ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - May 2001


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  In This Issue...

A Purpose And A Place
Do Upper Managers Earn Their Keep?
Pageturners: Effective Training Strategies
Proof Positive
Brief Cases

 One From Column B —
My Kingdom for a Team

Peter Block explores the durability of teams and why they remain fascinating after all these years.

  Behind the Teams:

Just What the Doctor Ordered
In Support of Teams
Mike Levenhagen and Cynthia Minor

Highlights of Winning Teams
Views For A Change
Pam Walsh's Unofficial Quality Tips

Return to NFC Index

Do Upper Managers Earn Their Keep?
The Surprising Answer and What You Can Do About it

The way Dr. James R. Fisher, Jr., president of The Delta Group Florida in Temple Terrace, Fla., and author of Corporate Sin (, 2000) sees it, not only do today’s managers not earn their keep, but they can actually get in the way of work and cripple the productive effort of their employees. How did Dr. Fisher arrive at this conclusion? Let’s start at the beginning.

 The Industrial Revolution generated an agenda of punctuality, conformity and obedience to authority in the workplace. According to Fisher, these attitudes stuck and are apparent in the learned helplessness employees exhibit in the workplace today. Because both managers and workers have been unable to transcend these habits, they have become “knowers rather than learners, tellers rather than listeners—and neither leaders nor followers.”

 What is management’s true role?

 Management’s purpose is to lead, and leadership requires an evaluation of employees’ competence. In other words, a manager must be able to match a worker’s skills to appropriate assignments and projects, ensuring that that worker realizes his or her place in the organization’s big picture.

 “While management is mechanistic, particular and specific,” says Fisher, “leadership is organic, holistic and comprehensive.” As servant to an organization, a successful leader encompasses all these qualities and fills the role of enabler, nurturer, facilitator and partner with workers.

What Has Management Become?
Do today’s leaders possess these qualities?

 Unfortunately, most do not. “Management has never been programmed to lead,” says Fisher. “Most managers are culturally programmed to please their superiors at the expense of being immersed in servant leadership.” These managers lack a passion to serve.

 Generally, managers have done a good job of managing people only when people behave as things. And this has been the case throughout most of the 20th century. As long as employees arrived at work on time and were conforming, punctual and submissive, Fisher explains, managers could get away with this type of “leadership.” However, today’s fast, knowledge-intensive work climate demands more.

 Part of the problem is that managers have little real knowledge of how work is done in an organization. They don’t spend very much time down in the trenches with their own employees. “It’s like the liberal who feels guilty for having so much when others have so little, and thinks to himself, ‘I know what they need’—when he has no idea,” explains Fisher.

 Ultimately, managers have become surrogate parents to the worker. “Put bluntly, the manager is the caretaker and caregiver placed in the equation to satisfy basic needs originally provided by parents,” says Fisher. “I suggest that in the typical organization of today, either high or low tech, the majority of employees are either management-dependent or counterdependent on the company for their total well-being.”

 With the help of management, workers must be brought to a greater maturity. Most workers realize that the employee/manager relationship is off kilter, but lack the know-how to fix it.

 “Management must give workers permission to disagree and confront managers and coworkers,” says Fisher. “And workers must learn how to speak their boss’ language.” In other words, workers should learn how to communicate with a boss who thinks differently. Don’t approach him or her with a “problem.” Instead, speak of the “situation” as you know it and outline solutions that will save money for the organization. These are the ideas upper management wants to hear.

Management as a Language
Empowerment. Total quality management. Employee involvement. Self-directed work teams. These are all words frequently used in the workplace meant to give workers a louder voice and more meaningful involvement in decision making. But, Fisher says, they are merely that: words-with little meaning or force behind them.

 “‘Empowerment’ is not self-actualizing, nor does it connote self-direction or, indeed, a power shift,” Fisher explains. “Verbal concepts are not the real thing. They are abstractions, which is to say meaningless. We should try to keep language as close to reality as possible.”

