Management broken, but there’s hope

Organizations need to engage all employees in problem-solving
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/22/2010

Management is broken: At a recent Strategic Capability Network event, organizational psychologist Tom Tavares offered his take on management. His conclusion: It’s broken, but all hope is not lost. He also outlined three things all great leaders have in common. For more information, visit

Management broken, but there’s hope

Working together (Leadership in action)

Organizational versus personal behaviour (Strategic capability)

Understanding ‘mind field’ behaviour (Organizational effectiveness)

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Management broken, but there’s hope

By Shannon Klie

In January, organizational psychologist Tom Tavares was asked which organizations are doing a good job from a management standpoint. One of the first organizations that came to mind was automaker Toyota.

By April, after several recalls and questions about who knew what about faulty accelerators and when they knew it, all that had changed.

“It’s a sign of the times in management when a company that was considered world class could tumble into full crisis mode in a period of three months,” Tavares told a group of HR professionals at a Strategic Capability Network meeting in April.

Management is broken in most organizations but all is not hopeless, despite years of little progress on this front, said Tavares. The patterns of management failures are highly uniform, predictable and preventable, he said.

While people are unique, there is a consistent pattern of behaviour in organizations, regardless of industry or the people involved. These behaviours include short-term thinking, weak internal communication, low levels of innovation, poor teamwork and lack of performance feedback, said Tavares.

Management needs to understand what factors in the organization are influencing behaviour in order to be able to change behaviour, he said.

“Day-to-day behaviour in organizations is not the least bit dysfunctional,” he said. “We simply don’t understand it very well.”

It is the very nature of a job, regardless of type or industry, that affects how people in organizations behave and why they behave so similarly, he said.

A job demands focus, often to the exclusion of what’s going on in other areas of the organization. Everything about the job takes on paramount importance and everything is a priority, so it’s hard to figure out what to focus on in any given day, said Tavares.

This kind of intensity can lead to a skewed sense of good and bad. People start to put a positive spin on crises and see problems as opportunities, ignoring the risk, he said.

It was this kind of thinking that led to the dot-com bust in 2000 and the financial services crash in 2008, he said.

“It’s the job structure common to all organizations that produces this highly charged and psychological force field that shapes perception and behaviour on a day-to-day basis and keeps behaviour locked into place,” said Tavares.

“Until people understand that the behaviour in organizations that needs to change is not behaviour tied to personal characteristics of the people involved and they’re able to see behaviour in more objective terms, it’s going to be very difficult to get from pointing fingers to focusing on the real challenge.”

Part of the challenge is only the most senior executives, about 10 per cent of an organization’s employees, have taken on responsibility for solving all of an organization’s problems, said Tavares.

But no matter how capable or how smart these people are, they can’t solve all the problems themselves, he said. The best option is to engage all employees in the process.

To address this issue, an organization’s CEO must first understand the cause behind the everyday behaviours that are derailing an organization’s plans and realize all employees need to be involved in addressing those causes, said Tavares.

Then the executives need to be given clear direction about the organization’s priorities and the behaviours that will support them. Middle management also needs to communicate more systematically to employees to get them onboard and involved in problem-solving.

Part of that communication is helping employees understand their own behaviours and tendencies so they can become more engaged in helping their employer. HR also has a role to play in getting employees engaged in problem-solving and contributing to the organization’s success, said Tavares.

“Employees can go from complacency about management to suggesting solutions. This is a powerful tool,” he said. “These are fundamental motivations for all of us.”

Traditional HR tools such as off-site retreats, training programs and employee surveys have very little long-term effect on changing everyday behaviour within organizations, said Tavares. This is because an organization’s environment influences behaviour, he said.

“When an organization’s internal environment is changed, behaviour can improve dramatically — communication opens up, teamwork improves, innovation increases and people feel energized,” said Tavares.

As a result, there is a marked improvement with business performance, he said.

HR is uniquely positioned to drive organizations out of this management breakdown because it owns the systems that are designed to affect leadership development, teamwork and employee engagement, said Tavares.

However, until line management understands how management is broken and takes action to remedy it, HR will find itself in impossible positions and initiatives won’t have the desired outcomes, he said.

Effective leaders

3 things great leaders have in common

In examining the impact of effective leaders on organizations, organizational psychologist Tom Tavares, author of The Mind Field: What’s Missing in Running Our Organizations, published by Carswell, found they all do the same three things:

• They promote disciplined interaction between levels, departments and direct reports. Effective leaders are big supporters of performance-management programs, especially at the executive level.

• They regularly remind all employees of the organization’s strategic priorities and progress toward achieving them.

• They push problem-solving down to the lowest appropriate level to engage the greatest number of people as opposed to simply relying on a small group of top management.

While these might seem like simple, common sense actions, very few organizations follow through on them on a day-to-day basis, said Tavares. 

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Working together (Leadership in action)

By Dave Crisp

If you know management is badly broken, that it’s hurting results and morale, and you know how and why, will you do everything in your power to fix it? That’s the question Tom Tavares is asking. He believes the answer is yes.

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them,” said Albert Einstein. He was referring to his most dramatic discovery — relativity — which is immensely difficult to grasp.

Tavares’ analysis is the opposite: Seemingly simple, everyday human behaviour sets us up to fail. Can we all change ourselves?

In a very real way this, too, is incredibly hard to grasp. One ironic human paradox stands in our way. Each of us must decide alone to act as if we are not alone. When we encounter frustrations we must not sag back and think “I’ll just take care of my area. That’s the best I can do.”

This stretches to the very top of organizations where CEOs are hired because they have the answers to all the company’s problems. And they think, “I will just set out the best possible strategy, hire some good people and then my work is done. If I just do my job, I’ll collect my pay and be content.”

