By ELENA YANG
Ambiguity of causality underlies most social/management issues. Even when we detect a strong correlation, it is based on long horizons and large data sets. Yet, we tend to blame managers for most problems and begrudge them credit for any accomplishments.
On the other hand, managers seem to claim credit all too easily and too quickly while rarely, if ever, honestly admitting their mistakes. Of course, before we can even assign credits and mistakes, we have to define them.
For profit-making organizations, the definitions may be relatively easier to define. Advertisement, brand recognition, defects, recalls, market share, production costs, etc…there are plenty of tools available as yardsticks for measurement. However, when products are in the form of services, the delineation of successes and failures gets a little fuzzier, and when we go further into the R&D area, the ambiguity of causality gets even muddier. Such complexity multiplies quickly for not-for-profit organizations and government agencies.
What lead me onto this path was a comment made by a research-scientist-turned-manager-back-to-pursuing-science, “Research is replete with mistakes and failures, so you remember that rare success. Mistakes and failures in management impact people’s lives, so that’s what you remember, and when there are successes, you don’t know if you deserve any credit…most likely, you don’t.”
I think this is a rare individual who dares to be honest. I was struck by the distinction. I also wonder if similar failures/mistakes to success ratio applies to social research. Social scientists feel elated when they get more than 35 percent variance explained from a multiple regression analysis that involves several variables.
So, for instance, we wonder if employees’ productivity can be explained by their (say) satisfaction with work environment, direct supervisor’s involvement (not too much), financial compensation, and promotional opportunities. > 30 percent spread among four variables is a strong result! Upon reflection, I have hardly heard of mistakes and failures in social research. This parallels the social/management world because of the difficulty of establishing causality.
I am still trying to make some sense out of this scientist’s observation. Are physical scientists more humble because by nature they have met many failures and mistakes in their careers? Not from what I have observed, and I have known plenty of scientists in my life; they are human just like the rest of us, with all the foibles. I am more intrigued by the impact of management decisions on people’s lives. Given such impact, wouldn’t managers want to deliberate their decisions with much more care? Not from what I have seen, heard, and observed.
The majority of managers are nice individuals, with good intentions most of the time. Only as a collective, “trapped” in the organizations (through the labyrinth of structures, regulations, thick layers of group dynamics, etc) these managers think and behave in ways that might not always be congruent with who they are. Either that, or they have to modify who they are in order to be comfortable in the management “suit.”
Many people move into the managerial positions because they think they can use the positional power to realize their ideals. It is probably fairly common for them to think, “I’ll improve this unit/group/division when I become the manager!” So what happens on the way to being a manager? “Role suction.” This is when the force of the group dynamics largely defines the managerial role; this force is stronger than what an individual actor can do…unless and until he has a good grasp of the group dynamics in which he is immersed.
Someone once made a crude observation, upon hearing yet another reorganization scheme, “Same monkeys, different trees.” When that company later decided to send its managers “back to the bench” and install new ones, the observation was, “Same trees, different monkeys.”
Once in the role, the newly minted manager may very well be so swamped by various pulls that she no longer has the time to review and reflect upon her original ideals. For instance, empowerment is such a lovely concept that most intelligent managers would claim to embrace it. Except…to execute it, to act on the desire and knowledge, requires time and patience.
So, at the bottom of the managerial ladder we find a deep pool of good intentions.
I contend that precisely because managers make decisions that impact lives, it is tough for them to publically own their mistakes and failures, especially in our litigious society. Further, since causality is so difficult to establish, it is fairly easy for managers to cover their errors. The very ambiguity of causality, however, also allows managers to claim more credit than they really deserve because, after all, managers need external validation. Ultimately, it’s all about humility.
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.