Views > Change and Organization > Article > WHAT DO MANAGERS KNOW ANYWAY?

Gary Bacchus, Management Consultant, United Kingdom

A lot less than you think and that's the good news!.

Most of their decisions bring forth the assumption that managers know what they are talking about. Research in this area supports what many of my colleagues have long suspected. Managers have distorted pictures of their businesses and their environments. Though they are showered daily with endless data and given links to differing organisations, the paradox unfolds, as managers tend to focus on what is happening right now, in their specific jobs, in their sections; as they're busy among the trees, they lose sight of the forest, wondering at the same time where to find the 'wider picture'.

Their intelligence sources are: corporate documents (which they often misunderstand), personal experiences, rumours they hear at the water-cooler, conversations during committee meetings, articles, with their leaders; and other corporate influences, such as in-house training, which does not really challenge their entrenched management beliefs.

Though I believe that we are facing a new management agenda which has been set: by the end of Taylorism and the rise of participative management; the realisation that organisations cannot be treated as stable systems and the recognition of the effects of chaos theory; the decline of the formal organisation; the empowerment of customers, whose demands have far-reaching consequences, we, nevertheless, are still here, based in a world that builds autocratic and traditional, military style hierarchies, with a top-down - "toe the line" philosophy.

When given an opportunity to debate our new world order, managers respond with their fear of the unknown by their insistence of their distorted perceptions, despite the accuracy of their subordinates' diagnosis. However, all is not lost. There is instead a common wisdom that many senior manages surround themselves with yes-sayers who filter out warnings from middle management.
What is interesting here is the time they spend building the many cultural overlays that reinforce this protective behaviour. One being to enforce a sophisticated 'fall into line' approach as the safest way makes us subordinates hold on to favour and further careers. That need for quiet submission is exaggerated by today’s uncertain world of organisational change. So much so, to recognise that a senior manager is making a poor decision brings forth the question “Shouldn’t we tell them?” “Yes”, says the line manager. “Let’s end our careers by challenging a decision that won’t change. That’s a great idea”.

The glass ceiling appears before us. Those of us brave enough to try and give our input and are able to tell of the experience argue that most who go against their respective managers or express their concerns publicly, are severely punished. If they are not victimised, they certainly felt marginalised or made to feel irrelevant and in some cases threatened over job security. Yet the cost of silence is both extremely costly to the individual and to the organisation and contradicts the very real sense of diversity and empowerment that organisations wish to harness. Studies show silence generates a psychological price, generating feelings of humiliation, resentment, that if unexplained, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity and undermine productivity. All because individuals are convinced that keeping quiet is the best way to preserve relationships and get the work done. As the title suggests, this has a profound effect on the HR activity.

With yearly appraisals and wasted opportunities in training, subordinates are annually terrified they'll hear nothing but criticism. Managers think their direct reports will produce anger or tears. The result? Everyone keeps quiet. That's unfortunate, because most people need help figuring out how to improve their performance and advance their careers.. So rather than seek feedback, people try to second guess what everyone else is thinking.

It proliferates a never-ending cycle. On the one hand, employee participation is not engaged or guided into management strategic thinking. Without this, there is unnecessary chaos - people go in their own direction, to the detriment of the organisation in which they are working. On the other hand, while most organisations have embraced - in the abstract, at least - the idea that failure is a prerequisite to innovation, the reality is that most of my colleagues are afraid to fail, and most managers reinforce that fear, by manipulating feedback. What is missing is enlightened leadership that helps employees overcome anxieties about taking risks. One hand leads the other in this case.

The second case for HR is managerial misfits. When managers offer jobs, they do so in most cases after carefully analysing the available candidates and deciding the one that managers find most competent for the job. But managers pay little attention to the two other dimensions of fit - will the person enjoy the job, and will that person be proud of it? There is a problem. Without the two dimensions, a person's capacity to do the job is all that counts. If the person doesn't like the job offer or not like it, then that person refuses; if that person doesn't say no, the personal issues don't exist. There is a problem. Managers have made a statement that the person is the best person available. To refuse is to deny what it wants. The pressures to accept are considerable.

Annually, we're seeing that managers lack the imagination to envision innovative training models to address the emerging needs or desires of subordinates, below the management line. Managers will show you annually that new ideas and innovations will not flourish. Training fizzles becuause small improvements are not related to, or enough to stimulate the recipient's learning or increase motivation.
Above the line, organisations struggle with leadership development as well. They promote their top performers into management roles, put them though a few workshops and seminars and then throw them to the wolves. In the process that follows, those with the ability to survive and thrive are rewarded; those without it are disciplined or re-assigned. An alarming number of people fall into the second category.
Why do organisations botch its chances of success? It's not simply that managers lack the talent or skills for the job. They fail; I've come to believe, because their management approach fails them. They fall short because we still have hierarchical dominance and submission, verses communities that are more appropriate to our high-tech times and postmodern selves.

Though I do not wholly criticise government organisations in this, it does have great potential to some. It offers a family, seemingly secluded from the outside world. It has given long-term managers somewhat questionable measures of worth. Self-esteem is involved: one's role in society, one's very identity. Like a family, a community, a religion, it helps define their perceived management worth. It provides managers an identity, a flag to fly. It is true that hierarchies add structure and regularity to our lives. They give us routines, duties, and responsibilities. We may not realise that we need such things until we lose them.

Too often for managers though, they come to depend on these structures as a kind of protective parent, guarding us against the dangers of the outside world. Snuggled close to Daddy Hierarchy, their parenthood is affirmed and their existence appreciated - as long as we do as Daddy asks. Unfortunately, that sense of safety is illusory.

As an organisational climber, I've had my share of falls. I once broke through a bridge and fell into a crevasse. I nearly pulled my rope mate with me, and I knew we were in a very tough situation. Fortunately, he was able to stop the fall and pull me out. Organisational climbing is risky. You've got to be prepared for the unexpected - just like when you're running within a culture. I use the analogy quite often. You set a goal. You assemble a team and equip and train them. Then you begin your climb. As you are climbing, you assess your conditions: weather, supplies, and the abilities of the team. And you're constantly reassessing your odds and your strategies based on all those factors.

I think the most important lesson people can learn from organisational climbers is that when things are going badly - when it looks like you just aren't going to make it - you pull back and regroup at base camp. That is not failure; it's just common sense.

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