Do other people know what you want?

Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography

Just yesterday I asked “Will middle managers join the dinosaurs?” after reading Lynda Gratton’s Future of Work blog post. Today in John T. Landry gives a different approach:

…[W]e’re better off accepting command-and-control as the default for organizational life. A few companies or industries may be able to achieve true empowerment and collaboration for a while, mostly because their fast-changing markets leave them little choice. For every other organization, let’s lower our sights and focus on softening the edges of hierarchy.

Interesting. But I am more interested in a different part of the post where Landry describes an interview given by Bob Brennan CEO of Iron Mountain. Here is how Landry describes what Brennan says:

Brennan starts by saying that business is going through a transformation and top-down leadership no longer works well for companies. But he believes that too many of his managers still operate in a “command-and-control reflex.” They’re a lot like he was earlier in his career: good at holding subordinates accountable but bad at setting clear expectations. When subordinates aren’t sure what the boss really wants to accomplish, they don’t feel safe, and true delegation is impossible. Instead of acting autonomously, they hang around the boss and try to do whatever pleases him at the moment.

Fascinating. It reminded me of something I wrote long ago in a post called “What will your employees do when you leave for a vacation?”:

Imagine. You leave for a month of an overdue vacation. The catch is, it is on a deserted island, which has no way of communicating with the outside world. What will happen to your employees when you are gone? Will everything continue as usual? Will they be able to ask themselves, at every decision intersection they face – what does my manager would like to me to do, and answer that question? Correctly?

In one of the forums on Linkedin there is a current discussion about the difference between leaders and managers. While I have my own answer for this question, I found it interesting that a large part of the discussion was devoted to the question of vision and whether it is a necessary ingredient in the success of a company.  Well, maybe vision is a big word that frightens people and makes them think about historical figures or CEO of multi-million dollar companies. But actually it is much simpler. A manager needs to ask – will my employees be able to make decisions when I am not here. The decisions might be right or wrong in retrospect, but that is less important. What is important is whether these decisions align with your guidelines and attitude?

So, do the people around you know what you want even when you are not there?



There is more to being a manager than just…

Photo by respres

Jennifer Fallon writes in the Epic Fantasy novel Warlord:

Damian patted the lad on the shoulder and continued along his way, thinking he should have thought to ask the boy his name. Almodavar would have done that. Then again, he probably didn’t need to ask. Damian suspected Almodavar could address ever Raider in Krakander by name, and there were thousands of them. He probably knew the names of all their wives and children, too.

There’s more to being a good general than knowing how to win a battle, Almodavar had often told him when he was a lad. It’s about knowing your men. Knowing what drives them. And sometimes it’s knowing how to avoid a fight.

Isn’t this true for managers just as it is for generals? Look what happens when I take the second sentence and change it a bit:

There’s more to being a good manager than knowing how to make money, Almodavar had often told him when he was a lad. It’s about knowing your men. Knowing what drives them. And sometimes it’s knowing how to avoid the sale.

Are you able to do that? If not, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It just means you should probably refrain from trying to be a manager. Find someone who knows these things instinctively and let them do it. You should concentrate on your own comparative advantage, whatever that may be.


What are you doing about alpha-male type behavior?

Photo by dboy

A few days ago the Research Digest Blog published a post called “How male oil rig staff learned to lose their machismo” describing how negative behaviors like demonstrating physical prowess, taking risks, concealing technical incompetence and coming across as fearless and unflappable were deterred in an oil rig by adopting collectivist goals (especially putting safety first), defining competence according to task requirements rather than masculine ideals and having a learning orientation towards work.

It surprises me every time to see that individuals in companies and societies adopt behaviors that are detrimental to the general good of the organization because of fear of consequences and humiliation. Bob Sutton in his latest post discusses this in the context of learning from mistakes, quoting from an article by Larry Prusak about the importance of being wrong and learning from it. Sutton emphasizes how he, as someone that writes about this subject on a regular basis, was amazed to reconsider his reaction to Alan Greenspan’s admission that he was wrong after the financial crisis after rethinking about it as part of the process of learning from failure. Instead of celebrating the fact that someone high up in our government admitted their mistake and tried to learn from them, most of the press devoted to this admission concentrated on the outcome of the mistakes that already happned. A missed opportunity to learn and develop for the future.

