punishment and I have elsewhere suggested criteria for clemency.19  The point here is only to emphasize that when there is more than one ethical principle at stake (assuming retribution is even ethical) and when the punishment is close to capital (termination, in the corporate context), the greater the thought that must precede it. 

These are extremely difficult questions. Are the answers to be found by living a virtuous Aristotelian life or in an enlightened version of Utilitarianism or in the sterner commandments of deontological credo or behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. A philosopher-guide can help us fashion a moral weave that we are comfortable wearing and displaying in public without feeling ashamed.

Even when choices are not so intellectually taxing, they can demand immense courage. Take the case of conflicting stakeholder claims. All is well as long as stakeholder interests converge. But when they do not, most conventional strategic and financial decision-making models are premised on maximizing shareholder value. It is the supreme test of the CPO’s worth at the top table to affix successfully at least equal importance to people's happiness, fairness to customers, social contribution and the future of the planet.

The wisdom of the sages

Does Philosophy have something to contribute to the individual leader’s mental strength and the attitude with which s/he faces life? Indeed, it does. "…[F]or the power of philosophy is such that she helps not only those who devote themselves to her but also those who come into contact with her." 20

Until recent times every major school of Philosophy had a clear derivation from its metaphysical and epistemological foundations to the ethical principles it prescribed and, consequently, to the code by which individuals were expected to compose their minds and organize their lives. But how does one choose from the richness that two and a half millennia of Philosophy lay before us? Here, once again, is where the trusted CPOs in our midst can play a role by giving us tastings from the variety that is available till each of us finds what’s best suited to our own temperaments and needs. While making our choices, of course, we need to guard against falling for the 'new age' sprouters of pseudo-profound bullshit. 21 Life is far too profound and complex to fit into such simplistic models and solutions. 

Business leaders (and CHROs) could do worse than making a close study of the Stoic view of life. Its practical utility (especially in times of great stress) for leaders is corroborated by the fact that rulers, 22  men of public affairs23  and even prisoners of war24 , considered great by history’s near unanimous verdict, have been prime exemplars of the Stoic Philosophy. Those too impatient to wait for guidance from their yet-to-be-recruited resident philosophers could start with the highly readable 'Guide to the Good Life' by William Irvine. 25 

The philosopher leader

The CEO who has read thus far might be in a quandary. How much of this Philo-babble should s/he heed and what extirpate? Let’s give him some royal (after all we are dealing with royalty’s modern equivalent) examples from history.

One choice would be to follow Domitian’s directive which banished all philosophers from Rome in 95 CE. Domitian was assassinated in 96 CE. The assassins, to the best of my knowledge, were not philosophers. Still. Just saying.

Alternatively, there is the example of Philip of Macedon. While it is difficult to imagine him having much truck with Philosophy himself, he did appoint one of the greatest philosophers ever born to tutor (they didn’t have the CPO title then) the next generation. Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander, went on to conquer most of the known world. By then, Philip too had been assassinated. Again, not by a philosopher, though it is an open question whether the young man trained by the philosopher had a hand in it. 

Finally, we come to the ruler personally turning to Philosophy. Plato’s philosopher-kings may be too extreme a model for modern-day CEOs since they were expected to be celibate and forswear the ownership of property. A far more amenable (if even less attainable) ideal is provided by Marcus Aurelius, arguably the greatest emperor the Roman Empire produced. His study and practice of Stoicism yielded a set of Meditations that continue to be devoured by the literate public around the world. Now which CEO wouldn’t want to be considered among the best of his brethren and have his works read two millennia later?

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  1. Visty Banaji, HR’s business should be happiness raising, 24 September 2019, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/hrs-business-should-be-happiness-raising-23175).
  2. David Weil, The Fissured Workplace – Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It, Harvard University Press, 2017.
  3. Toby Walsh, 2062, Speaking Tiger Books, 2020.
  4. Hervé Laroche, Véronique Steyer and Christelle Théron, How Could You be so Gullible? Scams and Over-Trust in Organizations, Journal of Business Ethics, June 2018.
  5. Hervé Laroche, Véronique Steyer and Christelle Théron, How Could You be so Gullible? Scams and Over-Trust in Organizations, Journal of Business Ethics, June 2018
  6. Daniel Gilbert, How mental systems believe, American Psychologist, February 1991
  7. Stephen Greenspan, Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It, Praeger Publishers, 2008.
  8. Roy Baumeister, Ego depletion, the executive function, and self-control: An energy model of the self in personality, in B R Roberts and R Hogan (Editors), Personality psychology in the workplace, American Psychological Association, 2001.
  9. Richard K Wagner, Smart People Doing Dumb Things: The Case of Managerial Incompetence, in Robert Sternberg (Editor), Why Smart People can be so Stupid, Yale University Press, 2002.
  10.  Visty Banaji, Forward to Methuselah: How older talent can rejuvenate organizations, 19 May 2017, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/performance-management/forward-to-methuselah-how-older-talent-can-rejuvenate-organizations-15476).
  11. Michael Shermer, The borderlands of science: Where sense meets nonsense, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  12.  Visty Banaji, Pyrrho, please pay another visit - A DIY kit for sniffing out BS in HR, 23 March 2017, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/pyrrho-please-pay-another-visit-a-diy-kit-for-sniffing-out-bs-in-hr-15175).
  13. Dan Sperber, The guru effect, Review of Philosophy and Psychology, December 2010.
  14. Adrian Furnham, Management Mumbo-Jumbo: A Skeptics' Dictionary, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  15. Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism, lecture delivered in 1987.
  16. Philippa Foot, The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect, Oxford Review, Number 5, 1967.
  17. David Edmonds, Would You Kill The Fat Man? – The trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong, Princeton University Press, 2015.
  18. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, 2015.
  19. Visty Banaji, Dealing with misdemeanor at work, 27 July 2019, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/dealing-with-misdemeanor-at-work-22462).
  20. Seneca, Robin Campbell (Translator), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium, CVIII.4, Penguin Classics, 2004.
  21.  Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Nathaniel Barr, Derek J. Koehler and Jonathan A Fugelsang, On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit, Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 10, No. 6, November 2015.
  22. Anthony R Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (Roman Imperial Biographies), Routledge, 1993.
  23. Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, Oxford University Press, 2018.
  24. James B Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Hoover Institution Press, 1993.
  25. William B Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Oxford University Press USA, 2009.
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Topics: Strategic HR, #GuestArticle, #RiseofWorkTech

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