Are managers to blame for the systems they exist in? (Spoiler: no)

Matthew Sherrington, charity consultant, wrote an interesting article called ‘Are managers gaslighting staff over wellbeing? (Spoiler: yes)’. The article suggests that the culture in the charity sector involves managers purposely overworking their direct reports to the point of damaging their wellbeing.

I’d like to offer a different point of view. Not to criticise or in any way undermine the point Matthew makes, which I think is an important one, everyone’s health and wellbeing is essential, but instead to suggest that the issues might have larger, deeper causes that are part of systems we exist within. Firstly, I think it’s worth quoting Matthew:

“Widely and insidiously, people’s wellbeing has routinely been damaged through work overload, unrealistic expectations, and poor decisions and direction from leadership… people feel inadequate, that they’re under-performing, and push themselves to the point of burnout. And that’s down to leaders and managers failing to make the hard choices about what should be done with the time and resources available, and setting a more balanced example. It starts at the top. Self-sacrificing leaders are dangerous for staff’s wellbeing, with the drive to do ever more, expand the scope of activities. Rarely –rarely – do leaders stop stuff to make new priorities possible, usually just loading up the organisation and people with more.”

I don’t want to in any way downplay the personal effects of burnout, feeling overwhelmed and stressed, or suggest that managers shouldn’t take some responsibility for the workload of the people they work with, but I do want to look into some of the systemic causes of the situation. I’ve noted some of my biases that inform my thinking at the end.

Poor practice

Lack of good management practice affects every industry, it isn’t unique to the charity sector. The Chartered Institute of Management reported that nearly half of managers hadn’t received any training during the year of their research. And research conducted by an organisational learning company found that 98% felt they’d benefit from more training. There are countless examples of people who are good at a job and in order to progress in their career the only option is to become a manager and be in a situation where they have to learn management skills whilst in the role. 

Bad management is a problem (and one that training alone won’t fix). But the problem with the bad manager narrative is that it focuses criticism on a particular group of people that is reminiscent of the worker/management conflict that arose in the eighties and doesn’t take account of the complex systems and structures we live in. 

I’ve wondered recently if the reason we have such poor management practices is largely affected by the function of management as an interface between two inherently incompatible systems; the individual and the organisation. There is an alienness about each other. An organisation doesn’t have a mind to empathise with the individual and its decisions are often obscured by the regulations of other organisations. The individual (of which there are many and they are varied) has motivations, experiences, feelings, and other stuff going on in their lives that the organisation isn’t aware of but which can affect the individuals work. The manager is expected to represent the interests of the organisation to ensure its success at the cost of the individual if needs be, but at the same time is expected to care about the individuals they work with in order to represent them to the organisation. Management is an ethical dilemma. I can’t think of any other situation in life where a similar interface exists, so it’s hardly surprising that management practice is not achieving what we might hope for it.

I don’t believe practice problems can be fixed at the practice level, I think we have to dig deeper into the principles beneath the practices.

Competing principles

We all have principles. The things that we believe and are important to us. We hardly ever state them explicitly but we know that we value characteristics like honesty in ourselves and others. If we needed to we could probably stack our principles in order from most important to us to least important, but we’d also want to caveat that stack with some statement about the ordering being very contextual and open to change. When a group of people come together to form an organisation it’s extremely unlikely they will all have the same principles and hold them in the same order in their individual principle stacks. 

Organisational culture comes out of the continual interplay of those principles stacks, taking into account that some people are better at communicating their principles than others, and that lots of other factors influence which principles are expressed in which situations. The worst attempts at principle stacking on an organisational level result in monocultures where everyone believes the same things are important. The second worst are where an organisation attempts to state its values (usually generic and without any ethical reasoning behind them) and expects all employees to align their own principle stacks with those organisational values. The organisation considers ‘that culture piece’ as ‘done’ and fails to recognise that implicit conflicts still exist for every single person. The best cultures are where people are allowed to have different values and openly discuss them and have them accepted.

If within a charity a monoculture grows up in which everyone believes that working long hours, having lots of pressure, etc., is higher on the principle stack, so more important than, looking after our and others mental health then people express that value in their behaviour by working too much. When I say ‘believe’ it, I don’t mean that they have gone through a principle stacking exercise and all decided together and explicitly stated and accepted it. Instead, I mean that over time, bit by bit, more and more people would have reorganised their own principle stacks to place work above health, and done so without realising it.

I don’t believe principle problems can be fixed at the principle level, I think we have to dig deeper into the philosophies beneath the principles.

How can we measure a person?

Now we’re getting into more philosophical questions about why we have systems in which people are overworked. One of those questions that might help us overcome a part of the system is, how can we measure a person?

