Archive for the ‘General Management’ Category
Much of the work that goes on in organisations is done by groups of people who work together in order to achieve shared objectives. Given this, it is no surprise that researchers have expended a great deal of effort in building theories about how teams work. However, as Richard Hackman noted in this paper, more than 70 years of research (of ever-increasing sophistication) has not resulted in a true understanding of the factors that give rise to high-performing teams. The main reason for this failure is that:
“…groups are social systems. They redefine objective reality, they create new realities (both for their members and in their system contexts), and they evolve their own purposes and strategies for pursuing those purposes. Groups are not mere assemblies of multiple cause–effect relationships; instead, they exhibit emergent and dynamic properties that are not well captured by standard causal models.”
Hackman had a particular interest in leadership as a causal factor in team performance. One of the things he established is that leadership matters a whole lot less than is believed…or, more correctly, it matters for reasons that are not immediately obvious. As he noted:
“…60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting pre-work the leader does. 30 per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game.”
Although the numbers quoted above can be contested, the fact is that as far as team performance is concerned, conditions matter more than the quality of leadership. In this post, I draw on Hackman’s paper as well as my work (done in collaboration with Paul Culmsee) to argue that the real work of leaders is not to lead (in the conventional sense of the word) but to create the conditions in which teams can thrive.
The fundamental attribution error
Poor performance of teams is often attributed to a failure of leadership. A common example of this is when the coach of a sporting team is fired after a below par season. On the flip side, CxOs can earn big-buck dollar bonuses when their companies make or exceed their financial targets because they are seen as being directly responsible for the result.
Attributing the blame or credit for the failure or success of a team to a specific individual is called the leadership attribution error. Hackman suggested that this error is a manifestation of a human tendency to assign greater causal priority to factors that are more visible than those that are not: leaders tend to be in the limelight more than their teams and are therefore seen as being responsible for their teams’ successes and failures.
This leader-as-hero (or villain!) perspective has fueled major research efforts aimed at pinning down those elusive leadership skills and qualities that can magically transform teams into super-performing ensembles. This has been accompanied by a burgeoning industry of executive training programmes to impart these “scientifically proven” skills to masses of managers. These programmes, often clothed in the doublespeak of organisation culture, are but subtle methods of control that serve to establish directive approaches to leadership. Such methods rarely (if ever) result in high-performing organisations or teams.
An alternate approach to understanding team performance
The failure to find direct causal relationships between such factors and team performance led Hackman to propose a perspective that focuses on structural conditions instead. The basic idea in this alternate approach is to focus on the organisational and social conditions that enable the team to perform well.
This notion of conditions over causes is relevant in other related areas too. Here are a couple of examples:
- Innovation: Most attempts to foster innovation focus on exhorting people to be creative and/or instituting innovation training programmes (causal approach). Such approaches usually result in innovation of an incremental kind at best. Instead, establishing a low pressure environment that enables people to think for themselves and follow-up on their ideas without fear of failure generally meets with more success (structural approach).
- Collaboration: Organisations generally recognise the importance of collaboration. Yet, they attempt to foster in the worst possible way: via the establishment of cross-functional teams without clear mandates or goals and/or forced team-building exercises that have the opposite effect to the one intended (causal approach). The alternate approach is to simplify reporting lines, encourage open communication across departments and generally make it easy for people from different specialisations to work together in informal groups (structural approach). A particularly vexing intra-departmental separation that I have come across recently is the artificial division of responsibilities between information systems development and delivery. Such a separation results in reduced collaboration and increased finger pointing.
That said, let’s take a look at Hackman’s advice on how to create an environment conducive to teamwork. Hackman identified the following five conditions that tend to correlate well with improved team performance:
- The group must be a real team– i.e. it must have clear boundaries (clarity as to who is a member and who isn’t), interdependence (the performance of every individual in the team must in some way depend on others in the team) and stability (membership of the team should be stable over time).
- Compelling direction– the team must have a goal that is clear and worth pursuing. Moreover, and this is important, the team must be allowed to determine how the goal is to be achieved – the end should be prescribed, not the means.
- The structure must enable teamwork– The team should be structured in a way that allows members to work together. This consists of a couple of factors: 1) The team must be of the right size – as small and diverse as possible (large, homogenous teams are found to be ineffective), and 2) There must be clear norms of conduct. Note that Hackman lists these two as separate points in his paper.
