Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The dirtiness

"Are you telling me that floors don't get dirty in New Zealand?"
It's a good question, of course. But I think I still emphatically say that Chinese floors accumulate dust faster than any other surface known to man, woman or cockroach. As a barefooter in the house, I can accurately measure dust accumulation from a morning of wandering around the day after we've mopped the floor. Today, a seemingly reasonable floor browned the soles of my feet in barely minutes. Where does it come from? The doors are shut overnight yet by morning there is dust again. Where does it all come from, I ask?
Of course, I'm not that much of a clean freak when it gets down to it, but there are other sorts of hygiene that are tragically lacking in China in ethical and business practices. With the benefit of not having my name mentioned here and no company brand to be tainted, I can dare open my mouth. In the blog age, we shan't mouth off about our employers for the risk of dismissal etc. if we do. And I can attest that no potential students would have the patience to get through my content. (Even capable high-level former students on mine in New Zealand told me they struggle with the sheer content of expressive writing.) And besides they'd need software to get past the Great Firewall to see this blog. And I'd still steer potential teachers to my company anyway because it is very good for professional development.
My company is a western company in China. We're told from the start that it works via western rules but the more you stay the longer you see that it is more of a fusion of approaches. Some might cynically say it selectively chooses which approach benefits the company, especially its finances but also its management. I could talk about that general topic, but I'm more interested in the dirt right now, and especially practices that would be illegal or unethical in other countries. It is depressing to keep it all in. I'll work my way from minor to major, and along the way describe what to avoid in management. I should also add a little note: The evils I'll talk about aren't specifically relating to Chinese business nor am I claiming they don't exist in the West. They shouldn't happen anywhere except where they are allowed to flourish.
Many jobs are dictated by a fancy acronym, KPI, or Key Performance Indicator. This is intended to be an objective numerical measure of your performance. Of course, it is hard to quantify performance and so a set of KPIs might be needed to evaluate it. In an ideal world, these would be unfudgeable and would be decided by those in an objective position. Regrettably, this is not the case here. My boss's boss's pay is determined strongly by one KPI. This is one related to the number of classes and how many students are in there. Unluckily for me, the scheduling of classes falls into the ambit of my job, to schedule classes at the right time so that they are mostly filled. Because the boss of my boss's boss wants to look good, they set the target very high; the pressure is high because its a big part of his pay but the ability to add (fictitious) classes is completely at the hands of us at the lowest levels. In terms of our academic team, it was a compromise we had to make and there was no recourse to complain. Several levels up the chain are all happy about this cheating because a high number reflects well on them. There is with all likelihood complicity quite high up the level. In China, there is a poor man's version of the prisoner's dilemma. There is no virtue to honesty nor any benefit whatsoever. So no team can meet the targets without cheating. So many targets cannot be left to doubt. Of course, you get into all sorts of irony. We get told to cancel classes because of a lack of demand... yet the classes are "full". One week I taught lots of classes without ever entering the classroom...
My boss is about to be fired. It is a salutory story, which I won't attempt to explain in its entirety here. But he is one that has tried to make an issue out of following procedure and standards. The latest idea the company had made him quite irate, and in a way that neither I nor my fellow senior teacher could understand at first. Now we know: They introduced an appraisal system that would be linked to pay. They described each level of performance with descriptors like: "The teacher prepares his class in an appropriate way = 1. The teacher prepares his class appropriately considering potential contingencies etc." The staff member being assessed will assess themselves and then will meet the centre director and academic manager to discuss their evaluation of him. Then the combined assessment will be sent to the the area academic manager for a sign off and a monetisation of their performance, their bonus for the next year. My colleague and I thought this was an improvement on what we had, great teachers will be rewarded. My boss, however, explained how it was an unacceptable system. First of all, the descriptor is flawed. "Appropriate" is insufficient for anyone to give an objective evaluation, and so it becomes opinion. If a staff member challenges the assessment, the manager can just say that they weren't appropriate enough. In practice, an appraisal system must have concrete criteria. He illustrated it well in a directors meeting where he gave our dress code to everyone and then the standards in the new appraisal system for dress and asked everyone to assess their colleagues as if they were perfoming the appraisal. Not surprisingly, on a scale of 3, some people's scored varied from 0 to 2, demonstrating that the existing criteria would be too subjective and staff in some centres would be advantaged by lenient grading leading to "nice" centres and "mean" centres. I gave myself a zero because the standard for a 1 was to follow all the requirements in the work manual, one of which was to wear a tie. I don't. Others ignored that aspect and went for a nice mark of 2.
There were other issues raised (it was going nationwide of course so the area manager in the room was never going to do anything), but the one objection he raised that makes this slip from incompetence in system design to dirtiness was a specific problem my boss never broached in that meeting but later over a meal in a restaurant with us. The performance appraisal is not just verified by the area manager and ticked off. Internationally, managers just need to tick off the objectively observable strengths and weaknesses, and the area manager should agree because there is no room for doubt. But because there can't be too much excellence in the school (which would cause budgets for bonuses to be exceeded) the area manager needs to be a gatekeeper to knock scores down. Who goes up and who goes down? Opinion, again. What does each appraisal score equate to in terms of a bonus? Completely at the discretion of the area manager. Our top performing teacher stepped on the area manager's toes a few months earlier and despite what would have been a complimentary appraisal of his performance, his performance bonus was barely above the lowest possible rise. A moderately performing colleague got more than him. The system is not only biased to favoritism, it is open to use to punish those who have gone against the upper management. It becomes a tool. But nevermind, talking about salaries is a fireable offence, so punished staff member will never know, will they? And thus we get to the crux of my outgoing bosses argument: there is no reason to improve these things because with the vagueness comes their utility. An objective system cannot be a tool, but they need it to be a tool. It sounds almost dictatorial and, shall we say, communist.
This brings us back to the western company in China situation, and perhaps exposing what is just human nature. In Christianity and even the secular values of western nations, there is a belief that humans need to be reformed with systems. With the developing nature of the Chinese economy there haven't been the struggles yet that created strong institutions and managing principles that have taken a long time to establish in western nations. Playing with numbers and using your opinion when only reason should suffice is very human, not specifically Chinese, and we can only look to those who established the system here for their lack of nous. And the later is probably one of my central theses from my experience so far. Don't expect teachers to be able to do the jobs of managers unless you train them. The worst of human nature will come out when a system is poorly designed.
My bosses imminent departure was never going to be good for me. He has been something of a mentor, and still we learn daily from him, but at least I've managed to step up a lot in the last month. I've had many achievements - I stopped the area manager in her tracks with a brilliant presentation (saving my boss from a sooner dismissal, he was planning an all-out assault) and also designing a more effective way of presenting notices. He may go next week, next month or if they are patient, August. I still have a lot I'd like to learn - he is a goldmine of experience. But all the same I should also try to go it alone without the back-up he provides by simply being in the room. He believes by going, in the long term, the school might become a cleaner place.
I'm not so sure.


