Politics and Culture: Why do managers not act (grab the gold) even when some
do see the root causes of problems?
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
Earlier on I raised the question why managers often do not act even when they see the
root causes of problems. Here is a typical example of what happens inside a company
when the strategy does not match the changing environment. The following case study
comes from Learning to Think Strategically by Julia Sloan.16)
6.1 The story of Margot and a failing strategy
Margot, the CEO of a midsize software firm, panicked because her three-year
winning strategy was failing. Her stockholders were complaining, the board was on
her case, competition was on the rise, and her neck was on the line. Instead of
opening up, she surrounded herself with people whom she considered to be
loyalists, those who were like-minded and knew “where the lines were drawn”. She
fired her two top ‘antagonists’ and refused to hire ‘outsiders’ because they wouldn't
know the company way and would bog down the process. She insisted that her
global executive committee relocate back to Seattle for convenience and to help
with ‘continuity’ for some time. Fearful to shatter frames, Margot locked into her
existing frames of reference. She was hoping to revive her strategy by simply
extending her frames of reference ‒ doing more of what didn't work! There are
times when we need to be counter-intuitive and not cling, but break out, if we want
Three basic aspects of human nature impede momentum towards facing the changing
reality. These needs censor the information exchange between people who need to
make the case for change and invoke further resistance to changes. These needs are: 1)
safety and security 2) approval and esteem 3) power and control (Thomas Keating
In the example above the two antagonists to the CEO lost out on all three of these
needs and eventually were fired. These lessons would not have been lost on the
remaining staff. Sticking your neck out to bring unpleasant truths to the surface would
not become part of this company’s culture.
At the same time the CEO was aware that change involved risk and a suboptimum
change could hasten her demise. As stated by Machiavelli, the most dangerous time
for a reformer is when change is announced. Those who will be negatively affected
know who they are and those who will benefit do not.
Without a good understanding of which models need to be used and lacking
confidence in their own analysis, the status quo seemed like a better option.
Organisational change efforts fail when there is no shared understanding of what is
being done or why it is being done.
6.2 The risks inherent for the leader/manager in admitting ignorance
We now get to one of many dilemmas that managers like Margot face. Desmond
Morris in The Human Zoo expressed this aptly.18)
Today the problems are so complex that the modern leader is forced to surround
himself with intellectual specialists, but despite this he cannot escape the need for
quick-wittedness. It is he who must make the final decisions, and make them
sharply and clearly, without faltering. This is such a vital quality in leadership that
it is more important to make a firm, unhesitating decision than it is to make the
'right' one. Many a powerful leader has survived occasional wrong decisions, made
with style and forcefulness, but few have survived hesitant indecisiveness. The
golden rule of leadership here, which in a rational age is an unpleasant one to
accept, is that it is the manner in which you do something that really counts, rather
than what you do. It is a sad truth that a leader who does the wrong things in the
right way will, up to a certain point, gain greater allegiance and enjoy more success
than one who does the right things in the wrong way.
We thus need to have sympathy for Margot. As her organisation’s problems mounted
and infighting inevitably increased, she had to assert her dominance by getting rid of
challenges to her control. From her perspective, the short term had to take priority
over the long term.
In essence, since the culture of Margot’s organisation was not one of reflection or of
understanding longer-term cause and effect, she had no alternative but to start
focussing on short-term survival with all the negative outcomes associated with it. It
would be safe to assume that managers at lower levels would also learn not to admit
lack of knowledge or to ask for help.
6.3 Cultural issues
“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the
intelligent are full of doubt.” ―Bertrand Russell
This assertion by Bertrand Russell, in addition to Desmond Morris’ sentiments on the
need for leaders to act with confidence, may explain why inner reflection and dialogue
are frowned upon and given short shrift inside organisations (It may explain other
issues too.) There is a preference to oversimplify the world and to overestimate one’s
ability to impact the world through one’s own actions (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking
Fast and Slow).19)
In The Secrets of Consulting Gerald Weinberg notes that “Nothing is more puzzling to
a young consultant than to arrive at the client’s office and be told, first thing, ‘We
really don't have any problems here. Nothing that we can’t handle, anyway.’
