Senior business leaders have to look at the business as both a collection of people and as a unified abstraction. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how these contradictory perspectives can lead to counterproductive decision-making.
Effective business leaders must constantly keep two equally valid – and inherently contradictory – views of their organizations in focus at all times. In one sense, an executive has to treat each and every instance of workplace drama as a unique conflict that must be resolved swiftly according to ethical, legal and administrative principles in order to maintain a just and fair workplace. In another sense, an executive must view his or her entire organization as if it were one gestalt entity – as a purely notional assembly, devoid of actual individuals – in order to efficiently govern it as a business. Small wonder then that many executives seem a bit barmy; business leaders have to grapple with their organizations’ problems in much the same way that a physicist grapples with the particle-wave duality paradox. You can have justice at the office level and failure at the entity level, or vice versa, but rarely can you ever have both justice and success because either one seems to foul up the other.
As a practical example of what I’m on about, let me take you back a few years to when I was working in a large public sector organisation. Our department had inherited a particularly loathsome employee from another arm of the company. This employee – who I’ll call ‘Bobby’  – had been a troublemaker and a screw-up in his first job with the larger enterprise. Rather than fire him, Bobby’s boss had exiled him to our campus under a program intended to rehabilitate difficult employees. Trouble was, Bobby had no intention of rehabilitating. In just a few months, he’d racked up a bunch of administrative infractions for sloppy work, a bad attitude and no sense of professional responsibility. Exasperated, I initiated the paperwork to have Bobby terminated for cause… and our site’s top executive refused to sign my request for a termination order.
Stunned, I arranged a meeting with the site head – let’s call him Bob – to get some answers. Bob was uncharacteristically forthcoming with me: he explained that his boss had launched a new quality program at the regional office that measured each of his sites on a few arbitrary metrics. One of the key elements that our location was being graded on was our overall personnel strength: we were authorized a certain number of personnel, and we were graded every fiscal quarter on how close we got to our allowed maximum. Bob reviewed the personnel numbers with his division and department heads every month, and exhorted us all to keep our workgroups as robustly staffed as possible. Since one of the departments was experiencing greater than normal personnel losses, it meant that our overall site numbers were decreasing. Therefore, Bob said, it was in everyone’s best interests to forestall any further losses until after the fiscal year’s final personnel strength report was calculated at headquarters.
I understood Bob’s position, but argued that I felt his insistence on managing to a high-level metric was misguided. My department’s numbers were strong, and were contributing positively to raising the averages for everyone else. We weren’t letting the team down. Meanwhile, Our Bobby was threatening that success.
I proposed that Bob allow us to fire this one problem employee, because Bobby’s antics were seriously undermining good order and discipline in the rest of his workgroup. Bobby’s shenanigans angered the good employees – and management’s apparent refusal to take action to punish Bobby for them was infuriating to the good employees. They worked hard and followed the rules faithfully. To see a co-worker publically flaunt the rules and get away with it bred hate and resentment. The longer this situation went unresolved, I said, the more personnel I’d probably lose to transfers, voluntary resignations, retirements and even other disciplinary problems. Bobby was a cancer threatening the health of my entire department. Yes, Bobby’s loss would decrement the site’s overall numbers by 0.1 per cent in the short run… but retaining him would probably cost us significantly more attrition over the long run.
Bob listened, and countered that there probably wouldn’t likely be a ‘long run’ for any of us if we didn’t endure some short-term pain. It was rumoured that one of our region’s sites was going to be shuttered as part of an enterprise-wide ‘right-sizing’ initiative. We needed to fight aggressively for every relative advantage that we could get over our rivals if we wanted to keep our site open. Therefore, every 0.1 per cent mattered. With nearly a thousand people on the payroll, the prospect of mass layoffs was (rightfully!) constantly on the minds of our site’s executives. For all of Bob’s faults, he wanted to keep us open. The country was deep in recession and good jobs were scarce. Bob could retire and enjoy his pension, but few other workers could. I empathized.
In the end, Bob and I held two very different views of what was most important for the company. I considered the long-term health of my department to be more important than the site’s constantly-fluctuating quality metrics. I believed that the damage Bobby was inflicting on our team’s morale was much harder to repair than his billet; I felt that I could easily hire a replacement worker. Bob, in turn, considered the long-term health of the organisation as a gestalt to be far more important than any given department’s temporary discomfort. He viewed the company as a unified body that was running away from a metaphorical tiger – to Bob, short-term discomfort was a much better prospect than permanent death. His position was cold and a bit harsh, but pragmatic.
