Monday, June 13, 2011

When Management Decisions Get in the Way of Productive Workplaces

It constantly amazes me, despite all we know about human behaviour, that managers can still get the implementation of change completely wrong. Psychology may not be a completely exact science and there is much we don’t know yet but it is better than whim. Moreover, there are some things for which we have ample evidence. For the purposes of this article, these are that employees more fully engaged in their work and more productive if: their job satisfaction is high; the culture is essentially democratic; they are valued; intrinsic reward is the norm; they feel they have autonomy in their work; relationships are fulfilling; the work has meaning and purpose; and there is optimum variety in the work.

It has also been shown that as little as a fifth of all employees in developing countries are fully engaged at work and, hence, fully productive. More importantly, workplaces are potentially psychologically unhealthy, if not managed well, and this has considerable impact on those who work there. There are dire consequences indeed of managers not being aware of what is required to develop and maintain a positive workplace culture. And it is the management of an organisation that is fully responsible for the culture.

An experience I once had with an organisation has reminded me of the fact that managers make decisions based more on the quirks of their personality than they do on evidence from the scientific literature. For example, a high controlling, autocratic, punitive, aggressive, micro-management style will result in very specific decisions when it comes to day-to-day management and, in this case, the implementation of change.

I was asked to assist a group of people cope with change in their organisation. The program was, inappropriately, called Change Management. The brief for the job was that a change initiative had come a little unstuck and that a group needed help with dealing with the outcomes of the process. Immediately my antennae started quivering. When things go wrong in an organisation it is often decided to conduct a training program rather than look at the reasons for the problem. It is easier, or more comfortable, to implement a training solution than the higher complexity of a systems solution.

Closer inspection and on commencement of the ‘training’, the situation became clear. Had senior management carefully designed a change process designed to create enmity, negativity, angst, and dysfunction, they could not have done better than what occurred through incompetence.

The organisation had implemented a quality system and a new quality team to review the work of some 300 others. The change process, if you could call it that,: was completely ‘top down’; had no stakeholder consultation or involvement; devised a system of performance management for non-compliance; produced a complex and ambiguous manual that was intended to be a living document (like the law) on which to base decisions of compliance; created a lengthy adversarial system to manage the inevitable disputes over the decisions on non-compliance; was implemented in a culture that used email to deliver quality reviews due to the distributed nature of the organisation; and there was no attempt to make informed decisions after a lengthy trial when things clearly were not working, other than to conduct a change management program for the quality team (not the whole organisation).

In short, all the tenets of implementing successful change were ignored. This resulted, predictably, in: a classic in-group - out-group situation with all the enmity that this causes, especially against the quality team; high levels of stress for everyone; a high level of angry rather than co-operative disputation; team leaders protecting their ‘turf’ by defending non-conformance formally and informally; avoidance of personal contact between the quality team and the other employees; an adversarial culture; job insecurity; reduced job satisfaction; poor relationships; and alienation.

This could have been completely avoided had senior management bothered to read the change management literature or obtain advice from someone who did. Sadly, this was probably not likely to occur given the personality of the senior manager implementing the change.

The ‘change management’ program very quickly became a strategic planning exercise, based on the needs of the quality team, and was extremely successful. Unfortunately, we needed to have the whole organisation in the room and conduct a search conference, or similar process. Perhaps then we might have made a difference. As it stands this organisation will fail to function at an optimum level for a very long time. Worse it will remain an unhealthy workplace with all the sequelae that it entails. And all due to management by personality.


  1. I liked the piece. It read well and was easy for me, (a layman at present), to understand.

    I want to be able to do two things by the time I graduate; write in a similar fashion and understand the treatment options for organizational dysfunction. (Gotta love the definitive delineation on the Quirky-jerk.)

    This is also a test post … just want to see where it lands and what happens. I’m a student in your OC 6445 class.

    Thanks Professor ... Stewart, I’ll be around,

  2. To be successful in your career, a positive interaction with people working around is a key. In a similar manner, it is extremely important to identify and manage stakeholders. Stakeholder management is important to the success of every project. Involving and engaging with the right people in a positive manner is highly important for project success.