- Supportive organizational context– the team must have the organisational resources that enable it to carry out its work. For example, access to the information needed for the team to carry out its work and access to technical and subject matter experts. In addition, there should be a transparent reward system that provides recognition for good work.
- Coaching– the team must have access to a mentor or coach who understands and has the confidence of the team. Apart from helping team members tide over difficult situations, a good coach should be able to help them navigate organizational politics and identify emerging threats and opportunities that may not be obvious to them.
To reiterate, these are structural rather than causal factors in that they do not enhance team performance directly. Instead, when present, they tend to encourage behaviours that enhance team performance and suppress those that don’t.
Another interesting point is that some of these factors are more important than others. For example, Ruth Wageman found that team design (the constitution and structure of the team) is about four times more important than coaching in affecting the team’s ability to manage itself and forty times as powerful in affecting team performance (see this paper for details). Although the numbers should not be taken at face value, Wageman’s claim reiterates the main theme of this article: that structural factors matter more than causal ones.
The notion of a holding environment
One of the things I noticed when I first read Hackman’s approach is that it has some similarities to the one that Paul and I advocated in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.
The Heretic’s Guide is largely about collaborative approaches to managing (as opposed to solving!) complex problems in organisations. Our claim is that the most intractable problems in organisations are consequences of social rather than technical issues. For example, the problem of determining the “right” strategy for an organisation cannot be settled on objective grounds because the individuals involved will have diverse opinions on what the organisation’s focus should be. The process of arriving at a consensual strategy is, therefore, more a matter of dealing with this diversity than reaching an objectively right outcome. In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.
The key point is that there is no set process for achieving a shared understanding of a problem. Rather, one needs to have the right environment (structure!) in which contentious issues can be discussed openly without fear. In our book we used the term holding environment to describe a safe space in which such open dialogue can take place.
The theory of communicative rationality formulated by the German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, outlines the norms that operate within a holding environment. It would be too long a detour to discuss Habermas’ work in any detail – see this paper or chapter 7 of our book to find out more. What is important to note is that an ideal holding environment has the following norms:
- Power neutrality
Problem is, some of these are easier to achieve than others. Inclusion, autonomy and power neutrality can be encouraged by putting in place appropriate organisational structures and rules. Empathy and transparency, however, are typically up to the individual. Nevertheless, conditions that enable the former will also encourage (though not guarantee) the latter.
In our book we discuss how such a holding environment can be approximated in multi-organisational settings such as large projects. It would take me too far afield to get into specifics of the approach here. The point I wish to make, however, is that the notion of a holding environment is in line with Hackman’s thoughts on the importance of environmental or structural factors.
Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough. As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it.
Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up. The few who manage to overcome their fears know that it requires the ability to trust others, as well as the courage and integrity to absorb the blame when things go wrong (as they inevitably will from time to time). These all too rare qualities are essential for the approach described here to truly take root and flourish. In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the biggest challenges associated with building high-performance teams are ethical rather than technical ones.
The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous. To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.
The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).
There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are. Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps
“Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs”
“Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development”
“The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor”
“The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive”
These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.
The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work. The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.
A classification of management consultants
Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:
These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations. As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.
One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.
Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.
Brokers of meaning
Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning. They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.
Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization. That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions. Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language – for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).
Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.
Traders in trouble
The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs. Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language. Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble. Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.
The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational. On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.
Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:
The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.
A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”
Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)
The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process. Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).
Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices. Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.
Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.
Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation. Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:
Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.
Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to: their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.
In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes. That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients, but also for front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.
Alvesson, M. & Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 228–246.
When making decisions, some people follow a structured process that involves gathering data, identifying options and analysing them to arrive at a decision. Others prefer an approach in which they seek to understand the diversity of perspectives on the issue and then attempt to synthesise a decision based on their understanding. To be sure these are stereotypes and, like all stereotypes, are somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, most decision-makers in organisations fall into one of these categories, at least as far as their preferred decision-making mode is concerned. Of course, people may change from one mode to another, depending on the situation. For example, a person who is predominantly an objective decision maker in his or her professional life might not be so objective when it comes to making personal decisions.
