Anthropology and HR Rumors

I was at an HRDC seminar and many of the usual work issues came up include perennial favorites communication and team work. We had some productive discussions, but one of the most fascinating was about the SRDP annual review process.

If you’ve been at Penn State for a while and ever talk with your colleagues you will get some great stories about the randomness of the SRDP (at least across units) and how people have gotten screwed (some stories may be exagerated, but some may not be). The good news was that the SRDP was handled fairly well at ETS.

Yet…our presenter made some comments and clarifications at the process that I had no idea were true. Lots of things we thought were “mandates” by HR (or were told were mandated by HR) turned out to mandates from somewhere else. No one knew who had crafted variations of the mandates or why they were done that way. The main point of agreement was that they led to a lot of confusion and frustration. And no one knew how to stop it.

Back at ITS Headquarters

I am writing about this because I was experiencing a phenomenon I usually am on the opposite side of. Whenever I go to parties, I hear interesting perceptions of our services including the fact that ANGEL was going away “next semester” twice in the past 7 years. For the record, I know it will be around for a while, but where do these ideas come from?

Ultimately, it’s really an anthropology question. If you think about (and someone has), our homo sapiens tribes are evolved in much smaller groups than the Penn State environment. One theory (Dunbar’s number) states that one person can really only maintain about 150 close personal relationships at once. Obviously we live in much larger communities (up to millions), but these large communities tend to break down into smaller subgroups for many interactions. Even in State College, we live in specific neighborhoods.

So…communication at this scale has many challenges and unique problems not faced at smaller scales. I think we all know this, but I wonder if we really appreciate it. We speak about using official channels for communication, yet evolution has really primed us for word of mouth. Maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked that our messages get distorted by “gossip”. Maybe we should be amazed when they get successfully transmitted at all.

The Ape in the Corner Office

I don’t have an answer for rumor control. But I was reminded that one of my favorite work books was the Ape in the Corner Office. Although the title sounds a little barbaric, it really was a discussion about how employees (the herd) will often follow their primate instincts for both good and bad. Understanding them could help managers make for a happier herd (oops employees).

By the way, I don’t think primatology has all the answers for improving work climate, but it seems easier to understand and forgive some strange behavior in ourselves and others when we think of ourselves as creatures of instinct as well as rational beings.

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