Tag Archives: control

On “The Very Superior Boss”

24 Jun

“The Very Superior Boss” is an entry in Abraham Maslow’s Eupsychian Management: A Journal (1965, Richard D. Irwin and The Dorsey Press)In it, Maslow doesn’t enumerate the characteristics of superiority, instead he focuses on the strife-filled relationship between the high-functioning leader and the rest of her team.

Maslow sees problems when someone who already knows or can quickly find the answer is thrown in with people who need to work out the answer through the various slow processes of communication, postulation, trial, and error. On the one hand, the business won’t make speedy decisions and the manager will herself suffer the excruciating pains of impatience and self-suppression if she waits for people to figure things out.  On the other hand, she will breed resentment and render her staff less capable than they are if she always tells them the answer, and she won’t ultimately be preparing them to lead themselves (or to live in a post-her world).  A third, stranger problem arises from an attempt to reconcile the first two–to artificially speed up the team’s processing by a kind of trickery, making it seem like they’ve solved the problem when really the leader has been perhaps not-so-subtly putting words and thoughts into their minds and mouths the whole time.

Another way to view the tension, says Maslow, is as between short-term results and long-term growth.  If the organization needs to “last past the death of the supervisor,” says he, “then greater patience is required and greater participative management, more explanations, more giving out of facts, more discussion of the facts and common agreement upon the conclusions.”  And he notes, “this is the only way to train good managers and good leaders in the long run” (145).  

The problem is similar to the one between beautiful or gifted parents face: having to stop being beautiful and gifted themselves to let their children develop.  Maslow associates it as well with the problem all creative children have in general: feeling “apart” from others; and in this way he suggests the problem is not just about a power-struggle, but also arises from basic differences of perspective or cognitive processing.  Important in his view of the tension is the fact that people often dislike or suspect intelligent or gifted people, even when these people are their best leaders; similarly, insecurity leads people to seek, and like, leaders who give clear and consistent answers, whether or not this consistency is related to intelligence or to pathology.

As a partial solution, Maslow calls for a shift of focus from the self of the leader to the situational context: asking what sort of decision-making or development is necessary to the group, and then integrating the related style of leadership. Which might very well mean giving people leaders they don’t particularly like.  As another partial solution, he suggests, interestingly, that the superior boss might just separate herself from the team, in order to let the team figure out how to solve problems on its own.

Ultimately, though, the tension is irresolvable:

This is of course, an extremely difficult problem, a profoundly human and existential problem, which in truth has no good solution even in theory. The fact is that great superiority is unjust, undeserved, and that people can and do resent it . . . . I don’t know of any good solution to this situation which demands honesty but in which honesty and truth must necessarily hurt.  (148)

The quote above might not leave you feeling great, but the idea that a slight reorientation of our focus–from “leader” to “context”–a reinsertion of the separate element into the soothing suspension–holds the potential of reducing some of the pain of the tension between us and others–that’s helpful and healing.  We might decrease the pain a little more by thinking of the separating “superiority” not so much as the boss’ intrinsic better-ness but more that she is at a particular place on one of many development tracks–and it just so happens that she is further along than us on that track, but nothing prevents us from moving in that direction, or in being further along than she in some other area.

Of course a person able to see things through B-Cognition would breathe the universal context, and would be OK with someone else’s betterness, in fact would appreciate it, particularly if it emerged clearly from their essence, but not many of us do that.

In any event, everyone can probably connect with this conundrum. I imagine we’ve all seen the three problematic aspects Maslow mentions, from both sides, too.  As both the person with the answer and the person without the answer at some point, in some way, whether the “superiority” be related to work-based problem-solving; experience, skills, or performance of some kind; or something more like emotional stability, comfort with ambiguity, and so on. Who hasn’t been in a situation where she or he had to bite their tongue while others slowly processed something? And who hasn’t discovered the disheartening feeling associated with being asked questions when you know the questioner already has a particular answer in mind. Of course, much of education traditionally has engendered this feeling.  Perhaps the third, or “trickery” experience is less common, but I have been guilty of it myself–and I can support Maslow when he says it never works.

We probably identify, as well, with the problem of seeking an “all-knowingness,” or a sense of conviction and consistency, in our leaders, because we’re scared or nervous in some way, when what might do us better is a little bit of ambiguity, consideration of multiple perspectives, some emotional and intellectual struggle of our own. Trying something without firm conviction now and then.

Finally, the suggestion that benign superior bosses, who see themselves as a blockage in their team’s development, might simply leave now and then is beautify in its simplicity, and I’ve known leaders who I think have done this well, though I suspect many leaders would scratch their heads at the idea.  “I’m not leading if I’m not there, I need to see what they’re doing if I am to control it, etc.,” they might say.  On the other hand, as Maslow points out, healthy people do not exhibit the need to control other people.

The Box, The Trellis, and the Marketplace

8 May

We invited community members to come talk about about IT Governance and help us figure out the right way to go about it in our school. As I was listening to the conversation, it occurred to me there were two ways to look at it.