The differences between the two approaches roughly mirrors the divide between those who believe in an objective reality and those who believe that reality, or at least our perception of it, is a subjective matter. This is akin to the difference between CP Snow’s Two Cultures: the scientists and the artists. At the risk of making a gross generalisation, those who have a scientific or technical background tend to fall into the first category whereas those who lean towards the arts or humanities tend to fall into the other. Like all generalisations this one is, again, not strictly correct, but I think it is fair to say that a person’s training does have an influence on what they deem as the right way to make decisions.
The physicist and polymath Heinz von Foerster summed this up nicely when he noted that the difference between the two types of decision-makers is akin to the differences between discoverers and inventors. The objective decision-maker (the discoverer) attempts to discover the objectively correct decision based on what he or she believes to be true. On the other hand, the subjective decision-maker (the inventor) constructs or creates the decision based on facts and opinion (or even emotion) rather than facts alone.
The conventional view of decision making in organisations – that decisions should be made on the basis of facts – does not recognize this difference. To be sure, matters that can be decided based on facts should be made on the basis of facts. For example, a decision regarding the purchase of equipment can (often) be made based on predetermined criteria.The problem, however, is that most important decisions in organisations do not fall into this category – they have wicked elements that cannot be resolved by facts because the “facts” themselves are ambiguous. Unfortunately, decision-makers often do not understand the difference between the two types of decision problems. A common symptom of this lack of understanding is that when confronted with a wicked decision problem, many decision-makers feel compelled to clothe their reasoning and choices in a garb of (false) objectivity.
The above is not news to observers and scholars of organisational life – see this post, for example. However, a not-so-well-appreciated dimension to the objective/subjective debate on decision-making is that wicked decision problems invariably have an ethical dimension. I elaborate on this briefly below.
In a paper on ethics and cybernetics, von Foerster noted that the objective approach to decision making is but a means of avoiding responsibility. In his words:
…objectivity requires that the properties of an observer be left out of any descriptions of his (sic) observations. With the essence of observing (namely the processes of cognition) having been removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine with the notion of responsibility successfully juggled away.
Objectivity…and other devices [such as rules and processes] are all derivations of a choice between a pair of in-principle undecidable questions [See Note 1] which are:
“Am I apart from the universe?”
“Am I a part of the universe?”
Although von Foerster may be accused overblown rhetoric in the quote, he raises a critical question that we all ought to ask ourselves when confronted with an undecidable issue:
When making this decision, am I going to avoid involvement (and responsibility) by hiding behind rules or processes, or am I going to take full responsibility for it regardless of the outcome?
An honest answer will reveal that such decisions are invariably made on ethical grounds rather than objective ones. Indeed, the decisions we make in our professional lives tell us more about ourselves than we might be willing to admit.
An undecidable question is one that cannot be decided on logical grounds alone – a wicked problem by another name. See my post on wickedness, undecidability and the metaphysics of organizational decision making for more on this point.
A couple of years ago Paul Culmsee and I wrote a post on the cyclical decay and recurrence of certain management concepts. The article describes how ideas and practices bubble up into mainstream management awareness and then fade away after the fad passes…only to recur in a morphed form some years later.
It recently occurred to me that this cycle of decay and recurrence is not restricted to good ideas or practices: ideas that, quite frankly, ought to remain consigned to the dustbin of management can also recur. Moreover, they may even do better the second time around because the conditions are right for them to flourish. In this post I discuss how the notion of scientific management, often referred to as Taylorism, after its founder Fredrick Winslow Taylor, has ebbed and flowed in the century or so since it was first proposed.
Taylorism and its alleged demise
The essence of Taylorism is summarised nicely in this quote from Taylor’s monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management:
This paper has been written…to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management are applicable to all human activities, from our simplest individual activities to the work of great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding…
According to standard storyline of management, Taylorism had its heyday in the first few decades of the 20th century and faded away after the notion of the worker as an individual emerged in 1920s. In his wonderful paper, Understanding Taylorism, Craig Littler summarises this mainstream view as follows:
From 1900-20 Taylorism provided the dominant ideas about the worker and worker motivation. But money was not enough and ‘a great new ideas was taking root. The view of the worker as an individual personality emerged strongly around 1920 to command the stage.’ From 1920-1940 the worker was seen as a psychological complex, but then ‘Psychological Man’ (sic) faltered and sociology entered industry: Man (sic) had neighbours!
In short, the official story is that Taylorism was declared dead, if not quite interred, some ninety years ago.
