Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Living with Rational Management

Part 9 of Prisoners of the Real

Even with the ideal planning process, completely rational decisions remain the impossible dream for most managers. That would require, noted Ira Sharkansky in his book, Public Administration, a list of all the imaginable means that might be used, all the costs and benefits, a tremendous amount of "intelligence about the environment," and a commitment to objectivity beyond the reach of most human beings. If all those considerations could be met, and if the decision-maker was willing to let the facts determine his choice, he or she might select the route that provides the great benefits and the least disadvantages.

In real life, however, even "by-the-book" managers settle for quite a bit less. Compromises with the purely rational are unavoidable. Problems multiply, key information may not be available, personal needs and limitations get in the way, and other organizations throw up barriers. Despite the cooperation of subordinates, therefore, the person who decides can't act from a basis of pure rationality. He can, however, be "reasonable" and make "satisfactory decisions."

This type of decision-making restricts itself to the feasible. For administrators, that may mean using the existing resources in a way that is consistent with the expectations of a chief executive, a legislative body, or interest groups. Explicit definitions of the problem or the goals may have to be avoided. Finding the "best way" rarely enters the picture. Instead, the manager looks for something that will "work" – that is, the solution that can provide some relief without causing too much unrest. If conflict can't be avoided, it is usually minimized by picking an ambiguous goal, "buying off" the discontented, or falling back on what was done in the past.

As you might suspect, this approach to decision-making is widely practiced. Mostly, administrators wait for tension to signal the need for some change, adjusting to demands rather than initiating a decision that would lead to a clearer definition of goals. When complex considerations are involved, they are simplified by relying on standardized procedures and routines.

Since they depend on clear boundaries and avoid making assumptions about reality, "satisficing" managers remain rational in their basic approach. They simply collect facts – within clearly defined limits, usually based on past precedents – and set aside fixed principles, firm only in their belief that success depends on the ability to adapt.

Whatever their style, rational managers live by the clock, that embodiment of linearity and sequence. Time is the measuring rod for efficiency, the flowing "line" of organizational continuity. They look at it as a long carpet continually unrolling at a precise rate. Their attentiveness to time as a process that places actions in an historical order both enables them to be scientific and binds them to a logical mode of thought. This view of time, implied in the linear connection of means and ends as well as inductive and deductive method, is central to any rational approach to management. In codifying reality, managers often present statistical information, for example, as a linear graph or curve. Flow charts monitor action within sequential time, a form of accountability that measures human motion against standard intervals.

The way to "save" time is to accelerate motion. Efficient managers place a high value on these savings. They view time as a series of regularized units – external, sequential, omnipresent and inescapable. The reality of linear time – and this definition – are rarely questioned. Rational managers accept the "time line" as a constraint within which all work takes place.

Participation and Control

Since the 1960s, the importance of worker participation has been stressed as the way to create a sense of satisfaction on the job. Yet the true goal has usually been a cooperative and compliant workforce. Since participation lubricates the organization and can oil away resistance to management control, managers frequently discuss needs and problems. Mainly, however, they buy cooperation by providing information and a format for dialogue. Compliance with authority remains the rule.

In a Harvard Business Review article on his study of management views of participation, Raymond Miles concluded that although managers endorse participatory concepts, "they frequently doubt their subordinates' capacity for self-direction and self-control, and their ability to contribute creatively to departmental decision-making." Good morale and satisfaction of basic needs may be necessary "inducements," but most managers still think that control must be maintained. Although it may be distributed somewhat, the common wisdom is that what the controller gives up he loses himself.

For most leaders, participation is an "ought" and not a "must." It is something a manager "should probably do" in order to reduce conflict to a tolerable level. The level of "tolerance" is, of course, set by the manager, or if not, it is a response to pressures from a superior or the environment. The approaches to participation themselves are mostly exercises in technical rationality, practical and present-centered. By explaining decisions, discussing objectives and encouraging involvement in routine matters, administrators hope to convince workers they are useful and valued members of a team. The process is either analytical or a matter of pragmatic bargaining.

Both problem-solving and persuasion can be analytical tools in a manager's effort to resolve individual conflicts; for example, if an employee can't reach a decision, a search for more information may provide the answer. Bargaining, on the other hand, is more useful in dealing with intergroup differences, though it may strain some relationships.

Bargaining is essentially a form of "political rationality" in which compromise, debate and so forth lead to a conclusion that can be looked upon as a group choice. The basis of the choice is not the merits of the proposal but instead who is involved. Whether bargaining or analyzing, managers will attempt to resolve conflicts by creating some sort of "legislative" body that produces d├ętente, raises morale and reduces resistance to control.

In creating and overseeing the standards of action in an organization, rational managers hope to make the actions conform to the plans. Since they assume that adapting to the needs of the environment is the key, however, they may adjust one of these or both depending on their view of an organization's survival needs. In this respect, the practice of management reflects one of the basic tenets of behavioral science: that humans are controlled by their environment.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner, whose research on operant conditioning laid the foundation for behavior modification programs in education, industry and government, articulated a philosophy of science with profound implications that applies well to rational management. "A scientific analysis of behavior," he wrote, "dispossesses autonomous man and turns the control he has been said to exert over to the environment." This image of vulnerable humanity isn’t complete, however, since "man as we know him...is what man has made of him."

To finish the job, Skinner proposed that humanity engage in an ethically neutral approach to social self-control he called "planned diversity." In his view, "The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control." Some ethical control may rest in small groups, but management of the population as a whole "must be delegated to specialists – police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and codified contingencies."

A rational manager, in short, is both a controller and one of the controlled. As Skinner put it, a manager finds it necessary to direct the actions of others to "construct an environment in which its members act in a highly effective way." Within his work group he is the controller and behavior shaper, using scientific methods and an understanding of human behavior to enhance the disciplined actions of his employees. But he is simultaneously controlled by the requirements of his surroundings, forced by his own beliefs to be adaptive to environmental conditions.

He's a technical-political designer of his institutional system, moving it inexorably toward a state of increased predictability. The rational core of organization science makes the manager a realist model-builder. He maintains the structure of choice, establishes boundaries of analysis, adapts himself and his subordinates to the demands of the outside world, relies on his senses, and promotes minimal satisfaction toward the central goal of efficiency.

Next: Philosophy of the Real


The Creative Also Destroys

Deconstructing Leadership

Anatomy of Insecurity

Managers and Their Tools

The Corporate Way of Life

The Dictatorship of Time

Rules for Rationals

The Age of Adaptability

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