“Middle Manager Bounce Off”
How many times have the management consultants been ‘in’ and after leaving, have left little or no trace of their passing?
Despite massive investment there is no discernable performance improvement, the retention figures still look as if we are running a call centre and our safety record is second to everyone.
Why is it that what seemed a logical and progressive implementation model failed to have any lasting impact on our business?
Could it have anything to do with ‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’?
‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’ is a little understood phenomenon that appears most frequently in the wake of a management initiative or a consultant driven implementation.
‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’ is the name that has been given to the unwillingness of middle management to pursue or implement change.
The impetus for change is generally driven by the corporate decision makers in response to stakeholder pressure. The decision to change is made at this level and is then transmitted down the chain of command to the shop floor.
At every level the need for change is retransmitted to the next level down, who in their turn retransmit the same message.
At each level this has the same effect.
Each individual experiences an aversion to implementing the change.
This aversion is not experienced because the change is wrong or because it will not have the desired effect.
It is simply because the person being directed to implement the change does not like being told what to do.
This resistance is not necessarily even conscious and may not even involve a negative reaction, just a failure to act positively.
In a social situation we understand this aversion and will seldom deliberately create a situation whose outcome is to tell someone else what to do.
In a social situation people are allowed to refuse when they are told what to do.
At work they are not.
There will always be the exception but it is generally understood that it is more effective to ask for something than it is to order someone to give it.
In a domestic situation, if a husband decided that he never wanted his wife to iron his shirts, all he has to do is catch her when she is doing the ironing, and tell her to iron his shirt.
Instinctively we cringe at this scenario because we know how the wife will react.
Not only has the husband made it almost physically impossible for his wife to iron his shirts, we know that even if she did iron them there is a very good chance that he will end up with an iron shaped burn on his shirt, which did not necessarily occur by accident.
This scenario is not a comment on the husband and wife relationship.
It is a comment on the fact that the wife is a human being and that human beings always react the same way when they are told what to do.
At work we are not allowed the same extreme reaction that the wife produces but we still feel the same resistance to being told what to do.
The resistance manifests itself in ways that may not be directly attributed to the order.
Late orders, broken machines, poor timekeeping, poor safety performance, bad treatment of the customers.
After all, when we are at work we have to appear to be doing what we are told.
The alternative to telling people what to do is thought to be ‘Asking’ for something. This is a valid alternative in a social situation where there is a real choice about the answer.
If the husband asked for his shirt to be ironed we would all defend the right of the wife to tell him to go and iron it himself.
At work there is seldom a choice other than ‘Do what I want or get your coat’. We are often asked to do things that sound like a question but in the work situation we seldom have a choice.
At work when a question is asked, because of the lack of choice that asking the question provides, the effect is the same as if an order has been issued,.
The manager faces this resistance when he retransmits the latest change or initiative to the workforce and, without necessarily realising it, he is also building up his own resistance to the change.
He may pay lip service to the change but will have a great deal of difficulty giving any enthusiasm because he has been told to do it.
Is it any wonder that as soon as the corporate foot is taken off the gas pedal the change or initiative disappears without a murmur?
We do appear to be having trouble with ‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’.
There is however a third solution to the problem of the ironed shirt.
We have seen the perfectly natural reaction when the wife is ordered to iron the shirt and we have seen the possibility of being told to go and do it yourself when the wife is asked.
What however would happen if she were allowed to care about the result?
If she cared about the way her husband looked then there would always be an ironed shirt. She would take pride in the way he looked. She would make sure that there was always a shirt ready,
What if she found that a button had come off?
The shirt would go straight into the mending basket and a new button would be sewn on before it was returned to the wardrobe, because she cared.
In the same way if the husband cared about his car it would always be clean, it would be maintained and he would look after it, because he cared
This idea of allowing people to care for what they do sounds like the right thing to do but at first glance it does not seem to have a place in a business conversation.
We want to be talking about percentages and changes to the bottom line, big numbers with real values.
That is the sort of conversation that businessmen have, not talking about caring.
But wait a minute, caring does have a value, we can place an almost exact value on the caring that we give our cars.
After two years our new car has a finite value, depending on the vehicle it could be $10,000 or $12,000. This is the residual value of our car that we can realise by selling it, or we can hold on to the car and use it reliably for another 10 years, it is our choice.
