Sunday, 13 January 2013

Managers/leaders can't 'stop the clock' they can only operate in real time, so let's teach them this way too

Training courses and management books feed a steady diet of models that, in their abstracted ways, paint a highly simplified picture of managerial work: one that is deterministic and sets managers in a special place over others.  The models also try to force a distinction between the work of managers and leaders - to my mind this distinction is artificial and rather too neat.

For example, managers create order through planning and budgeting whilst leaders inspire, create visions and take risks without ever placing these concepts in the context of actual practice.  

Of course, there are different types of managerial work and some of this work does lend itself to being chunked up into neat labels of activity.  At one level this could be helpful in, for example, analysing what type of work is being done over a period of hours or days and then making a plan to shift the balance.  However, there is a lot being taken-for-granted which management teaching chooses to either gloss over or ignore.

Managers are taught as if they are able to 'stop the clock'

So what's being taken-for-granted?  The common assumption in many of the models is that managers and leaders are able to exert their will on a system in ways that are unique from those whom they are influencing.  It's as if they, and they alone, have been given the gift of being able to separate time and space:  as if they were able to stop the organisational clock to allow them time to make plans before communicating them in an inspirational way, of course, to an expectant and uniformily receptive followership; if only it were that simple.

Leadership and management is about creating meaning with others

If management and leadership is about anything, then it is about getting things done with others.  To be able to get things done managers have to be able to create a shared meaning of their ideas and intentions.  The key point is that meaning making is a two way process of gesture and response and this is something that is taking place continuously.  To be effective, managers/leaders have to understand that they are always part of the process and cannot separate themselves from it.


Leaders and managers do have influence but...

Managers and leaders do have important roles and their position in a hierarchy does mean that they are able to exert an influence that is unequal to others.  They do, for example, create missions and visions, or design structures, or recruit the 'right' people or identify priorities.  However, in exerting this influence they are doing so as active participants with and not separate from others. 

In practice, their managerial 'products' will have been the result of many conversations with each person's response bringing forth new angles and insights that change the manager's first idea and which, in turn, brings forth more ideas.  The result is something that is always evolving from one moment to the next, never static and irreducible in terms of time and space. 

Implications for management learning and management development

The interactional work that managers and leaders do with each other and with those they lead/manage is highly complex.  The models that dominate so much of management development oversimplify practice and, rather more importantly, fail to encourage any real time understanding of how this interactional work gets done.  The models may make the ideas easier to grasp but in the increasingly complex world of organisations this approach is not viable.  It is the exploration of actual practice that will  connect learning with working and learners with workers/managers/leaders/etc. 

Image via Photobucket

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