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The complications of strategic workforce planning

Dr. Simon Moss


During these changing, uncertain, and precarious times, most scholars agree that strategic workforce planning, a relatively recent management process, is essential. Nobody would dispute that organizations should characterize the talent they need, as a means to pursue their core objectives in the future. Nobody would challenge the right of organizations to introduce initiatives that identify, attract, recruit, select, develop, support, and maintain the employees who could fulfill these goals. Nobody would decry the use of forecast modeling, scenario planning, workforce analytics, labor segmentation, environmental scanning, or depiction of the target future, even if they did not know precisely what these activities entail.

Nevertheless, strategic workforce planning, despite its recent standing, can potentially compromise the sharing of knowledge, stifle the development of employees, reduce engagement at work, ignite conflict within the organization, and deter potential applicants. In other words, workforce planning, unless implemented appropriately, can possibly magnify the very problems this process is intended to resolve.

Deliberating versus experiencing

Problems can arise whenever workforce planning amplifies the tendency of individuals-HR personnel, executives, middle managers, supervisors, and indeed any employees-to engage more time deliberating than experiencing. That is, at work, individuals experience one of three modes at any time: deliberating, experiencing, and defending.

When individuals deliberate, they formulate plans-sequences of acts or behaviors they intend to implement in the future. The left and, to a lesser extent, the right dorso-lateral prefrontal context and orbito-frontal cortex are activated when individuals construct these intentions. Second, when individuals experience, they either execute these plans or invoke their intuition to guide their behavior or to modify their decisions. The right dorso-lateral prefrontal context is especially likely to be activated when individuals trust their intuition. Finally, when individuals defend, they recognize that a threat or problem might be looming, manifested as agitation and anxiety, and attempt to redress this issue, often acting defensively or apprehensively.

Throughout the day, individuals switch seamlessly between these modes. Indeed, each of these modes-deliberating, experiencing, and defending-is germane to the operation of any organization. Nevertheless, in many organizations, especially in Western nations, deliberating prevails, perhaps to the detriment of experiencing. Indeed, some, if not all, of the problems that permeate many organizations can possibly be ascribed to the undue reliance on deliberating and perhaps defending.

Factors that incite deliberating

Before characterizing the difficulties that ensue from undue deliberation, the contexts and environments that elicit or inhibit this mode need to be clarified. Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology offer intriguing insights into the factors that inhibit deliberation. In particular, the right prefrontal cortex is more inclined to be activated-and hence a shift from deliberation to experience is perhaps likely to unfold-in social environments.

That is, when individuals converse with someone in the same room, they need to monitor a vast array of cues: facial expressions, hand gestures, ambiguous remarks, and vocal characteristics, such as pitch and rhythm, to interpret the other person. They also need to articulate a response and exhibit mannerisms that facilitate their goals, while respecting a vast array of social norms and societal constraints. Properties of the right hemisphere seem to have evolved to integrate all of this information and to optimize the ensuing responses.

Many of the trends that pervade society, however, may have curbed this need to integrate social information. Technology, especially the internet, has breached the boundaries that defined and confined communication. Individuals often communicate with a person located in a different state or nation-often at a different time, as exemplified by email. Individuals do not as frequently need to integrate a vast range of cues, expressions, mannerisms, or remarks simultaneously. They do not have to select and express an appropriate response immediately. Instead, they can reflect upon these messages and form a considered response, most likely shifting their mode from experiencing to deliberating.

This revolution in communication has, obviously, escalated the exposure of individuals to other cultures, countries, and customs, underpinning the advent of globalization. Rather than engage in social behaviors to uphold the local community, individuals might focus more of their attention to rival collectives. Rather than feel safe in the recesses of their local niche, organizations need to complete with threats from many foreign sources. The neglect of local communities, and the competition from multinational companies, tends to shift the focus of individuals from cultivating relationships to craving power. Competition and control might supplant cooperation and cohesion as the key objectives of individuals. This pursuit of power is more likely to activate the left hemisphere of the brain, which culminates in deliberating rather than experiencing.

