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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Postponing the Struggle for Shared Accountability

Too many company cultures are ‘perfectly designed’ to put autocrats at the top

Published: Monday, January 21, 2013 - 11:03

At the end of my December 2012 column, “Evolving Beyond Platitudes to Holistic Improvement,” I described three different management styles. Management expert Peter Block saw the need to evolve away from traditional management, and in “As Goes the Follower, So Goes the Leader,” he describes a simulation designed by the late Joel Henning in which teams are asked to role-play three different styles of leadership. Each is given a short case study, asked to define the problem, and then do one of three things.

I paraphrase the simulation and its results below.

Team 1 role-plays a high-control, autocratic leadership style (i.e., traditional management). This team devises a solution and runs an employee meeting as a true autocrat would do it: The team has all the answers and restricts the questions for the end. This could be perceived that employees are the problem, and all they need to do is follow the leader, embrace the vision, and be rewarded for their compliance (they will also save their jobs).

Team 2 focuses on cosmetic empowerment (i.e., increasing participation). The team devises a solution and runs a meeting that pays lip service to participation and collegiality but never really gives up control. The leader still holds all the cards but plays them in good cheerleader fashion. Everyone is called an “associate,” the change program has a catchy title, all will be trained in the new skills, fear will be driven out of the workplace, and all are given a slogan T-shirt and a plastic vision card. The meeting ends with reassurance that the leadership team will be the role model for the new behaviors.

Team 3 role-plays genuine participation and empowerment (i.e., leading a high-performance culture). This team, unlike the other two, commits to seek joint solutions. Team members express their own doubts and underline the complexity of the problem, and the fact that the future is hard to predict. Their strategy is to run the meeting as a dialogue and commit to developing solutions that redistribute power, information, and resources in a meaningful way.

Block was stunned by what he observed

The simulation began with the traditional management team. The people were quiet, with their arms folded, and offered one or two pale, informational questions at the end. When asked to describe their feelings about the meeting, employees said they felt controlled, punished.

The cosmetic empowerment team went next, and employees asked many questions, all of which were cynical and reeked of barter and deal making. They asked, “What’s in it for me?” and “Where did this fad come from?” They wanted the leaders to prove their sincerity. There was a lot of laughter and energy during the meeting. Upon reflection, employees felt manipulated and doubtful, although they admired the cleverness of the strategy.

The genuine participation group went last, and when the team shared its intention to involve everyone in defining the problem and solution, the employees would have none of it. They had this to say:
• They wanted a common vision and strategy.
• They wanted to know what was expected of them.
• They were fed up with this soft, open-ended nonsolution.
• They questioned who was in charge and who was going to steer the ship to a safe harbor.
• They wanted to know what management was going to do to fix the problem.
• In processing the meeting, they felt management had abdicated.
The employees had 20 suggestions about how the team could have done a better job.

Variation of team experiences

The task was the easiest for the patriarchal team. The team members knew what serious control looked like, they agreed quickly on what to do and who should do it, and they finished before the time was up.

The team planning cosmetic change had the most fun. Team members created slogans, visuals, and catchy recognition programs. The fun extended into the employee meeting, which was run as a variety show. Everyone enjoyed it, leaders included. Granted, it was manipulation, but because it was entertaining, everyone seemed to accept it.

The genuine participation group was miserable during the planning and constantly asked for more time. When it came time to run the employee meeting, no one wanted to play the leader. Team members were hesitant during the meeting and depressed when it was over, especially after receiving 20 suggestions for improvement.

Block’s conclusions—and the real root cause?

Cultures resent patriarchy and its dominance. Cultures become cynical at attempts at cosmetic change. Yet, when employees are faced with the prospects of real participation and accountability for an unpredictable tomorrow, patriarchy begins to look better and better. One of the participants summed it up, “We hated patriarchy, we were cynical about cosmetics, but when we experienced participation, patriarchy suddenly looked really good.”

