Blogger’s note: This is the third installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). For the first installment, click here – and for the second, click here.


 

So my primary goal in attending the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (AOM) in Anaheim earlier this month was simple:

Sit in a booth (see above photo) and ask conference-goers—most of whom were either students of, or some sort of expert on management or organizational theory—a few questions about managing.

That’s it.

The questions I intended to ask, however, were anything but straightforward. In the past I’ve referred to them as management’s “oldest, and most basic questions imaginable,”[1] and, so far as I can tell, they have yet to be satisfactorily answered…by anyone, “expert” or otherwise.

For instance:

(Q1) If the roles of advisor and evaluator are incompatible with each other,[2] why are managers expected to serve as both when it comes to their subordinates..?

(Q2) If managers are in fact responsible for evaluating their subordinates’ performance, doesn’t this create a “catch-22” for supervisors? After all, what seems to most influence employee performance is how well he or she is being managed…[3]

(Q3) Organizational efficiency can be improved by both “flattening” an organization (that is, reducing the number of layers in its hierarchy), and by limiting a manager’s “span of control” (which keeps supervisors from spreading themselves too thin).[4] But in order to flatten a hierarchy, one must necessarily increase the average manager’s span of control…

(Q4) Teamwork seems to require “taking one for the team” on occasion – or subordinating one’s own interests to those of the collective.[5] Except that sounds like something a communist would say, not a capitalist, right..?

(Q5) If the person closest to a problem is typically best equipped to solve it,[6] why are frontline employees routinely denied the authority to address those organizational problems that most affect them..?

(Q6) Why is it still who you know, and not what you know, that’s important at so many companies? In other words, why all the office politics..?[7]

(Q7) And then finally, what is the basis of managerial authority? Or, to put it even more simply, why is your boss your boss..?

So let’s get to some of the answers I heard.

 

May I have a moment of your time..?

When it comes to the incompatibility of roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” (Q1), most of the people I talked to did in fact recognize the conflict of interest here. As for how to address it, well…that’s where things got a little more complicated.

Some saw the circumstance as acceptable, despite the obvious paradox. A “balance” is needed, they argued, or this is simply part of the “challenge” of managing – answers that left me wondering whether they really understood what the word incompatible means.

Others, however, were more forthright. One individual, for instance, suggested that the notion that employees could see their boss as anything other than an evaluator was basically bull-****, as I think she put it. But the catch-22 raised in (Q2) proved trickier to dispense with. As I repeatedly pointed out in my conversations from that week, any manager held responsible for evaluating a subordinate’s performance is, in effect, being asked to assess his or her own capacity to manage.

I got some blank looks on that one.

My next question (Q3) was a bit easier for folks to navigate (or perhaps wiggle out of). Sometimes, they assured me, it was certainly necessary to “flatten the hierarchy,” while at other times it was of course best to reign in a manager’s span of control. But when I pressed them on this—pointing out that knowing when to flatten, and when not to, at the very last deserved further elaboration—I received either similarly blank looks, or was brushed off with something like “Well, it’ll depend on the circumstances…,” or that it should be evaluated on “a case by case basis.”

Sure – I can’t argue with that. But from a manager’s perspective, it’s just doesn’t leave you much to work with, does it? To say that sometimes you need to do one thing, and at other times you should do the exact opposite depending on the circumstances – but then not be able to clarify what those circumstances are? That’s like telling a medical student that sometimes chemotherapy is appropriate treatment, while in other instances surgery is best, but then confessing that you have no idea when either procedure should be used.[8]

 

What’s that, comrade?

Things didn’t get really interesting, however, until I started asking that question about “teamwork” (Q4).

To reiterate, good teamwork seems to require “taking one for the team” on occasion – or subordinating one’s interest to those of the of the collective. But that hardly sounds like the pursuit of self-interest which, according to most economists, is the cornerstone upon which free markets are based. In fact, as an organizing principle “teamwork” seems more in line with the thinking behind command (i.e. Communist) economies, as opposed to capitalist ones, where workers are expected to put aside their own selfish interests for the good of the whole.

So how did the CEOs, executives, and managers of for-profit enterprises come to rely so heavily on this particular concept?

The first time I pointed out this inconsistency/paradox to the someone in Anaheim, the reply I got was not what I expected. But that’s not because I hadn’t heard it before; I’d actually gotten it in response to some of my other questions as well. In fact, as the week wore on, this soon became the “answer” I received most frequently, no matter what question I asked.

(A few conference-goers even walked up to my booth and said this to me out of the blue.)

Here’s how it would typically play out: After pausing for a moment or two, the person I’d been talking to/interrogating would look me up and down—as if considering me, my booth, and the name of my blog for the first time—and then ask me something akin to the following:

“So…how do you make your money here? What’s your business model..?”

In other words, they’d change the subject.

Instead of taking a stab at my question—or simply admitting they didn’t have an answer for me—their primary concern would turn to figuring how I support myself and my site.

Suddenly they wanted to know what my angle was.

 

The disrupter’s dilemma

And you know what, I get it.

Back when I was a practicing chemist, if some self-described blogger had shown up in my lab—or at a conference I was attending—and started asking me a lot of pointed questions about my research, or the subject of chemistry in general, I’d probably react similarly. What are you doing here? I’d surely wonder. What’s your deal, anyway?

