Editor's Note: Are you suffering from vari-phobia? Jim Brennan notes the symptoms, provides his diagnosis of this widespread affliction and makes the case on why its important to challenge our innate preference for predictability and sameness and our desire to inflict our own version of order where it may not belong.
We should openly discuss the fear of variety that seems to permeate our field. Many seem to feel that everyone should be paid identically, for example.
Consider this recent exchange in the LinkedIn network for compensation professionals. It has been lightly edited and restated for those who don't subscribe:
Question: One of my regions has salaries all over the place within a particular range. Any ideas on closing the gaps? The challenge is that none are outside of range and all will be receiving some % merit this year.
Answer: Why are you planning a fix without first auditing to confirm a problem? Diagnosis should precede any prescription. If you have a normally distributed mix of young and old, junior and senior, experienced and inexperienced, long-service and newbie, high-performers and barely-scraping-bys, your distribution properly should be "all over the place." If your people are all different, then the pay may well be all different, if that is where the appropriate salaries fall. Midpoints are arbitrary modal norms for an entire class and every deviation from the middle figure does not necessarily constitute a "gap."
People are not clones but individuals. Of course, current PC-ness requires sanctimonious platitudes about embracing diversity… but come on, now. That’s simply not natural. Compensation professionals therefore continue to act like normal human beings. We tend to exhibit extreme aversions to variety. Certainty is preferred to ambiguity.
During my exciting but stressful decades heading a consulting firm, this “due to a shortage of robots…” sign was my favorite office poster. It underlined the hazards and risks of human nature. When we as a race exhibit variable behavior, that tends to trigger something negative in all of us.
Everyone prefers practices that are consistent and even identical. Many compensation professionals act as though equal = equitable, which it don’t. It is natural to have a fear of differences because variations create oscillations, changes, challenges, threats, outliers, abnormalities, etc. There is a progression of negative meanings that flow and escalate from the very concept of different. But that is a basic characteristic of human beings and an inescapable condition of life itself.
Same, identical, familiar = safe, reliable, predictable, native and normal. On the other hand, not-same, different, unfamiliar = dangerous, unreliable, unpredictable alien and abnormal. So our lizard-brains operate. When confronted by variation, we react accordingly, by emotion and instinct, without conscious thought. The nail that sticks up will be hammered down is a Japanese expression of the same theme: that conformity is good and individualism is bad.
The tradecraft of our profession teaches us otherwise, but it conflicts with our basic instincts honed by millenia of evolution. In this most “objective” of trades, we must retain consciously self-aware of our subjectivity born of simple human nature. Compensation professionals must constantly be aware of their feelings and remain prepared to battle against their animal instincts.
Perhaps this is simply another aspect of another of my favorite phrases: Compensation would be a great profession, if it weren’t for the people.
What else can we do to improve our ability to deal effectively with this natural human tendency?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent compensation advisor with extensive total rewards experience in most industries. After corporate HR posts and consulting CEO roles, he was Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI before returning to consulting in 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and frequent expert witness in reasonable executive compensation court cases, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
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