I Say. You Do (and that’s just the way it is)

The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use – of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.”   Robert F Kennedy

We have to change the direction of the project” says Phil, a middle manager in a Fortune 500 company during his weekly team meeting.   You can see it on the faces of his team – they’re shell shocked. This comes as a complete surprise. For weeks, the team has been working and collaborating with customers on building out a revolutionary new product for the company.   Despite some initial obstacles, the team was confident that the project was moving in the right direction. It wasn’t until senior management asked Phil to report progress when he decided to get involved and steer the project in a completely different direction.

Gina, the project leader who has been pouring her heart and soul into the project for the last four months, was confident that the project was moving in the right direction. Just that week, the team had wrapped up several discussions with prospective customers who were eager to buy the product even before it was released.   That day, Gina stood up and challenged Phil: “I really don’t understand why Phil. We are almost at the home stretch. Customers are lining up awaiting to buy this product”. Before she could even finish, Phil cut her off. “That’s just the way it is Gina. Now, here’s what I think needs to be done and you better do as I say”.

Odds are that you’ve had or know a manager like Phil.   Always the one who knows best. Always acting like the smartest person in the room.   Always willing to throw someone under the bus to further his own reputation. In reality, many managers like Phil still thrive in today’s organizations, taking full advantage of command-and-control structures to exercise their power and further their agenda.

The Command and Control organizational structure stems from the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and the applications of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr at Ford and GM at the turn of the century.   It is a style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and output statistics to regulate an organization. The approach is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organizations in which privilege and power are vested in senior management.

As early as 1954, management guru Peter Drucker urged executives to push decision-making and accountability all the way down through the organization by introducing the concept of Management by Objectives (MBOs).   Over 100 years have passed since the era of Ford and Sloan and 60 years since Drucker issued his wake-up call to management.   Most of us are no longer performing jobs of attaching a part to a vehicle on an assembly line (and if you are, those practices have certainly evolved). Yet, despite clearly being in a post-industrialized society, which is marked by an increased valuation of knowledge, most organizations remain paragons of command-and-control.

Ok, so arguably maybe as a society, we haven’t really figured out a better way, despite very well researched and proven cases for change. But the evolution of the organizational structure is only partly to blame. It is managers, like Phil, who take full advantage of the command-and-control system to exercise power for their own advantage.

Whether you look at dismal results from employee engagement scores or ruffle through some of the commentary on company review sites such as Glassdoor, it is clear that companies are littered with managers like Phil.  At work they scheme, conspire and sometimes bully their employees. At home or in social contexts, they can be some of the nicest people you’ve ever met.  What they have in common is that these managers worship at the altar of conformance. That’s their calling and purpose and they focus on achieving their objectives regardless of the collateral damage it may cause.

Long ago, when information was mostly paper-based and difficult to move, subordinates would channel information up to a manager who would then summarize the data and push it further up the chain of command. In this model of “consolidate and escalate,” those at the top really did know more and that gave them power. But today, thanks to technology and new information flows, information is freely shared and new knowledge could be acquired in a much easier fashion. The concept of the manager being the smartest person is long dead, as intellectual capital becomes a depreciating asset at times of rapid change.   That fear of irrelevance, however, has only made matters worse if you subscribe to Albert Einstein’s notion that lack of knowledge only drives a bigger ego.

In a knowlegoedge economy, these managers particularly detrimental because employees are bound to know more than their supervisors do about the specialized fields in which they operate. They may also know more about the customer— their needs and desires. Yet we struggle with creating organizations that are as fully capable as the people who work within them as bureaucracy kills ideas and blocks communication from flowing up in the organization where decisions can be made.

We are surrounded by too many organizational failures to satisfice with this level of thinking and put up with those who come to work to “play office”.  Switching to a people-centered approach means relinquishing control to others and trusting that employees will not abuse that responsibility. This is not easy to do for most managers and it takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence and comfort to be able to pull this off, however, how else can we build and sustain organizations in today’s hyper-paced climate?

I’m not calling for a revolution, but the change must start with each one of us. If you are a manager, I challenge you to take a few seconds to look at yourself in the mirror when you get home tonight and ask yourself, are you being the best that you can be?   What have you done for others lately?   What do your employees really think of you?   If you’re not happy with your responses, take a step and make a small difference. Not only for yourself, but those who you spend countless hours with each and every week.   It goes far beyond work and business – our future depends on it.

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