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Volume 21, Issue 36;   September 8, 2021: Illusory Management: I

Illusory Management: I

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Many believe that managers control organizational performance, but a puzzle emerges when we consider the phenomena managers clearly cannot control. Why do we believe in Management control when the phenomena Management cannot control are so many and powerful?

Among the many goals of managers is controlling organizational performance. The people of the organization, for the most part, hope and believe that their managers will effectively guide the organization through or around the difficulties the organization faces on the way to achieving its objectives. To help managers accomplish this feat, the people the managers manage keep their managers informed about the status of their activities. And managers provide the people they manage with resources and information to help them do their jobs. Managers don't tell their people everything they know, of course. But managers do tell their people what they believe their people need to know. Resources and information provide all the tools managers need to control the organization's course to reaching its objectives.

A drone carrying a camera, flying under remote control

Drones like this one have found diverse applications such as motion picture production, building condition assessment, and power line safety inspection. These drones fly under remote control. The word control evokes the idea that the "pilot" has somewhat more precise command of the drone's movements than he or she actually does, because of outside influences such as wind gusts and harassment by birds. So it is with managers in organizations. We tend to overestimate the ability of Management to control organizational performance.

Or so goes the story we tell ourselves about the roles of managers. The truth can be rather different.

To fully appreciate the depth of the gulf between the stories we tell ourselves and the reality of Management's limited capabilities, consider the factors over which Management has relatively little control.

Laws of Nature
We aren't usually aware of the constraints Nature imposes on our work, until Nature makes ignoring Nature impossible. For example, we cannot have more people on a team than the space we occupy can support. Or we cannot display more people on a video call than our screen size will support. Or we cannot control the time difference between Mumbai and Singapore.
Laws of Nature The gulf between the stories we tell
ourselves and the reality of management's
limited capabilities is deep and wide
constrain, among other things, how fast we can do our work. For example, if the closed-loop communication time between two sites of a virtual team is 18 hours, exchanging information between them will be slow.
Laws and regulations affecting organizational activities
Local and national laws and regulations in jurisdictions in which the organization operates can affect organizational performance. The usual effect is hindrance, rather than advancement. Management can control how well and how quickly it understands and responds to these effects, but its control over the laws and regulations can be somewhat limited.
Consider, for example, the need to file financial reports by certain dates, usually quarterly or annually. These activities impose periodic load spikes on the finance department workforce, as one might expect. But they also bias decisions that have financial impact. The bias is in favor of decisions that have positive effects on short-term financial performance. Those decisions might not be well aligned with the long-term health of the organization.
Cost of solving problems
The scales of resources expended on solving problems are difficult for Management to predict or control. The problem solving teams usually do a better job of predicting these quantities.
Management would be wise to rely on the expert opinions of the problem solving teams. Too often, though, Management allows its wished-for projections to influence its judgment of the validity of the projections experts provide. And this bias creates pressure on the problem-solving teams to deliver projections that are consistent with management preferences.
The personal lives of the people of the organization
The inability of Management to control laws of nature, laws and regulations of governments, or the costs of solving problems can lead to an urge to compensate by imposing on the lives of the organization's people. These compensations take the form of extended work hours, limited compensation and benefits, forced relocations, inadequate equipment or software, and crowded, dangerous, or unhealthy working conditions.
Although these compensation tactics seem to be effective in the short run, they lead inevitably to increased workforce volatility, organized resistance, compromised output quality, and legal tangles. The costs associated with these effects can exceed the saving sought by employing the tactics that cause them.

Clearly there is much about the organization that is beyond Management's ability to control. Why then is our regard for their ability to control the organization so wrong? One part of the answer is a cognitive bias known as the illusion of control. But as we'll see next time, that cognitive bias is just one element of a complex array of devices that cause us to overestimate our own — or anyone else's — ability to control organizational performance.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Illusory Management: II  Next Issue

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Although most authors of mixed messages don't intend to be confusing, message mixing does happen. One of the most fascinating mixing mechanisms occurs in the mind of the recipient of the message.
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When we have a preconceived notion of what conclusion a decision process should produce, we sometimes engage in "motivated reasoning" to ensure that we get the result we want. That's risky enough as it is. But when we do this in relation to a chain of decisions in the context of uncertainty, trouble looms.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A form of off road driving also known as mud boggingComing November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
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Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.

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