This shift from affiliation to power corresponds with many other changes as well. Individuals become less cognizant of their immediate context, disregarding the sights, sounds, smells, intuitions, and feelings in their surroundings. The significance of these subtle cues and feelings diminishes as their social needs tend to decline. Instead, these individuals have been shown to focus on logical arguments and rational thoughts to pursue their future goals.

Anything that reminds individuals of logical analysis and future plans evokes this pursuit of power, activating deliberation. The subliminal exposure to words like logic, rational, analyze, and reason have been shown to activate deliberation. More importantly, the rational analysis of future possibilities will also evoke this mode.

From this perspective, the advent of strategic workforce planning is likely to shift the focus of individuals from experiencing towards deliberating.

Consequences of deliberating

The undue shift towards deliberating, rather than experiencing, in modern society seems already to have provoked many of the problems that permeate organizations and societies today-problems that planning could possibly amplify rather than resolve.

Temporal orientation

For example, when deliberating rather than experiencing, individuals are more inclined to reflect upon their future prospects not their immediate experiences or ongoing states. This neglect of their subjective experiences, however, incites choices and behaviors that, ultimately, curb the productivity, wellbeing, and progress of individuals,

To demonstrate, in this mode, individuals select courses of action that are intended to achieve specific states in the remote future. Their attention is directed towards the outcomes they would like to achieve one day-not to the ongoing thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges they are experiencing. They attempt to optimize their progress in the future not their processes now. That is, rather than refine the practices and procedures they utilize, or modify the skills and strategies they apply, these individuals merely strive to demonstrate, not develop, their expertise.

An undue focus on future outcomes, not ongoing processes-rampant in organizations, despite some awareness of the complications-has been shown to provoke a suite of problems. The capacity of individuals to solve problems creatively, to learn information rapidly, to concentrate effectively, and to withstand criticism graciously all decline significantly.

Furthermore, individuals become more inclined to perceive the core essence of a person-the underlying character and intelligence-as immutable rather than malleable. This assumption itself has been shown to amplify resistance to change, criticism, and other sources of information that diverge from their extant beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. Their prejudices, biases, and misconceptions become more entrenched, less amenable to change. This focus of attention towards the underlying essence or traits of individuals also reflects the abstract codes that deliberation invokes, which is discussed next.

Representation codes

When individuals deliberate, they must formulate plans that can accommodate a diversity of unexpected contingencies. They cannot anticipate the precise sights, sounds, and smells in the surroundings, or the exact feelings and features they might experience, when they design to implement these plans. Hence, when deliberating, rather than experiencing, individuals must use abstract codes-words, concepts, and symbols-each of which represents an extensive, fuzzy range of contexts, devoid of sensory and emotional details.

In other words, when deliberating, individuals invoke verbal, symbolic labels to formulate plans and to guide behavior. When experiencing, individuals utilize rich, detailed images or impressions to reach decisions and to select courses of action.

To facilitate their orientation towards the future, when individuals operate in the cognitive mode, they form symbolic representations of objects and events, devoid of sensory, perceptual, and affective details (Trope & Liberman, 2003). Because these details are neglected, individuals focus, almost exclusively, on the tangible and objective features of objects or event, not subjective, emotional, or intuitive experiences (cf. Baumann & Kuhl, 2005). They will tend to pursue courses of action that optimize concrete, observable features (Forster, Friedman, & Liberman, 2004)-money, possessions, status, and other tangible incentives (see also Pierro, Kruglanski, & Higgins, 2006).

Because of this emphasis on tangible features, appreciable deliberation will skew the choices, preferences, and behaviors of individuals. Specifically, individuals will become more inclined to embrace materialistic values, striving to accumulate more tangible possessions. That is, these individuals will show more regard for abstract, symbolic features-prestigious brands and exorbitant money, for example-rather than subjective experiences.

