A lot of business schools are still more ‘school’ than ‘business’.
The University of Glamorgan’s Business School, it seems, is no exception, if the profile of Senior Lecturer Paul Thomas is anything to go by. It tells us all about his academic qualifications and research publications but very little about his management experience.
I presume he must have some, though, because, according to a couple of news reports, he is going around Wales telling employers that they need to take out layers of management and just let their workers get on with running the company.
Of course, there is nothing new in this. Those of us who have been around for a while know that management gurus have been talking about employee empowerment for at least the past fifteen years. The trouble is, like everything else, it is seldom the cure-all that it is cracked up to be.
We live in a society which, for all its surface-level egalitarianism, is still based on centuries of hierarchical assumptions. People are conditioned, right from their time at school, to accept that, for much of their lives, they will have someone telling them what to do.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when you try to reduce hierarchy in an organisation, the resistance comes from the staff as much as from the management. Often, this resistance does not manifest itself in open hostility but in a dogged and persistent deference.
I recently worked with a company that, because of a change in its market, was shifting from a process to a project based way of working. This put far more emphasis on project teams to manage their own work and to apply their collective expertise as and when they deemed it appropriate. At first, every time their was a deathly silence the team members all turned and looked towards the most senior person in the room to give the ‘correct’ answer. Only after their former boss had told them several dozen times that they were the experts and that only they could come up with a workable plan did they take it upon themselves to decide on a way forward. Even then, when they had the plan on paper, they still kept looking to the senior people to give them permission to execute it. It took several months before people felt empowered enough to develop and execute project plans for themselves.
That they got that far was only because their manager was enlightened enough to walk that fine line between control freakery and complete abdication. By offering just the right amount of support and coaching, the manager helped his team to manage themselves.
It is so easy, and so tempting, for managers to just step in when things start to go wrong. It takes more skill and patience to coach people through something than to bollock them and then do it yourself. Many bosses, especially when under pressure, default back to micro-management. As soon as they do that, the trust disappears and they can forget about empowerment.
Even more insidious, though, are those lazy managers who use empowerment as an excuse to sit back and do bugger all. As you might have gathered from my tone, these people annoy me even more than the control freaks.
“Well, they’ve all been on the empowerment workshop now, haven’t they? They know what they have to do and they should all be taking responsibility for their own projects now. If I pitch in too much, it will undermine them won’t it? If they screw up, it’s down to them.”
As I said in a previous post, many managers are terrified of their teams and empowerment gives them the ideal excuse to disengage and to hide in their offices, surfing the internet, chatting to other managers or fiddling about with pointless spreadsheets.
Empowerment is not an excuse for managers to abdicate. In fact, managing empowered workers requires a lot of effort. You need to be constantly coaching and mentoring people and encouraging them to take on new tasks and responsibilities. Because most people still defer to hierarchy, they will keep looking to their manager to give them permission to step into new areas. You need to keep convincing them that they have the authority to proceed. There will also be people in the organisation willing the empowerment initiative to fail. You need to stand up for your staff against such people, even when they have screwed up. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but you need to make it safe so that your team can manage itself.
Empowering a workforce is hard and that is why so few organisations have done it successfully. But if Dr Thomas had his way, there would be no hierarchy at all – at least, that’s what he says:
Once we have removed managers and leaders, a natural leadership evolves or is elected by the workforce. It is democratic, this is not leadership in the traditional fashion or the command and control sense.
I am in favour of complete removal of the hierarchy. We do not need them.
Now, it is possible that these quotes have been taken out of context. (The transcript of the BBC programme is no longer available.) Surely Dr Thomas understands that the only way you could completely remove management hierarchy would be by a change of ownership in the organisation. Otherwise, even if you removed middle management, there would still be a board and shareholders to answer. Someone, somewhere in the organisation is still going to be setting targets and monitoring the results.
The other problem with removing hierarchy is that organisations operate in an increasingly complex environment. Sophisticated, rapidly changing and increasingly competitive markets create the need for marketing and advertising professionals. Legislation and regulation means that even medium sized companies need to employ company lawyers, safety officers and human resource professionals. To protect themselves against the news-hungry media, organisations need PR specialists. Our reliance in complicated IT systems means that firms must employ armies of computer geeks, just to stay in business. And this specialisation creates organisational boundaries which, in turn, creates hierarchy.
Trying to manage complex organisations without hierarchy might well take even more time and effort. Trying to negotiate production and sales targets and the access to the necessary legal and technical support between a series of self-managed teams would take forever. Which is probably why no-one has tried it.
I’m not saying that we should not try to reduce hierarchy. Dr Thomas is right in that too much command and control can reduce an company’s effectiveness and ability to respond and innovate. However, some management is necessary in complex organisations and trying to empower groups of employees is fraught with difficulty.
So, are Dr Thomas’s ideas just Utopian fantasies or could organisations really become more effective by getting rid of their management hierarchies? I would be interested to hear your views and even more interested to know of any company that has done it.
Hat Tip – Guru