If it weren’t for the managers…

Photo: W_Minshull CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9oAXAK

There is some evidence that authoritarian, bureaucratic management styles are still at large, but that does not license stereotyping and overgeneralisation. Photo: W_Minshull CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9oAXAK

“If only it weren’t for the managers, the goddamned managers, always getting tangled up in the system. If it weren’t for them, the world would be a systems thinker’s paradise.

In a previous post, an article for an issue of HindSight magazine on automation, I reflected on a quote in Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano. The actual quote relates to front-line actors, and is posed sardonically in the book by an engineer/manager. The article actually started out as a reflection on managers, and how they are perceived by the systems thinking community.

For the systems thinking community, it seems to be managers who are “always getting tangled up in the system”. Those on the front-line are often seen as the virtuous victims of management. Such sentiments are rife on blogs and twitter, and can be seen in the writings of systems thinking gurus such as W. Edwards Deming and Russell Ackoff. In short, managers are seen as egotistical, ill-informed, and controlling. There is some evidence that authoritarian, bureaucratic management styles are still at large,  but that does not license stereotyping and overgeneralisation. I have seen the same with safety professionals. New thinking on safety can whip up a new libertarian mindset that castigates and excludes those with a more traditional compliance mindset.

These sorts of assertions seem ironically anti-systemic. Instead, of looking at system barriers to new thinking, they find new bad-apples. This stance cannot have helped systems thinking efforts over the last few decades. It has probably hindered them greatly by entrenching old views, and perhaps helps to explain the relatively low traction of systems thinking in organisations today. An alternative narrative is needed which avoids stereotyping, blaming, belittling, and devaluing. If managerial decisions seem bizarre to us, we need to try harder to understand them from humanistic and systems perspectives. Here are some pointers that might help to explain why managers do what they do.

1. Managers act within a paradigm

The beliefs and assumptions of managers are shaped and sustained by a collective mindset. On accepting a more senior role, managers land in a particular paradigm, and often a new sub-culture. The paradigm tells managers – and everyone else – what and how to think, say, and do. It emerges from and shapes managers’ education, and the professional and organisational culture(s).  It is inherited and changes slowly.

For a manager, to act in a way that runs contrary to the prevailing mindset – to be a goat thinker – risks mental conflict, frustration, isolation, ostracism, immobilisation, ethical dilemmas, and rejection. Challenging the mindset can be a huge risk. For this reason, conformity often results. Conformity changes how people respond to situations, even changing how they see situations that – from the outside – look very different.

2. Managers do things that make sense to them

When we look back at our own decisions, we generally think that they were reasonable at the time, given our goals, knowledge, expectations and focus of attention at that time. If what we were doing seemed unreasonable, we would not normally do it. This is the local rationality principle. What we do is rational to our local situation and context by default. When we look back in hindsight, what we did may seem irrational. But at the time, it was rational to us – the right thing to do at the time. We accept the local rationality principle for ourselves, and increasingly we accept it for front-line staff.

When judging the performance of managers, when things go wrong, we tend to think that they should have known better, should have done better. Local rationality does not seem to extend far beyond our own actions. To look at it in a different way, we make a fundamental attribution error. Our failures are down to the context. Managers’ failures are down to them as individuals. But what managers do is locally rational to them, in their context. If it were not, they would not do it. The relevant question is why it makes sense to them. This is something that we must discuss in a balanced way with managers. Taking the blame out of hindsight works both ways.

3. Managers have to make trade-offs to resolve conflicting goals with limited resources

Decisions often have to balance conflicting goals, and this is true especially for managers’ decisions. The goals of an organisation tend to conflict at various levels throughout the organization. Departmental purposes may work against one another, and it is no simple matter to rise above these goals to the organisation’s superordinate purpose: to serve the customer. Often, there are no good options among those available, and time and resources are nearly always limited. Managers must satisfice. Managers find themselves inside a complex, uncertain and political situation, while others can judge each decision from the outside.

Information is a case in point. Information often flows fairly freely down the organisational hierarchy; organisational gravity tends to take care of that. But it faces many barriers on the way up. Managers at various levels may be unaware of the extent to which the information that they receive is blocked, filtered, and distorted to fit what others want to tell them, what others think managers want to hear, and what others can convey without adverse consequences. But we are unlikely to know what information a manager had when he or she made a decision, let alone the perceived quality of the information.

In the end, managers have to try to manage a mess; a system of problems in an uncertain and complex environment. They have to reconcile very different opinions, with fairly little data at the time that it is needed. Like everyone else, managers must often act on instinct or gut feeling.

4. Managers work within a system of constraints

Managers often don’t have free rein to do whatever they want. They have to answer to many on all sides: senior managers, accountants, HR, health and safety specialists, committees, trade unions, shareholders, staff… Laws and regulations must be adhered to, and management systems and standards must be applied. Time for decisions is limited, and so is money. In a bureaucratic organisation, other divisions and departments are islands that can disrupt the flow of work and sub-optimise decision making. Compromise is the watchword.

5. Managers work within a different system of rewards and punishments

The reward system often looks very different for managers compared with other staff. Financial and non-financial rewards have a profound effect on behaviour, and few of us are immune to these effects. If a reward system for a particular project favours on time completion, perhaps with a bonus attached, then this may well be prioritised over other considerations, such as quality of service, safety or security.

Similarly, managers may have less secure roles than other staff, such as short-term fixed contracts or contracts that allow for easier termination. Their position may be more tenuous than we think, and affected by the same sorts of anti-systemic inventions and interventions that systems thinkers deride. Consider the position of the Chief Executive of South West Staffordshire Primary Care Trust, (2002-2006), William Price: “As Chief Executives we knew that targets were the priority and if we didn’t focus on them we would lose our jobs” (cited here, in Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry Volume 2: Analysis of evidence and lessons learned (part 2)).

What is a system thinker to do?

If systems thinking is to have any real traction in organisations, the judging, blaming, belittling and stereotyping has to go. For me, the key lies in applying the implications of the local rationality principle, which means trying to understand their world and their experience in it. This means talking to managers with empathic understanding (see also here). The following advice is adapted from the Systems Thinking for Safety: Ten Principles:

  • Listen to managers’ stories. Engage managers in conversations so that they can tell their stories from the point of view of how they experienced situations at the time. Try to understand the person’s situation and world from their point of view, both in terms of the context and their moment-to-moment experience.
  • Understand goals, plans and expectations in context. Discuss with managers their goals, plans and expectations, in the context of the flow of work and the system as a whole, including the demand, pressure, resources, and constraints.
  • Understand knowledge, activities and focus of attention. Focus on managers’ ‘knowledge at the time’, not your knowledge now. When trying to understand decisions, consider how things made sense to managers based on what they knew and what they had to do.
  • Seek multiple perspectives. Seek alternative perspectives from other managers. Ask staff what they think they might do in a simulation situation, with similar resources and constraints. Discuss different perceptions of events, situations, problems and opportunities, from different perspectives.

About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of Aviation. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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