After those same two years a hire car has a much smaller residual value. Nobody wants to buy a car that they know has been driven for the last 2 years by people who don’t care for it.
When we buy a second-hand car we want to see the phrase “One Careful Owner”.
We are paying as much for the care that has been given to the car as we are paying for the materials that the car is made of.
This makes the financial value of the care we give to our own car equal to the difference in value between the resale value of our own car and the resale value of the hire car.
This is beginning to look like a significant piece of money.
Now we have a number that makes caring start to look very cost effective. If $10,000 is the value of us taking care of a car for two years, what then is the potential that can be realised at work by allowing people to start caring about what they do at work?
If our middle manager were allowed to care about what he did, if he were allowed to care instead of being told, how much more effective could he be?
If the workforce were allowed to care about what they do, how much more effective would they be?
If they were allowed to care there would be no resistance to change just an understanding of what was required to achieve corporate goals and an innate desire to get there.
‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’ would cease to be an issue because the defensive shield that goes up to cause ‘Bounce off’ is only deployed when individuals are “told” what to do.
Changing the way that people feel about their work, allowing them to care, is a continuous and sometimes complicated business but can be summed up with a few general rules.
First we have understand that people want to care about what they do.
They want to be in control of what they do because they want to be able to be proud of what they do.
When we understand that people want to care about what they do it becomes clear that we don’t actually have to do anything extra to allow people to care.
All we have to do is to stop doing the things that prevent people from caring.
The biggest thing that stops people from caring is other people telling them what to do.
Second we have to start to do the things that will help people to start caring.
Give people support, give them recognition for their efforts and start to value them for their experience and individuality.
Find out what is stopping people from caring, stop doing it.
Start supporting people with feedback and recognition.
These may sound like small things but their cumulative effect is enormous.
The change in performance that occurs when people are allowed to start caring is huge but performance is not the whole story.
If we care about what we do we become proud of what we do.
If we are proud we are unlikely to want to change our job.
This has a huge effect on retention and recruitment.
If we care of what we do then there are no boundaries to that care.
We take care of the whole workplace proactively, maintaining the site and attending to safety standards for no other reason except that we care.
Care also has no time limits.
If nothing happens to make us cease caring then our caring will continue unabated, making any changes sustainable in the long term.
For all of these reasons we deserve to understand how we can create the conditions to allow people to care for their work. How to allow them to become proud of what they do so that they can start to enjoy themselves at work while becoming even more effective producers of profit.
It is almost a heresy to suggest that such a thing is possible but we know that it has been done before and we will almost all be able to recall instances in which a workforce has excelled because it cared about the product.
Caring about our work is not a new concept.
In the past it has been called ownership.
We have been under the mistaken impression that ownership is a commodity.
Something that we can give to people, and then profit from the results of their ownership.
Ownership is the way we feel about something that allows us to care.
It is the way we feel about what we do and our attitudes and behaviour towards what we do.
Ownership is most certainly not a commodity and cannot therefore be given to anyone.
I can give someone a car but I cannot give them ownership.
Ownership is something that only the recipient can take for himself.
If the car is the wrong colour, has too few doors or the wrong size of engine, then the recipient will not take ownership of it.
If however we are allowed to make all of our own choices about the colour of the car and the model and the engine then those choices will be our choices and will therefore be the correct ones for us.
Having been allowed to make those choices we will then also be able to take ownership.
It is still the same car but because we have been allowed to make our own choices we are able to take ownership.
We have come a long way from Henry Ford who told us that we could have any colour as long as it was black.
Car manufacturers now realise that the customer has to be allowed to make choices.
If the customer cannot make choices about their vehicle then they cannot take ownership and will not buy the car.
What we can do in the workplace is to create the conditions to allow others to care.
We can create the conditions that will allow them to be proud of what they do, to allow them to take ownership.
We have to start to allow the workforce to make choices about their environment and the way they deliver goods or services.
To do this the managers’ role changes from one of managing his team to one of supporting them.
Perhaps the real problem is that Managers were ever called Managers.
If they had been called Supporters in the first place we might never have heard of ‘Middle Manager Bounce Off’