Why Do We All Have to Love Each Other?
Business Voice, December 2004
This is the time of the year when companies large and small put their hearts on their shoulders. It is when they show their loving awareness to their staff, suppliers and customers. But do we want all this? Isn’t the purpose of companies to make profits and for public sector organisations to provide services?
It was almost 100 hundred years ago F W Taylor produced his principles of Scientific Management. He outlined the key features of the rational, efficient organisation. These included ‘the one best way’ of doing things and the need for organisation members to treat each other in a strictly impersonal way. MBA graduates will also be aware that Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of contemporary organisation theory, made the same point. In simple terms, it means people should come to work and get on with their jobs. We are to behave like machines.
It is only with the growth of the personnel function and the so-called Human Relations School that things start to get messed up. We are supposed to show care and understanding to our colleagues; their personal ‘needs’ are given priority over the good of the organisation. It is not always as bad as this since it is claimed by meeting these emotional and psychological needs, companies are more efficient and high performing.
Today we are sent on team building programmes, away-a-day bonding sessions and expected to share our personal problems with our line managers. Companies now spend small fortunes on annual events when everybody from motivational speakers to the latest fashionable business gurus are invited to speak. These events are all about making us feel good, inspired and re-charged to do our best for the corporation. But does it really work? Are things any different on the following Monday morning?
And then there are the office parties that stretch our tolerance for loving our colleagues to the limit. There is no way out. To not attend this event is regarded as unacceptable behaviour of the extreme kind. It is to demonstrate a lack of commitment that instantly overrides personal high performance during the rest of the year. Absence labels us for the rest of the year. We are not truly trusted as close friends and certainly our ability to be effective team members is put under the closest scrutiny.
This touches a major dilemma for the modern company that small businesses have always had to face. How can the need for friendship and colleague sociability be combined with an equally powerful desire for impersonality of the kind F W Taylor and Max Weber discussed? In small firms, the small number of staff means we all get to know each other very well. This is also due to the founders only hiring people they personally know since only then they feel they can trust them. But problems often set in when their businesses hit bad times. Then trusted and committed colleagues who were indispensable in getting the business up and running may have to be made redundant. To do this requires tough decision-making that is the characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. The lesson they learn is to keep their distance.
And so it should be in the corporate setting. Line managers who try to convince their staff they are ‘one of them’ by drinking after hours on Friday nights or who let their hair down at the annual office party or corporate event are fooling nobody. They are making themselves vulnerable and undermining their own authority. This is a tension the modern manager has to face.
Most companies are now structured on the basis of performance management principles. The old functional departments have given way to project teams in which colleagues work together to achieve collective goals. Managers can no longer hide behind their desks and protect themselves with closed office doors and personal secretaries. They have to be out there and upfront with their teams. It is this that has created the culture of the flat organisation and so much confusion in the minds of so many of us. We do not know how to behave. On the one hand we are supposed to be impersonal colleagues and on the other, feely, touchy friends.
This requires corporate managers to have a broader range of skills than their predecessors. Functional expertise is no longer enough. That is why IT departments often have problems in promoting staff to project leader positions. They may be ace at providing technical solutions but they are hopeless at communicating and leading others. Once a nerd always a nerd? The modern corporate leader now has to have emotional and social intelligence. This puts huge demands on any person’s capabilities. In short, it is all about leadership instead of management.
This leads to the question whether the present MBA is doing justice to the demands expected of leaders at all levels within organisations. The modern army probably offers better guidelines as to how they should behave. Leaders of military combat crews, when in action, work, eat and sleep with their personnel. But they also retain the authority to maintain discipline and to take life-threatening tough decisions. Their rank is well understood by all.
The modern corporation demands similar qualities of its team leaders. It is entirely possible to be an understanding boss without trying to be ‘one of them’(which they are not) by letting their hair down at annual office parties. Leaders are leaders because they keep their distance. They understand the dynamics of teams and quietly manage these so they appear to be friendly and yet always consistent with their organisational rank.
© Professor Richard Scase