Essays on Management: Recognising poorly managed organisations

Like Tolstoy’s happy families, well-managed organisations are easy to recognise.  They are externally focused, parsimoniously run, harmonious, lacking histrionic drama and divisive inner conflict, with systematised operations and enough stretch to keep people growing.  They are open, honest and outward-looking, serious-minded places, with occasional laughs (but no prolonged, near-deranged laughter.)

Poorly-managed organisations are controlled by leaderless management teams focusing on short-term processes disconnected from external results.  Management dysfunction will be reflected in spelling mistakes in documents, messy meeting organisation, dysfunctional organisational processes, IT failings and lack of work pride through to personal grievances and work place bullying.  These problems suggest bad management, however they may reflect previous managerial failure to deal with problems which able successors then have to grapple with.

When organisations have lost their way they spend a lot of time on externally-facilitated introspection, team-building exercises, staff extravaganza, unnecessary overseas travel, and management courses and capability exercises bearing no relationship to external deliverables.  Forward looking, results-oriented person struggle to survive in such an environment.

Poor-performing organisations don’t respect their current customers or staff, are oblivious to the future, and won’t learn from the past.  They fail to retain and apply knowledge and this leads to the wheel’s reinvention.  Their managers make their mark by changing things that are working well.  In public sector organisations, a failure to undertake detailed intervention logic means the logical heart of problems is not understood, and unintended consequences occur over timeframes and in ways that muddle ultimate accountabilities.  Pressures to deliver something to reactive managers or Ministers lead to string and chewing gum “work-arounds” rather than core problems being addressed.

A dysfunctional management team is unable to define its core mission in the tangible and external value-added terms. It fails to pin down what it will not focus on.  Such management teams often end up operating only in their own interests. There are diagnostic signs of this.  One is when management jobs are advertised even when a candidate has already been selected because he or she will act…in the interests of the management team!  Open competition must be the only basis for staff, especially managers, to be selected.

Another dysfunctional sign is when managers appoint only people they can feel superior to in achievement, or when they deprive able staff of the information or opportunities enabling them to flourish.  On Andrew Carnegie’s tombstone is engraved: Here lies a man who knew how to enlist in his service better men than himself.  It is humiliating for people with a track record of external achievements, scholarship, deep values or knowledge depth to report to those who lack these.

An insecure manager or chief executive may appoint people from outside the relevant field or from offshore, because incumbents “know too much”.   Or they will decline to delegate downwards, stifle horizontal communication and ensure incumbent “threats” are excluded from key networks and conversations. Poorly performing organisations minimise delegation downwards, often on routine matters such as sick leave or travel approvals.  Such control removes people’s discretion, suggests distrust and therefore demotivates. It also means higher administrative burdens for top managers who should be focused on the big strategic picture.

When people have to go through channels rather than directly to who has the information it suggests excessive management layers.  For these reasons, organisational restructuring in the public and private sectors is often needed simply to deal with excessive management overhead.

A dysfunctional public sector organisation will often have ill-defined roles such as special project managers who do nothing special, or directors with no-one to direct.  New jobs should never be created to solve problems created by poor specification of existing management and other jobs.  For example, roles such as “coordinator” might indicate there is a structural problem in an organisation and a role has to be created as a work around rather than the problem being solved.  Some organisations create “strategy development” jobs with no power so they can appear to be addressing difficult strategic issues without actually doing so.

It is hard to say goodbye to surplus senior staff and so the temptation is to create non-jobs for them.  The staff concerned then generate a lot of work, participate in all possible meetings and processes with a busyness that generates internal costs rather than external contributions.  These problems can be compounded by “title fluffing” where mundane jobs are made to sound more important than they are.

Any team with high staff turnover raises issues around management competency, or whether the team itself is well-structured in relation to the task it has been given.  Another more specific sign of dysfunction is “widow maker” jobs that predecessors have not survived in.

Bad management has big knock-on effects on staff reflected in stress-related illnesses, absenteeism, or “presentism” where people turn up to work without contributing.  Some of this is contagious – one person’s stress-related illness triggers’ others, and sometimes the gap between genuine stress-related sickness and hypochondria becomes murky.

Therefore, the way to recognise when you are in a poor performing organisation is when you and others around you start to get sick at the thought of going to work, or become miraculously healthy when on holiday, or when you manage to change jobs and start to feel better.


About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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6 Responses to Essays on Management: Recognising poorly managed organisations

  1. ashokbhatia says:

    Your posts are invariably thought provoking. One sure sign of a decaying organization is in its treatment of human assets. Aggressive bosses often forget a good principle – that of appreciating in public and rebuking in private.

    • Peter Winsley says:

      Thanks so much. Very wise words. Amazing how many company bosses say “people are the most important resource” yet behave quite differently in practice.


  2. strategyaudit says:

    This is very good stuff. keep it up.
    Allen Roberts

  3. mohanpuja says:

    Hi Peter,
    A very candid and light read with a very hard hitting topic. I thoroughly enjoyed this read.

    Puja Mohan

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