Transactional Work and Adopted Passivity

The notion that work rela­tion­ships can be either trans­ac­tion­al or trans­for­ma­tion­al has been around for a long time. Trans­ac­tion­al work rela­tion­ships are rela­tion­ships where the focus is on the trade of time, effort, or results for mon­ey. Work is a con­tract and the terms are pri­mar­i­ly about the tasks and the rewards. Trans­for­ma­tion­al work rela­tion­ships, by com­par­i­son, sug­gest a deep­er involve­ment of peo­ple as col­lab­o­ra­tors and part­ners who active­ly invest in one anoth­er’s per­for­mance and suc­cess as part of larg­er, shared view of a com­mon enterprise. 

Many lead­ers espouse the impor­tance of some­thing like the trans­for­ma­tion­al view but when push comes to shove nat­u­ral­ly revert to more trans­ac­tion­al mod­els. That the under­ly­ing con­tract becomes the thing may well reflect a lin­ger­ing, inher­it­ed indi­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­ture. Many Human Resource func­tions rein­force this inher­i­tance, espe­cial­ly when there are per­for­mance issues between a leader and a report. The focus often quick­ly migrates to the need for spe­cif­ic behav­ioral changes to be made accord­ing to a defined time­frame. “You must do X by Y date or you may be ter­mi­nat­ed.” Etc. 


Could there be mean­ing­ful alter­na­tive? That, I think, is a very good ques­tion, and is a point where it is all too easy to drift off into gen­er­al­i­ties and ideals that can cov­er up the depth of dis­con­nec­tions among peo­ple that hap­pen at work. The truth is I’m hes­i­tant to call much of any­thing “trans­for­ma­tion­al” these days. It’s just too big a promise.

Here’s a sam­ple prob­lem. Let’s say Mar­tin, a lik­able, long-term super­vi­sor, reports to Jen­nifer, a man­ag­er. Although Mar­tin once played an impor­tant role and was respon­si­ble for a few key depart­ment accom­plish­ments in the past, his skills — and his approach to the job — are clear­ly now out of date. Instead of being proac­tive in acknowl­edg­ing these issues and ini­ti­at­ing his own changes, he waits for Jen­nifer to pro­vide feed­back about spe­cif­ic ser­vice and human rela­tions prob­lems as they arise. She always comes pre­pared for these talks, offer­ing him detailed instruc­tions about how he can and must be dif­fer­ent in his work. 

How­ev­er, as Jen­nifer attempts to share the larg­er pic­ture of Mar­t­in’s job with him and where he’s now falling short, he typ­i­cal­ly express­es sur­prise that some­how he’s not met her expec­ta­tions. He fre­quent­ly says, “I did­n’t know that was a prob­lem.” Usu­al­ly she then becomes even more spe­cif­ic and behav­ioral about what he should do dif­fer­ent­ly. At the end of the con­ver­sa­tion Mar­tin seems to under­stand and Jen­nifer feels she’s done her job. But it quick­ly becomes clear when Mar­tin attempts to make minor changes that he does­n’t tru­ly under­stand them in the way Jen­nifer­’s intend­ed. Thus, he fails at mak­ing any crit­i­cal shift in results. 

This frus­trat­ing cir­cum­stance hap­pens cycli­cal­ly over months and months, with Jen­nifer back­ing off and going for­ward, alter­nate­ly resigned to accept­ing what Mar­tin can and can’t do, feel­ing intense frus­tra­tion and then numb­ing out. If Mar­t­in’s job were a machine part, one day it would be a mil­lime­ter or three out of spec­i­fi­ca­tion and — after she once again inter­venes — a mil­lime­ter or two with­in spec­i­fi­ca­tion, but she can’t quite keep things cal­i­brat­ed. It’s tak­ing too much of her time. Despite his many years in the role and how much he’s a fix­ture of the depart­ment, Mar­tin just seems to have lost (or nev­er ful­ly acquired) a fun­da­men­tal and expect­ed mas­tery. It’s not ter­ri­ble per­for­mance, at least not all the time, but it isn’t real­ly good either, with the out­come that trust­ing Mar­t­in’s judg­ment becomes dif­fi­cult. He seems to be say­ing through his per­for­mance, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it,” while Jen­nifer feels doomed to observ­ing, check­ing, ver­i­fy­ing and cor­rect­ing his work. She feels as if Mar­tin has become become redun­dant to the job she’s per­form­ing as leader. 

This is all very transactional. 

One tra­di­tion­al fix would be to ensure Mar­tin actu­al­ly under­stands his job, so a new job descrip­tion is writ­ten, clar­i­fy­ing the con­tract. Anoth­er fix is to put Mar­tin on a per­for­mance improve­ment plan (PIP). This makes the con­tract even more short-term, spe­cif­ic and explic­it. Do this, do that, you get to stay. Don’t do it, don’t do that, you must leave. Anoth­er fix might be to see if there’s some oth­er job Mar­tin could per­form, maybe encour­ag­ing him to trans­fer to anoth­er depart­ment. Here the con­tract becomes some­body else’s prob­lem. How­ev­er, all of this — which in some sit­u­a­tions may tru­ly help — also may sim­ply delay the moment of inevitable real­iza­tion: it’s over and has been for some time, where­upon every­one like­ly feels a lit­tle guilt for how long it’s tak­en to get to the endgame. This is bad bureau­cra­cy pure and sim­ple. Despite all the good inten­tions to “save” Mar­tin, the process hurts and scares peo­ple and some­times caus­es hard to mea­sure intan­gi­ble loss­es to lead­er­ship cred­i­bil­i­ty and trust.