 Empowerment and other similar words are meant to reduce management’s control, influence, authority and power, but this hasn’t happened in the workplace. The so-called changes, Fisher says, are only cosmetic. In fact, he goes so far as to say that most interventions of the past 30 years have been attempts to maintain the status quo while telling workers that they have more power. “Cosmetic interventions, from touchy-feely supervision to increased status and security, have resulted in a workforce conditioned in learned helplessness and irresponsibility when initiative and accountability are critical components to survival,” Fisher continues.

 “Consequently, now, when management pre-emptively reverses itself to give people their power back, those workers don’t have the slightest notion what to do with it. Management without leadership is now paying for its corporate sins.”

 Furthermore, when management places emphasis on winning quality awards without fully internalizing the improvements, Fisher says, winning those awards can do more harm than good. “Companies put all their effort into winning awards while performance actually goes down. The award is seen as an end rather than the beginning of a commitment to quality. It reminds me of the student who makes straight “A’s” in high school and college, but in real life is beat out by the “C” student who works to please himself instead of others.”

Do Managers Earn Their Keep?
Because most managers’ main focus is on the next job, many are not top performers and do not earn their keep. This is not their fault, Fisher says. “It is the fault of the structure and function of work. Consequently, it is imperative for them to make an impression rather than a difference. These behaviors destroy a company from within as if managers and workers were social termites. Often the problem is not recognized until it is too late.”

 With all this, Fisher doesn’t see managers disappearing from the workplaces of the future, although there will be fewer levels of management in most organizations. If today’s managers are any indication, their behavior will change little. “Most managers believe their job is to ‘manage,’ ‘supervise’ and make ‘decisions’ for workers. However, workers have the knowledge and creative skills to make timely decisions at the level of consequences, but they lack the authority—or at least perceive that they do—to execute those decisions.” As a result, knowledgeable workers comply with managers who may be ignorant of the particulars of a problem or opportunity.

How Do We Make it Better?
 Managers and professional workers could go a long way toward bettering organizations by incorporating creative thinking—both lateral and vertical thinking—into the workplace. According to Fisher, the dominant masculine vertical hierarchy of thought is limited to logic, cause and effect. Feminine lateral thinking is intuitive, conceptual, subjective and embraces the unknown. As Fisher puts it, “The divergent (lateral) thinker has a fire in her belly. The convergent (vertical) thinker needs a fire under his behind.”

 If men and women are to truly begin working together, both thinking styles must be combined. Evidence that we live in a one-dimensional society is all around. More than 99 percent of CEOs in the United States are men. “This is one-dimensionalism to the extreme.” Fisher says. “To have a two-dimensional society requires equal participation of the masculine and feminine aspect, first in each of us as individuals, then by extension of the society collectively. We should be using men and women in concert and partnership. They bring different traits to the equation.”

 Organizations are not in need of a charismatic leader, Fisher says. “It is not authority that drives leadership. It is humility and a passion to serve. By implication, then, charismatic leadership is ‘leaderless leadership,’ or manipulation.”

 Fisher hopes to see young workers develop into democratic managers; he hopes they will understand that leadership and followership are part of the same coin, just as masculine and feminine are two aspects of the same brain. Unfortunately, he’s seen too many young professionals sucked into the dominant culture once they make it to the ranks of management; the culture dictates their behavior.

 “The role of leadership is the vision to see present and future challenges clearly, and the desire to serve in the interest of rallying people and resources to those challenges,” Fisher says. As leaders, managers have the responsibility of “listening to workers and hearing their inner voice—where their spirits reside.”

 And what about those managers who wish to do exactly that, but lack the knowledge needed to change a culture? Fisher recommends a short course on the nature of workplace culture. “Managers need to know how to make a needs analysis of the appropriate design for a specific operation, along with how to rally people support, followed by a phasic agenda with benchmarks for calibrating progress and staying on course.”


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