*Blogger’s note: This is the fourth installment in a series of posts describing my experiences at the Academy of Management’s (AOM) 2016 Annual meeting in Anaheim, CA (August 5-9). To see the other posts in this series, please click on the respective links – #1: Images of Organization (a short video), #2: FAQs, and #3: The disruptor’s dilemma.


 

My primary aim in traveling to Anaheim last month was simple: Ask those attending the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual Meeting a few, perhaps pointed questions about managing. (If you’d like to be reminded of what those questions were, please check out my post “’Live’ from the Academy of Management’s 2016 Annual Meeting.”)

Recall also that last week, I’d begun describing some of the answers I was getting…and some of the reactions.

In more than a few instances, for example, my line of questioning was enough to make people uncomfortable enough to want to change the subject. But in some cases, just the name of my blog seemed enough to prompt a reaction. For instance, on Day 2 of the five-day conference a woman came up to me with a grin on her face. She asked if I’d been checking out the expressions on people faces as they passed my booth.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re getting some interesting looks,” she replied.

But let’s get back to what I heard from those who did take the time to stop and talk to me. As I pointed out in last week’s post, much of it wasn’t terribly insightful. In fact, if I’m completely honest, a lot of what I heard I’ve heard before – usually in the pages of a management advice book. And so for the most part, these were ideas/answers/explanations that I’ve considered—and dismissed—in the past.

But a few people did have something to offer – and in particular, two individuals stood out to me. So this week, I’d like to introduce you to the first—Melissa—and then next week I tell you about what Joyce had to say.

 

Melissa

Melissa, who I met on the first day, is a vice president at a firm specializing in revenue cycle management (RCM) and accounts receivable management (ARM). As I understand it, this means her company sells the software and services that other businesses use to collect what’s owed to them, or to the companies contracted by them.

Her presence at the conference, however, might be better explained by the fact that she is also an executive coach of sorts. Her aim in particular is to “create a space for peer-to-peer interactions” between CEOs and executives outside of their normal work environments, as I recall her describing it – something she argued is important because it allows CEOs, executives, and other managers to seek out each other’s advice, and benefit from each other’s experiences in a setting that is uncomplicated by the organizational politics that might be found within their own companies. And frankly, if I were a CEO, I could see where that might be pretty helpful.

Melissa is also Harvard MBA – and when I asked her what she most learned from that experience, her answer took me by surprise. “Humility, she replied, which is not at all what I expected. After all, this is the institution that has produced the likes of Robert McNamara,[1] Stephen Schwartzman,[2] and Jeffrey Skilling.[3]

Just as encouraging to me was Melissa’s reply to my following question:

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

For those of you familiar with my blog, you probably realize that this is a particularly big deal for me. Indeed, it is pretty much the reason I started writing about management in the first place (please see the “About the Blogger” sidebar on the home page). Managers, I’ve concluded, should be listening to their employees as opposed to the other way around. I’ve also argued in the past that “the continued inability of most companies to tap into the enormous intellectual potential of their employees is perhaps the single biggest missed business opportunity of the last several millennia.”[4] To my mind, businesses wrongly deny their frontline employees the necessary authority and resources to decide how best to solve their own problems, or those they might encounter in the course of their work.

So there’s that.

Melissa, after acknowledging that issue raised by my question is indeed a problem at most companies, then assured me that things were in fact changing for the better. Attitudes regarding “decision rights,” as she put it,[5] are evolving – and workers at all levels are being granted more of a say in decision-making processes. As examples of institutions where this is already the case, she singled out Southwest Airlines, Zappos, as well as the US Military.

Great, I thought – although for me, it can’t happen fast enough.

 

Why is your boss your boss?

Melissa’s response to my last question is something I’d like to spend a little more time discussing. And that question was:

Why is your boss your boss? 

To be honest, I’ve always been a little bit struck by the power of this particular question. Often it’ll essentially stop people in their tracks for what often seems like several minutes while they gather their thoughts. And I can almost tell what they’re thinking just by their expressions: Why are you asking me such a STUPID question?

But once they’ve take a moment to consider my question (possible after I’ve pressed them to do so), they’ll usually respond in one of three ways:

 

  1. Because he/she can fire me.

The first answer I get is perhaps the most obvious: Because my boss has the power to fire me. And to be honest, for a long time I considered this an acceptable response/reason as well – that is, sufficient justification for my manager’s authority. That because someone has the power to fire me, I must listen to them, or do what that person tells me to do. Seems straightforward enough.

But if by “fire” you mean the power to terminate a particular worker’s employment contract? Well, as an employee I have that power is well. (Hint: It’s called “quitting.”) And so far as I can tell, it’s still far easier for me to resign than it is for an organization to fire me. A person might give two week’s notice if they want to be professional about it, but there’s nothing requiring them to do so. Workers can basically walk off the job at their pleasure. Employers, on the other hand, may find themselves facing a lawsuit if they fire someone without showing just cause, or giving ample notice.[6] So when it comes to who can fire whom, employees may actually have a bit of advantage.

 

  1. Knowledge is power

The second response I get to this question goes something like this:

“Because my manager has more experience than I. He/she knows as much (or more) about the work I do than I do. Therefore, he/she SHOULD be telling me what to do.”

