Is Management a Security Blanket or Straitjacket?

Management tends to get a bad rap whenever Agile ways of working are discussed. Sometimes this is warranted and other times it is not. One narrative is the manager who basks in the glory of their own magnificence. Those managers may very well deserve to be a lightning rod for criticism and blame when empowered decision-making fails to take root.

Another narrative is the manager who shuns the limelight, seeing command and control expectations on them as a draconian pair of shackles. They welcome the new ways of being and doing as an opportunity to be human again. Yet, their efforts to cast off those shackles are thwarted by employees who aren’t ready to let go of their old manager persona. In this case, it’s not the manager, but rather their employees who are not willing to change, or even venture out the door opened for them.

And then there’s the story in between. Neither one nor the other. Management behaviours oscillating back and forth between Taylorist and Agilist tendencies depending on the circumstances. Multiple tipping points to climb forward or slide back appear and disappear and are only ever an interaction away.

When I was a people manager, I wanted to be a security blanket for my staff. To protect and wrap them in certainty and safety so that, they could focus unfettered on the work at hand. Free from the encumbrances of organizational politics and the cold vicissitudes of cost accounting. Like a parent protecting their children from the harsh realities and uncertainties of life, I didn’t think they were ready for the truth. As a parent and as a manager, I’d often wonder “Was I making the right call in protecting them?” I must admit there were times when it was simply easier to blanket the realities than it was to take the time to explain. So, “Whose interests was I protecting?

Now years later and having just read Dennis Bakke’s Joy At Work, something he said struck a chord with me.

“Paternalism kills any chance of a joyful workplace”

Dennis Bakke

He goes on to say that job security “…is the enemy of joyful work

His point was that managers around the world feel the need to take care of workers. This need, albeit an admirable response on the surface, “leaves people in a state of child-like dependence”. Unable to develop to their full potential, “trapped in the dead end goal of seeking security” rather than “seeking the psychic rewards that come with a creative, enterprising approach to work”.

It’s as if the good intentioned security blanket has become a lulling straitjacket stifling the creativity born from adversity and perpetuating the learned helplessness of follower-ship.

Here are a few security blankets I’ve seen transformed into straitjackets.

Organization and Job Design

I’ve seen organizations hire expensive management and HR consultancies to guide their efforts in re-structuring their organizations and re-designing their job profiles. The intent is to pay for a level of ready experience and expertise that isn’t available and would take a long time to develop internally. A reasonable intent on the surface. However, in practice I’ve noted 2 conclusions from the organizations themselves:

  1. “They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know”
  2. The resulting organizational structures and job descriptions (cobbled together from the “best-of-the-best” industry practices) curated expertly by the hired guns, elicit confusion. Looking more Frankenstein-ish than fit-for-purpose.

Work Packages and Assignments

The heart of good project management starts with a good WBS (Work Breakdown Structure). At a program level, this can take the form of work packages or work-streams. The intent to create small batches of work that can be independently monitored and controlled. Small batches enable faster progress and feedback. I’ve see well intentioned program managers create a bevy of work packages to centrally monitor and control. Yet, if I were to ask any work package owner how the other work packages are doing or even how the various work packages are connected, I get blank stares and shrugging shoulders. The results are even worst when the work packages are centrally assigned rather than volunteered for. The argument is that it’s far more efficient for one person to assign all the work than to take the time to provide transparency into everything so that, people can decide for themselves what they want to work on.

What & Also How

In the past, managers were chosen based on being the smartest person in the room. Managers often set and hold the vision for their people. The vision defines the “What” for their people. Often, a picture of what the future will look like. It’s little wonder then, that when the team runs into a challenge realizing its future goals, the manager naturally gets the urge to jump right in and contribute. They say their intent is only to help their team. Before they realize it, they’ve not only specified “what” the desired goals are but have laid out an irrefutable “how” for getting there. Where’s the learning, growth and joy for the team when they get to figure it out for themselves?

Before your security blanket becomes a straitjacket, ask yourself…

  1. Who and what am I protecting?
  2. How will I know when it’s time to cast off the security blanket?
  3. What’s the worst that can happen?

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Steve Jobs

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