Archive for October 2011
Much has been written about leadership, management and the difference between them. The former is associated with creating a shared vision and strategy for the future whereas the latter has administrative and bureaucratic connotations. Most organisations celebrate leadership but consider management to be little more than an operational necessity.
In view of the exaggerated rhetoric regarding leadership it is of interest to ask how it is actually practiced on the ground. This question was investigated by Mats Alvesson and Sven Sveningsson in a brilliant paper entitled, Good Visions, Bad Micro-management and Ugly Ambiguity: Contradictions of (Non-) Leadership in a Knowledge-Intensive Organization. In this post I elaborate on one of their key conclusions: that there is a gap between the espoused view of leadership and its practice.
Leadership in theory
The emphasis on leadership in management theory has lead to the widely accepted notion that leaders matter and that their actions can affect organizational performance and effect change in a positive way. Moreover it is also assumed that it is straightforward to identify leadership qualities in people as these manifest themselves through a set of well-defined behaviours and attitudes. In other words, leadership is a stable and robust concept. The main aim of the authors was to find out how well this theoretical conception of leadership holds up in the real world.
The case study and research methodology
The authors conducted a detailed study of how managers in a knowledge-intensive organisation viewed and practiced leadership. The study consisted of extensive, multiple interviews with managers at different levels in the company (from the CEO to project managers) supplemented by observations made at management meetings. Two rounds of interviews were conducted. In the first round, the authors asked the interviewees what their jobs entailed. Most responses centered on vision, leadership and strategy. However, when asked to elaborate on their responses, most managers described their day-to-day work in terms of administrative and bureaucratic managerial procedures. This pointed to a gap between espoused leadership and how it is actually practiced. In the second round of interviews, the authors attempted to gain some insights into the reasons for the gap.
Macrovisions: the espoused view of leadership
The authors observed that when asked questions about their jobs, most managers spoke of leadership and how they practiced it. Big picture topics such as vision and strategy – what I call macrovisions – were recurrent themes in their responses . Most managers claimed that their job was to articulate such macrovisions while leaving the details of day-to-day operations to their subordinates. As examples, consider the following responses from interviewees:
A strongly knowledge intensive work as ours build on independent and active employees who has (sic) the ability to take their own initiative.
This is consistent with modern themes of worker autonomy in decision, particularly in knowledge-intensive organisations such as information or biotechnology. Reinforcing this, another manager said:
I try not to interfere too much in operations. That would be wrong in every way, no one would benefit from that, but I am available if anyone has an operative question, otherwise it’s more me trying to make myself unavoidable in strategic issues but avoidable in operational issues.
Yet another manager spoke of macrovisions in the following way:
And if you provide the big picture, if there is a sense that these [minor decisions] are in the context of the wider strategy and it is not just, bang, bang [shooting with finger from the hip] we shoot this one and now we shoot that one, and now we gallop off in some other direction; if it fits a bigger picture, then I think we can manage. But that is where leadership comes in I think, we need to provide that context and the picture and the overall direction, to say “we are not here in the middle and you cannot [be allowed to] ride off in just any direction.
Macrovisions thus appeared to provide a broad framework within which employees had the freedom to make decisions that were broadly consistent with the organisation’s strategy.
Again, it is important to emphasise that managers were not specifically asked about visions, strategy or leadership, yet their responses invariably alluded to these themes. The responses suggest that most managers in the company viewed leadership rather than management as their primary role.
This was consistent with the overall management vision set by senior executives. As the authors put it:
The expectations formulated by higher-level senior managers and made explicit by the CEO on various occasions, is that managers should refrain from detailed management
Indeed, some managers spoke of managing details in derogatory terms. Consider the following response:
Requesting detail which is of no value to your personal job or position, and that can be detail about a specific office, budget thing through to really me going down to the project level and saying, “Well, how are we doing on that project and I really want to know”, so it is about the ability not to do that, and delegate and trust the people.
In short: most managers felt that their work involved articulating and implementing macrovisions rather than practising micromanagement.
Micromanagement: the practice of “leadership”
A natural question arising from the above is: how did managers actually practice leadership? What are the things they did in their day-to-day work that exemplified leadership?
To answer this question, interviewees were asked what they did in their day-to-day work. Strangely, most managers reverted to themes they had described in uncomplimentary terms. For example, when asked to elaborate on how he practiced leadership, one manager said:
There are many different ways of working. I think that as a manager here one has to implement significantly more directive ways of handling people, that is, that you say to people that you will spend the next month occupying yourself with this development, I want you to learn about this. I think that you have to have a much more directive way of handling of people in these operations.
This was not an isolated case; another manager said:
I do get involved from a technical viewpoint, I expect, obviously my knowledge is still developing here, but I expect to understand quite consciously what the group is doing.
Yet another manager, when asked about the leadership tools that he used, referred to things such as budgets, recruitment etc. – things that are usually concerned bureaucratic, administrative procedures. There was little if any reference to activities that one might associate with leadership.