The clarity and simplicity of command and control make it irresistible. It is easy to plan and easy to implement. It is the perfect means to postpone the struggle over real, shared accountability.

As I queried in my December 2012 column, what’s truly changed in the improvement industry during the last 15–20 years? There is more process focus, better improvement tools, and more available data. These are the “engines” of improvement, but engines need “fuel,” and that fuel is the emotional energy of a work culture.

In my consulting experience, progress in tapping that energy source has been glacial. Half of my work is now devoted to helping cultures tap this needed energy and rechannel it from “busyness” and resistance to true improvement.

I’m willing to bet that every improvement professional has either tried or experienced each of these three management approaches many times. Regardless of the approach, what were your ultimate results? Let me suggest the root cause no one seems to be addressing.

It has become a platitude to talk about the end of command and control, but emotionally, cultures miss it when it’s gone. When a work culture is offered real choice and power, its tendency is to push leaders back into a controlling and directive stance. Peoples’ lips may say “no” to a benevolent monarch, but their eyes say “yes.”

Leaders see the longing for good parenting in employees’ eyes and think they have little choice but to respond. Hence, the “bolt-on” approach to improvement continues: “It’s good for you.” And employees predictably respond, “Yeah, like castor oil!”

Block challenges: Do cultures’ (unwritten) expectations unwittingly create the leaders they receive? High-control bosses are created by reluctance to care for the whole and assume the risks inherent in one’s freedom.

The real root cause to address is: How does a culture break the cycle of promoting high-control people to leadership positions? And could that challenge include improvement leadership?

Discuss

About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.

Comments

Hold up a mirror so people can change themselves

Organizations are messy.  They put people in departments.  They place people into process teams.  People think and act in terms of them and us or customers.  Departments serve projects.  Projects serve departments.  Projects serve customers.  Bosses reward individuals or teams.  Individuals seek recognition.  Bosses alienate or scare employees.  Employees feel undervalued and dare not speak up.  Bosses have favorites.  Employees politick for attention.  Organizations improve quality to reduce costs or often the opposite.  Organizations are selfish or selfless.  Leaders serve employees so employees serve customers. 

Whatever the leadership style, the organization is a system with many interacting parts that may help or hinder the organization’s purpose.  As a system, the organization is much more powerful than an individual employee is.  Leaders and employees need to understand their system if they are to optimize it for the organization’s mission. 

Us recommending any style of management or behavior probably will be ignored.  Better to guide readers on what she or he must do to understand how their organization adds value and prevents loss.   Perhaps the resulting management system changes behavior as it holds up a mirror to damaging behavior.

So, the question is how do we develop or organizational management system?   Can leaders and employees then understand how their organization works as a system possibly for the first time?  Can the resulting process-based management system provide leaders and employees with levers to change their organizations?  Consequently, they may work more effectively and more efficiently for the good of customers, shareholders, employees and others who are concerned for the organization’s success.

HMS Titanic

Dear Mr. Balestracci, thank you. But your question has nor operational neither effective answers: it's evident your technical, goal-oriented point of view. Yet men are no machinery, they can't be charted like "bolts & nuts" - at least, as far as our knowledge and understanding of nature doesn't go that far. Men are basically lazy but they need activity, men need authority but are brought up to avoid responsibility: we're just like Titanic's iceberg, one third above water level, two thirds underneath. And it was the two thirds - or about so ... - that made her to sink. Any company's culture is made up by its stakeholders' cultures, it's therefore an input & output, rather than a "goal": I would therefore not say that companies' cultures are "designed" - unless we would think of a very high level "designer" - but I would say that they are what they are: a product of themselves. Thank you.

high control is the culture

It's not that the managers are high-control.  It's that the culture expects that of them.  And so do all the people.  What possible motivation would there be to "break the culture" by promoting managers that do not exercise control as the management style?  And how would a company find people in it's ranks that fit that description?  And who is it that wants this to change and why?