These materialistic values, however, have been shown to compromise the wellbeing of individuals, increasing the incidence of regret as well as impeding the formation of stable relationships. In contrast, individuals who value life experiences-who enjoy challenging, novel, fulfilling, and significant activities-are more inclined to experience satisfaction with life.

In the workplace, materialistic values also tarnish job satisfaction and provoke many other problems. When individuals cannot readily decide between two alternatives, such as two roles, they tend to choose the option that is superior on some tangible, quantitative attribute-remuneration, distance, work hours, and so forth. However, studies show that such quantitative disparities do not significantly affect satisfaction. Instead, individuals are more likely to be satisfied with their choice, if they select the option that excels on some subjective, affective, intuitive, and qualitative dimension.

Deliberation also impairs the capacity of authorities to recognize the importance of these subjective experiences. That is, when authorities reach decisions, they might trivialize the universal need to experience autonomy and agency. Instead, often initiatives are introduced that curb autonomy-initiatives that are intended to augment accountability. When autonomy dissipates, however, individuals become less resilient, engaged, intuitive, proactive, flexible, and receptive. Their progress subsides and their wellbeing declines.

Decision criteria

The criteria that individuals apply to reach decisions-such as to decide which product to purchase or which action to pursue-also differs between experiencing and deliberating. When experiencing, individuals can form a global, intuitive impression of each options. They can, for example, form an impression of whether some job aligns with the gamut of their preferences and values. This impression is derived from the extensive array of sensory, perceptual, affective, and cognitive features that have accumulated about this role.

When deliberating, however, individuals apply codes that neglect most of this information. Global impressions, therefore, will tend to be uninformative. Instead, to reach decisions, individuals must apply logical rules and sequential operations. They might, for example, compare three different jobs on five to ten attributes, such as the remuneration package, distance from home, and reputation of the organization. They might select the role that prevails on the most number of attributes or apply some other algorithm.

Although a contentious issue, recent studies imply that global impressions are superior to these methodical procedures, provided the choice is complex. That is, when the alternatives vary on a multitude of subjective factors, with unpredictable implications, a sequential comparison of the choices on each attribute tends to be ineffective. Instead, a cursory reflection of the choices, followed by a period of relaxation or distraction, and culminating in a reliance on intuition tends to optimize decisions and minimize regret. According to some theories, the benefits of intuition, however, surface only when individuals feel secure rather than agitated.

Deliberation, because of the concomitant reliance on logical rules and sequential operations, also compromises the flexibility and sensitivity of individuals. That is, individuals in this mode are often insensitive to subtle changes and cues in the environment, demonstrating maladaptive rigidity rather than flexibility.

Processing capacity

When experiencing, rather than deliberating, individuals form global impressions of the various alternatives and, therefore, can integrate a vast array of features in parallel. When deliberating, however, individuals engage in a sequence of logical operations. They can, therefore, analyze a limited subset of features and factors within a specific time.

Accordingly, when individuals deliberate carefully, they often prefer strategies, tactics, or practices in which they can neglect a sizeable portion of the available information. Managers who show this inclination, for example, will choose processes or procedures that neglect key sources of information. Perhaps they embrace systems of performance appraisal in which only objective measures-productivity, sales, or other numerical indices-are considered. They might reject systems that also consider subjective measures, such as perceived level of cooperation, when evaluating employees.

Systems and strategies as well as practices or processes that neglect key information, merely to expedite or to streamline decisions, elicit a series of limitations. Specifically, the neglect of relevant information is referred to as inaccuracy and is regarded as a source of procedural injustice. Such injustices have been shown to damage commitment, loyalty, and satisfaction at work, provoking unproductive and destructive work behaviors: theft, inefficiency, defiance, aggression, and other problems.

Mobilization of effort

When individuals deliberate, they choose courses of action that deviate from their intuitive preferences-behaviors that feel unnatural rather than instinctive. Accordingly, to maintain the intention to pursue these choices, they need to suppress their natural inclinations, and this need manifests as effort. The experience of effort, therefore, coincides with the mode of deliberation.