But as we shall see, its ghost still haunts the hallways of the modern, knowledge-based corporation…
The ghost of Taylorism
The standard storyline views Taylorism as a management ideology – a set of ideas that guide management practice. However, as Littler tells us, it is more instructive to see it primarily as a means of organizing work, in other words as a management practice. As Littler tells us,
If we look at Taylorism as a form of work organization then we can proceed to analyse it in terms of three general categories: the division of labour, the structure of control over task performance, and the implicit employment relationship.
To elaborate: Taylorism emphasised a scientific approach to enhancing worker productivity through things such as time and motion studies. In practice this lead to a rigid fragmentation and division of labour coupled with time/effort measurements that enabled top-down planning. Although these efforts were focused on increasing production by improving worker efficiency, they also had the effect of centralising control over task performance and skewing the terms of employment in management’s favour.
…and its new avatar
Even from this brief summary one can see how Taylorism sneaks into the modern workplace. As Martha Crowley and her co-workers state in the abstract to this paper:
The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen an erosion of job security in both manual and professional occupation…employee involvement schemes in manual production and the growth of temporary employment, outsourcing and project-based teams in the professions have influenced working conditions in both settings…these practices represent not a departure from scientific management, as is often presumed, but rather the adoption of Taylorist principles that were not fully manifested in the era of mass production.
Indeed, there is a term, Neo-Taylorism, that describes this newly resurrected avatar of this old ideology.
The resurrection of Taylorism is in no small part due to advances in technology. This is indeed an irony because the very technology that gives us “cognitive surplus” (if one believes what some folks tell us) and enables us to inform the world about “what we are doing right now” also makes it possible for us to be monitored at the workplace in real time. A stark manifestation of this the call centre – which Phil Tailor and Peter Bain refer to as an electronic panopticon and, in a later paper an assembly line in the head.
Of course, one does not need to work in a call centre to see Neo-Taylorism at work; the central ideas of scientific management permeate many modern workplaces. The standard HR cycle of goal-setting, review and performance evaluation, familiar to most folks who work in organisation-land, is but a means of evaluating and/or ranking employees with a view to determining an appropriate reward or punishment. This often does more harm than good as is highlighted in David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process: there is nothing more effective than the threat of termination to ensure a compliant workforce…but engendering team spirit and high performance is another matter altogether.
To conclude: the resurrection of Taylorism is no surprise. For although it may have become an unfashionable ideology in the latter part of the first half of the 20th century, its practices and, in particular, the forms of work organisation embodied in it live on. This is true not just in industry but also in the academic world. Indeed, some of the research done in industrial engineering departments the world over serves to burnish and propagate Taylor’s legacy. Taylorism as an ideology may be dead, but as a management practice it lives on and flourishes.
Thanks to Greg Lloyd for his pointer to David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process.
Management, as it is practiced, is largely about “getting things done.” Consequently management education and research tends to focus on improving the means by which specified ends are achieved. The ends themselves are not questioned as rigorously as they ought to be. The truth of this is reflected in the high profile corporate scandals that have come to light over the last decade or so, not to mention the global financial crisis.
Today, more than ever, there is a need for a new kind of management practice, one in which managers critically reflect on the goals they pursue and the means by which they aim to achieve them. In their book entitled, Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction, management academics Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott describe what such an approach to management entails. This post is a summary of the central ideas described in the book.
Critical theory and its relevance to management
The body of work that Alvesson and Willmott draw from is Critical Theory, a discipline that is based on the belief that knowledge ought to be based on dialectical reasoning – i.e. reasoning through dialogue – rather than scientific rationality alone. The main reason for this being that science (as it is commonly practiced) is value free and is therefore incapable of addressing problems that have a social or ethical dimension. This idea is not new, even scientists such as Einstein have commented on the limits of scientific reasoning.
Although Critical Theory has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, its modern avatar is largely due to a group of German social philosophers who were associated with the Frankfurt-based Institute of Social Research which was established in the 1920s. Among other things, these philosophers argued that knowledge in the social sciences (such as management) can never be truly value-free or objective. Our knowledge of social matters is invariably coloured by our background, culture, education and sensibilities. This ought to be obvious, but it isn’t: economists continue to proclaim objective truths about the right way to deal with economic issues, and management gurus remain ready to show us the one true path to management excellence.