Indeed, more than one inexperienced consultant has been so ignorant as to reply, “If
there is no problem, then why did you hire me?” This may seem logical, but logic and
culture have nothing to do with one another. In the culture of management, the worst
thing you can do is admit to anyone that you have a problem you can’t handle by
yourself. If you really do need help, you have to sneak it in somehow without
admitting in public that there is any problem at all.
Cause and effect, separated by a time interval, is frequently overlooked, leading
managers to work on the wrong problem. One could add that those cocksure actors
seem to be found in disproportional numbers at higher levels of the organisation. Most
people can only be cocksure if they genuinely do not understand the true complexity
of the reality they inhabit or the role of luck in their success. Nassim Taleb explains in
Fooled by Randomness how traders through following a particular strategy can be
lucky for a long time until they ‘blow up’. Then some other fellow takes over with a
different successful strategy until the world changes once more. The same fate befalls
The belief that good managers are cocksure
New employees figure out early in their careers that to get to the top one needs to
appear to know what is going on. Those in senior positions are experts at displaying
an air of confident certainty. It is unacceptable to act as if one does not have the total
answer to problems.
Some managers sincerely believe that they know the answers to everything and come
across as cocksure. And in order to maintain this belief they must eliminate alternative
views and not be open to other perspectives. To remain confident they must be rigid in
Realistic managers know that they are expected to have the answers but are aware of
the deficiencies in their solutions. In order to be perceived as confident they need to
obscure their ignorance. In both cases managers become skilful in defensive routines
that hide the thinking behind their decisions. When the thinking behind decisions is
hidden group learning comes to a halt.
Argyris says, “Whenever I ask individuals … what leads them to play political games
in organizations, they respond that it’s human nature and in the nature of
organizations. We are the carriers of defensive routines, and organizations are the
hosts. Once organizations have been infected, they too become carriers.”
Senge quotes another example of an organisation where managers have learned to
pretend that they have the answers to everything and have learned not to act:
The CEO who found no leaders
One forceful CEO recently lamented … about the absence of “real leaders” in his
organization. He felt his company was full of compliant people, not committed
visionaries. This was especially frustrating to a man who regards himself as a
skilled communicator and risk taker. In fact, he is so brilliant at articulating his
vision that he intimidates everyone around him. Consequently, his views rarely get
challenged publicly ... While he would not see his own forcefulness as a defensive
strategy, if he looked carefully, he would see that it functions in exactly that way.
Although the CEO publicly wants to provoke debate, in reality he prevents others
from doing so and thus is able to maintain his mental models intact. Since this
defensive routine is hidden it is extremely effective. Defensive routines are
especially widespread in organisations where incomplete or faulty understanding is
considered a sign of incompetence or weakness.
6.4 Management Traps (defensive routines)
The English are too polite to be truthful and the Dutch too truthful to be polite. Dutch
Reformed Church minister.
In order to solve our organisational problems we know that we need a culture that
values dialogue, reflection and learning. The dirty secret unfortunately is that these
values are difficult to build. Most people subconsciously sabotage the organisation’s
chances and their own to develop these values.
The defensive routines described in the previous section often prevent organisational
learning from occurring. Chris Argyris notes: “We say we value openness, honesty,
integrity, respect, and caring. But we act in ways that undercut these values—not just
once in a while, on very rare occasions, but regularly and routinely—whenever we
face threatening or otherwise difficult situations. We then deny we are doing this and
cover up our denial, thus trapping ourselves.”
John Sterman writes in Learning In and About Complex System 20)
... others document the defensive routines and cultural assumptions that people rely
on, often unknowingly, to interact with and interpret their experience of others. We
use defensive routines to save face, assert dominance over others, make untested
inferences seem like facts, and advocate our positions while appearing to be
neutral. We make conflicting, unstated attributions about the data we receive, and
fail to distinguish between the sense-data of experience and the attributions and
generalizations we readily form from them. We avoid testing our hypotheses and
beliefs publicly, and avoid threatening issues. Above all, defensive behaviour
involves covering up the defensiveness and making these issues undiscussable,
even when all parties are aware they exist. Defensive routines are subtle. They
often arrive cloaked in apparent concern and respect for others.
