According to conventional wisdom, managers can somehow stand outside the ongoing flow of human interaction and choose the optimum way to manage the situations in which they find themselves. Then, provided that others implement their decisions as planned and comply with the prescribed ways of working, it is assumed that the sought-after outcomes will be achieved.
Most managers would concede privately that this bears little resemblance to their everyday lived reality. However, the presumed ability to predict, organize, and control outcomes persists. Nor is it limited to management writing, leadership development programmes, and consultancy offerings. It also frames the ways in which managers’ actions are scrutinized and commented upon by politicians, journalists, and members of the general public. Most significantly, perhaps, this scientifically rational view of organization and management practice remains central to the way in which managers’ performance is typically judged by the in-house scorekeepers and commentators on whom their current standing, ongoing remuneration, and future prospects depend.
When managers account formally for their practice, therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised if they adopt the clichéd language and “We did this and got that” explanations that reflect this managerially ‘correct’ and politically acceptable view of their practice.
As a result, everyday organizational interactions are littered with language and concepts that stand in stark contrast to the complex social dynamics of organization and the muddling-through nature of real-world management practice. Below are just 10 examples of commonly used language and concepts which reinforce the superficially attractive but flawed, ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ view of what managers do, and how performance and change happens:
- pulling levers and pushing the right buttons to achieve the desired outcomes;
- using scorecards, dashboards and traffic ights to understand and control what’s happening;
- steering the organization in the desired direction;
- driving change into the organization;
- designing and building a shared culture;
- getting the message across so that everyone is ‘on the same page’;
- leveraging Big Science, Big Data, (and big reports!) to eliminate surprises;
- future proofing the organization against disruptive demands;
- importing universally applicable ‘best practices’ to replicate perceived success elsewhere; and
- rolling out centrally determined initiatives to ensure organization-wide consistency of understanding, action, and outcomes.
These and many other such phrases help to preserve the illusion of control but inhibit the greater understanding and real-time, practice-based learning that are central to managing with purpose, courage, and skill.