Individuals, however, can mobilize only a limited supply of effort or energy in a specific period of time. As a consequence, when individuals engage in tasks that demand effort-that violate their core inclinations or intuitive preferences-they experience shortfalls in other facets of their life. For example, when individuals engage in some activity that demands effort, their capacity to perform other challenging mental activities dissipates, and hence productivity will often decline.

Perhaps the gravest implication revolves around the regulation of emotions. When deliberation prevails, and individuals thus engage in many activities that demand effort, their capacity to alleviate adverse emotions-agitation, exasperation, and frustration, for example-diminishes. They experience many unpleasant feelings, and their wellbeing declines.

Furthermore, deliberation often incites behaviors that exacerbate these negative emotions. In particular, because individuals in this mode often attempt to deviate from their underlying inclinations, intuitions, or emotions, they strive to suppress, rather than embrace, unpleasant feelings and thoughts. They attempt to inhibit their anxieties, worries, doubts, and concerns. Any attempt to suppress unwelcome emotions and thoughts, however, has been shown to amplify these problems. That is, these unpleasant emotions and thoughts tend to return, at least after some other demand is imposed, and usually more intensely than before.

In short, deliberation can magnify emotional or psychological disturbances. Furthermore, many of the plans that individuals form when they deliberate-especially plans that demand unwavering effort and commitment-tend to be ineffective.

Distribution of attention

Sometimes, individuals experience contexts that deviate from their extant expectations. In these instances, their core inclinations might not be applicable and, therefore, must be inhibited. Instead, individuals will often engage in deliberation, formulating plans that are intended to accommodate these unexpected challenges or threats.

Hence, while deliberating, individuals often need to orient their attention towards the cues or stimuli that diverge from their expectations. In essence, in this mode, they must amplify the differences between these stimuli and their expectations, to ensure these deviations are conspicuous rather than subtle-and thus resolved rather than neglected. Consistent with this premise, effort, which is a psychological state that coincides with deliberation, augments the tendency to seek information that contradicts expectations.

For example, to decide whether or not they can perform some task, individuals might form a prototype that represents the individuals who typically engage in this activity. If they plan to compete in a marathon, for example this prototype will reflect a typical distance runner-perhaps lean and disciplined. Individuals in a cognitive mode might then magnify the differences between themselves and this prototype, perceiving themselves as stout and lethargic.

This orientation towards discrepancies has been shown to promote some ineffective and maladaptive management practices. Managers are more inclined to identify, and thus highlight, shortfalls rather than achievements. This focus on shortfalls, however, has been shown to provoke a host of problems. Male managers, for example, who demonstrate this tendency often show contempt towards female employees. Furthermore, this emphasis on shortfalls, and the consequent plethora of criticisms, has been shown to compromise productivity in organizations.

An emphasis on shortfalls is also likely to promote a tendency called maximizing rather than satisficing-in which individuals consider their alternatives carefully, almost obsessively, before they select an option. For example, at a restaurant, they will carefully consider each of the options, striving to choose the premium meal rather than accepting only a reasonable, rather than optimal, alternative. This tendency has been shown to undermine satisfaction, in work, social, and recreational domains.

Encouraging the experiencing mode

To override many of the problems that undue deliberation can evoke, individuals should be encouraged to adopt an experiential mode more frequently. When individuals adopt this mode, they tend to become more intuitive, flexible, resilient, satisfied, and engaged. Indeed, many of the difficulties that epitomize deliberation will abate when they adopt this experiential mode.

Individuals, however, cannot be instructed or obliged to adopt this mode. Instead, experiencing, rather than deliberating, prevails when individuals experience a profound, genuine, and enduring sense of security-or when they trust their intuition and eschew logical or formal rules and systems.