James said...

This was an interesting post to me because it raised the difficult questions about appraisal systems and managing organisations in general. I think I may have had a discussion with you about appraisal systems before. There is a trade-off between having qualitative and quantitative performance criteria.

With qualitative criteria (e.g.: was the performance "appropriate"), the assessment relies more on the judgment of the assessor, but (as you noted) can be more easily open to favouritism and abuse.

The quantitative criteria should be more difficult for the assessor to "massage", but may be easier for the teacher to game, or they might just be the wrong measures. I'm not sure how it would work at a school - but let's say one of the quantitative measures is to have a certain number of tutorial sessions with each student. You could meet this criteria by having running all of the sessions, but if they are all poor quality, then what's the point? My point here is just that it can be difficult to translate the characteristics of the ideal teacher into a set of easily-measured performance criteria.

I think it's accurate that people will generally behave according to their self-interest and that an organisation needs to use incentives to help align the interests of the staff and the organisation itself. Would you agree? And what could be done in your school's context?

Crypticity said...

I do remember us talking about performance appraisals for auditors, “white sheets” or something like that was the term for them at EY. Seconded staff were surprised that “satisfactory” (defined as fulfilling the requirements but not exceeding them) was a dirty word, which not even the laziest sack of auditing incompetence would take it sitting down. The acceptable midpoint was one point above it. I can’t remember but I think we discussed how this could be the “nice” New Zealand “PC” approach. Here there is a similar category with the same meaning: satisfactory, which is just a 1 on a scale of 0-3. If you do your job, you just get a 1.

I’m creeping onto the other side of appraisal table, and will have to figure out a way of dealing with it. Our partner in the appraisal system, my boss’s boss, is in complete denial about the concerns staff have about the system. In a weird situation, we know that many staff must know about the teacher who got virtually no raise despite being the hardest worker in the school – that it must have been the area manager exacting revenge for a rebuff by moderating his appraisal. He knows it as he is a manager. We know it though because he doesn’t know we know it he still lied to our faces and said he must have got a great raise. He then wriggled again to say that the senior teachers should make concreted appraisal descriptors (tens of hours of work – and we have to do our bosses job at the same time). We met that saying that if it is just in our centre it means nothing, and can be challenged by the area manager. We’ll meet / confront him today to tell him unless he meets the challenge of getting answers, he’ll lose any chance of keeping any respect or loyalty.

Crypticity said...

