The Behavioral Science Behind “The Alliance”

There’s quite a bit of recognition and support for Reid Hoffman et al.’s new “how-to” book on talent management, The Alliance. Just a quick scan of the “Reactions” tabfor the book’s supplemental website showcases a very impressive list of well-known thought leaders and executives, all touting the book as a fresh and innovative approach to talent acquisition and talent management in the modern world of work. Some key tenets of the book are based on (or at least resonate with) subject matter from Organizational Behavior (OB) and I-O psychology, so it’s interesting to see these reactions in the context of a field of science that has been studying these issues and providing insight into these topics for at least fifty-plus years (see Argyris, 1960). Unfortunately, the book doesn’t quite directly address or promote the science behind these suggested best practices, and ironically enough, the field of I-O psychology is actively working on a rebranding and marketing campaign to gain more of a presence in the main stream (see video below).

The authors’ decision to not delve too much into scientific research is obviously a direct benefit of the book to be sure. It’s a perfect quick read for it’s intended audience and provides rich personal stories and examples that are much more likely to motivate the application of these principles compared to a laundry list of cited research from academic journals. However, my post here is to hopefully put the context of these models and best practices into retrospect with some very important insights from OB and I-O psychology.

Psychological Contracts and Organizational Commitment

The foundation of the book is based upon the competing models of employer-employee relationships, comparing the traditional “lifetime career” and “free-agent” models and looking to find a solid middle ground. Simply viewing the profiles of my own connections on LinkedIn provide evidence that the traditional model is all but gone (with the exception of mostly government workers it appears). The new norm is for employees to work at one company for a period of 1-2 years and jump over to another for a year or less, and possibly back to their former employers. So, the book suggests that an open, honest discussion between employers and employees is key to managing an organization’s workforce while developing talent internally, while also increasing the ability to attract and recruit entrepreneurial-minded employees. This is achieved by creating different types of “tours of duty” for employees that have clear objectives, explicit timelines, and deliverables for both the employee to the organization and vice-versa. A true breath of fresh air for anyone working especially in human resources, talent acquisition, talent management, or in any hiring and/or firing capacity.

The concept of a psychological contract has been defined in several ways, but for the purposes of this post, is basically a subjective individual perception of obligations of the employee towards the organization and of obligations of the employer towards the employee (and everyone pretty much agrees that this subjective, implicit contract exists). Obviously, some expectations are more conscious than others, e.g., salary; however there also exists very indirect, and unconscious expectations for both parties, e.g., longer-term career development prospects. I think this is a key area where The Alliance is putting a practice in place to increase organizational commitment (i.e., an employee’s loyalty to the organization and sense of obligation) which has been shown to relate to lower levels of turnover and higher levels of effort, (e.g., citizenship behaviors).

Perceived Organizational Support

Another psychological principle that is implicitly addressed by organizations that choose to follow the practices laid out in the book is perceived organizational support. Perceived Organizational Support (POS) is basically the extent to which an employee really believes that the employer values them as human beings and has a stake in fulfilling their needs on several levels. When employees have a high level of POS they are much more likely to be committed to the organization and their leaders, as might be expected. The Alliance suggests that employers have an open, honest discussion around employees’ career development, even if that discussion leads to the employee pursuing alternative employment and leaving the organization. This is one of the most important and profound tenets of The Alliance. This aspect is the ultimate elephant in the room.

Your employees will leave if they are not on a clear progressive track that satisfies their end of the bargain in the psychological contract, and they will do it behind your back if they don’t feel valued and supported. By opening the dialogue, Hoffman has done so much to negate the need for employees to have secret meetings and interviews and to “surprise” their employers with a two-week notice when the employer might believe things are usual business. In fact, Hoffman takes this one step further and suggests that managers support employees in their efforts to leave if it is indeed the best solution (after discussing what possibilities exist to get the contract back in line). This practice can go as far as reaching out to connections in other prospective organizations on behalf of the departing employee.

My favorite anecdote from the book on this area is the story that one of the senior managers at LinkedIn asks prospective candidates where they want to work at after LinkedIn if they receive an offer! This also feeds into the topics of organizational alumni networks, which is extremely compelling considering how often employees move onto other companies, and then return after possibly working at a direct competitor. Wouldn’t you want to support your employees even if the best option might be to have them depart, only then to have them possibly return in the future with a new network of alliances and information to use to your advantage?

The Alliance and Behavioral Science to Back it Up

It’s quite clear that this book is groundbreaking for the suggested practices that encourage managers to have an open dialogue with employees about departing an organization, and that based on how the world of work has evolved, these practices could assist in major improvements to talent acquisition and talent management. However, the book is basically a how-to guide, and although it’s full of robust anecdotes and personal stories, the book doesn’t really dive into much behavioral science research that actually supports these notions. So, hopefully this post not only promotes The Alliance further, but also adds a little science to back up the reasoning behind these practices in the form of research on psychological contracts, organizational commitment, and perceived organizational support.

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