Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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How to ruin organisations - sack the oldies and concentrate on strengths?
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Years ago when I worked as a consultant in organisations I used to talk to a lot of people who had problems at work with a bullying and autocratic boss. One of the first questions I would often ask was about age. Experience had taught me that often the worst hard-driving bosses were middle age or younger. Young people who quickly get promoted in organisations are often particularly hard-driving. They stand out because they are very focused on goals, put in prodigious amounts of effort and often have a great belief in their own capabilities. This can make them ruthless and arrogant. If these types don’t implode or get burnt out they can learn in time that they aren’t always right; that they need other people’s perspectives; and that being overly task driven can backfire by alienating other people. Repeatedly I have seen how common it is for hard driving, logical thinking types to mellow as they age; the sharpness of their youth is replaced by a more well rounded and less abrasive personality. So if someone was complaining about their boss, and that person was in their mid 30s, I often despaired for them.
Much has been written this week about the continuing collapse of RBS and Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangements. I’ve little doubt that when the history of the banking collapse is analysed properly then it will become clear that part of the reason for the present crisis was the banking restructuring of the early 1990s. This paid off most staff over the age of 50 and handed the bank over to younger managers. There are three problems about this – experience walked out the door, the banks were increasingly run by people who were business people, not bankers, and it encouraged an arrogant, autocratic management style. Instead of the mellowness and wisdom which often comes with age, the banks were run by young Turks who were eager to make their mark, convinced they were right and did not want to hear any opposition to their grand plans. Talk to anyone senior in RBS and they’ll tell you that the management style was autocratic and there was a great deal of fear. Top managers wanted to get their own way and did not want to be challenged or diverted from their ambitious plans and investments. We now know how disastrous these investments have been and as tax payers we are all paying a heavy price for the arrogance behind such short-sightedness.
The financial crisis must get us to reassess many of our values and management practices. It is interesting to us at the Centre that in the past few months a book has appeared critiquing a strengths based approach in organisations and links it to the present crisis. It is called The Perils of Accentuating the Positive
edited by Robert B Kaiser. It is critical of the strengths based approach which has become increasingly fashionable in the last few years. It is a major plank in Positive Psychology though the Centre has never been particularly keen on this approach and we have been much more interested in promoting Carol Dweck’s work on mindset which is at odds with the idea of cultivating strengths.
The book advances a number of arguments against a strengths based approach. First the authors question the empirical evidence which suggests that focusing on strengths is a good career strategy for leaders. The book argues ‘there is strong evidence that focusing on what individuals are naturally good at fails to help them stand out in their careers.’ What makes sense is for leaders to acquire new capabilities to meet changing business needs. Another problem, which we have also argued, is that strengths and weaknesses are inextricably linked. For example, it may be a strength for an individual to be logical and task focused but, unless this person has really tried to work on their weakness they are likely to have poor people skills and this may well result in a trail of casualties. However, the strengths based approach discourages people from paying attention to weaknesses and so the person may simply try to play to their strengths thereby ignoring something of huge relevance to other people and to organisational effectiveness.
Randall P White, one of the contributors to the volume, argues cogently that the strengths based approach is part of the problem in many modern organisations which are often too individualistic and short term. White concludes:Hubris, arrogance, obstinacy and megalomania are a few of the words that come to mind as a result of over-developed strengths that can define entire organisations as they are woven into business plans and strategies and all the way down to the product. It can precipitate the approval of very risky financial decisions or skirting ethics in the name of the executive’s brilliance. Never mind that the executive may be universally reviled by the organisation.
White provides ten specific steps to create what he calls ‘a self-awareness based leadership development model’.
- Resist giving permission to stagnate.
- Invest in developing well-rounded individuals.
- Promote self-awareness instead of self-indulgence.
- Guide people out of their comfort zones.
- Recognise that the most prevalent skills are seldom all you need.
- Commit to the philosophy that leaders are made, not born.
- Beware of strength for strength’s sake.
- Emphasise a global perspective in leadership development.
- Prepare your organisaiton to manage ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Explore, analyse and address weakness.
To access two articles outlining the book and White's ideas go to -
Leadership in Action Magazine
, November/December 2008 Business Leadership Review, February 2009
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