Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reflections on management/leadership in a hierarchical culture

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has come under fire this week from both a panel investigating sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, and from the Auditor General whose report documents the glaring omission that the force neglected to implement fully the mental health program it “adopted”  three years ago. This “omission” is not based on forgetfulness, but rather a conscious and willful refusal to fund and to staff the program, moving those trained and experienced in “policing” into management/leadership of the “health” programs, resulting in a serious mis-match of skills, training, experience and the responsibilities of the position.

This incongruency of promoting an individual with one kind of experience and training to fill a position that requires, even demands, completely different skills, training and experience pervades much of our culture. Doctors are put in charge of hospital departments without an hour of formal training in either leadership or management, both of which subjects in the academe have been under clouds of derision for decades, as unworthy of the designation of an academic discipline in comparison with physics, chemistry, trigonometry, philosophy, biology and engineering. If you think snobbery is confined to ‘gated communities’ and does not operate in academia, you haven’t been awake for a couple of centuries.

Even “leadership” in one military university is maligned and replaced with “the psychology of leadership” in such a mis-directed and inappropriate decision that cripples both the institution and the people needed to fill ranks in leadership following graduation. It would be a mere assumption (very dangerous) that whoever is responsible for such a decision considers empirical analysis on which most doctoral programs depend would be more likely to be funded and conducted on “psychology” than on “leadership/management”. These are too often considered “soft skills” and not worthy of the kind of attention and respect that engineers and scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are afforded.

Ignorance ( in the “ignosco”, “I do not know” sense) is no longer tolerable in a complex and increasingly challenging economic, political and cultural ethos. Nor is the “religion” that only a doctor can manage a department in a hospital, nor a police office lead a health department in the RCMP, nor an accountant by definition, provide appropriate leadership in a complex corporation. Roles, as defined by formal training, on the premise that only those people would be “acceptable” to “order” and to “direct” personnel working in that segment of the organization. Similarly, history, mathematics and physical education graduates do not  necessarily offer the most optimum background for leadership in high schools.

We have made idols of “specialists” and denigrated “generalists” for too long. We have also made “liberal arts” the slums of the academic community and under this umbrella we have put management and leadership and the so-called soft skills. For a long time, psychology itself operated under a similar cloud, resulting, according to some, like James Hillman, in overcompensation by the professional community in both research and practice. Even the out-sourcing of Employee Assistance Programs by most large corporations, to another corporation, rather than hiring trained professionals in social sciences, liberal arts, counselling and “soft skills” is just another sell-out of the “human” side of the enterprises, too often based on a rationalization that confidentiality will more likely be maintained.

The occasional exception to this general development, like the CEO who hired a former priest as his right-hand-assistant, only demonstrates the irregularity of the practice and the social deviance it connotes. With the rise of acknowledged human discombobulation, discomfort and anxiety, people with general experience, including some serious tectonic shifts that disturbed their ‘comfort zone’ (people who have been around the block and taken major blows to their integrity, and to their stability and survived) would be far more ready and able to discern the competing and often malignant energies that underpin too many of our organizations, corporations, schools and universities and colleges.

And that brings us to another meme: the search of and pursuit of leadership positions by many whose need for power and control motivate them to perform in ways that they know will attract the attention of their superiors, either because they are “dependable” or “reliable” or because they are “predictable” and “boring”….at least according to all appearances. Often such behaviours also demonstrate a degree of obsequiousness and sycophancy that trophies the supervisor while masking the ambition of the sycophant.

 Of course, there are exceptions to this pattern, but those currently in “power” in positions of leadership are under no mandate to avoid falling into such traps in their appointments. Ambition, as a single or primary factor for promotion, is not necessarily the most appropriate qualification, especially when linked to the academic background prominent in the organization.

So in addition to the academic hierarchy of disciplines, and the hierarchy of ambition and a potential veneer of loyalty, we dig a little deeper into the most venal aspect of most of our organizations, a word that is now being used to describe the RCMP as a “para-military” organization.

This model is so ubiquitous and so nefarious, when we all know that top-down decisions are both self-serving to the decision-maker and counter-intuitive to the higher needs and aspiration of the organization, that it needs to be disbanded, both formally, as in a death liturgy, and informally, in a celebration of a new spirit of organizational evolution. Based on the need for instant and for clarity on the battle-field, and perhaps in the operating room of the hospitals, the model is totally inadequate for most organizational decision-making. Humans do not need a life-or-death exigency to raise their level of motivation; and organizations that depend on crisis management as the primary modus operandi will lurch from crisis (designed and imposed) to crisis. Such a methodology may strike the superiors as laudable, because the decision-makers can operate under pressure, and everyone seems to buy the theology that pressure reduces costs and increases profits. This is also a myth that needs exploding.

Running our organizations on an operating premise of crisis, immediacy and the conscious or unconscious rejection of long and medium-term planning and execution is a guarantee of self-sabotage. We cannot afford to build organizational decisions on the career-advancement plans of those in positions of leadership and responsibility. Personal career enhancement has to be relegated to a secondary purpose and goal of organizational decision-making, lest we sacrifice everything in the organization to opportunism, self-promotion, and tribalism or the most horrific kind. People in positions of leadership and responsibility have to be demonstrably willing and able to accept and absorb “truth-to-power” reporting from their supervisees, and they also have to be able to demonstrate they are able and willing to challenge their most loyal workers if and when necessary. Personal “cabals” no matter how small (even 2 is too large) need to be challenged as a matter of course, not as the exception to the general evidence.

