Thursday, October 3, 2013

Failing mental models of management and leadership

I’ve never been much of a fan of Senge and his book the Fifth Discipline largely because he didn’t attribute much of his work to some important non-Americans such as Russell Ackoff, and Fred Emery, among others. However, he simplified the notion that people are largely habitual in the way they think with his idea of ‘mental models’. It does seem the case that humans get a way of behaving in their head and then have a lot of trouble changing it, even if what they are doing is not working for them. Sometimes people don’t even see that they are the cause of the problem: the trees are definitely in the way of seeing the forest.

It’s pretty amazing that many CEOs, senior executives and managers all the way down the food chain don’t understand some fundamental things they need to do to improve employee engagement. This, despite the overwhelming evidence that low engagement results in low productivity, poorer quality output and, where it is an issue, poor safety behaviour. For those more familiar with the term employee engagement is similar to job satisfaction and both share similar factors in the various measurement tools used to evaluate them.

I’ve come across a few organisations in the past few months where ‘management’ consistently fail to engage their direct reports, their ‘team’, in the basic activities of: sharing purpose and making sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet; shared strategic planning; shared review of operations and achievement of the plan; participative decision-making; continuous improvement; and problem solving. All of these are, along with the meeting of a bunch of fundamental human needs, are known to increase employee engagement and, its sequelae.

It seems that this failure of the basics of management occurs for a number of reasons. The first is lack of knowledge: the manager simply does not know anything about management and doesn’t know what to do. This is the classic unconscious incompetence. The manager manages simply bumbles along using a mental model they got from somewhere, usually watching someone else who managed them. There has been no effort to learn anything about management. The second is owning a mental model that was obtained from an airport book shelf and that is now used for every situation. Mostly the model is incomplete and the recipe is untested and tried. But, the manager persists, believing that they have the right formula for success. This might be command and control or micro-management, for example. The opposite turns out to be true. In effect the mental model is poor. Next we have the person who just happens to believe that humans are rather pathetic and that leaders are born and not made. They have a divine right to lead and to be lord of their domain, all powerful. This is one of a number of personality flaws that often dominate the thinking of some managers and drive their behaviour. Then there is the psychopath in its various forms, where the motive is personal gain, the exaggeration of self, self-aggrandisement, power, and the manipulation of the pawns on their personal chessboard.

In all cases, the science of human behaviour and what little management science there is ignored or, at best, simply not accessed due to ignorance. What is more interesting is that these problems can be pointed out when there is a crisis relating to performance, staff turnover, or an employee discontent but there is no effort to change. More often than not the manager or CEO looks like a kangaroo caught in the headlights.

The science of managing people needs to be promoted and management needs to be seen as a skill just like medicine, engineering or other professions. Otherwise it cannot ever be considered as a profession in its own right. Thus far it is an occupation where many simply follow the edicts of their personality. Many managers simply are not aware that what they are doing is counterproductive.

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