Rou­tines of this kind aren’t just evi­dent with entry lev­el posi­tions. There are plen­ty of man­agers at all lev­els and exec­u­tives, too, in the same trans­ac­tion­al rut. Some lead­ers find them­selves there because they can be too eas­i­ly tempt­ed into micro­manag­ing oth­ers — as if that’s the best way for them to add val­ue. And some reports find them­selves in the cycle because they have lost a sense of authen­tic per­son­al agency. “Noth­ing I can do works or helps.” Pas­siv­i­ty is adopt­ed, per­haps, as a mat­ter of inten­tion­al or inad­ver­tent self-pro­tec­tion — which is not quite the same as “learned help­less­ness,” a term com­mon in depres­sion research. Adopt­ed pas­siv­i­ty helps peo­ple slide away from prob­lems by “not under­stand­ing what to do.” This implic­it­ly makes the prob­lem a trans­ac­tion­al one for which the leader is to blame for not liv­ing up to the under­ly­ing con­tract because they haven’t suf­fi­cient­ly defined the task or pro­vid­ed for its accom­plish­ment by others.

For exam­ple, I recall a prin­ci­pal of a big account­ing firm, a firm ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing man­age the finances of the very rich­est peo­ple in one of Amer­i­ca’s rich­est cities, a prin­ci­pal who con­stant­ly com­plained that his peers weren’t help­ing him get busi­ness. I watched a whole group of prin­ci­pals sit cowed at a retreat, offer­ing up their con­tin­u­ing desire to be of help while the one prin­ci­pal in ques­tion berat­ed them for not sell­ing their clients on his ser­vices. He’d been asked by the man­ag­ing part­ner to cre­ate a plan to devel­op his own client base and offer­ings, and this was all he had, a scold­ing for peers but no actu­al ideas for busi­ness devel­op­ment at all. Two months after the retreat, where he’d received explic­it encour­age­ment and offers of assis­tance, he still had no plan and he became angry when asked about it by the man­ag­ing partner.

So what’s the solu­tion? Can — should — mar­riages of this kind be saved?

Good ques­tion. The truth is what we already know: once the dis­con­nect between peo­ple becomes embed­ded in repeat­ing cycles, the chances of chang­ing the dynam­ics are slim. And are prob­a­bly twice as slim when adopt­ed pas­siv­i­ty is involved. 

The only way out of the trap is to stop mak­ing the rela­tion­ship a trans­ac­tion­al one. As a leader that means not tak­ing the bait of a pas­sive response, but instead firm­ly (and I would argue, com­pas­sion­ate­ly) plac­ing the respon­si­bil­i­ty for change in the oth­er per­son­’s hands. 

It’s no sur­prise that Jen­nifer feels Mar­t­in’s job is redun­dant to hers. As long as she guides and coach­es by delin­eat­ing suc­ces­sive waves of spe­cif­ic tasks, up to and includ­ing a PIP but nev­er address­ing Mar­t­in’s failed agency, she’s caught in the wringer. In the case of the account­ing firm, by being cowed and offer­ing up help with­out a plan of any kind, the group of prin­ci­pals code­pen­dent­ly feeds the anger and pas­sive aggres­sion of their non-per­form­ing peer.

With high­er lev­el posi­tions, in par­tic­u­lar, it would seem to me the fur­thest any­one ought to go is cre­at­ing a kind of tem­plate that asks a lot of impor­tant questions. 

Here might be some ques­tions for Martin:

  • How will you help the team adapt to new work­loads and work­ing methods?
  • What work sys­tems will you change? Why? By when? How?
  • Giv­en our growth and all the changes, how will you ensure your own com­pe­tence and the com­pe­tence of staff?
  • How will you spark high lev­els of team engage­ment and reduce turnover?
  • What changes do you want to make to your lead­er­ship presence?

Here might be some for the account­ing principal:

  • What par­tic­u­lar clients are you going after in what time­frames? What’s your approach? Why do you think it will work?
  • What spe­cif­ic stan­dards will you set for your own per­son­al ser­vice to clients?
  • How will you ensure that you per­form to that level?
  • How will you mea­sure your suc­cess now and over the next few years?
  • How will you access your peers’ assis­tance and collaboration?

Using these ques­tions as a tem­plate, ones that explic­it­ly require a high­er lev­el of agency, a leader is bet­ter able to see whether or not a report is apply­ing that agency. The leader can gauge whether the per­son has the ideas and capa­bil­i­ties to pull off the lev­el of per­for­mance actu­al­ly need­ed by the work and mis­sion of the job, not just the “assigned tasks.” In this way, it becomes eas­i­er to deter­mine whether or not a per­son is a good match for the job. For some roles, it would even seem rea­son­able that the report gen­er­ate at least some of these questions.

If the per­son is unable to answer the ques­tions or resists a plan to answer them; if the answers repeat­ed­ly seem mar­gin­al or shal­low even with some help and guid­ance, then I would argue that the match just isn’t there and the leader isn’t help­ing any­body by drag­ging out the inevitable. 

This does not mean that the process of sep­a­ra­tion has to be cru­el. No longer being a match for a par­tic­u­lar role or a par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion is not a crime. And how that sep­a­ra­tion occurs is one place, for sure, that you can mea­sure whether the rela­tion­ship is still crude­ly trans­ac­tion­al or joins a more human­is­tic, under­stand­ing and ” trans­for­ma­tion­al” plane.


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