There is thus a clear gap between what the managers professed to practice and what they actually practiced. In the authors’ words:
…the responses brought forth aspects of managerial activities obviously quite far removed from most understandings of leadership in contemporary management literature and also from the more ‘grandiose’ ideas on the subject that they also claim to believe in and base their work on. Managers therefore talk of themselves as leaders without doing much that clearly and strongly refers to ‘leadership activities’. The case study exhibits the contrary: the activities of managers are more closely related to what is understood as micro-management…
Indeed this view was confirmed when the authors spoke with lower level managers. A project manager said:
Perhaps there’s a dialogue about that (leadership) that doesn’t really percolate down to those in production and it tends to become reactive. And micro-management, there’s a will to know too much in detail, when perhaps they should really be working with empowerment, that people are able to take responsibility, to send responsibility for the budget to me and have faith that I take responsibility for my colleagues, and all the positive talk such as “we are going to be the company of choice”, how are we going to realize all that, there’s too much administrative detail going through my superior.
…so much for all the talk of leadership.
The rhetoric and reality of leadership
From the above it is clear that we have a paradoxical situation: managers believed they were being leaders when they are actually weren’t leading at all. The question is: why did this happen?
The authors offer a number of speculations for this, which I briefly outline below.
Firstly, leadership qualities are generally seen as desirable. Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display these qualities.
Secondly, there is the issue of identity; how managers see themselves. Like those described in the case study, most managers would like to view what they do as leadership rather than “mere” management or administration. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership rather than the mundane terms of management. However, as the authors stated in the paper, “Leadership talk and fantasies seem to leave a thin spray of grandiosity on the ‘leaders’” Clearly, this may be of more use in bolstering managerial self-esteem than anything else.
Thirdly, managers often have to deal with conflicting agendas and requirements. In the case study managers were expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they were held responsible for specific and very tangible results. To deliver on the latter, they often felt they had to keep track of the details of what their teams were doing and step in when things were going wrong. There was a continual pressure to get involved in detail while maintaining the illusion of being leaders.
Another point that the authors do not mention explicitly is that middle and frontline managers are often expected to lead without being given the autonomy to do so.
It is likely that some or all of the above factors lead to a divergence between the rhetoric and reality of leadership.
The central message of the paper is that the concept of leadership is an idealization that is often compromised in practice. Most people who work in organisations will not find this surprising: managers are generally aware that their day-to-day work has little in common with the rarefied notions of leadership promoted by management schools, while others are likely to have worked with micromanagers who are masquerading as macrovisionaries.
Much of the research literature and educational material on project communication focuses on artefacts such as business cases, status reports and lessons learned reports. In an earlier post I discussed how these seemingly unambiguous documents are open to being interpreted in different or even contradictory ways. However, documents are only a small part of the story. Much of the communication that takes place in a project involves direct interaction via dialogue between stakeholders. In this post, I discuss this interactional aspect of project communication, drawing on a book by Paul Watzlawick entitled, The Pragmatics of Human Communication.
The pragmatics of communication
Those who have done a formal course on communication may already be familiar with Watzlawick’s book. I have to say, I was completely ignorant of his work until I stumbled on it a few months ago. Although the book was published in 1967, it remains a popular text and an academic bestseller. As such, it is a classic that should be mandatory reading for project managers and others who work in group settings.
Much of the communication literature focuses on syntactics (the rules of constructing messages) and semantics (the content, or information contained in messages). Watzlawick tells us that there is a third aspect, one that is often neglected: pragmatics, which refers to the behavioural or interactional aspect of communication. An example might help clarify what this means.
Let’s look at the case of a project manager who asks a team member about the status of a deliverable. The way the question is asked and the nature of the response says a lot about the relationship between the project manager and his or her team. Consider the following dialogues, for example:
“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager
“There have been some delays; I may be a couple of days late.”
“That’s unacceptable,” says the manager, shaking his head.
As opposed to:
“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager.
“There have been some delays. I may be a couple of days late.”
“ Is there anything I can do to help speed things up?”
Among other things, the book presents informal rules or axioms that govern such exchanges.
The axioms of interactional communication and their relevance to project communication
In this section I discuss the axioms of interactional communication, using the example above to demonstrate their relevance to project communication.
In the presence of another person, it is impossible not to communicate: This point is so obvious as to often be overlooked: silence amounts to communicating that one does not want to communicate. For example, if in the first conversation above, the team member chooses not to respond to his manager’s comment that the delay is unacceptable, the manager is likely to see it as disagreement or even insubordination. The point is, there is nothing the team member can do that does not amount to a response of some kind. Moreover, the response the team member chooses to give determines the subsequent course of the conversation.
Every communication has two aspects to it: content and relationship: Spoken words and how they are strung together form the content of communication. Most communication models (such as sender-receiver model) focus on the coding, transmission and decoding (or interpretation) of content. However, communication is more than just content; what matters is not only what is said, but how it is said and the context in which it is said. For instance, the initial attitude of the manager in the above example sets the tone for the entire exchange: if he takes an adversarial attitude, the team member is likely to be defensive; on the other hand, if his approach is congenial the team member is more likely to look for ways to speed things up. What is really important is that relationship actually defines content. In other words, how a message is understood depends critically on the relationship between participants.
