Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Myth of the Management “Team”

A corollary to the myth that people are endowed with specific attributes, knowledge, skills and experience simply by virtue of the position or title they hold is another myth, the myth of the management “team,” described quite well in Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline.

Mr. Senge talks about this august group of senior executives who battle collectively to define the organization’s pathway, knock down internal and external obstacles, and provide the wherewithal for the organization to compete and survive in the marketplace. But in describing how this “team” functions in reality, he makes the point that the way they function tends to minimize any chance for collective or individual learning. Listen to what he has to say:

“All too often, teams in business tend to spend time fighting for turf, avoiding anything that will make them look bad personally, and pretending that everyone is behind the team’s collective strategy—maintaining the appearance of a cohesive team. To keep up the image, they seek to squelch disagreement; people with serious reservations avoid stating them publicly; and joint decisions are watered-down compromises reflecting what everyone can live with, or else reflecting one person’s view foisted on the group. If there is disagreement, it’s usually expressed in a manner that lays blame, polarizes opinion, and fails to reveal the underlying differences in assumptions and experience in a way that the team as a whole could learn.”

Senge continues by referencing Chris Argyris’s book, Overcoming Organizational Defenses, about the fact that, while executive team’s can function quite well in managing more mundane issues, their cohesiveness and performance break down under encounters with real problems or crises:

“Argyris argues that most managers find collective inquiry inherently threatening. School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people we excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues. (When was the last time someone was rewarded in your organization for raising difficult questions about the company’s current policies rather than solving urgent problems?)"

Senge continues:

“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain or ignorant. That very process blocks out any new understandings which might threaten us. The consequence is what Argyris calls ‘skilled incompetence’—teams full of people who are incredibly proficient at keeping themselves from learning.”

Perhaps we should focus more time and energy on examining the quality of the questions being asked inside our organizations rather than just focusing on the quality of the “answers.” When was the last time your management asked you to focus on the nature of the questions being asked inside your organization?


Sergei Dovgodko said...

Thank you for your post. Right on the money! I believe most of large US companies can be described as "passive-agressive", with the management attributes the classics described long ago. The question is, is there anything can be done before it is too late and the only approach is drastic restucturing.


Norman Ridenour said...

I teach English composition to international undergrad business students in Prague. I use the article, "The Myth of Management Team" and other articles,in conjunction with the text "Asking the Right Questions" by Browne and Keeley. I does generate; a. considerable heat and discussion, b. unbelief, "Who is this writer???" c. An opening for the students step beyond conventional wisdom.

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