If we asked an economist about measuring a person they might tell us about how productivity equals output per-hour per-worker. That calculation rolls up into what we refer to as the GDP of a country so it’s not a small idea. It’s an idea that came out of the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of time and motion studies, and probably one of the first management consultants and efficiency experts. Taylor monitored workers on production lines so that he could figure out how to optimise how they did their work. It is from his ideas that we get the ‘manager planning the work, worker doing to work’ approach and so the animosity that comes from creating an ‘us and them’. Taylor’s ideas probably contributed more to improving the quality of life of a considerable portion of the human race through improving GDP, so we should give him his due. The problem is that we’re still using ideas from over a hundred years ago to organise work today. The world of work has changed a lot in that time, mostly thanks to the internet, which makes the production-line approach to work nonsensical and damaging to the efficiency and effectiveness of modern organisations. 

Charities operate in the modern knowledge economy as workers use their knowledge to generate value for the organisation rather than their physical labour such as by shoveling coal. The value provided by workers has so much variability in inputs, length of time, skills and knowledge required to create, quality of output, and most importantly, impact. And yet we continue to measure work by distinct units. Since we no longer need to measure how many shovels full of coal we’ve moved we use the nearest proxy to value: time. We know that measuring a person by ‘hours worked’ doesn’t make much sense but we struggle with a viable alternative. Measuring a person by the hours they’ve worked leaves open the opportunity for that person to not do very much work during those hours, or create low quality work but be paid the same as someone who does high quality work, or negatively affect the effectiveness of a colleague or but a toxic influence and still be rewarded the same as if they were a positive asset. 

I don’t believe philosophy problems can be fixed at the philosophy level, I think we have to dig deeper into the paradigm beneath the philosophy.

The revolution isn’t over

A paradigm is a worldview. It lays deep in our psyche. All of our philosophies, principles and practices are built on top of this paradigm. 

The industrial revolution changed our world. It set the direction for the human race more than any other human-initiated event in the life of our species. The change from a way of life and economies that was based on agriculture and handicrafts to one based on large-scale mechanised industry had more of an effect on human beings than the change from hunter gatherers to farmers. The only comparable change is the invention of the internet, but we’ll have to wait a few hundred years more to see what affects that actually has (although if anyone thinks it isn’t going to lead to humans colonising other planets, inventing artificial life and lots other as yet unimaginable changes, let me know and I’ll convince you). When we think about the industrial revolution in this way it becomes a bit easier to understand why it forms so much of our worldview.

When we learn about the industrial revolution in school it’s usually about the technologies that were developed, the steam engines and bridges, but it’s the ideas that were the really interesting outputs. Before the industrial revolution a chair was made entirely by an individual craftsman and it was unique. Chair production during the industrial revolution became commoditised and standardised. One person made the legs, another person made the back, and another person put them all together, and all the chairs were the same. And making chairs in this way required coordination, otherwise you might have too many backs and not enough legs, which created management. Factories required large capital investments which changed the entire nature of businesses from family-owned to shareholder-backed. And those shareholders expected a return on their investment, which drove factory owners to treat their workers as a resource to be utilised. The industrial revolution resulted in mechanical thinking, the idea that people could be treated like machines when they came to work, given tasks to perform in standardised ways with predictable outputs. 

These ideas; commoditisation, standardisation, management, coordination, mechanisation, resource allocation and management, predictability, efficiency, they all still affect how we conceive of work, conduct ourselves, what we expect of others, how we organise work, and so many other things, even today centuries later.

Nothing is ever simple

So, the causes of the problems are many and complex (I’ve only discussed a few here but there are far more). Management skills and ethical dilemmas, principle stacks, measuring people in the wrong way, and hanging on to an industrial mindset all contribute to a complex problem, which in my view shouldn’t be blamed on a particular group of people. If we want to fix systemic structural issues, we need to approach them from some understanding of complex systems thinking. We need to abandon simplistic cause and effect thinking where we convince ourselves that the solution to bad management practice is better management training. 

We need to accept the interconnectedness of all parts. That includes all the things inside the organisation, even if we don’t think that what questions are asked in job interviews affects how managers behave on a day-to-day basis, and the things outside the organisation in people lives, in the economy, in politics, etc. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that our organisations are separate from the rest of the world. 

We need to open the space for emergence. Emergence is an important idea in systems thinking. It says that unplanned and unpredicted things occur in complex systems. There are always unintended consequences, especially if you take a narrow view of a situation and think that you can control it, and often those consequences are counter to what you were trying to achieve. Better then to focus on creating the right environment for the kinds of things you want to emerge.