For the record, IT Governance refers to a structured process for campus-wide decision-making about IT policies and services. Like what your LMS is, or how long you should wait before your desktop computer is refreshed, or whether your department or a central unit pays for your copy of Chem Draw Ultra 12.0. When governance works, everyone knows what the campus IT policies are and how decisions are made, and everyone feels she or he can have input into the decision-making process. Even if a particular decision didn’t go your way, you at least know the reasoning behind the decision.

IT Governance as a Box

When you first hear of things like “governance” or “committees” or “organizational structures,” you might tend to think of them as restrictive, top-down organs of control. Your lizard brain throws up images perhaps of misty, star-chamber-like, inscrutable rooms and byzantine processes issuing strange unilateral edicts that are action-oriented and constraining, and focus on products, stress “implementation” and “projects,” and use mysterious jargon that makes you feel like there’s something you’re supposed to know but you don’t.  Things that seem safely removed from the more organic ebb and flow of your daily life, yet there’s a nagging anxiety in the back of your mind that the decisions might sort of pop up at the 11th hour and disrupt what you’re working on—you might discover, that is, that a new presentation software became the campus standard the night before you’re set teach using your well-tried PowerPoint deck, and it no longer works, and now you look crazy in front of your class, etc.

This dread vision is what you might call IT Governance as product-oriented instead of people-oriented. As a system that limits decision-making for efficiency’s sake to a few people, doesn’t include everyone, doesn’t allow for a lot of input, and doesn’t really seek to understand what people do on a daily basis and what their needs are. It’s not about helping people grow; on the other hand, it constrains, no matter how well-intentioned it is, as a box might. I have to admit such an image popped up in my own head at one point, but there’s another way to view IT Governance.

IT Governance as a Trellis

As part of our conversation, we looked at such other IT Governance processes as were easily available on the web. Some systems of decision-making out there are (as you might suspect) amazingly complex; some are less so. Significantly, though, many have features that do not fix the star chamber model. For example, Western Carolina University calls IT Governance an ongoing conversation, that “will occur not just within the governance meeting structure.” Salem State University’s IT Governance web site takes the time to explain the various “sources” of project ideas, which can come through formal channels or even “casual conversation between department heads” (and hopefully other people, too . . . ). The University of Texas at Austin lists the six cardinal values imbued in their governance process, and “transparency” and “communication” top the list.

A conversation? Something that allows for sharing of ideas between equals, that could happen in a formal setting, or in an informal setting? Among anyone? Emphasis on the messy beginnings of new ideas, lurking on the edges of existing projects, that might come from anywhere? Unabashed promotion of communication and transparency? This all suggests a desire to admit a constant stream of destabilizing novelty (or what I call an Information Sluice)! The opposite of the bureaucratic sublime. That’s a governance process that includes people as they are, in their actual walks of life, and invites their input. That’s a governance process that has change and growth built into it, a structure like a trellis, that allows for a plant to bloom in the new, vertical dimension. Not a black box.

IT Governance as a Marketplace

My local community is headed in this direction, too. When we talked about what we want to achieve with our IT Governance structure, the primary idea expressed was “more communication.” “We don’t know what’s going on,” “there needs to be a better way to talk to each other than email,” and “we need people who can serve as nimble liaisons negotiating agreement between areas of disciplinary knowledge and areas of technical knowledge,” were the kinds of things we said.

And we decided that to help with this communication we need a “marketplace,” or an easy way to know what everyone else is doing and see what solutions and problems other people are creating and dealing with. So that we can better build on and integrate our various local initiatives, instead of creating new, parallel, redundant, isolated projects. Such a marketplace, we thought, should be easy to search and easy to add to.

This marketplace sounds a bit like the kind of “ideation platform” or “idea stock market” I’ve mentioned in previous posts. Sounds a bit like the Internet itself, in fact, used as a metaphor of facile connectedness, of grass-roots, horizontal, non-bureaucratic engagement, with low-threshold entry requirements, applied retroactively unto the world itself, the child teaching the parent.

IT Governance as Email Fixer

Just a thought about email, which we thought was the kind of thing IT Governance could help us change. I think it’s a commonplace that our current use of email is less than satisfying, seeing that it is co-opted by everyone for every kind of communication: official institutional pronouncements, lightweight invitations to lunch, your mom to check in on you, your department to remind you about an upcoming talk, to let you know your water bill payment went through, to ask you to come to the PTA meeting that night, to share the project management charter, to ask your boss for time off, to tell you to check in for your flight, not to mention the inundation of unsolicited business-related emails, spam, etc. There’s so much crazy stuff in there opening the inbox is like our own personal version of Fibber McGee’s hall closet gag.

Email is a social problem as well as a technological problem. One where we have to talk to each other and agree on the parts to fix and try things out and adjust those things and ask ourselves to honor new conventions of behavior and give ourselves feedback on how we’re doing and so forth: pieces both mechanical and behavioral, individual and communal. Now if IT Governance can help that to be fixed (as we seem to think it can), that’s a different kind of governance. That’s not about circumscribing behavior. That’s a way to identify and heal problems that go deeper and broader than technology, that’s a meta-view on the way we live life and talk to each other, that’s about finding well-being together wherever we can, that’s about community, that’s about getting issues out into the open, that’s about being vulnerable and trusting each other, that’s the kind of thing that makes life worth living. That’s the kind of IT Governance we need.