"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Bad Management–What Do You Expect From Human Beings?

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Bad bosses are everywhere.  Everyone has had one and knows about a hundred more; yet there will soon come a day when offices are managed by software; and bad managers – myopic, insular, arrogant, and as blindered by human ambition as anyone – will be things of the past.  Decisions concerning financial performance, employee productivity, information flow, and interdepartmental collaboration will be finally taken out of the hands of managers who, like all other people, manage by instinct, hunch, personal rivalries and affections.  Already offices rely more and more on computerized information.  Keystrokes are recorded, employees’ movements tracked, and distribution of time worked monitored.  Time sheets are things of the past when such surveillance permits objective clocking. Managers no longer need to rely on employee information and judgement, for the data stream from cubicle to corner office assures a far greater degree of accuracy.

More importantly negative trends can be anticipated long before they become problems.  Financial review meetings where spreadsheets are analyzed; data matched, correlated, and corroborated; and reasons for poor performance discussed are becoming increasingly unnecessary.  Managers no longer have to add up the columns, listen to staff defensive positions, and set revised performance goals for underachieving staffers.  Not only will elaborate software identify the problems by office, department, and employee, but suggest improvements.

Most employees resent office meetings which are inefficient, poorly-designed, and ineptly-run.  They are arranged more to encourage participation, collaboration, and mutual respect than to resolve problems, set goals, or agree on new procedures.  Some meetings are of course necessary.  There is no way that a mid-level manager can make reasonable decisions without inputs from Accounting, Personnel, Finance, Contracts, and Networks. Using advanced intelligent voice recognition software and sophisticated algorithms all meetings can be monitored electronically and analyzed for key factors – efficient flow of information,;appropriate, quality, data-based interventions; time management; and rational decisions give company policy, objectives, procedures, and guidelines.

Eventually middle-managers – the ones who run these divisional or project meetings – can be replaced since electronic management will generate data, process it through company directive portals and filters, and suggest avenues of improvement. For the time being employees and meetings are still necessary, but only until the software is able to manage networks of information.  It is easy to monitor individual output, productivity, and performance; but another, more complex task to assess network operations (i.e. cross-discipline ‘sharing’).

None of this should be either surprising nor particularly disturbing.  Most phone conversations between help centers, banks, medical offices, and government departments and clients/customers are routinely recorded ‘for quality purposes’ and of course they are monitored and analyzed to determine how well (courtesy, professionalism, technical competence, efficiency, etc.) the service provider performs.  While in some instances there may be a real person listening to these recorded events, more than likely it will be a software program.  Such electronic monitoring makes eminent sense, for all conversations can be reviewed not just a sample.

Affective software – programs designed to pick up affective clues about service or product satisfaction – is already monitoring s0cial media.  A young woman in Detroit messaging her friend on Facebook about her experience at the Marriott in Palm Beach will give subtle clues as to how she liked the food, the service, reception, and facilities.  Customer satisfaction surveys are never useful because few people complete them and if they do may arbitrarily assign values.  Such software can easily be deployed in offices which monitor voice traffic as well as written, and managers can pick up on developing frictions between employees and managers, managers and senior management, etc.

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Privacy issues? In principle there are many, but the Internet Age adage, “We love our cookies’ – i.e. we don’t mind surveillance if it leads to more individualized and personalized consumer choices – has never been more appropriate.  We all know that all email, texts, social media messaging, Internet searches and purchases are being recorded.  We know that we are being tracked online, by traffic cameras and security surveillance equipment, but have accepted it for its benefits and not its risks.  Police cameras slow speeders and reduce accidents.  Security installations keep us safe.

Checkers at major supermarket chains know that they are being monitored.  Every item is scanned and recorded by the company thus improving inventory control and stocking.  At the same time the company knows how fast a checker processes consumer purchases, knows when she slows down or speeds up, and which items cause her difficulty.

The story of Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance is taught in business school because of the lessons of management learned from the experience. Nancy Koehn, professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of a book on how Shackleton accomplished this remarkable achievement, writes (New York Times, 12.24.11):

“Shackleton’s sense of responsibility and commitment came with a great suppleness of means. To get his men home safely, he led them across ice, sea and land with all the tools he could muster. This combination — credible commitment to a larger purpose and flexible, imaginative methods to achieve a goal – were the key elements to Shackleton’s management of his expedition”, and are the essential elements of good management today.

She points to five factors of Shackleton’s management: 1) he was flexible and adapted easily and well to changing, unexpected conditions; 2) he understood human nature and how despair and weakness could result from idleness and lack of purpose; 3) he maintained a strict routine, both a way of keeping his men focused and emotionally stable and maintaining cohesion and order; 4) he focused on the future, always giving his men a goal, a hope, and a purpose; and 5) he managed his own ‘emotional intelligence’, for he knew that any sign of weakness, despair, or hopelessness in him would infect the crew.

Although the Shackleton voyage indeed makes a good management case study, in another way it is most certainly not.  Managers like Shackleton come along once or twice in a generation if that.  Few men or women have the innate confidence, intelligence, will, and sensitivity to accomplish what Shackleton did.  After a brutal Antarctic winter, a sea voyage in a small boat over hundreds of miles in the worst conditions, a climb over an uncharted mountain to get to a British outpost, and the trip back, not one life was lost – neither in the boat nor on land where most of the crew was sheltered.

Most managers have been promoted for one particular reason – high corporate earnings, sales, productivity, or financial oversight – but when they inherit a large department with many employees, they find it hard to match their political ambition and unique technical skills with personnel management.  They are often impatient, intolerant, even abusive in their attempt to right the ship or to set it sailing in their own new direction.

In an extreme example of such myopia, a departmental manager in a large private firm, relied on a popular affective assessment test to provide insights on how her employees might perform.  It would help, she said, to know if an employee were outgoing or reserved, people-oriented or work-focused, generous or private, etc.  A good manager would have already known the answers and known her employees, yet this one, confident of her ‘higher-level’ management skills (finance, economic performance, contract and legal affairs) but concerned about growing dissension in the ranks chose this discredited but popular parlor-trick to figure out what to do.

There are thousands of examples of managers who stumble over their own feet, who have no clue about social dynamics nor about individual aspirations and concerns, and who ultimately fail and leave many wounded on the corporate floor before they are dismissed.

So the sooner managers are replaced by intelligent software the better. 

The workplace, however, need not necessarily become robotic in an algorithmic environment.   As long as there people still manning the post and as long as they still spend eight hours a day together, they need to have ‘emotional time’ – time to be friendly, warm, humorous, or engaging.  Yet there is no reason why such water cooler camaraderie need disrupt the business of production.  It too can be factored, understood, controlled, and managed. 

The electronically-managed workplace is not a Brave New World.  It is most definitely a new world, but one which should be far more satisfactory than the old one run by bad managers.

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