We need to build feedback loops into our non-linear thinking. There are two types of feedback loops; positive feedback loops enhance or amplify changes and tend to move a system away from its equilibrium state towards instability whilst negative feedbacks tend to dampen changes leading a system to achieve an equilibrium state and be more stable. Positive and negative aren’t value judgements, it isn’t that positive feedback loops are good and negative are bad. They both occur in complex systems and both need to be understood in order to make system level changes.

Complex change cannot be planned or predicted, and that’s a hard thing for people and organisations to accept.

There are some modern practices that organisations could implement, not because they think that one solution solves one specific problem, although it might, but because the modern work environment should use modern practices.

Work collaboratively

The phrase ‘collaborative’ is often used without clear meaning or expectation, so let’s change that. In this context I use the word collaborative to denote a situation where a group of people are working together to solve a common problem or achieve a common goal. (For comparison, cooperative working is a group of people working together to achieve different goals).

Our usual way of working involves people working separately to achieve separate goals. It comes from industrial-era, Taylorist, production-line thinking and we try to apply it to modern knowledge work. It goes like this: Manager decides what work needs to be done, then assigns worker, then worker works in isolation to complete work, then passes it back to manager for inspection, manager either approves work or sends back for improvements. The modern knowledge work approach goes like this: manager and worker work together in the same shared document, making improvements as they go until the work is complete. The total time to complete a piece of work in the first approach is far longer than in the second. 

If there is too much work in progress and/or that work is taking too long to complete, good collaborative working can drastically reduce cycle time. It takes skill and practice but it is possible to have lots of people from different teams and functions working together in this way. It can also help people learn better as there is immediate feedback at the micro level. 

Decouple reward from work

Provide ways for people to diversify their work, contribute differently, and get paid more that don’t require climbing the career ladder. That ladder still needs to be there because some people do want to become managers and organisations need managers (well, maybe they don’t but that’s for another time), but it shouldn’t be the only way to progress. 

It is possible to completely decouple reward from work. Reward the person because they are going to contribute all the things that make them human to the organisation. Reward them for their skills and experience, their sense of humour, their attitude, their ability to form relationships and communicate with other people, all the things that actually provide value to the organisation. Don’t reward them based on units of work, which as we said above means the poor proxy of time. Working hours is an availability consideration, not a reward consideration, set them to suit the person and the organisation and don’t connect them to pay.

Embrace uncertainty

We’re led to believe that the higher up someone is the organisational hierarchy the more they know what’s going on. This usually isn’t the case. Every person has a limit to their cognitive load, and being paid more or having a more impressive job title doesn’t increase it. This means that the CEO can’t hold any more information in their head than the person who just started their career. We expect certainty from our leaders, but they just don’t have it. They never had it more stable times, but they certainly don’t have it in these uncertain times. 

Organisations that communicate certainty when there isn’t any aren’t being authentic with their people, and so when things do change as they inevitably do, the people lose faith in the messages of certainty. Better to communicate the uncertainty along with approaches for responding to it (Not plans, they imply certainty. And you don’t need a strategy, you just need a structure).

Being able to accept change, have fast feedback loops to understand the effects of the changes, and then changing direction quickly in response is an important mindset. Embracing change rather than expecting certainty gives people emotional and mental resilience and gives the organisation agility.

The end

Matthew said, “Leaders can take the first step in improving staff wellbeing by taking decisions on priorities, and on what people should STOP.” Maybe they can but it wouldn’t change the system that created the problem. Change the systems and structures in which these problems emerge and we’ll have a chance of solving the problem for everyone for good.


My biases that inform this post:

  • I write about charity, digital, innovation, etc., because it fascinates me. I’m not selling anything.
  • I differentiate between blame and responsibility, and I value people taking responsibility of their own volition over people being given blame by someone else.
  • I’m an INTJ (if you think that kind of thing is useful even without being scientific) so I tend to think more about systems and idea architectures than I do about people and how things affect them.
  • I conceive of ourselves and everything we think, feel and do as part of a single complex system that means nothing exists in isolation and so is unaffected or unaffecting of other parts of the system. And that problems cannot be truly solved using a simple cause-and-effect approach but instead require us to build the systems and structures that allow the preferred behaviours to emerge.
  • I believe that we apply outdated industrial-era concepts about work and labour to modern workplaces and cultures that are no longer fit for purpose, and I explore ideas on various levels about how to apply internet-era, digital transformation ideas to work.
  • I wholeheartedly believe in the work of charities and the charity sector as a force for good in society, although I question lots of notions about the role the sector takes in society now and in the future.

How do we create a diverse collective brain at work?