Management Paternalism

Closed Mindedness:

Last week I was facilitating a discussion with a group of managers around governance in their company. They were looking at making some big changes to how they organised themselves,  clarify their roles and responsibilities et cetera.

They were doing well. I liked their thinking.

Then one of the managers said: “It’s important that we don’t become too clear about what we want because we have to consult our staff with an open mind.

This would have put an end to any further work by the management team on the important topic but I probably wasn’t entirely successful in my challenge to her thinking and position, given the time, given the situation.

But I hope you can see the weakness in her thinking.

She was probably identifying an open mind with an empty mind.

Involvement equals Democracy:

But I think there was another and more dangerous fallacy in her concern. I think she was identifying involvement and consultation with ‘ democracy’.

Maybe I am being unfair but I suspect she may feel that once you consult and ask people for their opinions, you are more or less obliged to go with what THEY come up with. “Otherwise, won’t they be disappointed  and feel cheated and not listened to?”

This turns involvement and consultation into a game, an exercise  in which we want people to feel good.  Forget the outcome, the decision, the way forward.

And, while it’s nice that people feel good, it is not what we ultimately want. What we really want is a good decision and direction, in our case the very best way to handle governance including clearer roles and responsibilities.

In order to find the best way, involving and consulting the people affected would seem to me to be a no-brainer.

Who or What Decides?

However, involvement and consultation always has one goal – to find the very best solution, direction or way forward.

But this one goal affects management and staff in different but very obvious ways.

If management truly want what will be the very best solution, then it is absolutely necessary that they are open-minded to ask for, listen to and hear the contribution of staff with an open mind.

This does not mean that management need have no ideas or need to have an empty mind.   indeed, management can and should come with their thinking advanced and as clear as possible as this will help the group, staff and them reach the best way forward.  But, they need to have the wisdom of keeping minds open, knowing that their view, brilliant as it might be, is only a partial one.

For the staff or people being involved or consulted the same principle applies: what is wanted and what governs is the best solution, direction, or way forward.

This may or may not exactly coincide with the views of the staff consulted and it would be wrong and foolish if staff insisted on their route being followed merely because it is what they are saying. They too have to be open-minded to finding and going with what is the best way forward.

In order to achieve this, they might very well welcome management having done some thinking and coming with some proposals for ideas.

The Game of Consultation and Involvement:

The failure to understand this very basic principle can lead to a lot of game-playing around consultation and involvement.

It can become a manipulative game because management can feel the need to get groups or their  staff around to their way of thinking.

It can also get in the way of involvement and consultation because managers can feel obliged to go with and not go against what people are saying.  As a result it only gets used in safe situations  where not too much damage can be done.

The good news is that the discussion in the management group did continue and the thinking and proposals will be taken to staff groups for consultation and input.

I trust they will make it clear to everyone involved that what will decide the way forward is what IS or LOOKS MOST LIKE the best way forward and not just what either group has said or wants.  That would make it a game and a dangerous one.

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