I have two topics this week: the present-day obsession with clinging grimly to the status quo, when we have rarely needed change and entrepreneurial flair so much; and the obnoxious jerks whose presence in leadership positions disfigures too many organizations. These topics are linked by a recurring theme: the way that Hamburger Management—that dismal system of cutting corners, hounding people to reach crazy targets, and driving down every cost except the money paid to the guys at the top—blinds us to the reality that the way our workplaces function is a matter of choice, not some inevitable law of nature.
Entrepreneurs and Outrage
In an article for The Financial Times last week, Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, attacked business schools for their built-in conservatism and over-emphasis on accounting in place of entrepreneurial ability. She made the suggestion that the strongest drivers for overturning the status quo are discontent and outrage. That got me thinking, and what she says seems right to me (“Divine Discontent”). Significant change always demands energy, courage, and strong faith in an alternative vision. Complacent, satisfied, comfortable people do not support or desire any change. Nor do those who have been convinced by business schools—or anyone else—that the way things are today represents the only kind of business world that is possible. You do not find entrepreneurs among those who prefer things to stay as they are. It is obvious that the people most likely to drive change forward are those filled with discontent and a sense of outrage at the current state of affairs. Dame Anita is right in saying that we should hold to our sense of outrage and use it to fuel our determination to force change—whether or not business schools actively help or hinder the process.
Imitation is so rife in organizations. They follow one another like lemmings, even though a moment’s thought can show you that doing what others have done first is an extremely poor way to create any kind of competitive advantage (“Industry Worst Practice”). Current management fashions are a rare case of evolution running backwards. Where competition in the natural world seems to drive species forward into ever more complex and demanding ways of outwitting their predators, recent years have seen our organizations proceeding resolutely backwards, relying instead on the simplest and crudest ways of competing: cutting costs as a way of life and trying to increase productivity solely by making everyone work harder, and for longer hours, without increasing pay (“Evolutionary Backsliding”.) This is the status quo that is so beloved of our hyper-conservative business establishment. It may provide a benefit for a short time, but such limited, instinctual responses are a dead-end in the competitive stakes. Any organization that resists this foolishness and keeps on working to produce smarter, more complex, and more effective ways of releasing human creativity will walk right over such organizational dinosaurs.
The Sad Biology of Jerks
I’m not the only person who feels a sense of outrage at all the small-minded, short-sighted, and self-centered behavior shown by people who ought to know better. Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford, will shortly be publishing a book that shows how to recognize and deal with the jerks and assholes that infest organizations everywhere (“Jerk-infested Waters”). Just like us here at Slow Leadership, Bob’s objective is to help create a more civilized, less stressful, and more enjoyable workplace culture, free from the actions of those who are so blinded by short-term profit that they can’t see the mess they are making of everyone else’s life. Get the book, read it, and fortify yourself.
One of the saddest aspects of the status quo—and of Hamburger Management in general—is the belief that people only do things when they are “measured” on what they have done and suffer in some way for failure (“Measurement Versus Trust”). No one is trusted to do what they have been convinced is right. No wonder so many managers are grossly overburdened. We are trying to turn our managers into a legion of control freaks, when what we need for greater efficiency is a workforce that can be trusted to do the right thing without waiting to be told—or checked on after the event.
Bringing Life back to Organizations
That brings me full circle to Dame Anita and her suggestion that accountancy is not the answer to our need for more entrepreneurial and creative people in business. The audit mentality that measures everything and knows the value of nothing is squeezing the life out of organizations (and maybe many business schools too). Should we simply accept that as inevitable? I don’t think so. It’s time to give our discontent free rein and fire up a sense of outrage at the mess. Only strong emotions like those are likely to bring change—and we surely, surely need it.
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization
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