I got pretty worked-up when I read Gill Taylor’s recent piece in Third Sector, arguing that managers ‘treat staff too nicely.’ But when I calmed down, I realised that Taylor’s analysis makes perfect sense within a few of our organisations’ most widespread, but ultimately incorrect, assumptions about people and management. If we believe the worst of our fellow colleagues, it really is time we got tougher on them!
Ultimately, there is a negative view of humanity at play here – people need to be controlled to avoid bad things happening. But there’s more to it. Here are three issues that underpin Taylor’s thinking:
1. The relationship between more and less senior staff is like the relationship between a parent and a young child.
While I could pick apart the issues with applying these attitudes to parenting, think of the traditional model: ‘I know best, listen to me, you’ll be alright, kid!’
This is the first assumption that Taylor – and most of our organisations – go wrong on. Management is one skill-set; counselling those who’ve experienced abuse, or running training courses, or working with youth on the street are others. Management is not ‘superior’ to other forms of work, even if our organisations have built this assumption into their structures, taking people out of jobs they do well, and making them become managers as their only hope of career progression.
If managers are superior to others, the patronising attitude outlined above makes perfect sense. This is what leads Taylor to say things like, “Treating staff too nicely isn’t necessarily good for them,” which can only conjure memories of a 1950s doctor telling a new mother ‘if you give them too much love, they’ll become spoilt!’
2. Problems are questions of fault, and the fault always trickles down the organisational ladder
When someone acts out, when an event doesn’t go to plan, when conflicts erupt at the office, organisational culture tends to scapegoat someone as ‘the cause’ of whatever bad thing happened. Rather than really try to understand the nuance of why an event failed (Were there other events on the same day? Were there unexpected cancellations? Did we know who we were pitching it to?), or why someone hasn’t been doing their job (Were they being adequately supported? Do they have issues outside of the office that are affecting their work? Are they being bullied?), many organisations find it far easier to nail someone with the blame. The last question that most organisations seem prepared to ask about troublesome employees, is ‘why did several of us think this person should be hired?’ Managers are the reason every employee is in an organisation, so perhaps asking themselves what made the person seem employable and how they could support the qualities that led to their hire, might be a good place to start when problems arise.
3. Compliance creates accountability
If we believe points 1 and 2, compliance (or ‘getting tough’) seems like a natural response. As a manager, you are superior to your staff and when something goes wrong, it is clearly that member of staff’s fault, therefore, how can you force them into being better employees?
But like a building built on a foundation of quicksand, this third assumption also crumbles under its own weight.
Compliance offers us the allusion of accountability, but trusting people and supporting them when they need it usually gives us the real thing.
Compliance measures that try to force people to prove they’re not screwing the organisation over (like so many sign-off processes and staff evaluations), often create barriers to meaningful contribution, and encourage the very behaviour they aim to avoid.
But if we assume that people who work in social change organisations want to do the right thing, the vast majority of the time, we might find that they do it. We can address the exceptions when they arise, rather than creating structures that assume the worst of all our staff, as so many policies imply, just by existing.
Ultimately, Gill Taylor and the many who continue the tradition started by an American Industrialist of the same last name (Fredrick Winslow, for the record), have a lot to answer for. Their assumptions and ‘solutions’ are what have made our organisations so much less like people, creating hostile, adversarial relationships, where they wouldn’t otherwise be.
While my gut response is reflected in my flip on the original article’s title, I hope that through conversation and experience, consultants like Taylor can see the error of their ways and try starting their work from an assumption of human decency.
But failing that, let’s stop giving them our business or the space to promote themselves, shall we?