The relationship is defined by how participants perceive a sequence of exchanges: A dialogue consists of a sequence of exchanges between participants. However, the participants will punctuate the sequence differently. What the word punctuate means in this context can be made clear by referring back to our example above. If the team member feels (from previous experience) that the manager’s query is an assertion of authority, he may respond by challenging the basis of the question. For instance, he may say that he had to deal with other work that was more important. This may provoke the project manager to assert his authority even more strongly, thereby escalating discord…and so on. This leads to a situation that can be represented graphically as shown in Figure 1.
The important point here is that both participants believe they are reacting to the other’s unreasonableness: the team member perceives groupings 1-2-3 , 3-4-5 , where his challenges are a consequence of the “over-assertive” behaviour of the project managers etc. whereas the project manager perceives groupings 2-3-4, 4-5-6 etc., where his assertive behaviour is a consequence of the team member’s “gratuitous” challenges. In other words, each participant punctuates the sequence of events in a way that rationalizes their responses. The first step to resolving this problem lies in developing an understanding of the other’s punctuation – i.e. in reaching a shared understanding of the reason(s) behind the differing views.
Human communication consists of verbal and non-verbal elements: This axiom asserts that communication is more than words. The non verbal elements include (but are not limited to) gestures, facial expressions etc. Since words can either be used or not used, verbal communication has an binary (on/off) aspect to it. Watzlawick refers to verbal communication as digital communication (and yes, it seems strange to use the term digital in this context, but the book was published in 1967). In contrast, non-verbal communication is more subtle; a frown may convey perplexity or anger in varying intensities, depending on other expressions and/or gestures that are used. Watzlawick termed such communication as analogic.
In the context of our example, the digital aspects of the communication refer to the words spoken by the team member and the project manager whereas the analogic aspects refer to all other non-verbal cues – including emotions – that the participants choose to display. The important point to note is that digital communication has a highly developed syntax but lacks the semantics to express relationships, whereas analogic communication has the semantics to express relationships well, but lacks the syntax. In lay terms, words cannot express how I feel; my gestures and facial expressions can, but they can also be easily misunderstood. This observation accounts for many of the misunderstandings that occur in project and other organizational dialogues.
All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on the relationship between those involved: Symmetry and complementarity refer to whether the relationship is based on equality of the participants or differences between them. For, example the relationship illustrated in figure 1 is symmetrical – the PM and the team member communicate in a manner that suggests they see each other as peers. On the other hand, if the team member had taken a submissive attitude towards the PM, the exchange would have been complementary. Seen in this light, symmetrical interactions are based on minimization of differences between the two communicators and complementary relationships are based on maximization of differences. It should be noted that one type of interaction is in no way better than the other – they are simply two different ways in which communication-based interactions occur
Communication can be improved by strengthening relationships
In the interactional approach to communication, the relationship between participants is considered to be more important than the content of their communication. Unfortunately, the relational aspects are the hardest to convey because of the ambiguity in sequence punctuation and the semantics of analogic communication. These ambiguities are the cause of many vicious cycles of communication – an example being the case illustrated in Figure 1.
Indeed, the interactional view questions the whole notion of an objective reality of a particular communicative situation. In the end, it matters little as to whose view is the “right” one. What’s more important is the recognition that a person’s perception of a particular communicative situation depends critically on how he or she punctuates it. As Watzlawick puts it:
In the communicational perspective, the question whether there is such a thing as an objective reality of which some people are more clearly aware than others is of relatively little importance compared to the significance of different views of reality due to different punctuations.
In their book, they also point out that it is impossible for participants to be fully aware of the relational aspects of their communication (such as punctuation) because it is not possible to analyse a relationship objectively when one is living it. As they put it:
… awareness of how one punctuates is extremely difficult owing to another basic property of communication. Like all other complex conceptual systems which attempt to make assertions about themselves (e.g. language, logic, mathematics) communication typically encounters the paradoxes of self-reflexivity when trying to apply itself to itself. What this amounts to is that the patterns of communication existing between oneself and others cannot be fully understood, for it is simply impossible to be both involved in a relationship (which is indispensable in order to be related) and at the same time stand outside it as a detached, uninvolved observer…
The distinction between content and relationship is an important one. Among other things, it explains why those with opposing viewpoints fail to reach a genuine shared understanding even when they understand the content of the other positions. The difficulty arises because they fail to relate to each other in an empathetic way. Techniques such as dialogue mapping help address relational issues by objectifying issues, ideas and arguments. Such approaches can take some of the emotion out of the debate and thus help participants gain a better appreciation of opposing viewpoints.
To sum up
The interactional view of communication tells us that relationships are central to successful communication. Although traditional project communication tools and techniques can help with the semantic and syntactical elements of communication, the relational aspects can only be addressed by strengthening relationships between stakeholders and using techniques that foster open dialogue.