The Long and Short of It

By Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP

The Athenian strategy moves to the top when things are going well. Spartanism grabs the throne when the world is going to hell.
– Howard Bloom, Global Brain

This quote speaks to the effectiveness of two types of strategies groups deploy, depending on the timeframe of their goals and objectives. The Athenian strategy is for the long term, the visionary goals; it values collaboration, diversity, involvement, creativity, democracy and individuality in earning collective goals. The Spartan strategy is for the short term, the crisis situations; it values order, control, direction, submission to a higher order and authoritarian rule in earning collective goals. Both strategies demand collective buy-in – for either to work effectively, each member of the team at stake must adhere to the values, norms and shared beliefs of each strategy. The collective success depends on this.

Bloom says ‘groups under threat constrict. They do it to gain leverage and force’.  When we’re under pressure by things like tight deadlines and pressure from above or outside, we tend to perceive things through the lens of crisis. David Rock explains this as our limbic responses to threat: we become focused in our thought patterns and our behavior because we perceive crisis situations as threatening, eliciting ‘flight, fight or freeze’ reactions. We tend to look for direction and authority to help us find the solutions fastest. This is the Spartan way: conform to explicit rules and directions as a collective to earn success. Individual misdirection cannot and will not be tolerated. When aggregated through the context of short-term project requirements, this produces an organized, structured and controlled effort toward achieving a goal. The errors of diversity have no room to spoil the achievement of goals.

When things are more relaxed – more focused on longer term objectives – we have an opposite strategy. Acting ‘to be widely recognized for leading an evolution in improving organizational outcomes’ or ‘to work with people and communities to help them thrive and prosper’ requires a more open, creative and collaborative approach to earn the desired effect: more bottom-up than top-down. In these longer term opportunities, we deploy the Athenian strategy of consensus, involvement and diversity in decisions, actions and collective behavior. The concerted effort, when aggregated through the context of an organization’s vision and strategy, facilitates longer term, global goals for an organization.

What can HR learn from long term versus short term collective response? Build systems and practices which value openness and flexibility. Focused and directed behavior is important, but so is the capacity to accept change – it’s this perception which will allow the shift from shorter term to longer term strategic behavior, depending on the nature of the situations at hand.

An article in the McKinsey Quarterly (2011, Number 2) illustrates how ANZ incorporated mindfulness, resilience and self-awareness strategies into its leadership training as a way to keep its organization able to continually refresh itself and stay on top of challenges. It’s what contributes to a ‘healthy’ organization, McKinsey research suggests. It’s also a great example of how HR can build a culture which prepares people to adapt to change and shift strategies as the situation requires.

Are you ready for the shift?

Nilesh Bhagat, CHRP, is the membership and CHRP administrator at BC HRMA. After several gruelling years in school, Nilesh graduated in October 2010 from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, First Class Honours. He majored in Human Resources Management and tacked on an extended minor in Psychology. He’s a self-confessed nerd (the first step is admitting), likes to read, loves hockey and is struggling with the complexities of learning the game of golf.


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