Reflections on: When We “Manage” Other People, We Take Away Their Choices

What makes for a great learning moment? For me, it is when I am reading, hearing, or observing something that creates the kind of following responses:

  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, but!
  • No, no, no, no, but!

I recently had such a moment when I read a delightful Blog post by Terina Allen ( Terina shared that she was deeply troubled by the notion of “managing” people. Leading people is fine as a notion, but managing no. In summary her concerns centre around the concept of managing as:

“…management to be the act of or skill of directing, controlling, handling, deciding, overseeing, etc.”

None of which she wants to see her doing to someone else or having done to herself. Managing is appropriately applied to “things” like budgets, processes, etc. Managing people is an act of taking away their choices, and that is problematic.

I found my reaction as I read her piece as a series of “yeses” and then a big “But”. Hence my delight at the opportunity to learn. The “But” for me centers around the notion of restricting choices.

What does my learning encompass?

  • I honestly believe that in life we are continuously bombarded by choice limiting actions of others. Did we really have a choice about whether we would be born? Did we have a choice about if we would go to school? Do we have choice about what laws we are living under (I know we could move, but then we would be living under a different set of laws that are in place.)? Where we work, we are in a context that in many ways is restrictive. And so on.
  • I honestly believe that we need even desire that such choice restrictions are put in place (Ever uttered: “Come on Someone just make the decision, so we can get on with the job!”?). Many times we want these restrictions to apply to others for one reason or other. But guess what? Others want the same things and their desire for restrictions will further limit our range of choices.
  • Restrictions on choices are a price we pay for living within a myriad of social systems. Social systems in fact are designed in large part to restrict. Any vision, purpose, mission, objective, strategy, action plan, process, and procedure has as an aim to channel us in one direction at the expense of other channels. We may argue over whether the choice is the best one, optimal, effective, efficient, etc. but, we rarely think that we should be doing these kinds of (restricting choice) things at all.
  • So if we are being lead, herded, directed, cajoled, indoctrinated, “encouraged”, etc. in any one direction at the expense of others all our lives: we are being continuously managed. Living in social systems means people are managing us, and anytime we enact (or cause to have enacted) limitations on other people’ choices we are managing them by the definition that Terina reasonably puts forward in her article.
  • So I am being managed, and often I am acting in ways that have the effect of managing others” choices too. Yet, I obviously am okay with that or I would go and live as hermit somewhere. I choose not to become a hermit because of all the benefits that accrue from living within a setting that means I will have many choices removed for me.

The above thoughts explore why I had a big “But” with the article, but, what is it about Terina’s article that causes me to agree so very much with her thesis?

Having choices made for me, having them restricted for me is not the point of my agreement with her reflections. It is the manner that choices can be limited that can be inappropriate. It is the form of limiting that can be inappropriate. An example of the first sense of inappropriateness is how I am involved with a choice that materially impacts me. Am I even involved in meaningful sense? DoI even get to vote? Do I even get to express my concerns? An example of the second is am I told what to do and how to do it, when I know fully well what is required?

This second form of inappropriateness gets at the notion of “controlling” versus coordination and direction. Years ago I was influenced by Henry Mintzberg where in his book (The Structuring of Organizations, Prentice Hall, 1979) he introduced the notion of five coordinating mechanisms:

  1. Mutual adjustment – coordination of work through informal communication.
  2. Direct supervision – having one person take responsibility for the work of others
  3. Standardization of work processes – where the contents of work are specified of programmed.
  4. Standardization of of outputs – when the results are specified
  5. Standardization of skills – when the kind of training required to do the work is specified.

Perhaps unfairly, I get the sense that Terina may be most troubled by direct supervision form of coordination. Yet, it has its place (and I am introducing sarcasm here) in the very cannons of determining liability: The wholesale practice of “blaming” someone is based on the foundation that legitimate forms of direct supervision are in place. For an officer in a company to say they did not know what was going on will often fail to carry much currency when the proverbial crap hits the fan. In OD I contend that  as practioners’ we often fall into this game when we blame the client for some failure in a project we were part of. As evidence, examine any commentary on why a change management effort failed: client failings (hence liability) will invariably arise. AND, it probably should be so. The point being is that we accept the practice and (perhaps unwittingly) the implications of direct supervision. When we set up structures that incorporate direct supervision we end up managing people at least when it comes time to assign blame.

Mintzberg taught me that any one form of coordination is clearly applicable in certain work circumstances but not others.

I am sure that Terina and any other professional would be concerned, even offended if a client tried to tell her “how” to do her job. This would be a circumstance where the client attempted to impose the standardization of work process on her when the appropriate coordination form is standardization of outputs. To take it further, if Terina is a licensed practioner in some field of medicine, the client should satisfy themselves that her credentials are appropriate (standardization of skills) and even leave the diagnostic (outputs) work up to her.

Speaking only for myself, Mintzberg helped me become aware of why I resent inappropriate forms of coordination in my life. There are times when any one of the five coordination forms he identified has been applicable to what I was doing. Being over and under coordinated has been a source of personal stress.

Terina’s article gave me two learning opportunities. First to examine for myself my perspectives on what does it mean to have choices made for me, and why do I accept this in so many parts of my life. Secondly, brought back for me how old insights on coordination may be applicable to her thesis.

I thank and complement her on these two wonderful gifts.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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