The oil rig study reminded me of a different study/story that I heard about on radiolab (and is also described by Sutton in his book and here). To make a long story short: scientists following a group of baboons discovered that the group, which was characterized by bulling and violence, completely changed its behavior after a disaster killed almost all of the alpha males in the group. The new males that arrived in the group did not start acting like bullies because they had no role models for this behavior. The culture that developed in the group was much safer, collectivistic and emphatic.

Besides the fact that these kinds of findings always reminds me that we need more women in key roles, it also says something about the approach managers should adopt to individualistic alpha male type behavior. If it is hiding information or bullying others it should be banned entirely. This means that managers should not only actively discourage such behaviors by calling it on the spot and by firing people who fail to stop demonstrating such behaviors but should supplement it with a supportive atmosphere for behaviors that are in the greater interests of the group.


Are you standing out as a manager?

Photo by Cameron Cassan

Jon Gordon wrote yesterday in his blog about standing out:

It’s not enough to just show up to work. In today’s economy you must stand out at work to differentiate yourself and your company.

And what are his examples for standing up? People that eagerly and passionately doing their work by truly caring and connecting with other people.

Isn’t is surprising that the species that came to dominate this planet, in large part because of its ability to create social structures and deep relationships is now so enthralled in being a cog in the machine, that all you have to do to stand out is actually act like a human being? There are not enough people who actually wake up and decide each morning to passionately connect with others. To lead through infectious being. We have all been that person who is happy to get exceptional true heartfelt service like Jon did. We have also all been the one who gives it whole and feels the difference being created, at some point or another in our lives. But organizational hierarchies, the psychological safety provided by dehumanizing others and lack of inspiration and passion all prevent us from waking up every day with an urge to make somebody else’s day.

What can managers learn from all of this?

First that it is easy, even as a manager, to stand out. The bar out there is so low and there is so much mediocrity that just by being human, you can stand out. When is the last time you really connected with your team on the human level? Second, that it is so easy to spot and find the people who are really remarkable. They stand out just by being human beings. If somebody does not act like a human being and does not try to make the extra connection and instead acts like a cog, well…, than he deserves to be a cog somewhere else. He made himself replaceable, so, replace him. And if you act like a cog, don’t be surprised that it will happen to you too…

How are you standing out as a manager?



Converting people to your style of management

Photo James Bowe

Paul Hebert just did a three post series on Zappos (1, 2, 3), its culture and invectives & recognition practices. It is insightful and interesting and his insights on the issues (as usual) are worth reading. However, I was deeply impressed with what he wrote in the first part of the series:

Most companies create a mission and values statement on what they “want” to be known for and then hire for positions and hope they can convert the new hires to the values prominently displayed in the visitor’s waiting area of the company. Zappos, on the other hand, created a mission/values statement based on what they “are” – and hired people to that standard.

This is not something new. I have written about hiring the right people and even about Zappos before. But when I read this, maybe because of the fact that lately I have been reading so much about how to create teams that innovate (for a research project I am working on), suddenly something in my mind lighted up.

I write a lot about best practices (even though I don’t like this term). How to manage and lead. How to facilitate teamwork. How to create purpose and help people reach flow. All well and good. But it all depends on having the right people. I am the first to admit that not every method, great as it will be, will work with every person. But it is more than that.

I am willing to admit that a lot of what I write about and think about will probably work with some kinds of people. With the right people, these approaches will lead to excellence and to outstanding performance on every conceivable aspect. Performance levels you will never be able to reach otherwise. But, and here is the point. If you try to use these approaches on the wrong people, it can go bad. Really bad.

Maybe the best management, as Hebert points out, is one that is able to find people who do not need to be “converted” but are already receptive to open, demanding and purpose driven management style.

Not all of us have a say on who works in our team, even as managers. I guess if you are a manager with a given team this could be very frustrating. And while I still believe that the way you will manage those people will make a lot of difference, you should always remember to find out who is standing in front of you and what his fit to your management style is. Conversions can happen, but they are rare.



Shorts: Bill Taylor on the ideas of power and leadership


Read Bill Taylor’s post: Where Have all the Business Heroes Gone?

A very short excerpt:

Here’s why: So much of the way so many of us think about business remains rooted in the logic of power. How big has a company become under its hard-charging CEO? How much wealth have its shareholders amassed as a result of strategic calculations made in the corner office? But as my friend and publishing-industry legend Harriet Rubin likes to say, and as I’ve written before on this blog, “Freedom is actually a bigger game than power. Power is about what you control. Freedom is about what you unleash.”

