Recently I was asked about my opinion of bosses, or actually whether I’ve ever encountered any of them with the ability and willingness to listen to information “from below”. Basically the answer is, I know a very few who are not completely hopeless. The majority is. Here are the reasons as I see them:
I think we have to distinguish between two classes of bosses, owners/founders and managers. Both are problematic, but for different reasons 🙂
Owners/founders commonly have very clear ideas of what their company is about and how it should be run. Their problem is to cope with growth and to let go of details. Frequently they are experts in the company’s business, sometimes they’ve invented the whole category. They know what they’re talking about, and that shapes their self-perception. There are exceptions, but most tend to feel they are in control, even when they operate wide outside of their area of expertise. Convincing someone like that may be anything between hard and impossible, even if you’ve got a case.
The other group is that of managers somewhere inside of a steep hierarchy, either in the private or in the public sector. I think it does not make much of a difference which, the mechanisms are the same, and they also and especially apply to politics.
Mid-rank managers and politicians have either been appointed or they work their way “up”. They are incentivized to show blind allegiance to their superiors and to ask for the same from the ranks below. What if the hierarchy is not steep? Well, forget it. Normally they are, because the way to get up is by forming armies of followers. Therefore the number of stupid reasons for expanding the hierarchy is infinite and hardly ever contested. The system of “fat hierarchies” serves everyone in it all too well.
Steep hierarchies have a lot of negative effects, for instance they are an incredible waste of money, but the most devastating effect is, that they decouple the making of decisions from the rationality necessary to make the right ones. Decisions are pushed up the hierarchy until they are made by people who don’t have any of the knowledge necessary to do so. Rational decisions based on facts are replaced by arbitrary decisions based on gut-feelings and outdated rules of thumb.
Once you haven’t actually worked in a field for 20 years, you lack even the ability to distinguish between big problems and small details. Vague familiarity becomes a criterion for prioritizing. You tend to focus on the few things you still believe to at least partially understand, neglecting the real issues, ignoring feedback from the own organization, increasingly relying on outside consultancy.
In the private sector this sooner or later spells doom for the company. Inevitably making the wrong decisions, it finally spirals down and dies.
In politics and in the public sector we don’t see that kind of natural selection, because bad performance does not have any consequences. People fall out of their careers as well, but the reasons are completely different and more connected with intrigue and struggles between warring factions.
Btw, if you think this is a case for privatization and against the public sector, forget about it. Natural selection in the private sector normally comes too late and only when all the damage that can be done already has been done. Apart from that, once a certain size is reached, “too big to fail” eliminates natural selection altogether.
Anyway. Now, if steep hierarchies are so bad, why do we still have them? Is there anything they’re good at?
Turns out, yes, there is a compelling reason for their existence, and that is that they water down individual responsibility. They are the way to go when you want to make people do things they normally wouldn’t do. They are made for the military. They are made to make normal people kill other normal people. If killing is not your job, you’re better off without hierarchical insanity 😀
Does that mean there are no bosses worth working for? No. I know a few. The problem is, that they are exceptions, and that the excellent work they do building up their department for a long time is easily ruined by someone mediocre in a short span. I guess that’s the reason why even the best companies inevitably vanish. It’s all too much dependent on personality.
Of course you can do it yourself, go into management and try to make it all different. Many have tried, many have failed, sinking their ship on the rocks of organizational petrification. But even if you should be lucky and succeed, there’s one inherent problem: you won’t have the time any more to do the work that you love, the work that so much deserves to be organized by good managers. You’ll do what you wish others would do, in order for you to be at the height of your abilities and creativity. And that’s how you’d be wasted.
Pessimistic? Yes, sometimes 🙂