The present day standard bearer of the Frankfurt School is the German social philosopher, Juergen Habermas who is best known for his theory of communicative rationality – the idea that open dialogue, free from any constraints is the most rational way to decide on matters of importance. For a super-quick introduction to the basic ideas of communicative rationality and its relevance in organisational settings, see my post entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments. For a more detailed (and dare I say, entertaining) introduction to communicative rationality with examples drawn from The Borg and much more, have a look at Chapter 7 of my book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, co-written with Paul Culmsee.
The demise of command and control?
Many professional managers see their jobs in purely technical terms, involving things such as administration, planning, monitoring etc. They tend to overlook the fact that these technical functions are carried out within a particular social and cultural context. More to the point, and this is crucial, managers work under constraints of power and domination: they are not free to do what they think is right but have to do whatever their bosses order them to, and, so in turn behave with their subordinates in exactly the same way.
As Alvesson and Willmott put it:
Managers are intermediaries between those who hire them and those whom they manage. Managers are employed to coordinate, motivate, appease and control the productive efforts of others. These ‘others’ do not necessarily share managerial agendas…
Despite the talk of autonomy and empowerment, modern day management is still very much about control. However, modern day employees are unlikely to accept a command and control approach to being managed, so organisations have taken recourse to subtler means of achieving the same result. For example, organisational culture initiatives aimed at getting employees to “internalise”the values of the organisation are attempts to “control sans command.”
A critical look at the status quo
A good place to start with a critical view of management is in the area of decision-making. Certain decisions, particularly those made at executive levels, can have a long term impact on an organisation and its employees. Business schools and decision theory texts tells us that decision-making is a rational process. Unfortunately, reality belies that claim: decisions in organisations are more often made on the basis of politics and ideology rather than objective criteria. This being the case, it is important that decisions be subject to critical scrutiny. Indeed it is possible that many of the crises of the last decade could have been avoided if the decisions that lead to them had been subjected a to critical review.
Many of the initiatives that are launched in organisation-land have their origins in executive-level decisions that are made on flimsy grounds such as “best practice” recommendations from Big 4 consulting companies. Mid-level managers who are required to see these through to completion are then faced with the problem of justifying these initiatives to the rank and file. Change management in modern organisation-land is largely about justifying the unjustifiable or defending the indefensible.
The critique, however, goes beyond just the practice of management. For example, Alvesson and Willmott also draw attention to things such as the objectives of the organisation. They point out that short-sighted objectives such as “maximising shareholder value” is what lead to the downfall of companies such as Enron. Moreover, they also remind us of an issue that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world: that natural resources are not unlimited and should be exploited in a judicious, sustainable manner.
As interesting and important as these “big picture” issues are, in the remainder of this post I’ll focus attention on management practices that impact mid and lower level employees.
A critical look at management specialisations
Alvesson and Willmott analyse organisational functions such as Human Resource Management (HRM), Marketing and Information Systems (IS) from a critical perspective. It would take far too many pages to do justice to their discussion so I’ll just present a brief summary of two areas: HR and IS.
The rhetoric of HRM in organisations stands in stark contradiction to its actions. Despite platitudinous sloganeering about empowerment etc., the actions of most HR departments are aimed at getting people to act and behave in organisationally acceptable ways. Seen in a critical light, seemingly benign HR initiatives such as organizational culture events or self-management initiatives are exposed as being but subtle means of managerial control over employees. (see this paper for an example of the former and this one for an example of the latter).
Since the practice of IS focuses largely on technology, much of the IS research and practice tends to focus on technology trends and “best practices.” As might be expected, the focus is on “fad of the month” and thus turns stale rather quickly. As examples: the 1990s saw an explosion of papers and projects in business process re-engineering; the flavour of the decade in the 2000s was service-oriented architecture; more recently, we’ve seen a great deal of hot air about the cloud. Underlying a lot of technology related decision-making is the tacit assumption that choices pertaining to technology are value-free and can be decided on the basis of technical and financial criteria alone. The profession as a whole tends to take an overly scientific/rational approach to design and implementation, often ignoring issues such as power and politics. It can be argued that many failures of large-scale IS projects are due to the hyper-rational approach taken by many practitioners.
In a similar vein, most management specialisations can benefit from the insights that come from taking a critical perspective. Alvesson and Willmott discuss marketing, accounting and other functions. However, since my main interest is in solutions rather than listing the (rather well-known) problems, I’ll leave it here, directing the interested reader to the book for more.
