Article (February-2020)


Growing menace of pumpkin heads at workplaces

Dr. Prageetha G Raju

Designation : -   Associate Professor-Business Management

Organization : -  Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

Other Writers : -  Dr. Rajanikanth M - Assistant Professor-Business Management, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad Centre


102503 Total View        

What do you call people who rose to managerial heights out of sheer past experience, or as a readily available replacement with super ignorance about everything and are responsible for organizational failures? Can mere authority help them deliver? Can organizations thrive under such ignorant pumpkin heads/managers? Pumpkin heads are idols of inefficiency and are found in every type of organizations including Institutes of Higher Learning.  It is depressing to note that the workforce gradually deteriorates into an ineffectual one causing organizational breakdown with the onset of Pumpkin heads in organizations. What is the way out in such cases?  In an era where the volume of businesses is expanding dramatically and competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities are ruling the world, there is a parallel phenomenon which is devouring the individual competencies thus leading to a premature decline of the organizational effectiveness. This is the phenomenon characterized by explosion of managers/leaders who have had a glorious past but at present waste time and resources of an organization due to inadequate competence, and inflated ignorance coupled with uninspired performance; these managers/leaders may be called 'Pumpkin heads'.

Pumpkin heads are an observable phenomenon but a vexing problem in organizations. The ubiquity of pumpkin heads is its inescapability in any human organization. Except for Peter's principle, not much of business academics talks about pumpkin heads. Pumpkin heads are neither good nor bad, but are highly unsuitable for a decision making position given their ordinariness from all perspectives, be it, value, or performance or skill or ability. Their commitment is just ordinary, never outstanding and thoroughly uninspired. Their focus is just to complete the work with minimal quality and sometimes middling quality. Ordinary commitment, with respect to pumpkin heads may involve interest or rigidity in select best practices and willingness to undertake a limited application with just enough effort to ensure an occasionally positive result. The commitment is too modest.   A pumpkin head is not good and deep down inside and he/she understands it, therefore, they push away potential threats and take credit for success that is not theirs. However, the birth of a pumpkin head is always enigmatic.Pumpkin heads are either imposed by organizations or form as a result of poor internal decisions. It is imposed by organizations in the form of bureaucracy, incompetent leadership, territoriality (using space to communicate ownership), uncoordinated organization due to bounteous growth, or any other structural/socio-technical reason. Sometimes, they are a consequence of poor processes such as improper assessment during recruitment and selection, insufficient performance audit, inappropriate skill training, limited internal replacement choices, and so on. Sometimes, pumpkin heads result from a particular context in relation to others who are superior/inferior. Contextually, people rise to peaks of excellence or fall into abysmal incompetence. An able person in a particular trade/domain is rendered incompetent when he is promoted to a higher responsibility. If the organization fails to see this, incompetence is imposed. Sometimes organizations deliberately settle for pumpkin heads because of the confidence associated with the organization's brand. Alternatively, pumpkin head may be a personality trait, lack of latitude on the job, or a seniority based promotion, which contributes to ineffective performance.

Pumpkin heads are found in all types of organizations and they spend minimum effort to get by. They have a few achievements to their credit and they bank on it for a life time. Usually, they lack job related competencies but are unquestionably articulate to catch the attention of decision makers and quickly climb up the promotion ladder to reach a commanding position. Sometimes, they are a result of nepotism or readily available replacement too. Management/Leadership style of pumpkin heads often leads to more disciplinary incidents, higher absenteeism, and higher tardiness amongst other employees. Pumpkin heads lack the enthusiasm, energy, or drive to enchant customers with quality service and attentiveness leading to higher error rate and loss of sales and future opportunities. Usually, pumpkin heads prevent constructive responses to critical challenges as well as prevent proactive self-assessment of an organization's shortcoming and its ability to adapt. They create a workplace where employees either feel they "have to perform well" or else they care only about meeting the minimal work requirement to maintain their job. In most cases, Pumpkin heads are terrified by people who do a good job; employees aspiring to move up make them insecure. Employees who do shoddy work, and those who are perceived as incompetent, and gossip-mongers become the in-group for pumpkin heads causing the most talented employees running for exit.