But bearing in mind that I am part of the system, and may be required to develop my own way of dealing with it, here is how I’d do it. The appraisal system has items such as cooperativeness with their colleagues. How do you measure this into 0-3 grades? If I were scribbling on a napkin, I'd say 0 was has created unresolved conflict in the staffroom (recorded); 1 = has avoided conflict with staff members and resolved any conflict with staff members so that they can work together; 2 = same as 1 + cooperated in projects with other staff members successfully; 3 = 2 + has created cohesiveness and harmony within team through taking responsibility and communicating effectively. Each one would need examples of the scale of the achievement. But the instances of these must be documented, and verified by anonymous peer assessment etc. Knowing this is the case, that just doing your job of teaching classes will always be a 1, staff have the expectation that they should be getting into projects that often serve the school and the company.

I decided at our last CPD meeting on Wednesday to open this can of worms. Our outgoing boss is a fan of documenting everything. Teachers are generally terrible at documenting but in any assessment system both sides of assessment should have documentation to prove their own appraisal. So I brought up how teachers can prove their own accomplishments, saving their e-mails in a folder. Especially if there is a great change in management, the employee can't rely on something being "counted". Taking responsibility for their own documentation of accomplishments is important. Action plans that are made must be kept so that they can demonstrate progress. Action plans are documents as and improvements should be documentable too. I can start seeing how it can be a force of good that I can sell to the teachers and implement responsibly. In theory...

It will be an interesting meeting today with my boss’s boss. The funny thing about life in this company for me is that I’m swimming / drowning in office politics. My team member, the only one I can trust any information to, and I keep saying things like: We can’t tell him that, Leave that off the powerpoint/spreadsheet, He’s lying to us, He’ll do it if he is more worried about it so we’ll start with that, If you hear anything tell me before him, etc. The back half of this situation is that I’m starting to feel more stress in the job. This weekend just past was a night of bad sleep as I kept thinking about some aspect of the job. I hope once this organizational wrenching is over it settles. I hope.

James said...

It's not good that you are starting to have poor sleep because of the stress in the job. Do you think there is more of this sort of offic politics in the Chinese context? I expect that you would find this everywhere.

Your solution about documenting evidence of actions which demonstrates the appraised behaviours is similar to the system where I last worked. It sounds good in theory. The problem was that most people found it a chore to do and procrastinated until they were given a hard deadline because of the formal appraisal round (these were semi-annual). Then, as a manager, I would get a bundle of appraisals to comment on all at once, and it would be difficult to recall the job that you were being asked to comment on. In these cases, you would end up with fairly generic comments that were similar across all appraisals, thus diminishing their value. I understand that much more weight was placed on the moderation meeting attended by the managers, so you ended up back at the original situation where it was the managers' judgment.

Doing the appraisals in a timely fashion and being diligent with documenting the evidence is the key, but we still hadn't figured our the best way to promote those behaviours.

Crypticity said...

I think stress here is a part of not being used to this kind of thing. When you have meeting after meeting that are crucial, where you’re upholding one line and then the other, then you can’t tell anything to staff about one thing but OK about another, which you’re not telling the other guy, well, it is a lot to think about, especially when you have to think about it on your feet as well as back at the desk. Fortunately, there are two senior teachers – I at least have someone to put heads together with. Things have been improving over the last week. My boss comes back to the office on Sunday. I hope he’s been neutralized by whatever negotiations he had about his leaving. As greater role has he had in my development, he also has power to increase his leverage to cause problems if other people try to manipulate him or get rid of him earlier. That would make the people who have clean up the mess (my co-leader and I) a bigger, harder job.

I don’t think it is a Chinese thing, as I mentioned in this post or another, when things are poorly organized, human nature will find the loopholes to get what it wants. The madman who created this hierarchy gave my boss two bosses, one of his bosses has two bosses, too. You get two different targets for the same number, and if you don’t manage it well, you become torn between the two. And other nonsense.

Our documentation is “in-time” (incidents when they happen) and have e-mails saved and tracked on a spreadsheet. Today a teacher came late and the student was waiting in the classroom, a teacher on their own initiative said they’d cover it, got up and left. I e-mailed thanks to her to describe what she did. And we recorded the name of the student and created a complaint so that we have a system response to the teacher’s lateness that will produce an incident report and an action plan (which he will sign and should it happen again, it becomes a unresolved problem that could lead to a disciplinary document etc.). Teaching might be different to auditing in that respect.

James said...

It may be different in that an appraisal for the audit job usually covers the job as a whole (which may span a few weeks). But teaching is a continuous activity - less discrete projects? In any situation (audit or teaching or other) if you can record the feedback as soon as you can after the event (like you did in your example) then that's how the system works well. (Well done!)

Hope things go well when your boss comes back until the time he leaves.