Towards an enlightened practice of management
In the modern workplace it is common for employees to feel disconnected from their work, at least from time to time if not always. In a prior post, I discussed how this sense of alienation is a consequence of our work and personal lives being played out in two distinct spheres – the system and the lifeworld. In brief, the system refers to the professional and administrative sphere in which we work and/or interact with institutional authority and the lifeworld is is the everyday world that we share with others. Actions in the lifeworld are based on a shared understanding of the issue at hand whereas those in the system are not.
From the critical analysis of management specialisations presented in the book, it is evident that the profession, being mired in a paradigm consisting of prescriptive, top-down practices, serves to perpetuate the system by encroaching on the lifeworld values of employees. There are those who will say that this is exactly how it should be. However, as Alvesson and Wilmott have stated in their book, this kind of thinking is perverse because it is ultimately self-defeating:
The devaluation of lifeworld properties is perverse because …At the very least, the system depends upon human beings who are capable of communicating effectively and who are not manipulated and demoralized to the point of being incapable of cooperation and productivity.
Alvesson and Willmott use the term emancipation, to describe any process whereby employees are freed from shackles of system-oriented thinking even if only partially (Note: here I’m using the term system in the sense defined above – not to be confused with systems thinking, which is another beast altogether). Acknowledging that it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation or even a department, they coin the term micro-emancipation to describe any process whereby sub-groups of organisations are empowered to think through issues and devise appropriate actions by themselves, free (to the extent possible) from management constraints or directives.
Although this might sound much too idealistic to some readers, be assured that it is eminently possible to implement micro-emancipatory practices in real world organisations. See this paper for one possible framework that can be used within a multi-organisation project along with a detailed case study that shows how the framework can be applied in a complex project environment.
Alvesson and Willmott warn that emancipatory practices are not without costs, both for employers and employees. For example, employees who have gained autonomy may end up being less productive which will in turn affect their job security. In my opinion, view, this issue can be addressed through an incrementalist approach wherein both employers and employees work together to come up with micro-emancipatory projects at the grassroots level, as in the case study described in the paper mentioned in the previous paragraph.
…and so to conclude
Despite the rhetoric of autonomy and empowerment, much of present-day management is stuck in a Taylorist/Fordist paradigm. In modern day organisations command and control may not be obvious, but they often sneak in through the backdoor in not-so-obvious ways. For example, employees almost always know that certain things are simply “out of bounds” for discussion and of the consequences of breaching those unstated boundaries can be severe.
In its purest avatar, a critical approach to management seeks to remove those boundaries altogether. This is unrealistic because nothing will ever get done in an organisation in which everything is open for discussion; as is the case in all social systems, compromise is necessary. The concept of micro-emancipation offers just this. To be sure, one has to go beyond the rhetoric of empowerment to actually creating an environment that enables people to speak their minds and debate issues openly. Though it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation, it is definitely possible to achieve it (albeit approximately) in small workgroups.
To conclude: the book is worth a read, not just by management researchers but also by practicing managers. Unfortunately the overly-academic style may be a turn off for practitioners, the very people who need to read it the most.
The platitude “our people are our most important asset” reflects a belief that the survival and evolution of organisations depends on the intellectual and cognitive capacities of the individuals who comprise them. However, in view of the many well documented examples of actions that demonstrate a lack of foresight and/or general callousness about the fate of organisations or those who work in them, one has to wonder if such a belief is justified, or even if it is really believed by those who spout such platitudes.
Indeed, cases such as Enron or Worldcom (to mention just two) seem to suggest that stupidity may be fairly prevalent in present day organisations. This point is the subject of a brilliant paper by Andre Spicer and Mats Alvesson entitled, A stupidity based theory of organisations. This post is an extensive summary and review of the paper.
The notion that the success of an organization depends on the intellectual and rational capabilities of its people seems almost obvious. Moreover, there is a good deal of empirical research that seems to support this. In the opening section of their paper, Alvesson and Spicer cite many studies which appear to establish that developing the knowledge (of employees) or hiring smart people is the key to success in an ever-changing, competitive environment.
These claims are mirrored in theoretical work on organizations. For example Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge conversion acknowledges the importance of tacit knowledge held by employees. Although there is still much debate about tacit/explicit knowledge divide, models such as these serve to perpetuate the belief that knowledge (in one form or another) is central to organisational success.