Both of our perspectives were right in their own way. Our respective needs were each wholly appropriate for the situations that we were struggling to overcome. We both recognized and empathized with each other’s point of view. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to work out an effective solution that addressed both of our needs. Months later, long after the year’s metrics were finalized, the political climate changed enough to let me terminate Bobby. I never did completely mitigate Bobby’s effect on is coworkers before I left the agency. From what I’ve heard, it appeared that Bob’s attention to actively managing the site’s performance metrics didn’t make a significant difference to upper management’s right-sizing plans. They’re still being considered for elimination.
I’ve seen and heard about dozens of examples of this component/whole duality paradox. We often see it in schools all over the USA, where principles refuse to expel disruptive students because their aggregate statistics require as many students to be on the rolls as possible. The teachers that are forced to endure the bad students’ behaviour become demoralized because they feel – rightly – that the administration doesn’t have their back. We also see it in see it non-profit groups where organisers refuse to dismiss caustic volunteers because there simply aren’t enough people available who are willing to work to keep the entity going. Other volunteers become demoralized because they feel – again, rightly – that the organisers value the jack-wagon’s participation more than they value their own. Whenever and wherever the macro perspective trumps the micro perspective, esprit de corps erodes and workgroups slowly unravel. Eventually, the disaffected arm of the organisation becomes so corrupted that it has to be amputated like a gangrenous limb in order to save the rest… and sometimes even that comes too late to stave off the organisation’s eventual decline.
From an organisation-wide perspective, the loss in effectiveness of a discrete component appears to be an acceptable price to pay for the survival and success of the whole. That’s what shareholders, governance boards, and voters all demand – continued success at the gestalt level. More profits. More dividends. More growth. Those goals require leaders to possess a certain amount of cold ruthlessness, letting individuals fall unjustly by the wayside in the pursuit of larger goals.
From a departmental perspective, the degradation of ones workgroup threatens the continued effectiveness of the entire organisation. Each department serves some vital role in the company; if they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t exist. Therefore, any internal threat to the component’s role also threatens the whole, and must be rectified swiftly. This goal requires leaders to possess the moral courage to take decisive corrective action, even when such action might be polarizing or unpopular.
Unfortunately, a person’s position within the company inevitably colours their perspective. The closer to line leadership that you are, the more than you recognize and value discrete individuals – everyday people – and demand justice for them. The higher up you progress in the corporate ladder, the more abstracted you become from the people that make up the company, and the more that you start to think of the company in terms of conceptual blocks – groups, departments and divisions – because there are simply too many individual employees to know and to remember.
That’s why the top-level, notional, ‘better numbers’ approach always tends to win the day – even if the numbers under consideration don’t paint an accurate picture of the organisation that they purport to represent. As Alfred Korzybski said ‘the map is not the territory’; any abstraction of a thing is not actually that thing, so a person’s reactions to such an abstraction should be appropriately skeptical. We comprehend large companies as monolithic entities the same way that we view our bodies as single organisms even though we know intellectually that each is a massive and staggeringly complex collective of interconnected-but-dissimilar components.
We do one another a disservice when we refer to large organisations as if they were individuals: ‘IBM introduced a new product today’ invokes images of a dapper gentleman in a conservative suit – not a massive global corporation that’s twice as large as the whole of the British armed forces.  IBM is only a single entity when it comes to the law and popular imagination; in practical reality, it’s a gargantuan confederacy of workgroups, each with their own unique culture, values, histories, and objectives. Put simply, you can’t take ‘IBM’ out for a coffee, but you can take an IBMer.
This, however, is how we demand that our executives function: we urge them to make decisions based on the organisation as a whole, abstracted from the myriad components that comprise it. I believe strongly that this is an understandable and ultimately counterproductive expectation. While an organisation may be more valuable (and perhaps more powerful) than the sum of its parts, it is indisputably a collective of parts. For the long-term health of the body politic, leaders as all levels must consistently act to protect the health and integrity of the parts over which they hold dominion. Justice and integrity at the micro level will usually contribute to prosperity at the macro level, whereas no amount of success as an entity can flow down the hierarchy to correct the rot befouling an entity’s constituent parts.
I understand why we expect executives and other senior leaders to try and hold two inherently contradictory views of their organisations in their minds simultaneously. I also appreciate how seductive it can be to abstract an incomprehensible snarl of individuals into a well-defined whole. It’s much easier to fly a single-seat airplane than it is to direct a marching band. That being said, just leadership requires all of us holding managerial power to forsake the easy metaphors and to address our responsibilities as they actually are: messy, complicated, interconnected, and completely human.
 I always anonymize bad bosses as ‘Bob’, so I’ll try anonymizing this bad employee as ‘Bobby’. Don’t know if I’ll keep up the convention; let me know how it strikes you.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.