Recently, we have experienced a resurgence of 'top-down management' in the international scene, the political arena and in the world of work. Not surprisingly, authoritarian 'command and control' has met a lot of resistance and been less than successful. While there are critical, temporary situations (life-threatening emergencies, safety, terrorist activities, etc.) that demand a quick, unilateral decision, my experience has taught me that when long-term, successful change is needed, working toward a collaborative decision is the best approach to achieve your goals and improve the success of your organization.
Top-down management – the old way to do business
For a long time in the U.S., it was accepted that managers made decisions and told people what to do, how to do it and when to have it accomplished. This style of managing people in business came from models within our society such as military organizations, institutions of learning and religion. In those models, those in charge were expected to have the answers because they were more knowledgeable, better educated and held all the power.
Tom Peters and Bob Waterman observed in the making of “In Search of Excellence” that in the excellent companies they found, other words better described new, enlightened managers – cheerleaders, coaches, facilitators and nurturers of champions. That was in the 1980s and a lot of companies changed, but unfortunately we now seem to be on a trend try to bring back the old management style.
What has changed that makes the top-down management style even less palatable?
There are several things that changed the marketplace over the past three decades. My short list includes:
- Competition – with many more countries and companies now part of the global marketplace, consumers have many more sources and choices.
- Technology – with anyone in the world potentially able to instantly reach anyone else in the world via the Internet, the old ways of keeping tight controls on the flow of information and the activities of employees are difficult if not impossible.
- Access to information – again via technology, consumers have easier access to data and reviews about companies and products. This puts pressure on companies to be open, honest and strive for the highest quality – our reputations depend on it!
- People have higher expectations – younger people have been socialized to question authority and expect that the work world will be like the places they were educated. If they don't get the opportunity to participate and have some autonomy in their work, they will go elsewhere. At least, those who have the more marketability will jump ship. These are the folks we least like to lose, too.
- Old norms have gone away – things like the draft into military service, the societal support for those in authority – teachers, law enforcement, government, parents – has waned. A lot of factors influenced this change – the lack of a solidified task to unite the country (war, depression), the ‘60s generation that questioned the old norms in education, government and law enforcement, the exposure of corrupt politicians who formerly were given deference. All the societal support for strict authority is long gone.
- The old ways just don't create the best successes – yes, there are still public companies where the CEO can rule with an iron fist because the stockholders, most of whom are not on location, only want a short-term return on their investments. But, even the long-time successful organizations know and put in practice policies and systems that encourage everyone to be involved in the activities that increase revenue, manage expenses and create the best opportunities for long-term success.
What are the secrets to long-term success? Why is it important?
I think we can agree on one truism – change is never easy. Where some see opportunity and positive outcomes, others see loss and grief. Learning can be fun and invigorating, or it can be difficult and humbling. There are too many things to consider and we often sacrifice long-term satisfaction for short-term gains. For example, many companies who use job elimination as a top down, knee-jerk solution to meeting a short term budgetary target find that the long term consequences can undermine the temporary, short-term, financial gain. When jobs are eliminated, not only does the organization lose the experience of the person who leaves, but very often others who are left behind – perhaps friends – are disheartened, lose faith in management and may become less productive employees. Additionally, too many or too frequent job cuts and the company's reputation as a good place to work suffers.
However, people will more readily adapt to change (even the need for job elimination) when involved in deciding how and when the changes will happen. Managers need to show that they are fair, consistent and open to input from anyone and everyone. Once people know that management values their ideas, an organization can flourish.
Collaboration in solving problems means that the decision is a win-win for all involved. Unlike compromise, which often leaves all sides less than satisfied, when we collaborate and involve everyone in the process, it takes longer. However, the decisions are better received (it becomes OUR decision – not THEIR decision) and implementation goes smoother and faster.
Arturo Toscanini, the early 20th century classical conductor once said, "You don't have a team or an orchestra until everyone's been heard." Like an orchestra, a business operation needs every person working together toward common goals of providing the best products and services for their audiences, customers and clients. Involve everyone and you will be surprised how managers are respected and their opinions accepted. Most of all, you will be delighted how much better the organization performs.
Sid Scott is president of Scott Consultants in Dubuque, Iowa. You may contact him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.