There is also a broad consensus that decision making in organizations, though subject to bounded rationality and related cognitive biases, is by and large a rational process. Even if a decision is not wholly rational, there is usually an attempt to depict it as being so. Such behaviour attests to the importance attached to rational thinking in organization-land.
At the other end of the spectrum there are decisions that can only be described as being, well… stupid. As Rick Chapman discusses in his entertaining book, In Search of Stupidity, organizations occasionally make decisions that are plain dumb However, such behaviour seldom remains hidden because of its rather obvious negative consequences for the organisation. Such stories thus end up being immortalized in business school curricula as canonical examples of what not to do.
Notwithstanding the above remarks on obvious stupidity, there is another category of foolishness that is perhaps more pervasive but remains unnoticed and unremarked. Alvesson and Spicer use the term functional stupidity to refer to such “organizationally supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justitication.”
In their words, functional stupidity amounts to the “…refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow and ‘safe’ terrain.” It is reflected in a blinkered approach to organisational problems, wherein people display an unwillingness to consider or think about solutions that lie outside an arbitrary boundary. A common example of this is when certain topics are explicitly or tacitly deemed as being “out of bounds” for discussion. Many “business as usual” scenarios are riddled with functional stupidity, which is precisely why it’s often so hard to detect.
As per the definition offered above, there are three cognitive elements to functional stupidity:
- Lack of reflexivity: this refers to the inability or unwillingness to question claims and commonly accepted wisdom.
- Lack of substantive reasoning: This refers to reasoning that is based on a small set of concerns that do not span the whole issue. A common example of this sort of myopia is when organisations focus their efforts on achieving certain objectives with little or no questioning of the objectives themselves.
- Lack of justification: This happens when employees do not question managers or, on the other hand, do not provide explanations regarding their own actions. Often this is a consequence of power relationships in organisations. This may, for example, dissuade employees from “sticking their necks out” by asking questions that managers might deem out of bounds.
It should be noted that functional stupidity has little to do with limitations of human cognitive capacities. Nor does it have anything to do with ignorance, carelessness or lack of thought. The former can be rectified through education and/or the hiring of consultants with the requisite knowledge, and the latter via the use of standardised procedures and checklists.
It is also important to note that functional stupidity is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, by placing certain topics out of bounds, organisations can avoid discussions about potentially controversial topics and can thus keep conflict and uncertainty at bay. This maintains harmony, no doubt, but it also strengthens the existing organisational order which in turn serves to reinforce functional stupidity.
Of course, functional stupidity also has negative consequences, the chief one being that it prevents organisations from finding solutions to issues that involve topics that have been arbitrarily deemed as being out of bounds.
Examples of functional stupidity
There are many examples of functional stupidity in recent history, a couple being the irrational exuberance in the wake of the internet boom of the 1990s, and the lack of critical examination of the complex mathematical models that lead to the financial crisis of last decade.
However, one does not have to look much beyond one’s own work environment to find examples of functional stupidity. Many of these come under the category of “business as usual” or “that’s just the way things are done around here” – phrases that are used to label practices that are ritually applied without much thought or reflection. Such practices often remain unremarked because it is not so easy to link them to negative outcomes. Indeed, the authors point out that “most managerial practices are adopted on the basis of faulty reasoning, accepted wisdom and complete lack of evidence.”
The authors cite the example of companies adopting HR practices that are actually detrimental to employee and organisational wellbeing. Another common example is when organisations place a high value on gathering information which is then not used in a meaningful way. I have discussed this “information perversity” at length in my post on entitled, The unspoken life of information in organisations, so I won’t rehash it here. Alvesson and Spicer point out that information perversity is a consequence of the high cultural value placed on information: it is seen as a prerequisite to “proper” decision making. However, in reality it is often used to justify questionable decisions or simply “hide behind the facts.”
These examples suggest that functional stupidity may be the norm rather than the exception. This is a scary thought…but I suspect it may not be surprising to many readers.