Authority is helpful to suppress the enthusiasm of capable performers; often they are publicly ridiculed thereby pushing them into silent obscurity. Authority also helps form a strong informal set-up comprising gossips, rumours, manipulations, blame-games, biases and jealousies (communal and others), inaction, procrastination; all of them killing productivity and team work causing people and relationships to crumble down. Pumpkin Heads gradually get obsessed with power because only that helps them survive with ignorance. Thus, it manifests in the above forms causing exit of good employees and death of creativity, performance, and initiative. Tales carriers, gossip mongers, impression managers, loose talkers, manipulators, and bozos (jokers) begin to rule. Another consequence of pumpkin heads is that a company ends up with large number of inept employees, owing to a chain of ineffective and unproductive recruitments. This phenomenon is caused when an organization hires a pumpkin head, who in turn hires many more pumpkin heads who then hire incompetent workers. In accordance with the similar-to-me effect, it is a generally agreed notion that, high performers hire high performers while low performers hire similar or much lesser-abled employees. The reason behind such strings of low level recruitments can be attributed to the fact that it safeguards and upholds a sense of superiority amongst the pumpkin heads, thus eliminating their chances of endangerment from high performing peers and subordinates.

The following situations indicate the onset of pumpkin head explosion in any organization :

1. Absolute lack of knowledge on contemporary happenings, current affairs, or relevant matters leading to high level ignorance. Pumpkin heads give instructions with high level ignorance camouflaged as super confidence leading to deadly silence from passionate performers. Gradually, high performers quit the organization.

2. Weekly/Monthly meetings get boring on account of lack of agenda besides being unfocussed and time-consuming. A sign of relief can be observed on the faces of the co-workers as they rush out of the room to get back to real jobs. These meetings only give a feel that the organization is strategizing. This is a true case of taking minutes and wasting hours.

3. A Pumpkin head takes a visitor to cafeteria first which is located in a remote corner and then lectures on the indoor plants located outside the cafeteria.

4. In academics, a professor turned principal director has published in a notable indexed journal some 6 years back and every time he/she engages in any academic discussion, he/she cites the same publication as though it is a recent one.

5. Pumpkin heads are mostly eligible but not suitable. For instance, would a senior vice-president from Microsoft with a PhD in computer science be an ideal employee for a start-up? Also, would a PhD in a particular subject with zero research exposure and shallow knowledge on subject depth, and inadequate technical and conceptual skills, be an ideal director/principal for a university college? Not necessarily.

6. The HR department calls for any degree or an MBA for any position irrespective of the functional area; also asks for 5-10 years of work experience in an industry that is only four years old.

7. The success of a competitor upsets pumpkin heads more than the loss of a customer.

8. Pumpkin heads are seldom aware about the company's philosophy.

9. Pumpkin heads cannot adapt to emerging technologies or work processes/methods, thus, insist employees to work on age-old models/methods.

10. Hours of unproductive informal talks with fellow colleagues.

11. More than three people had to be consulted to spend less than $ 10 million in a bank.

12. Recruitment standards drastically coming down; below average candidates being hired.

Is there a method to curtail this problem? The symptoms of inefficiency and the associated maladies can be curtailed through a thorough behaviour modification programme which provides a clear structure and consequence to employees encouraging them to change in an observable and a structured time frame. Behaviour modification programme doesn't manage the individual but creates an environment that reinforces desired behaviour and strongly de-emphasizes punishment. Pumpkin styles should be allowed to extinguish through the withholding of reinforcement. The implementation of behaviour modification should typically be preceded by a performance audit because performance audit identifies unforeseen discrepancies. Is behaviour modification adequate to produce desired outcome? Can desired outcomes and contingent consequences be clearly defined in IT jobs, and AI jobs? In such cases, having contingent consequences attached to desired behaviour and/or outcomes should be an agreement between employee and employer. Out of this agreement, results may follow. However, at what cost? Would it build hope, confidence, and optimism or would it create resentment, tiredness, and entrapment? What if, attaching only contingent consequences might lead to pumpkin heads explosion? If they do not have best understanding about self, can they apply their best self at work? At this juncture money, feedback, and social recognition act as reinforcing factors. When feedback is combined with money, it increases performance as it helps discover self. The social mechanism is the method through which the contingent consequence (social recognition) is applied. For instance, a write-up about the employee in the company's newsletter is a social recognition. In a nutshell, four steps can be followed to modify pumpkin behaviours in organizations.

1. Identify the target behaviour.

2. Perform Antecedent Behaviour Consequence.

3. Arrange Antecedents by removing obstacles, provide opportunities, and provide supportive and appropriately scheduled consequences.

4. Evaluate results.

In step 3, to remove obstacles, unrealistic plan, schedules, and deadlines, contradictory rules, conflicting orders and priorities, and associated distractions may be eliminated. Clear instructions, constructive suggestions, easy-to-use forms may be relied upon. Thorough emphasis on training, recruitment methods, performance assessment, review and audit, compensation are essentials to have decent results, however, to evaluate results, a measurement tool is needed to compare pre-intervention with post intervention data.