Several theories, such as the ironic rebound effect, the compartmentalization model of self structure, attachment theory, terror management theory, the tripartite model of security, acceptance and commitment therapy, as well as implicit theories of malleability can be applied to identify the factors that could afford this profound sense of security-ultimately evoking an experiential mode and optimizing many facets of performance and progress. In particular, organizations need to introduce mechanisms that encourage individuals to:

Problems with the experiential mode

Interventions that redress the prevailing imbalance between deliberating and experiencing are likely to foster many benefits to the progress, performance, and wellbeing of employees and organizations. Nevertheless, as the reliance on deliberating diminishes, the capacity of individuals and organizations to accommodate abrupt, unanticipated, and unique shifts in the market or environment dissipates.

Indeed, deliberation evolved to ensure that individuals can adjust to novel and discontinuous changes. To accommodate these imminent or likely shifts in the environment, individuals cannot invoke their intuition. That is, intuition, which evolves gradually and inexorably from past experience, cannot accommodate unprecedented changes in the environment. Instead, individuals must represent these potential changes as abstract codes and derive plans from rational and logical considerations that optimize their responses to these shifts-a process that demands deliberation. Once individuals implement these plans, their intuition adjusts accordingly and the utility of experiencing, instead of primarily deliberating, is restored.

One complication, however, is that individuals must continue to withhold their reliance on experiencing until some of these plans are implemented. Many of the drawbacks of deliberation, therefore, are likely to surface. Fortunately, the concept of implementation intentions, propounded by Gollwitzer (1993), curbs this limitation. Rather than implement these plans, individuals can instead form a vivid image of these behaviors-envisaging the contexts in which these acts will be undertaken as well as their responses to potential obstacles. This exercise ensures that such plans can be implemented when appropriate, even without the need to maintain these intentions in memory deliberately and consciously. Individuals do not need to maintain a mode of deliberation to accommodate these imminent shifts in society.

Accordingly, if individuals choose to refrain from deliberating, they must first characterize some of the imminent shifts and trends in their environment. Many of the looming changes in the environment transcend the advances in communication technology and globalization. Indeed, the entire sector of futurology is obviously dedicated to forecasting these shifts, applying a diversity of methods and approaches such as causal layered analysis, scenario planning, the Delphi method, global prescience, futures wheels, and futures workshops.

Despite the plethora of methods, and multitude of anticipated changes, many of the looming shifts may, roughly, represent a shift in power from middle-aged, Western males to other constituencies, at least in Western countries. Several scientific advances have expedited this shift.

First, more advanced methods to select suitable job applicants have been developed and might soon become more pervasive. With the advent of implicit measures-tests that assess key traits and capacities covertly rather than transparently-applicants and candidates cannot as readily distort their responses to depict themselves positively. Individuals who genuinely have acquired the requisite qualities, and not merely the circumscribed set of applicants who can inveigle recruiters, are more likely to ascend to positions of power and authority.

To illustrate, in the past, some individuals have been able to depict themselves as confident and competent, proud and poised. Nevertheless, many of the individuals who maintain they are confident intuitively doubt their competence and worthiness. These individuals tend to be very defensive, aggressive, and fragile in demanding and threatening contexts. Recent scientific advances, however, enable practitioners to uncover this underling doubt.

Second, because channels of communication have become more dispersed, and less concentrated, a broader variety of communities have been able to express their needs and perspectives. These opportunities have enabled other constituencies to assume more influential roles. Women, for example, may be increasingly likely to be assigned leadership positions even in industries that had been dominated by males.

As the dominance of middle-aged, Western males diminishes, even if only gradually, in some countries, the qualities that such individuals tend to espouse are, potentially, less likely to be embraced. That is, individuals often attempt to cultivate or demonstrate the qualities that characterize the typical leader. As this characterization evolves, the prevailing goals and desirable traits in society change accordingly.

Although a blatant simplification, middle-aged, Western males often seem to value competition, competence, dominance, and power-often referred to as agency. Other constituencies, such as many females non-Western cultures, are more inclined to embrace community, cooperation, cohesion, and harmony-typically designated as communion. Interests in employee wellbeing, corporate social responsibility, global sustainability, and many other movements may reflect this trend. Only organizations that can accommodate these changes will flourish in the foreseeable future.

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Last Update: 5/30/2016