The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success, by Joel Brockner

There may be ideas for research here, but less in the way of practical lessons for busy managers, says Helga Drummond

December 17, 2015
Sprinters on starting blocks at sunrise

Imagine Rolls without Royce; Reggie Kray without Ronnie. Henry Royce was a fine engineer but no salesman. Reggie might have shown that crime could pay, but without psychopathic Ronnie he was hardly the stuff of legend. By the same token, this book cries out for a second author. One who can write engagingly, that is.

This book’s message is simple, encapsulated by its title, The Process Matters. In more colloquial language, the author’s theme is that it is not just what you do that matters, but how you do it. Some passages are interesting, such as those citing studies that show how processes designed to boost self-esteem can enable people to transcend bad news or at least cope with it better than they otherwise would have. There are also useful insights into change management, including a striking dichotomy drawn between optimists like Steve Jobs, interested in what can be, and those who owe their success to fear, as epitomised by the autobiography of Andy Grove, former chief executive of Intel, titled Only the Paranoid Survive. The chapter on ethical behaviour is also worth reading for counter-intuitive insights into why good people do bad things.

Yet ultimately, the book is a lost opportunity. Joel Brockner, an experimental psychologist, sticks to his comfort zone. By so doing, he misses a very important sociological reason why process matters. More specifically, scholars of symbols and symbolic behaviour in organisations believe that employee consultation mechanisms, grievance procedures and the like are a sham, aimed at making people feel as though they are involved and able to exert some control and obtain redress, when important decisions have already been made. Brockner also misses the power of rites and rituals in energising people and maintaining stability through troubled times.

Nor does the author dwell on the dangers of reverence for process. Studies have shown that market research can also be a sham, part of the rites of uncertainty reduction and one reason why so many poor products suck resources from good ones. Brockner has little to say, for example, about health professionals missing serious injuries to toddlers because they are more concerned about compiling paperwork than they are about examining the child and quizzing parents. The aforementioned chapter on ethicality highlights the pitfalls of rewarding results, but Brockner never really confronts the opposite danger. Rewarding managers for observing process may mean lots of meetings, lots of analysis, lots of studies and so forth, but no traction. Activity is not necessarily achievement.

Yet a longer single-authored book would only spin out the misery. Scholars may find ideas for research here, but it is hard to imagine a busy manager wading through its turgid, repetitive text and dull anecdotes. Some of the experiments described are interesting, but there are too many.

Moreover, the argument that the process matters (endlessly repeated) becomes self-defeating. As Brockner notes, implementing high-quality process in organisations is hard. But many of the benefits are apparently fleeting. Even the pain caused by poor process, such as a brusque termination interview, eventually passes. Besides, what matters more: ruffled feelings among the recently made redundant or a child so badly beaten that pathologists find a tooth in their stomach? The organisational processes that Brockner describes may matter to those on the receiving end. But in the wider view, many probably don’t matter that much, if at all.

Helga Drummond is professor of decision sciences, University of Liverpool.

The Process Matters: Engaging and Equipping People for Success
By Joel Brockner
Princeton University Press, 352pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691165059 and 9781400865642 (e-book)
Published 18 November 2015

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