The next levels down think, “I will just pay lip service to this new strategy that I’m sure will upset staff and customers and I’ll just concentrate on getting my job done well, collect my pay and be content. I’ve tried to tell them, but no one’s interested, so what else can I do?”

Back at the CEO level, the thinking goes, “I’ll pay lip service to listening to the front line, change some weak leaders who haven’t rolled this out, adjust the strategy one more time so it can’t be misunderstood and my job is done”— except we still won’t see results.

We have to listen to each other, be constantly concerned with what is going wrong in every area. We have to collaborate on joint solutions instead of just making sure we compete well for our own bonus numbers. We have to act like we’re all in this together — because we are — and each of us at every level in every job has to take individual responsibility for the whole.

The skills of leadership include listening to input, adjusting so the front line can carry out the strategy and supporting people in their efforts to improve things at each level. We can do it.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Organizational versus personal behaviour (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

While I’m not ready to concede the management model is broken, there is clear value in better understanding the differences and the relationship between organizational behaviour and personal behaviour.

Existing management models rely too much on analytical approaches, the idea that behaviour, both organizational and personal, is more predictable when the interplay between the two is understood on both a rational and emotional level.

The following concepts by Tom Tavares were particularly appealing.

Organizations have symptoms: There are specific, undesirable behaviours, such as protecting turf and downplaying problems, that can become common personal behaviours among managers in an organization. When exhibited across many managers, these behaviours are not related to individual managerial effectiveness. They are symptoms of an organization as a whole struggling to grow and thrive. These individuals may normally be good managers but in response to the work environment, they may be behaving contrary to their normal inclinations. These are not necessarily manifestations of personal manager behaviour.

We don’t understand ‘jobs’: In a machine age, jobs play a specific role of defining work and ensuring operational efficiency. In a knowledge age, there are more intangibles, more variables and faster change. Jobs defined in machine-age terms can create a narrow, isolated, action focus and limit value and effectiveness as a result. While some form of role or division of work and accountability is necessary, we do not understand “jobs” in the context of organizations today. How can organizations balance clarity, accountability and structure with flexibility, responsibility and collaboration?

It’s not always personal: When difficulties arise in organizations, it’s easier to say there are poor managers or employees with poor performance than to find and deal with the root problem. Of course, performance issues may be the cause in specific situations. But personal behaviours and competencies cannot be the root cause when there are symptoms across an organization. Behaviour does not necessarily equate to personal characteristics. Organization and environment factors can trump personal characteristics and influence preferences. The easy way — finger pointing and telling individuals to change themselves — isn’t going to work. Instead, blame can be replaced with communication and looking for real solutions without defensiveness and involving a broader base within the organization.

HR is uniquely positioned: HR has an opportunity to see patterns across an organization. HR can be aware of what is happening in the work environment, has information about what employees know and feel, and understands the systems in operation. Using this insight, HR can make an organization aware of the trends and the potential consequences. HR can take an active role in developing an organization by focusing on changing its behaviours when they see worrisome symptoms.

Tavares’ book, The Mind Field, articulates some very interesting ideas. As much as one would like to believe this framework provides a complete solution, there is still much to learn about the behaviour of organizations and individuals. It should inspire and challenge all of us to further explore these lines of thought and their implications.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Understanding ‘mind field’ behaviour (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tracy Cocivera

It’s difficult to take issue with Tom Tavares’ observation there has been a widespread breakdown of institutions occurring for more than a decade. We have seen the collapse of multiple industries, failures of internal controls in many corporations and an inability to keep ahead of the accelerating pace of change. It’s hard to ignore that traditional approaches to management do not seem to promote lasting change.

No matter what industry, the same issues keep surfacing year after year — poor teamwork, ineffective communication and marginal performance. Why are we not solving these problems? Tavares suggested it’s because we have a gap in knowledge in terms of understanding everyday organizational behaviour. As a result, we don’t know how to change it on a consistent basis in a way to keep pace with change.

In his presentation, Tavares provided a new understanding of organizational behaviour and introduced us to the “mind field.” He shed light on why traditional approaches are not working, a new way of understanding universal patterns of organizational behaviour and how we can take action and create lasting improvements in organizational performance.

All companies have a mind field that shapes behaviour in a similar way because all organizations divide work into jobs, said Tavares. Jobs have three psychological effects on how people see things and behave: Focus, intensity and skew. By showing the connection between the many common problems leaders face in managing people, the mind field provides an effective lens to accurately understand the problems.

Focus makes people lose sight of the strategic direction of a business and end up working in isolation. Before understanding the mind field, we understood the issue as a lack of strategic thinking, being too task-focused or not engaging employees. Intensity leads people to take action without communicating and before understanding the issues. We can recognize this as a function of the environment rather than a leader’s motives and intentions. Finally, skew makes people emphasize the positive and downplay the negatives. This explains spin and the widespread tendencies of leaders to avoid problems, conflicts and performance issues.

Rather than being judgmental on behaviour, the mind field allows us to look at patterns of behaviour more objectively. This leads to a fundamental shift in traditional approaches to human development.

And, because the mind field’s impact is intangible, recognizing its effects on companies provides a framework for action.

Tracy Cocivera is a contributing commentator on organizational effectiveness for SCNetwork and a senior consultant in leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. As a business psychologist, she helps executives and teams enhance their effectiveness and create more value for their organizations. She can be reached at

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June: Learning agility - a research-based measure of potential, with Jim Peters, global leader at Korn Ferry, and Annette Reid, senior vice-president of HR at Aviva. (June 18).

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