Friday, 21 February 2020

White-knighting it

In a previous post, I suggested that when we supply reports, it is possible that no one has asked the "do we need this anymore?" question, and mentioned a case in the Leadership Experience (Daft & Pirola-Merlo, 2009, p. 30; here) where a new engineering manager of an under-performing engineering department found that staff time was taken up in supplying a number of apparently unneeded reports. 

The new manager's solution was for his team to continue to write the reports, but to withhold them from the senior management team until they were specifically asked for, accumulating in a printed pile on the floor of his office. Once senior management realised that the information pipeline had been shut off, the teetering pile was wheeled on a trolley, through the jubilant and cheering engineering department, to the management meeting.

As a leadership tactic, this action achieves a number of things. Firstly it encourages the engineers to see the manager as a hero leader, someone who will 'save them'. While this act will generate a lot of goodwill, it can be dangerous, as this type of charismatic act can encourage other dramatic and subversive behaviour: the implication is that going off the reservation is OK. Further, it can also encourage coasting: in the future, the manager will 'save them' again. Secondly, it makes senior management look incompetent. it implies that showing up one's fellow employees is OK. The manager may well have made multiple enemies within the senior management team, potentially limiting his future with the company, and possibly reducing his credibility. Thirdly, the act was divisive, potentially creating an 'us' and 'them' situation between the department and senior management. The manager stopped communicating. His actions did not build collaboration, teamwork or openness within the broader organisation. He did not show respect for his employers, and did not tackle the problem as soon as it was identified, preferring to set himself up as the champion with all the answers. 

Grand gestures are all very well, but we need to think about how this may appear to others, what we are in danger of normalising, and the assumptions behind our actions. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.


  • Reference: Daft, R. L. & Pirola-Merlo, A. (2009). The Leadership Experience (Asia-Pacific Edition 1). Australia: Cengage.

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