12 November 2015

The Good Employee's Dilemma

Summary: The average employee is rational, unselfish, and holds no personal opinion. If the success of the management scheme you are implementing depends on this assumption, you are bound to fail.

This never happened to me, of course. But I am told it does happen:

You are called into a meeting to hear the latest and hottest on crisis management, employee mentorship, the 8-step process for successful transformation, sustainable business models, Scientific Management, Kaizen, chaos theory in organizational development, goal setting theory, task motivation, becoming more effective, more efficient, more this, more that. You sit down, look around, gauge the leaden eyes of the other lost souls, and calculate how much money this meeting is going to cost.

Then the webinar starts and the enthusiastic voice of the presenter comes on. Typically, he or she is not an expert in the field, is "a consultant" instead, from "a think tank", has read a book or two on the topic, the kind of books you get in airport bookstores. The quality of the presentation is bad, the ideas trite -- think outside the box, get stakeholder buy-in, reach for the low hanging fruit, eliminate waste. Your mind is wandering to the pile of papers on your desk, the pile of papers you would be working on if you had the freedom to not sit here.

The presentation ends, the presenter thanks the audience, the audience congratulates the presenter. The senior manager who organized the meeting asks whether this was a useful exercise. He looks around the room. You keep that expression of innocence that you practiced in front of the mirror, the one that makes you look like a creepy robot, but suddenly you feel your chin move up and down.

Surely, trying to get better at things is a good thing. So what is the problem?

The problem is, in the words of the great Ben Cafferty(1): "You make it sound like there is a correlation between what should happen and what actually happens."

This is nothing new. In his excellent analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis Graham Allison(2) looked at institutional behaviour of government agencies through three explanatory models.

1: The rational actor: Institutions behave like a single rational actor.
2: Standard operating procedure: Individuals like to follow rituals.
3: Institutional politics: Institutional behaviour is a consequence of battles amongst power factions.

Now at your manager meeting, look around the room. What do you see?

Do you see people whose arguments are logical and consistent? Do you see individuals who act in the best interest of the organization? Do you see people who remain silent on topics they know nothing about? Do you see people who share the glory of success?

Or, do you see people battling each other, battling each other about budgets, about workers, about space, positions, titles, influence, access to authority. Do you see people pointing the fingers at each other behind their backs? Do you see individuals whose main concern is their own well-being, their reputation, their compensation? Do you see people whose egos stand in the way of collaboration?

Work environments vary, of course, not only between institutions, but also between departments within the same institution, and between subunits of departments. So what to do?

Middle management has no choice: In an environment where honesty and co-operation are rewarded, honesty and co-operation are the rational behavioural choices. In an environment where deceit and sabotage are rewarded, the rational choices are deceit and sabotage.

It is the responsibility of leadership to set the tone, and live the tone, and monitor the tone. But I admit that it is often difficult for them to find out what is really going on. Maybe we would all be better off with a little less nodding in agreement.


(1) Veep (2015): Season 4, Episode 9
(2) Graham Allison (1971), Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. Little, Brown, and Company; Boston, Massachusetts