In these times where the emergence of crises is seemingly unending, it might be instructive to step out of the chaos, just for a moment, to critically think about and reflect upon what we’ve experienced for a good number of years in organizations, institutions and society in regard to the phenomenon we call management. I purposefully avoid the use of the term leadership here simply because it is so misunderstood and too often self-ascribed in an attempt to elevate status. We’ll keep to the use of the term management consistent with that found in W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis, where he concluded, management is the problem!
Managing by crisis, which is quite prevalent, is not synonymous with crisis management. Rather, it is a version of management by exception, where one only takes action when there is no other choice but to react. More accurately it should be referred to as management in crisis. It is an approach to management requiring the absence of the capability of forethought, of care and concern for people, as well as knowledge and understanding.
We’ve all known or worked under people who boast of their fire-fighting prowess. As previously discussed here, everyone assumes a good manager is a good fire fighter. It is less known, however, that far too many are also prolific fire starters, where the spark of future fires is provided by the very action taken in managing current fires. In short, these individuals are quite often the cause of the fires they fight. Career-wise, it is imperative (for them) that they are good at both—job security and career is assured! It is unfortunate that the many of us who are not quite attuned to this phenomenon, come to believe that these managers are indispensable—in light of the many crises situations we find ourselves in—particularly those who manage to climb to the top of the organizational/institutional management hierarchy.
- Edwards Deming asserted management is prediction—to manage is to predict. That is, management’s actions/decision-making is not about attending to the past, but rather the future. That is, in regard to actions/decision-making, we don’t decide upon something in the past, we decide to take a particular action in the present that will best position us for an anticipated likely better future.
Though it’s become a cliché, the quote by Walter Gretzky, father of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “skate to where the puck is going not to where it has been”, does capture the essence that a good manager’s actions/decision-making is about preparations for what the future will likely bring. Such action is informed action with the aim toward a better future for all. Unfortunately most of the business minded—whether in business or government—place the focus of their attention on material growth which is in reference to the past; there is no future in this! Though you may have heard many in management rephrasing this quote, it is quite hollow since most are of a mindset rendering them incapable of operationalizing.
When the attention is on maximizing material growth the focus unavoidably turns toward things of outer value in relation to the past—profit, market share, shareholder value, etc. Management is unavoidably looking backward, disregarding how the choices they make impact the prospects in the future. Such a materialistic and backward focus of attention can’t help but cause a considerable amount of chaos and crises. Good management requires a completely different focus of attention, it requires a different mindset. In contrast to growth, which compares the present to the past, progress has to do with our present prospects in relation to the future. More specifically, the focus of attention, must be on realizing human progress, not material growth. Human progress is about ensuring our collective viability as a species and realizing a higher state of human experience, not a larger bottom line. This can’t happen if the decisions we make are not properly informed decisions.
An informed decision is one made with understanding and knowledge, which emerges from learning from the patterns of the past, not a mere comparison to the past. That is, to decide, is to predict what the future situation will likely be and therefore to set in motion, in the present, that which can best prepare us for a better future—that’s progress, not mere growth. This requires thinking critically and connecting the dots, which is code for learning toward developing knowledge and understanding.
Learning here is not mere subject matter learning but learning about learning, learning at a higher level which requires critical thinking. This level of learning doesn’t constrain us to what is possible within the current paradigm. Rather it affords us acknowledging and understanding the effects of the current paradigm upon us realizing progress, thus enabling a paradigmatic change. Continuously learning in this way is fundamental to good management! Again, recalling another of Deming’s assertion, there is no substitute for knowledge!
Morality in Decisions
As discussed here, the effects of decisions and actions by those in positions of authority touch many people, yet, we often are not mindful enough of their impact on a day-to-day basis. It is only when the adverse effects of their decisions reach seismic proportions, creating headlines, that we tend to pay attention. Even so, generally, those at the top of the hierarchy of corporations/institutions committing harmful acts against people and society are given a slap on the wrist, if not an all-out pass. Why?