Again, on the face of it this seems convincing enough. The superior expertise, or greater knowledge of many managers relative to those who work for them would seem a sound basis for managerial authority. Isn’t it often the case, after all, that a manager will have held (or excelled at) those positions for which he or she is now responsible for managing? A sales manager, for instance, who was once a salesperson him- or herself. It would seem to make perfect sense to promote your best salesperson to sales manager, and have that person bring everyone else’s productivity up to that standard.

Perhaps – but this is just not possible for all managers in all instances. Consider, for instance, that while employed as a pharmaceutical scientist, I typically reported to another chemist who had considerably more experience than I in the field. But my boss?[7] He often reported to someone without any training in chemistry whatsoever, and who often lacked a degree in the natural sciences. Instead, this individual (often the CEO) had majored in finance or accounting. Or they simply had their MBA.

Obviously then, not all managerial “authority” can be based on expertise in a particular field, or superior knowledge of a particular industry. In fact, it’s unsustainable. Imagine if the CEO of a pharmaceutical company was expected to have advanced degrees in chemistry, biology, microbiology, law, and accounting, as well as experience in drug development, marketing, and sales? After all, it is not atypical for a CEO to have vice presidents responsible for each of these important areas reporting to him or her. Consider too, that companies tend to hire specialists to bring in needed expertise to an organization. And if that’s true, why then expect that person to take orders from someone who, by their own admission, has little or no knowledge of this specialized field?[8]

Clearly then, basing “managerial authority” on expertise alone is not the most convincing of arguments either.

 

  1. Because that’s how it is

This third and final answer is the one that Melissa offered – although I recall her phrasing it a bit more eloquently than this. Notably too, she responded without hesitation. In most cases, I found this to be the last answer people offer – if they offer it at all.

As Melissa put it, when we take a job somewhere, we “opt in” to this notion of managerial authority. That is to say, as part of our contract for employment, we consciously (or unconsciously) accept that our boss will be our boss for however long we decide (or are allowed) to work there. When our boss tells us to do something, or when to do it, we have already implicitly agreed to listen to them, and act accordingly. This is something we accept “in exchange for employment,” as I think Melissa put it.

But why have we come to believe this? What is the justification for this understanding/interpretation of what it means “to manage” (or be managed)?

 

Why your boss is your boss

I’m going to wrap up this post by hopefully planting a seed of doubt in your mind.

In my opinion, we accept the notion of managerial authority because we’ve somehow come to believe (or have been led to believe) that this interpretation of “managing” is consistent with some fundamental economic or organizational principle. That somewhere in the science of business or in management theory there is a logical, provable, and rational reason for why employees report to their managers, as opposed to the other way around. And any business that opts to do otherwise, it would therefore follow, is putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to their competitors failing to do so.

This is simply what management is.

When your manager says “jump,” you ask “how high?” because to do otherwise would surely compromise your organization’s already slim chances of surviving. Sure, you might exercise a little discretion in your work, but when it gets down to it, and push comes to shove, you should defer to your boss, instead of he or she conceding to you, because that’s what it takes to succeed.

But what if that wasn’t true?

And let me just say this again because it’s important: What if that wasn’t true..?

Alright – that’s all for now. Next week I’ll tell you about Joyce.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] McNamara is the former President of the Ford Motor Company and US Secretary of Defense who, during the Johnson administration, may have misled the President concerning the attack of a US destroyer in August of 1946 (known as the second “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”). This is thought to have contributed directly to the escalation of the military conflict that would lead to the Vietnam War. He would later use metrics—that is, body counts—to assess the progress of the US Military in that war (From the R. McNamara Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.)

[2] Schwarzman is Chairman and CEO of the Blackstone Group. In a 2007 interview for “The Guardian,” Schwarzman described his view of financial markets as follows: “I want war, not a series of skirmishes… I always think about what will kill off the other bidder.” (from the S. Schwarzman Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.) In August of 2010, he compared the Obama administration’s plan to raise carried interest taxes to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, as statement for which he later apologized. (“How billionaires destroy democracy,” by Neil Brooks and Linda McQuaig. April 1, 2012. Salon.com.)

[3] Skilling is the former CEO of Enron who was convicted of federal felony charges in that company’s collapse. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was purportedly Skilling’s favorite book, and while at Enron he developed a performance evaluation scheme that became known as “rank and yank” in which a certain percentage of employees would be fired from their existing job, regardless of absolute performance. (From the J. Skilling Wikipedia entry. Retrieved Sept 1, 2016.)

[4] From my post: “Five books every manager should read.”

[5] The first time I encountered this particular management phrase—“decision rights”—it was in Charles Koch’s Book Good Profit. (For my somewhat less-than-flattering review of this text, please see my post “Charles Koch would like the world to buy his book”.) Personally, I still prefer the less jargon-y “decision-making power,” but that’s just me.

[6] I realized I’ve raised a lot of issues here – complex ones that deserve a far more thorough treatment than I am able to offer in this particular post. So as much as I hate doing this, I’m going to leave this for a future post. Please stay tuned.

[7] At the time (the late 90s and early 00s), the pharmaceutical industry was notably male-dominated, especially in R&D. Perhaps as a consequence, I never found myself reporting to a woman ever in my entire career as research chemist, nor was there ever a woman to be found anywhere in my chain of command.

[8] Ditto endnote #6.