This post is by Varun Mohanpuria, Programming Strategist at Star TV
Recently, news of startups closing or mass layoff have become regular in media. Focus is on funding issues, business idea whose time has not come and the star entrepreneurs. As a society, we have fixation with either glorifying few humans or bashing them. We forget while doing both, we are ignoring the existence of hoards of human beings who are working relentlessly to create value. That’s glossed over mass is called “The Employees”.
In the mad rush of achieving targets in startups, ‘employees’ have turned into just resources instead of ‘humans’. They are used or discarded as per the perception of few. This made me reflect on some of incidents I came upon.
A year back, I was hiring for data analytics profile in my team. One candidate from large e-commerce firm in Gurgaon had snapped in just six months of joining there.
I asked him “Why?”
He replied, “We end up doing tasks which are just ignored at the end. No one has a clue of what’s need to be done.”
I probed further, “Isn’t this expected in a new firm? There is plenty to explore unknown, trying to established systems from scratch?”
He replied, “Yes, it is expected. However, nobody listens to us. We are not part of this trying.”
Me: “Isn’t this too early to reach this conclusion?”
Snapped candidate, “May be! I don’t trust them anymore.”
There were similar candidates from many e-commerce as well as analytics startups. All these candidates had 4-5 year experience, predominantly engineering or economics background. If this is indicative of what is going around, another incident was even more troublesome.
In June 2014, one of my junior friends had happily moved to Bangalore, to join a large e-commerce startup. He had spent previous 5 years, working mostly in analytics outsourcing firms. He was excited to work in business directly, rather than as consultant. In six months of joining, one team change and performance improvement plan (PIP) was good enough to shack his morale. ‘Good enough’ may not be appropriate here. More shocking was the endless wait for closure of this PIP.
In desperation, he stretched for long hours, skip holidays, let go of his family time. However, his manager and HR had no clue; when and how his PIP will be over. He ran around for almost 6 months, asking senior managers, “Is it over? Is it over, yet?” Finally after 6 months, his 3 months PIP got closed. End of one year, he flipped out and moved on. I understood from few more people that ‘hanging sword’ is common management technique to push employees there. Though, only few managers use it, structure to safeguard its abuse or system to manage it is non-existent.
I can’t stop myself from comparing this situation with workers from old Mumbai cloths mills. The attitude shown while mass lay-off has not very different from what mill owners showed when they closed down. Even more surprising is when same firms layoff in one unit and hire aggressively in other units.
The ownership of over-hiring or wrong hiring decision lies with the hiring manager, not the hired person. Then, why do we see only junior staff getting the hard end of stick?
For me, final straw came last month. Last year, I came upon one big data analytics startup, pitching as vendor. Founders had VC funding as well as few very senior folks from media industry part of their team. The firm came through strong referrals. We engaged them for two pilot projects. Founders claimed to have proprietary ‘Big Data Analytics’ product, which could identify ‘Passion points’ of consumers. One ‘Customer Index Score’ was calculated for each passion point. These scores were added while combining ‘Passion Points’ in topic hierarchy. The added up probability numbers were again normalized through dividing by maximum probability.
Sigh!!! Why did our Mathematics teachers insist on multiplying probabilities to combine them? That was 9th standard classroom.
Any creative sarcasm can’t reduce the irony of the situation. When I pointed this out, one founder accepted their calculation mistake. He blamed it on lack of right team and challenges of hiring talent in Bangalore. Next month, I referred two folks from my circle, one statistician and one business analyst to this firm. Both could help him understand the analytical process, as well as communicate it.
Damn, I was so wrong in my inference. What followed made me feel guilty about doing these referrals!!
Founders maintained black-box approach of explanation. I insisted on better explanation of their process and calculation. Well, the founders never came back. Through my statistician friend, I came to know that their product was nothing but a front end dashboard and back-end Alchemy api. They were selling ‘Concept tagging’ outputs as ‘Passion points’ and ‘Relevance’ probability as ‘Customer Index Score’. No creative communication can explain a product when it doesn’t exist. I don’t know what made them believe that they can sell these outputs without even understanding it themselves!! Statistician friend realized mistake in two days and left. Though, analyst couldn’t leave so fast. She had family emergency and personal loss to take care of first. Frustration grew when founders showed least bother to improve their understanding. Last month, analyst’s patience broke and she gave her piece of mind to founders. Promptly, she got fired.
Why few entrepreneurs carry this sense of ‘thick headed arrogance’? Question now becomes, not of ignorance, however, of ‘Integrity’ and ‘Apathy’.
The situation has been troubling me since then. When I shared this incident with my friends, first reaction was to judge the individuals. Even my first reaction was same. Though, judgment on individuals is missing the forest for the trees. Human behavior is dictated more by situation, rather than personalities. Even the personalities are not static, they change. These incidents are born out of a situation which requires further understanding.
I tried to gather more perspectives from my limited circle. I can summarize their responses in three main themes:
The crux was breakdown of focus on value creation for the customers, distraction was focus on internal upkeep of ‘authority of management’. These points should not be considered independently. Due to limited sample, I might have missed few more which can’t be put under these. Share any point which you think should be part of it. The impact can be understood when we consider how these interact. Anxiety and isolation it creates in the entire group resembles suicidal symptoms.
