positive organizations

“Merbaron Benz” For Sale: The Importance of a Philosophy

“Merbaron Benz” For Sale: The Importance of a Philosophy

A 1991 Chrysler LeBaron convertible coupe in good condition, sold on the street, is valued at about $1,100 by Kelley Blue Book.  In stark contrast, a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 500SL convertible coupe in good condition, with similar mileage, is valued at about $5,000.

I drove a Chrysler LeBaron for a bit (I borrowed it from my great-grandmother).  While I’ve never driven a Mercedes 500SL, based on my generally underwhelming experience driving my grandmother’s car (and possibly as some sort of subconscious response to the covert laughs my high-school friends had at my expense every time I drove Grandma’s car into the high school parking lot), I’d go for the Mercedes any day if I had to choose.

The catch, of course, is the relatively steep price.  The Mercedes, even today (some 20 years after the two cars were manufactured) will cost you five times the value of the LeBaron.  Some creative entrepreneur, though, came up with a way for car owners to “have the Mercedes experience at the LeBaron price”.  They created a body kit (replete with those distinctive blocky Mercedes taillights and star emblem) that can turn a ’91 LeBaron into a Mercedes 500SL.

Well, mostly.  Actually, it really only makes your LeBaron look kinda like a Mercedes.  I saw one recently, and my first thought was, “there’s something strange about that Mercedes.”  My next thought: “that’s something masquerading as a Mercedes.”  It struck me that dressing up a LeBaron as a Mercedes isn’t all that different from a lot of management literature that I read.  Consultants, writers, thinkers and academics alike spend a lot of energy trying to devise ways to improve management and organizations—an admirable quest (and a goal I share).  But so much of what I read is tantamount to wrapping Mercedes-shaped body panels around a LeBaron and calling it a “high-performance, luxury vehicle”.

A “Merbaron Benz”

Much of what I read wraps creative ideas around the same old management philosophies that have served as the foundation of our organizations for over a century.  All you really end up with, though, is marginally improved business as usual; incremental improvements that don’t really tackle the fundamentals underlying the way we see management and organizations.

The real thing–a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 500SL

Unfortunately, I think that we who are leaders in organizations have been far more receptive to this model of improving management than luxury car buyers were of the “Merbaron-Benz”.  Many companies now refer to their employees as “team members”, and their managers as “team leaders”—a positive step, to be sure.  But they stop far short of addressing the fundamental philosophy; very few companies have gone so far as to say, “authority should flow from the bottom up; let’s let the true leader emerge by choice of the ‘team members’.”  Many organizations have acknowledged that “worker empowerment” will positively impact their organizations, and so they “empower” their employees to provide input to their managers—who ultimately make the final decision.  Again, a great thing; but almost nobody has flipped the underlying philosophy on its head and said, “let’s truly empower employees; let’s build a mechanism by which employees can ‘veto’ their managers.”

The potential for improvement is enormous, but we’re conditioned to management systems that are built on a foundational philosophy that Frederick Winslow Taylor characterized vividly before Congress in 1912 when he referred to:

“the man who is…physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

It’s a sentiment that few of us share, yet our control systems; our arduous processes of getting projects and ideas funded; our rigid methods of defining jobs; our policies of “need-to-know”—they all flow directly from a philosophy that makes the same assumptions about our employees as Taylor made.

So here’s the challenge: let’s approach the reinvention of management beginning with our philosophy.  Ask yourself: what are my fundamental beliefs about my employees?  Are they uncaring automatons, simply out to take advantage of me?  Or are they, at heart, passionate, driven, thinking human beings, with a great deal of insight and expertise?  If your answer is the latter, then begin with that as your foundation, and ask yourself: what principles will allow that passion, drive and intellect to flourish?  What management systems will focus that insight and expertise toward maximizing the value our organization creates?

When we approach the problem as a matter of philosophy, then we’ll begin to truly re-invent management.  Until then, we’re simply driving the same old car with high-performance body panels bolted on.

– Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on October 8, 2011.

Destructive Confrontation

Destructive Confrontation

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a well-reasoned note that pointed to what he felt were contradictions between a few of my previous blog posts. He reminded me that Self-Management derives a great deal of strength from the cross-colleague feedback that the organizational model should foster. It forms a sort of self-regulating organization that, theoretically, is far stronger than the traditional hierarchical model in that each and every colleague is charged with addressing and correcting issues they perceive within the organization.

My colleague went on to reference a subsequent post in which I ruminated on the dangers of rudeness in the workplace. In that post I referenced recent research that suggested that rudeness causes overall cooperativeness to diminish and also might actually diminish the cognitive capacity of those who are subjected to rude behavior.

These two premises, my colleague pointed out, seem contradictory. Confrontation, he says, is a vital ingredient in a Self-Managed enterprise (I would argue, actually, that confrontation is a vital ingredient in ANY healthy social organization). But every time, he goes on to say, that he’s confronted someone, the confronted colleague perceives the confrontation as rude.

And he makes a good point: often, he says, the deviant (the one who is engaging in this behavior that so desperately demands correction) has justified the behavior in his own mind and really isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say.

That’s fair and I have no doubt that it happens from time to time.

Finally, my colleague points out that he’s had his life saved by someone who started out the confrontation with something like, “Hey, you $*$#@& idiot!” Essentially, he says, sometimes “rudeness” is the only way to get someone’s attention–and I agree. Particularly when someone’s life is on the line. But most of the time, someone’s life isn’t on the line; the situation is something far more mundane. And those are the situations that I’m interested in.

So I ask you to consider a completely different social environment, one which demands that you confront another from time to time: your marriage (or relationship with significant other). I suspect that most of us (at least those with a reasonably healthy, happy relationship) have found a way to confront our significant other without being rude. In fact, courtesy seems to me to be an earmark of civilized interaction.

What’s the difference, then? Why is it that we think confrontation at work demands brusque, discourteous behavior?

That’s an honest question.

Here’s what I think: confrontation at home is given–and received–with an understanding that this confrontation is intended to better both of our lives. That doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable or even well-received, but there’s an implicit understanding that both of us are committed to this relationship, so this confrontation is simply intended to enhance that relationship.

At work, on the other hand, our relationships with our colleagues are too-often built on wary distrust. We’re generally friendly and get along OK, but we go through our careers driven by this undercurrent of fear–that someone is looking for a way to give me the boot and rob me of my livelihood.

Further, when we’re put in the position where we have to confront another, there’s this feeling of unease about the “aftermath”–that is, what’s this relationship going to be like after the dust settles?

And these two phenomena, together, manifest themselves all too often as unproductive confrontations that do more damage than good.

Does that make sense?

How can we solve it?

– Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on September 1, 2009.