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The Mindless Mantras of Management
A mantra is, properly speaking, “a word or sound used to aid concentration during meditation.” From that it has come to mean any slogan or saying that is constantly repeated, often as a substitute for thinking deeply (or at all) about an issue. Management has more than its fair share of such mantras. Many have entered the folklore of leadership and are repeated as if they contain timeless wisdom. Sadly, many of them are like the sound “Om!:” highly resonant, but mostly devoid of any actual meaning.A mantra is, properly speaking, “a word or sound used to aid concentration during meditation.” From that it has come to mean any slogan or saying that is constantly repeated, often as a substitute for thinking deeply (or at all) about an issue. Management has more than its fair share of such mantras. Many have entered the folklore of leadership and are repeated as if they contain timeless wisdom. Sadly, many of them are like the sound “Om!:” highly resonant, but mostly devoid of any actual meaning.
We don’t have too little communication in most organizations, we have way too much. Meetings, phone calls, e-mail messages (usually copied to half the workforce), instant — an obsession with “staying in touch” at all times. Is it necessary? Not at all. Do people know more as a result? Almost never.
Most of the communication is “top down.” and that’s all about control. I include in this “copying in” the boss on messages sent between peers or to subordinates. A great many bosses spend their lives in terror that their people will talk about them behind their backs, say something that will make them look bad, say things that those further up in the hierarchy shouldn’t get to know about, or (worst of all) show some real initiative. Most of the communications have far less to do with co-ordination or co-operation than they have with the boss staying in control and knowing what everyone else is doing. If you tell someone to achieve a result and let him or her alone to get on with it, you have to trust that person. If you demand to be “kept in touch” all the time, you can —and you don’t have to give them any real trust, either.
“Better communication” is also treated as a panacea for all management ills. “Improving communications” training is a favorite of consultants and trainers precisely because it’s so vague and imprecise in meaning or objective that you can never prove whether or not it actually works. Like most kinds of corporate “spin,” it sounds good and has essentially no substance to back it up.
Team working has also become a plague. Like termites, it’s creeping in everywhere and destroying initiative, self-confidence, personal responsibility, and creativity. I’m all in favor of working in a team, just as long as it’s truly appropriate; and that means only when what needs to be done cannot be accomplished by individuals working independently. Mostly, getting a team together simply slows work up and ensures nobody feels individually responsible. All the meetings for “co-ordination” and “reporting back” waste so much time that the actual work goes more and more slowly. Control-freak bosses have found that team working too is a great way to interfere and keep all decision in their own hands. If you set up a team, and convene regular “progress meetings,” you can give the illusion of delegation, while checking up on everyone in minute detail. In fact, you can probably so tie people up in “reporting back” and “sharing ideas” that you will, in effect, reduce them to obedient toilers while you control exactly what they do.
Forget such nonsense. Team working is far less useful or important than you have been brought up to think. It is not the same as working in a coordinated way. It is not the same as being co-operative and helpful to others. Neither of those needs a team to happen. In the vast majority of situations, the best way to get something done is to give it to an individual and tell them to get on with it—without needless interference from you or any one else.
You do not. This type of uncivilized behavior is the result of bad management and complacent executives, more interested in counting their money than considering how they earned it. Multiple surveys from the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom suggest that between 15% and 25% of employees report being the victims of persistent psychological abuse at work (and the percentages are much higher in some occupations, like nursing). A great deal of workplace stress is caused by bosses whose characters are tainted with mean-mindedness, egotism, bullying, and tyranny. Of course, they don’t describe themselves in such realistic and unflattering terms. They use phrases like: “It’s a jungle out there, and you have to be tough to compete.” They joyfully repeat the old saw that if you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. They promote bullies and brown-nosers, claiming that they have earned those higher positions because of they way that they consistently “bring home the bacon,” conveniently ignoring how these people do it. Top executives are often the most egotistical, bullying, and autocratic people around, and they teach those below them to behave in the same way.
Using uncivilized, bullying, and sadistic approaches to leadership—all the more extreme examples of “Hamburger Management”—may look as if it will deliver better profits that the nice guys get. In the short-term, that may be true. But beyond that, it will hurt the organization and produce a bad-smelling reputation amongst employees, customers, suppliers, and everyone else needed to make the place work. Besides, there’s good evidence to show that bullying management does not pay off, even in the short term.
Toughness is not the same as aggression or egotism. You do need to be resilient, that’s for sure, but often that’s mostly because of the jerks you have to put up with.
This is total idiocy! Responding to competition in this way means little more than doing more of what everyone else does. And that’s a one-way street with a “No Outlet” sign at the end of it.
The Law of Diminishing Returns ensures that competition by means of cost cutting, staff reductions, overseas outsourcing, and the like will only work for a limited time. Once everyone is running headlong down this same track, additional cuts must swiftly become so deep that they start to harm the business itself. You cannot go on finding “savings” for ever from a finite set of resources. There is always a limit. And the closer you get to that limit, the less return you get for the same level of savings.
Organizations and their leaders have been engaged in a gigantic game of “chicken.” They have pushed one another further and further down the road of short-termism and pure expediency, afraid to be the first one that blinks or jumps out of the way of the approaching train. In their arrogance and folly, they have challenged one another to stay longest on a path that can only lead to misery on a truly colossal scale.
There is always an alternative—in this case, a far better one. Doing more of the same can be replaced by doing something different. And “different” offers an almost infinite range of possibilities that is unlikely to run out in anyone’s lifetime.
Standards of ethics in business have not advanced much in decades, despite all the fine words and codes of practice. Sadly, while more people seem to be talking about ethics, there is precious little sign that any of the talk is turning into action.
It seems that no one in business itself is taking much notice of the clamor from the public at large for higher ethical standards and fewer scandals. Nor has there been any significant progress on other matters of fairness and equality. I’m not interested in the kind of wishy-washy “codes of practice” beloved of politicians and corporate lawyers. Ethics is the application of reason and intelligence to issues of right and wrong. It’s working out what it is right to do in any given set of circumstances—then doing it, regardless of favor or criticism.
Instead we have too many leaders who treat ethics like they treat the laws of the land—something to be used when it suits you and worked around (with the help of a legion of smart lawyers) when it doesn’t. Their god is expediency and their ethical standards are more elastic that rubber bands. They don’t even have the evil flamboyance of the industrial robber barons of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today’s preening CEOs and fat cats are rather a dull crowd: more shady accountants than crooked tycoons.
Ethics matter. In today’s globalized business world, where many corporations have more wealth than half the sovereign nations of the earth, they matter a great deal. Forget the codes of professional practice and compliance officers. What we need is more good, strong, moral outrage: the kind that gets politicians thrown out of office and forces dishonest business leaders to face spend some honest time reflecting on their lack of probity . . . in jail.
- Karma and Capitalism
- Labor Day Thoughts on Ethics, Civilization, and Business
- Adrenaline Junkies
- The Brute Force Approach to Productivity
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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