- Uncertain situation leads to Anxiety and Scarcity mindset, making immediate gratification more important than delayed one. Survival becomes the focus, not the growth. Tangible actions are preferred over intangible, even if they don’t impact the outcome or harm the long term future. Decisions are made in rush, judged in rush. Reflecting on errors and learning is not a priority. Everyone is too busy managing numbers that people part is ignored. One senior friend quipped, “We can find this madness in sales teams, however, entire company like that is MIRACLE!! (Sneering tone)”
- Ignorance with uncertainty leads to Fixed Mindset. People rush to categorize other people, define static boundaries, even for self. People look for easy tags and symbols which may correlate with ‘knowledge’. Hiring more, hiring big names, hiring only from premier institutes, hiring without role clarity and hiring from US are few other symptoms. This also makes people susceptible to manipulation by others. Consider these scenarios:
- System Constipation: In this scenario, an employee creates system dependent on him by manipulating ignorance of others. A programmer writes complex and inefficient codes, for even simple queries. Ignorant management (no programming skills) finds these complex codes super cool. Few SQL queries take months of ‘software development’. A linear regression model on Excel becomes ‘advanced analytics’. Automated approach of iterative modeling correction becomes ‘machine learning’. Well, programmer threatens to quit and is promoted promptly to ‘Director’ position.
- Game of Pretentions: This is more popular tactic among and as well as against strategy consultants and VCs. Popular weapon is keywords cannon. Keywords and quotes are thrown ignoring their context. Passion and expertise is claimed. People who use this tactic are themselves most susceptible to it. One of my friends has defined himself as strictly ‘Finance Thought Leader’. Technology & programming is all Greek to him. He loves to talk about finance industry as an authority. He also loves it when people talk with passion and confidence about technology. This also leads for few people to take him for a ride. Game is played by both. Mediocrity is hidden under pretense of expertise.
- Badge Holder: Have you heard this, “I am an expert because I am from xxx institute, worked in yyy firm, worked with zzz person or know him and have xyz certificates”? It is again pretention, by association. Dropping names, morphing opinions in to facts through claim of spoken by authority figure who can’t be questioned are favorite tricks. On other side, this can be reactionary mechanism too when there is too much noise.
- The clash of Entrepreneurialism and Managerialism has broken communication bridges. Add uncertainty, ignorance and force people with entrepreneur expectations to strict defined roles!! Bingo!! It feels being helpless. Reverse situation arise when a person habitual to certain structure is pulled in role where structures don’t exist.
Entrepreneurialism culture indicates freedom to experiment, shared decision making and open communication. Whereas, Managerialism has defined roles, communication structures and decision powers limited with few managers. Both designs have their pros and cons. In the mad expansion of startups, the management has been pulled in from large corporates and consulting firms. Both of which have managerial mindsets. Whereas, prerequisite structures of communication don’t exist in startups. The decision power bias between management and employees restricts empathy. It creates big walls, stopping communication even more. Though all suffer from uncertainty and ignorance, the bottom layers feel more left out whereas management feels completely out of control.
Decision power is a privilege. Privilege also creates expectations. Burden of expectations increases with more shiny background (with all the big tags). Tags give a sense of entitlement. Burden of expectations with a sense of entitlement is dreadful state. It kills ability to make choices. People try desperately to justify themselves. Insecure in their head, skeptic of everyone around, it feels lonely. Same as employees at bottom, management also feel helpless. Helplessness, once sets in head is highly toxic and contagious. It can make people act like ‘thick headed’ and ‘arrogant’, willing to compromise on ethics. Harsh decisions executed in cold manner are considered virtue. Leaders turn to control freaks. Self-accountability is washed off, mad rush for blame game ensues. Effort to comprehend the impact is ignored. Worse case is when founders or founding team members carry managerial fixated mindset from the start of entrepreneurship journey.
As a friend pointed out, this situation is not limited to startup space. Similar mindsets are at play in every industry, especially when it goes through rapid change. There are few better cases too where founders have maintained the entrepreneurialism in company culture with transparency and accountability.
“Managerialism inspires employees for green cards, civil services and even becoming strategy consultants, hedging their risks. Whereas, Entrepreneurialism inspires employees to take more risk, secured and trusting, willing to take entrepreneur journey of their own.”
How many startups can you count which has acted as seed for many more positive copies?
Another HR friend has interesting hypothesis around how cohorts of startup employees have moved on from 1999-2008 and now, 2008-2016. Another theorized on funding and recession cycle. I don’t know the main reasons which have created the current situation, nor do I know the solution.
However, the current treatment of employees from few founders, management, as well as, other part of ecosystem is not acceptable.
I do know that we can’t hide it or ignore it. We need to open up, discuss and find solutions. Perspectives get richer when combined. Please share your observations and thoughts.
In humans I trust, data is not must. With honest intent, change is must.
Disclaimer: This is an Influencer post. The statements, opinions and data contained in these publications are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of iamwire and the editor(s). This article was initially published here.
Image Credit: QuartzCategory Business Culture