Managing Excerptations: Restructuring and the Circle of Safety

management Purpose Leadership Restructuring

I started my blog to kick my non-writing habit. I've now got enough material to start blocking out a book (hooray!). So while I'm doing that, I thought I'd start a small series looking at some of the books that have influenced me.

"Managing expectations" is one of my least favourite managerialisms. I cringe whenever I hear it. Expecting is about hope, which is the only thing that keeps many professionals going. We take what we can from life and do our best with it.

So this series is about some of the excerpts that caught my eye over the last six months. They're part of what gives me hope about the profession of management.

I'm not a fan of restructures. One thing that happens in restructures is the people who don't fit tend to leave. In this sense it is the unstructured who are pushed out. But a structure is a pattern we understand, so the unstructured are simply people we don't understand. Which makes a restructure more of a destructure.

An organization that is destructured too often can become a self-reinforcing mediocrity. Monoculture can predominate. Not pissing off the boss becomes a predominant mode of survival. The organization tends towards the Peter Principle and becomes full of people working at their terminal roles.

An indicator of this is a large cadre of people with significant salary entitlements and pension protection. Defending your interests becomes more important than contributing to purpose. No wonder management professionals (of which I am one) have to deal with a constant stream of articles condemning our practices.

Where did we go wrong? As an historian, I spend a lot of time tracking the entry of management ideas that seemed good at the time but end up contributing to destructive pathologies. This involves a lot of reading and on this particular subject, a book I frequently return to is Simon Sinek's 2014 book 'Leaders Eat Last'. IMHO it's better than his more famous 'Start with Why' but that's another conversation. Sinek,

"As gatekeepers, leaders establish the standards of entry - who should be allowed into the circle and who should be kept out, who belongs and who doesn't. Are they letting people in because of their grades in college or where they worked before or because of their character and whether they fit the culture? Letting someone into an organization is like adopting a child and welcoming them into your home. These people will, like everyone else who lives there, have to share in the responsibility of looking after the household and the others who live in it. The standards a leader sets for entry, if based on a clear set of human values, significantly impact people's sense of belonging and their willingness to pull together and contribute to the team"

I suggest that if we required hiring managers to live with new hires in their homes for an extended period, we would find an entirely different cadre of people at work. I'd expect many organizations to collapse. Not only because fewer people would get hired, but also because people might find their bosses homes to be less than appealing. The first rule of being a good manager is to be a good human. And the first place to get a sense of someone's goodness is in their home. Sinek,

"Leaders are also responsible for how wide the circle of safety extends. As an organization grows the leaders at the top must trust the layers of management to look out for those in their charge. However, when those inside the bureaucracy work primarily to protect themselves, progress slows and the entire organization becomes more susceptible to external threats and pressures. Only when the circle of safety surrounds everyone in the organization, and not just a few people or a department or two, are the benefits fully realized."

This goes to one of the fundamental reasons I'm not a fan of the functional model of organization. It encourages too much cronyism. People picking people that agree with local optima at the expense of enterprise optima. It leads to a race to the bottom. Your best people will always be the ones who challenge orthodoxy. But these are the very people who get squeezed out by destructuring. Sinek takes an anthropological look at the pathologies of the functional model,

"Without the protection of our leaders, everyone outside the inner circle is forced to work alone or in small tribes to protect and advance their own interests. And in so doing, siloes form, politics entrench, mistakes are covered up instead of exposed, the spread of information slows and unease soon replaces any sense of cooperation and security."

Too much is made of the leader vs manager debate. It's a false dichotomy and that's what my book looks at. But the principle here is quite valid. We (the management profession) just aren't doing a good enough job at making people feel safe. We aren't protecting people as if they were children in our home (and, sadly, we know that not everyone protects children). This comes down to making public stands based on values of humanity, community and society.

Which doesn't involve destructuring.