So, no – I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. To be fair, this is the sort of reaction that I probably deserved. I’d come to Anaheim to conduct my little inquisition knowing full well that some of the questions I had in mind to ask have yet to be answered by anyone – even the great Peter Drucker. For instance, that question about “flattening” an organization versus limiting a manager’s span of control? It’s been bouncing around the management community for almost 80 years.[9]

I was also well aware that just my showing up at AOM’s meeting was likely to ruffle a few feathers. I was at a conference on managing, for goodness sake, and the name of my blog is insubordination (not to mention that I have posts titled “Why your boss probably sucks” and “That MBA isn’t worth as much as you think”). I’m surprised that anyone in attendance—many of whom teach at those same business schools I’ve criticized—was willing to talk to me at all.

Finally, and truth be told, I have to admit I was in Anaheim under somewhat false pretenses. I really wasn’t all that interested in hearing what other people had to say in response to my questions because I’ve already come up with answers of my own. (To find out what those answers are, stay tuned to my “Main Series” posts).[10] So I shouldn’t be too surprised if some people picked up on this despite my best efforts to conceal that fact, and were put off as a result.

So very quickly I found myself facing a bit of a dilemma.

On the one hand, my stated goal was still to ask conference attendees those seven questions I laid out earlier (Q1-7). But on the other, I was also really hoping to increase interest in, and traffic to my blogsite. And yet if I was making people uncomfortable with the questions I was asking, was my pursuit of the former jeopardizing my efforts to accomplish the latter?

You see, it had quickly became clear to me that I was losing people when I pressed them for answers, or asked them to explain themselves. It wasn’t that they’d always try to change the subject, either. Their demeanor and/or body language might change, for instance – they might make less eye contact, or begin to slowly edge away from my booth. Or just excuse themselves entirely.[11]

So what was I to do?

Was it better for me to continue to ask pointed questions about the paradoxes, inconsistencies, and shortcomings in current management and organizational theory to the very individuals who were either responsible for, or should be doing something about it?

Or should I just sit back and listen to their take on “good management”, even though I feel like I’ve heard (and dismissed) it all before?

(For more on why I’m so dismissive of what others have to say about “good management” in general, please see my series of posts “Why you can throw out that management advice book (Parts 1,2&3)” and “Is nothing sacred?” You might also check out any one of the entries in my “Paradox of the Week” post category, or those in my “Unconventional (Mis)management Non-wisdom” post category.)

Would it be better for me, in other words, to provoke, or promote?

 

Answers, not questions

In the end, I opted to listen.

And you know what? I’m glad I did.

Even though much of what I heard was familiar to me, and despite the fact that I spent most of my time answering questions about myself, and my blog, instead of asking them (please see last week’s post “FAQs”), I nevertheless did learn a couple of things.

First, it would appear that I’m not alone in my frustration. There seem to be plenty of academics and students and scholars of managing who are just as perplexed as I once was by the current state of management and organizational theory. In fact, I encountered more than one individual who was ready to accuse the Academy of Management—the “preeminent professional association of management and organizational scholars,”[12] mind you—of being poorly managed…if you can wrap your head around the irony in that sentiment.

And just as importantly, I heard a few opinions and comments that were genuinely insightful…and which I’ll get to in next week’s post.

Before I do that, however, I guess I have one final FAQ to answer: What exactly is my business model here? How do I plan to make any money? By just blogging?

Well, not that my finances are necessarily any of your business, but here goes:

If I had to guess, I’d say that anyone who can come up with a better way to manage a business—any for-profit business, that is—might be able to make a little money telling people about it.

And by “better managed,” I mean is able to articulate a way of managing that allows a company to tap into their employee’s talents, ingenuity, and enthusiasm more fully (as opposed to discouraging their workers), as well as enables that organization to solve problems quicker, and anticipate and/or react to changes to the marketplace faster, more efficiently, and more profitably – all the while operating in a way that the community and society as a whole can be proud of, as opposed to having to continually regulate.

It seems to me that might be something people would eventually be willing to pay for to learn about.

Right?

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Please see my post: “Why your boss probably sucks,” paragraph 13.

[2] Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 209.

[3] Wagner, Rodd, and James K. Harter. 2006. 12: The Elements of Great Managing. New York: Gallup Press; Shaer, Steven J. 2013. Fix Them or Fire Them. Challenger Books.

[4] Simon, Herbert. “The Proverbs of Administration.” As reprinted in Jay M. Shafritz & J. Steven Ott. 2001. Classics of Organization Theory (5th edition). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., pp. 112-124.

[5] Fayol, Henri. 1949. General and Industrial Management. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.

[6] Peters, Tom, and Robert Waterman. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

[7] Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization (Executive Edition). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc. and SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 149-181.

[8] For more on why this point is so important, please see my post “It’s not what you do. It’s when you do it.

[9] Simon, op. cit., pp. 112-124.

[10] Here’s a hint for (Q1): If the roles of “advisor” and “evaluator” are incompatible, then one of them probably has to go, right?

[11] Fortunately for me, not everyone I encountered was so easily put off. And to those of you who weren’t, or remained patient with me, my questions, and my general insubordination, I very much appreciate it. Thank you.

[12] From AOM’s website.