The Frustrations of a Leader Living in a World Designed by Managers

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 29th March 2018

Take a good look around you at your organisation. Look at your line manager and your management teams. Look at the management meetings that take place weekly, monthly, quarterly or whichever frequency is considered normal around your way.

What are the things you all talk about the most? What things do you measure and record? What gets reported on? I’ll be prepared to bet that in the great majority of cases it will be the ‘hard stuff’. Numbers, data, financial figures, budgets, the output for example.

Frustration-of-Leaders-Living-in-a-World-Designed-by-Managers

If people appear at all in the lists and reports it will probably be as data – absence and sickness levels, unfilled vacancies or some other form of numbers or charts.

I know that numbers and quantitative data are much easier to compute, tabulate, represent, track variance on or show on a graph… But is that a good enough reason to fixate on them?

Frankly, no.

It’s completely simplistic, misleading and encourages the de-humanisation of your culture and your organisation. It encourages you to promote employees (and I actually heard a CEO using these exact words recently) because they are ‘good with the data’.

Great. So is a spreadsheet or a calculator. But, you wouldn’t pay a calculator £50k-£80k a year and give it a team of people to lead, develop and inspire.

It makes the organisation and its managers behave as though measurable results are the only thing that matters. They are not. Ask your customers. Ask your staff. Ask the regulatory bodies in your world. Ask the families and colleagues of anyone injured (or heaven forbid, killed) in accidents caused by cost-cutting, time-pressures and shortcuts.

It often means that in a board or senior leadership team of say 8 people, 7 of them will be focused on the targets and the operational and financial results, while the HR Director (if one even exists or gets a seat at the top table) will be a lone voice relegated to reporting on the resources aspect, while the human bit is glossed over.

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Most organisations are still structured hierarchically in multiple vertical layers of rank and segregated along functional – tribal – lines.

Guess why? Because it means we can make managers accountable and liable for everything that happens in their ‘box’, can easily establish measures and targets that we can track and can easily see whether things are getting better or worse (even if we rarely have much idea why). It’s much easier to blame people or identify apparent performance issues that way. It’s also very helpful for encouraging sloping shoulders, where managers make very sure that any blame flying about will be attached to someone else in another box. So that’s good.

Decades of promoting people who are dynamic, tough, process-driven, action-obsessed and, yes, ‘good with the data’, has created a culture in many organisations that is toxic to humans and humanity.

Well, who cares? It’s all about the results, isn’t it? And anyway, we’re not here to be popular.

Well, given that the key issues for organisations in 2018 are said by most expert commentators and even Government to be these:

  • The attraction and retention of talent
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Collaboration
  • Building high-performing teams and, yes…
  • Leadership

…then frankly any leader who subscribes to the hard—line of results at any cost and unpopularity, while they may achieve some measure of monetary success in the short term, is creating a legacy of failure and an organisation that will haemorrhage talent to be left with only those who love to ‘comply’ and are unable or unwilling to think ‘outside the box’… or perhaps to think at all.

Is that the future you aspire to? Because it sounds like terminal decline to me. We are heading, in many cases, for an abyss. It may not be too late to turn back. But it will be soon.

We all have a choice. What are you going to do about it?

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