Managers and the laager mentality

A thought-provoking piece from Blair McPherson in the Guardian Public Leaders section about what happens to senior managers who shut themselves off from those lower down in the hierarchy.

There are many ways to get rid of a director and the simplest way is not to wait until the budget is overspent, savings and performance targets have been missed, a critical inspection report has been published or there has been a negative and highly personalised media campaign about the service.

No, the simplest way to get rid of a director or senior manager is to undermine them as an individual and the easiest way to do this is for the boss to remove their support and distance themselves.

This was first explained to me by friends who had been in the armed forces. As one told me:

Lose the support of your NCOs and you’re stuffed. They can make or break you, often not so much by what they do as what they don’t do.

He went on to give some wonderful examples of situations where NCOs, by sticking rigidly to procedure or disingenuously ‘assuming’ that the officer knew what he was doing, had allowed self-important Ruperts to hang themselves.

If junior staff can undermine their bosses so effectively in a hierarchical command and control organisation like the army, it can happen anywhere.

I remember working with a group of executives some years ago who, as things began to get difficult, had shut themselves away from their staff, finding all sorts of excuses to be unavailable, like meetings or ‘strategic stuff’ or important spreadsheets that just had to be worked on. As time went on, they developed a laager mentality as they retreated behind their glass doors and started to see the rest of the building as a dangerous place where people just gave them grief. By hiding in their offices, they had left the line managers and supervisors to take the heat. Consequently, they too began to resent the senior managers. As I said to one director, “You’ve lost the support of your NCOs.” I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. Deep down, he knew that, to repair the damage, he had to get out and start walking the floor again.

It’s easily done though. As I said a while ago, staff can be scary. They have all sorts of problems and issues. If you venture out of your office to talk to them, anything could happen. Shutting them out is one way of maintaining control.

But, as Blair says, that can be very frustrating for colleagues:

So what do you do when your requests for 20 minutes with the boss are met with rebuffs, such as being told they are very busy, in meetings all day or have asked not to be interrupted?

When you find yourself sitting outside the boss’s office waiting for their meeting to finish, in order to dash in and request a quick word before the next meeting starts, it is demeaning – and a huge waste of time….

And even when you do grab your few, precious minutes, it will be unsatisfactory because you will be trying to brief on a complex situation while the boss looks at their watch.

Yep. Been there too. I worked with someone once who had got being unavailable down to a fine art. Even if you did find a vacant slot in her diary, you’d arrive at her office to find it empty. I’m sure she had a Star Trek device that beamed her away as soon as a meeting had finished.

This might work in the short-term, when you need a bit of peace to work on something, but it can all too easily become a habit. Eventually, if you shut people out, they will withdraw their support and, no matter how good a general you think you are, if your captains and sergeants are not with you, you’re heading for defeat.

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One Response to Managers and the laager mentality

  1. Pingback: Managers and the laager mentality - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

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