The Art of Work: Simulacrum

On February 3, 2014, in Doug Shaw, HRExaminer, Leadership, by Doug Shaw

Simulcrum Shaw‘Simulacrum – a likeness or simulation that has the appearance but not the substance of the thing it resembles.’ Kit White

Here is a self-portrait, sketched at a time I was in pain. It bears a likeness and simulation to how I was feeling at the time and it is quite clearly not the substance of me. I am not physically recognizable from this image; neither can you sense the pain.

The notion of a simulacrum not only applies to art, but to all other things as well. I think there’s a reason why, even with all the technology now available to us, that face-to-face contact remains so important to us. That reason is the substance beyond the simulacrum.

Occupying the same physical space is transformatively different from any other shared experience. Seeing eye movements, sensing the air move as you and others physically shift, talk and laugh. All this stuff gets you closer to the substance. I once worked for a boss who used a cost cutting mantra as a reason to avoid getting the team together face to face, for a whole year. I recall few things about that time, but I clearly remember how much the team unraveled over that period, and how little teamwork we did.

All too often, we lazily assume the data that is placed before us at work, is the real thing. It isn’t, and yet we often use that data to make decisions that affect people’s lives in work and beyond. It’s scary enough when we unquestioningly decide to increase widget production without checking the figures, but when we make these choices about people, we risk pushing disrespect to a whole new level.

It’s so temptingly simple to make decisions based on a set of numbers. Everyone knows and uses the phrase popularised by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” yet we seem to have a scarily easy time believing the data when it’s placed before us in a work context. I think this is at least partly because we measure that which is easy to measure, not that which is important. And I think this is partly where HRTech is currently failing us.

When making decisions about people, working to get beyond the simulacrum really matters. And in order to do this, we need access to so much more than stats and data as we currently think about them.

John’s performance rating is a 2 out of 5; Doug’s is only a 3. John gets the pay rise and all that glitters, I get told to pull my socks up.  What’s behind my 3? Do you know or care? Maybe I was a dead last 5 the last time we looked and boy that divorce was tearing me apart but you know, I knuckled down and hauled my previously productive ass all the way back up to a 3 again.

Here’s another dilemma. Good work often reveals itself slowly. You think you don’t have the time for slow so you push for fast and make do. Those that keep up survive, the rest, well you don’t care because you don’t have the time, remember?

Wherever possible I like to invest as least as much time looking and thinking as I do making.

I know you think you’re too busy to look and think and what the hell it doesn’t matter anyway. And maybe it doesn’t. In which case, don’t create any pretence about it, just openly treat people as pieces of raw data and see how that works out for you. If it does matter though, try investing the time to gather and build and understand a richer picture so that in time, HR has the data it needs in order to do what it should do best. Help people change.

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