Very nicely written. Some might say – inspiring!

Reminded me of this post, in which I wrote:

First, the assumption that there is only one way. Maybe, for some companies and in certain situations, the flamboyant visionaries are the best fit as CEO’s. But not in every situation. Some companies need the quiet leadership behind the scene, the steady hand that improves and creates processes that lead to growth and innovation. Taylor’s choice of the historic Great Man Theory seems appropriate. It too claimed that only certain people are fit for leadership roles. We know today that this attitude was plain wrong.

I find Taylor’s post to be especially strong and important in comparison to the post which appeared next it in my RSS feed.  Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s post: Why the Powerful Can Be So Rude. I will leave it up to you to compare and contrast. I will say one thing – I don’t think the end justifies the means.



Preconceived ideas about management


As very often happens, Paul Hebert, the Managing Director for i2i and writer of Incentive Intelligence, writes something that resonates deeply with my held beliefs. In two related posts, one on his blog and one in Fistful of Talent, he touches upon the issue of the meaning of the word “management” and how it is perceived, especially in comparison to the word “supervisor”. Here is the gist:

… I checked the online dictionary to compare the definition of supervise and the definition of manage. The interesting thing? The root of supervise is all about “vision” – overseeing, watching. The root of manage is about controlling, training … After viewing these definitions, I believe we’ve got too much management and not enough supervision.

Managing = External Locus of Control

When “managing” projects to you “tell” people what to do, when to do it by and how to do it?  Most would say sure because  – “I’m the manager and my butt is on the line if we don’t deliver.”

Supervising = Internal Locus of Control

Supervising however means watching – overseeing and correcting when something goes awry.  In this case the real locus of control is with the individual with the supervisor allowing them to do their work, their way (obviously with some constraints such as time/cost.)

I have written before about the fact that I believe that language matters, especially in the world of management.  I have puzzled about the different definitions of the word manger. I tried to explain why I think management and leadership are different things and that opposite to what some think, it is not true that you manage resources and lead people. I am also part (although humble) of an attempt to reinvent management as management 2.0.  God knows, I am an advocate of losing control and stopping with management by rules.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we don’t only have a problem with our habits, our ingrained assumptions and our language and usage of words. The words themselves – leader, manager, and supervisor – have lost their original meaning and are full of the preconceived ideas that stand behind them. I think Hans Rosling opening statements (which I shortened) for his amazing TED talk, are appropriate:

About 10 years ago, I took on the task to teach global development to Swedish undergraduate students … And I started in our medical university, Karolinska Institute, an undergraduate course called Global Health … I thought, these students coming to us actually have the highest grade you can get in Swedish college systems — so maybe they know everything I’m going to teach them about. So I did a pre-test when they came. And one of the questions from which I learnt a lot was this one: “Which country has the highest child mortality of these five pairs?”

And I put them together, so that in each pair of country, one has twice the child mortality of the other. And this means that it’s much bigger a difference than the uncertainty of the data. I won’t put you at a test here, but it’s Turkey, which is highest there, Poland, Russia, Pakistan and South Africa. And these were the results of the Swedish students. I did it so I got the confidence interval, which is pretty narrow, and I got happy, of course: a 1.8 right answer out of five possible. That means that there was a place for a professor of international health and for my course.

But one late night, when I was compiling the report I really realized my discovery. I have shown that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than the chimpanzees. (Laughter) Because the chimpanzee would score half right if I gave them two bananas with Sri Lanka and Turkey. They would be right half of the cases.

But the students are not there. The problem for me was not ignorance: it was preconceived ideas.

Our problem today is not ignorance as much as the fact that the words, loaded with preconceived ideas, represent ideologies. In his book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, author Dan Ariely Writes:

“Once we take ownership of an Idea – Whether it’s about politics or sports – what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more than it is worth. And most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology – rigid and unyielding”.

And as we know so well from politics, once the discussion is about ideology, everybody tends to forget the original question. And in our struggle with words like management, supervision and leadership, loaded with preconceived ideas as they are, we forget what we are trying to achieve. As someone wrote in a Linkedin discussion I am taking part of:

To convince managers to change from obsolete 1.0 to 2.0 is like to convince Luis XIV to change to republic – I’m afraid a revolution is necessary!

I debated with myself how to finish this post, because I try to keep the blog focused on practical suggestions and specific issues to consider. And I have no bottom line for this post. I guess, just raising the issue is part of the solution! Any thoughts/ideas?


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