Apart from those at the top making up the rules as they go, many of us mistakenly believe there are different values for different roles we carryout in life, especially for those in the world of business/economy. In other words, the decisions individuals make in their role as a member of the hierarchy references a different set of values than the values they are expected to adhere to in their role as a parent or even a friend. While we would excoriate those who discard their family or friends in an effort to elevate their status, position or material gain, yet such decisions are often applaud as with Wall Street cheering the elimination of people’s jobs being a case in point—few acknowledge the contradiction.
Morality is not contrary to sustaining our viability as a society—let alone as a species—it’s foundational to it. Yet, amorality, being characteristic of capitalism, is prevalent among the higher levels of the management hierarchy.
Ever wonder why so many at the top are similar in character in this regard? Why is it that many accept a huge compensation package while at the same time communicate that it is necessary to cast off many people for the sake of competitiveness, or to rescue the economy? Why is it that many seem disconnected from the very people who are living a work-a-day life, exchanging their labor for a weekly paycheck? Why is it that those at the top seem to always ensure they satisfy their material self-interest, irrespective of the performance of that which they are charged to manage?
Research by Paul Piff (Professor of Psychology, Berkeley) found, “Americans may be more narcissistic now than ever, but narcissism is not evenly distributed across social strata…higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.” According to Clive Boddy (in Journal of Business Ethics, 2011), such individuals are characterized as corporate psychopaths; those “who have no conscience or empathy and who do not care for anyone other than themselves.” As Boddy asserts, this type of person can be callous in their disregard for the needs of others in pursuit of their interests and their “own self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement.” To the psychopath, it is always about ‘Me’ and never about ‘We’.
Clearly capitalist society, especially the corporate world, would be fertile ground to the socially friendly psychopath. Not only is capitalism as a system absent of moral principles, a capitalist society accordingly structured on self-interest with short-term thinking is quite desirable to the psychopath: many of the traits of such individuals—calculating, charismatic, manipulative, materially driven, ruthless, unemotional—are embraced by the capitalist corporation/institution. The Corporate Psychopath Research Association estimates up to 21% of CEOs—a far greater percentage than is seen (0.6 to 1.2 %) in the population—show significant psychopathic traits. After all, it can be just as lucrative (if not more) as the world of crime without offering a high probability of prosecution for crimes committed against humanity. Hence the greater incidence in the management hierarchy.
Quite obviously, it should be clear that psychopaths must not be allowed in or anywhere near the management hierarchy of organizations/institutions. It would be akin to placing a sharp object in the hands of a toddler in a crowded room.
Sound management, not management by crisis, whether in a crisis situation or not,rests upon sound decision-making. No matter the situation, good management requires, among other traits and capabilities, a guiding sense of morality along with care and concern for the well-being of others, compassion, empathy, knowledge, curious mind, and forethought.
Furthermore, since one manages in the context of a larger system, fully utilizing these capabilities requires that the systemic context, at minimum, does not inhibit or restrict their use. Unfortunately, in the context of capitalism, demonstrating these doesn’t place one in the express lane to the C-suite. Thus, exercising these capabilities requires considerable courage, since doing so could be a career killer.
To make the exercise of these more prevalent a change of the system itself, which necessarily equates to a change in the aim of the system is needed. As explained here, if we change the intent of business, to serve humankind rather than to seek mastery over Nature, then fundamentally we change the system to be aligned with the very nature of humankind—the traits such as caring, compassion, empathy, knowledge, curious mind, and forethought are fostered and enabled. In effect, we necessarily affect a positive change in our experiences throughout society.
But to do this we need to change our understanding of ourselves as people, as living beings. That is, we must gain a fuller understanding of what it means to be a human being and to understand at the deep level the adage, “I’s need We to Be” (The Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni). Our viability as a species and sustainability as a society rests upon us acting with a fuller understanding of our very nature as people and of our interpenetrating relationship with Nature itself.
Nothing will change until there is this foundational change. Acting with this understanding changes everything, for the better. It is our choice how to-be-in-this-world. I think it is time that we choose to use our uniquely human capabilities for the betterment of all. Going along to get along just won’t do it!