And that brings up another question: the monitoring and reporting of the effectiveness and the efficiencies of each department in the organization. The RCMP, according to these reports has lost the capacity to self-monitor, and the recommendations are that the government must step in, as objective and dispassionate monitor and critic. This would generate some extremely uncomfortable situations for those in positions of responsibility who have left much unchanged, unchallenged and free of needed discipline. It would also change the culture of the organization from one lacking in transparency (who is really going to rat on his/her boss?) to one of enhanced transparency.

Bringing our organizations out of the closet of political secrecy and the chicanery that too often accompanies the secrecy, infusing a strong dose of general, common sense leaven, replacing the pyramid structures of authority with circles of consensus (in which everyone in each department buys into the decision thereby demonstrating a shared responsibility for execution as well as a sharing of the rewards from enhanced performance) and levelling the hierarchy of academic and professional values with which we imbue individuals (scientists and doctors simply should not and cannot meet the inordinate expectations of rectitude, or prophecy or intelligence weighing them down) and providing authentic open doors to all employees to go at least two or three levels above their immediate supervisors for both counsel and complaint….these are just some of the ultra-utopian, yet eminently pragmatic changes too many organizations would benefit from.

And the benefit to the millions of individuals working under current conditions that are less than respectful, supportive and mature would be immeasureable. And, all the empirical evidence we have gathered demonstrates unequivocally, that respected and supported and trusted workers all do better and more work than any one us would do in circumstances in which we are merely cogs in another’s machine.

In general, the workplace culture in North America is based on two fundamental and incorrect principles:
·      first that workers want to do only the bare minimum at their workplace and
take unwarranted advantage of their employer and
·      second, that workers are basically a “cost” rather than an investment or a potential profit centre.

These are part of the bogey-man mind-set that besets too many corporations and public agencies. Of course, budget managers can see the obvious potential in reducing costs by deploying technology where once humans did the same work. And while that is true, the extension of the tech-no-promise to the remaining humans, cutting their health benefits, and their support mechanism, in a new world in which human relationships are under assault from so many quarters. (No this is not a bleeding-heart liberal crying foul for every dissident worker in North America!)

Let’s look at the fact that union membership has fallen dramatically as the corporate, private-enterprise mentality gained prominence. The removal of worker negotiators has significantly tipped the workplace playing field in favour of the employer, and against the worker. Contract employment, without benefits, without seniority, without security and in many cases with minimal training, not to mention a flat minimum wage for decades, and a significant unemployed segment (going down slightly recently) leaves employers digging workers from a larger pool without concern about their future with the company.

At the same time, employers report that the sign too many “work employment records” for those who choose to dip their toes in the new job only to leave after a very short time. So both workers and employers are getting, and in too many cases, deserving a bad name.

To say there are numerous signs of workplace dysfunction is to state the obvious. However, there is a convergence of many forces, all of them measured by their cost or their cost-saving, without giving due attention to some very different principles:

Workers, at least those worth keeping and training, sincerely want to do a good job, to establish earned reputations for quality work, for dependability, for professional conduct and for a demonstrated desire to learn and to grow into new responsibilities as they continue to work. Even that premise is far more healthy for an organization than its inverse, given that all workers want a healthy environment in which to make a living and their performance will inevitably and invariably reflect the working conditions.

Workers also are not either stupid or uninterested in the fortunes of their company. They can see ways to do things that might cost less, or that might reduce risk, or that might integrate two sections enhancing collaboration and perhaps productivity, as well as team-building (although that will never measure up to productivity and profit will it?)

Workers are also seriously interested in a workplace culture in which they can fully participate, meaning, where their voice can and will be heard, trusted, believed and honoured. The paramilitary environment clearly, has not been, and is unlikely ever to be able to foster such working communications and the challenges for leaders such an environment brings. Leaders can and will only grow when they are challenged, and not when they rule with the proverbial iron fist. And for leaders to be willing to operate in a culture in which their decisions can and will be challenged, both formally and informally, in a process that goes far beyond to traditional “suggestion box” a relic of the 1980’s. Such a process must be open to an receptive to the worker’s right and opportunity  to dispute even section leader decisions, with an appeal process that does not and can not seek punishment, revenge or retaliation for such “impudence”….as it was once termed.

Enlightened leaders do not fear criticism, challenges and even a process that brings their important decisions into the light of an objective panel of both workers and leaders. Motivated workers, interested in their own careers as well as the future viability and success of their organization will respond, providing the open processes are designed and administered by honourable professionals without prejudice, without paranoia and without cynicism and suspicion.

It is the “hierarchy thing” that we have to start to dismantle: in our organizational design, in our hiring policies and practices, in our academic institutions, and in the kind of organizational models on which we build our enterprises.

And those changes will only follow a few generations of enlightened education, cultural transformation, and confronted prejudice and bigotry. It is not only in racism and sexism, ageism and ethnicity where prejudice and bigotry operate.


They are also intimate components in every organization on the continent.

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