The dynamics of stupidity
Alvesson and Spicer claim that functional stupidity is a common feature in organisations. To understand why it is so pervasive, one has to look into the dynamics of stupidity – how it is established and the factors that influence it. They suggest that the root cause lies in the fact that organisations attempt to short-circuit critical thinking through what they call economies of persuasion, which are activities such as corporate culture initiatives, leadership training or team / identity building, relabelling positions with pretentious titles – and many other such activities that are aimed at influencing employees through the use of symbols and images rather than substance. Such symbolic manipulation, as the authors calls it, is aimed at increasing employees’ sense of commitment to the organisation.
As they put it:
Organizational contexts dominated by widespread attempts at symbolic manipulation typically involve managers seeking to shape and mould the ‘mind-sets’ of employees . A core aspect of this involves seeking to create some degree of good faith and conformity and to limit critical thinking
Although such efforts are not always successful, many employees do buy in to them and thereby identify with the organisation. This makes employees uncritical of the organisation’s goals and the means by which these will be achieved. In other words, it sets the scene for functional stupidity to take root and flourish.
Stupidity management and stupidity self-management
The authors use the term stupidity management to describe managerial actions that prevent or discourage organisational actors (employees and other stakeholders) from thinking for themselves. Some of the ways in which this is done include the reinforcement of positive images of the organisation, getting employees to identify with the organisation’s vision and myriad other organisational culture initiatives aimed at burnishing the image of the corporation. These initiatives are often backed by organisational structures (such as hierarchies and reward systems) that discourage employees from raising and exploring potentially disruptive issues.
The monitoring and sanctioning of activities that might disrupt the positive image of the organisation can be overt (in the form of warnings, say). More often, though, it is subtle. For example, in many meetings, participants participants know that certain issues cannot be raised. At other times, discussion and debate may be short circuited by exhortations to “stop thinking and start doing.” Such occurrences serve to create an environment in which stupidity flourishes.
The net effect of managerial actions that encourage stupidity is that employees start to cast aside their own doubts and questions and behave in corporately acceptable ways – in other words, they start to perform their jobs in an unreflective and unquestioning way. Some people may actually internalise the values espoused by management; others may psychologically distance themselves from the values but still act in ways that they are required to. The net effect of such stupidity self-management (as the authors call it) is that employees stop questioning what they are asked to do and just do it. After a while, doubts fade and this becomes the accepted way of working. The end result is the familiar situation that many of us know as “business as usual” or “that’s just the way things are done around here.”
The paradoxes and consequences of stupidity
Functional stupidity can cause both feelings of certainty and dissonance in members of an organisation. Suppressing critical thinking can result in an easy acceptance of the way things are. The feelings of certainty that come from suppressing difficult questions can be comforting. Moreover, those who toe the organisational line are more likely to be offered material rewards and promotions than those who don’t. This can act to reinforce functional stupidity because others who see stupidity rewarded may also be tempted to behave in a similar fashion.
That said, certain functionally stupid actions, such as ignoring obvious ethical lapses, can result in serious negative outcomes for an organisation. This has been amply illustrated in the recent past. Such events can prompt formal inquiries at the level of the organisation, no doubt accompanied by informal soul-searching at the individual level. However, as has also been amply illustrated, there is no guarantee that inquiries or self-reflection lead to any major changes in behaviour. Once the crisis passes, people seem all too happy to revert to business as usual.
In the end , though, when stark differences between the rhetoric and reality of the organisation emerge – as they eventually will– employees will see the contradictions between the real organisation and the one they have been asked to believe in. This can result in alienation from and cynicism about the organisation and its objectives. So, although stupidity management may have beneficial outcomes in the short run, there is a price to be paid in the longer term.
Nothing comes for free, not even stupidity…
The authors main message is that despite the general belief that organisations enlist the cognitive and intellectual capacities of their members in positive ways, the truth is that organisational behaviour often exhibits a wilful ignorance of facts and/or a lack of logic. The authors term this behaviour functional stupidity.
Functional stupidiy has the advantage of maintaining harmony at least in the short term, but its longer term consequences can be negative. Members of an organisation “learn” such behaviour by becoming aware that certain topics are out of bounds and that they broach these at their own risk. Conformance is rewarded by advancement or material gain whereas dissent is met with overt or less obvious disciplinary action. Functional stupidity thus acts as a barrier that can stop members of an organisation from developing potentially interesting perspectives on the problems the organisations face.
The paper makes an interesting and very valid point about the pervasiveness of wilfully irrational behaviour in organisations. That said, I can’t help but think that the authors have written it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.