Too often management theory is like religion: it models states of grace and behaviour unattainable by mere mortals. Devotees are nonetheless comforted by their association with the doctrine.
For them, attendance at conferences, an acquaintance with the literature and familiarity with the jargon is a daily support when dealing with the reality of work. An MBA is the mark of a secular priest.
Theory and religion also share an attachment to the abstract and the immeasurable: visions, missions, commitment, trust, confidence and even compassion. However, measurable outcomes – projects delivered, profits and cash generated, the manna of bureaucracies and businesses – are available on earth rather than consigned to the uncertain providence of heaven.
Management literature also tends to idealization: how to be a great leader, an outstanding manager, or how to achieve a massive increase in productivity. It seldom deals with the daily grind of working with obdurate colleagues, poor communications or corporate obfuscation.
But unlike religions where schisms, branches, sub-branches and antagonistic sects may take centuries to emerge, fads in management theory change like the weather. Some 20 or more years ago a now very senior banker held up in Hong Kong before a group of bemused colleagues a crudely hand-printed sign ‘QUALITY’. This, he declared, was the solution to all banking and management problems.
Later in the cycle of management fads, people were exhorted to delight customers, most of whom would probably have settled for efficient service and good manners. In 2017 managers of course must be ‘passionate’ about delighting, or even answering the phone.
An interesting example of idealization and the emergence of a fad is the work of David Horsager. For Horsager, trust is critical:
‘A lack of trust is your biggest expense. It may take years for a manager or executive to develop the trust of his or her colleagues, but only minutes to lose.’
Err, Yes. Well, maybe.
Leaving aside any objection to the proposition in the first sentence that trust is the biggest expense – for most service organisations it’s staff pay – there are several objections to the elevation of trust to the level of supreme management concern.
Without doubt, colleagues who are inclined to embezzle funds, steal confidential information to pass to third parties, or run off with your umbrella in a rainstorm are both untrustworthy and undesirable.
But in a world in which no one can freely choose all their customers, associates, subordinates, bosses or colleagues, you make the best of the human material available. In these circumstances, careful building of relationships and precautionary counter measures are critical.
If a colleague is a notorious gossip, to whom passing a piece of information is the equivalent of posting it on Facebook or Instagram, be careful what you say. If another cannot be trusted to keep an agreement, make sure the issue is properly recorded. If yet another occasionally fails to be truthful, fact-check. And at all times keep a careful eye on your umbrella.
Being too trusting is a mistake, professionally and personally.
What matters most to your colleagues, your customers, your employers and employees is your ability to do your job well. What they demand is competence, the ability to perform efficiently and effectively.
HR professionals when seeking employees in the market look for specific competencies, a mix of training, experience, education, and skills that match the demands of the post they seek to fill. The mix will vary widely, determined by the nature and responsibilities of the job.
Once hired, the employee will be periodically reviewed to test success in deploying those competencies to deliver the measurable outcomes demanded by their job. This requirement does – or should – apply to people at every level in an organization.
It may be argued that there are considerations other than projects completed or targets met when assessing individual performance. This is true. There exist universally rules, regulations, codes of conduct and social norms that combine to create and express the culture of an organisation. And these mostly include behaviour towards colleagues, which may help on occasions to nurture trust.
Nonetheless, the paramount demand is performance. Successful organisations tend to be intolerant of incompetence. Customers of any organisation will be vocally intolerant of incompetence.
Yet trust should neither be forgotten nor overlooked. A mantra for those at work to focus on the essentials of success is very simple: in competence we trust. Just be careful how you say it.