Consider the strategy of ‘easing-in’. If you are about to criticize someone who
might become defensive and you want him to see the point without undue
resistance, do not state the criticism openly; instead, ask questions such that if he
answers them correctly, he will figure out what you are not saying.
But easing-in often creates the very defensiveness that it is intended to avoid,
because the recipient typically understands that the actor is easing-in. Indeed,
easing-in can be successful only if the recipient understands that he is supposed to
answer the questions in a particular way, and this entails the understanding that the
actor is negatively evaluating the recipient and acting as if this were not the case
(Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985, p. 85).
Defensive behaviour, in which the ‘espoused theories’ we offer to others differ
from our ‘theories in use’, prevents learning by hiding important information from
others, avoiding public testing of important hypotheses, and tacitly communicating
that we are not open to having our mental models challenged. Defensive routines
often yield ‘groupthink’ (Janis,1982), where members of a group mutually
reinforce their current beliefs, suppress dissent, and seal themselves off from those
with different views or possible disconfirming evidence. Defensive routines ensure
that the mental models of team members remain hidden, ill-formed, and
ambiguous. Thus, learning by groups can suffer even beyond the impediments to
According to Argyris21)
“We all possess two theories of action, one to which we
espouse, and one of which we actually use.” It is perhaps best to illustrate this by
means of an example cited in Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture,
The story of the CIO and his IT Group
A large electronics firm was experiencing a number of problems. The IT group was
too large and cost too much. At the same time it was providing inadequate service to
the firm. This was an ongoing problem. Therefore the CEO informed the CIO (chief
information officer) that the problem had to be corrected, otherwise all options were
on the table, including finding a new CIO.
The CIO thus called a meeting with his subordinates. He informed them about the
gravity of the situation and specified the problems that needed to be addressed. These
were: 1) Line management felt there was no co-operation from IT professionals 2) The
IT professionals were adding insufficient value despite higher budgets.
He then asked to discuss the department’s ability to react to the user’s needs and the
difficulties experienced with line management. As a last point he reiterated the
importance of satisfying the line manager’s needs.
The IT personnel then replied as follows:
We are concerned about their needs. Line management does not know what it wants.
They do not understand how long it takes to provide a high quality service and want
everything yesterday. We are fed up with line management’s complaints. We need
The CIO empathised and suggested that a plan be developed for responding to
The response: Our users don’t plan, thus there is no sense in us planning. Even if we
get close to getting it right they will make more demands and complain about other
The CIO pointed out that without a plan there would be no evidence on how well
resources were being managed. In his opinion the stalemate had to be broken by doing
Some IT members then argued that it was impossible to change line management. The
CIO then asked what alternative to planning they proposed. The IT group then became
emotional and reiterated that the problem was not solvable because of line
management and that the group members were already overworked and losing good
The CIO, at the end of his patience, stated that the problem had to be fixed since there
was no alternative. Otherwise IT was not responsible.
What is happening here? The IT group is frustrated and mistrusts line management
and the CIO. They make evaluations and attribute intent to line management in ways
that do not allow testing or further enquiry.
The CIO’s behaviour is intended to get cooperation from his staff and to avoid having
them see him as unfair. He censors his evaluations and attributions and then acts as if
this is not the case.
In reality his thoughts were as follows: “These guys act like a bunch of babies, They
do not realise how insensitive and opinionated they are; I feel I should read the riot act
to them. If they don’t come right we are all going to lose.”
When the CIO was asked why he did not make his private thoughts public he said he
did not want to add fuel to the fire. When some of the IT personnel were asked to
guess what his thoughts were they responded in very much the same words as he did.
When asked why they did not say what they knew he meant they replied that it would
make matters worse.
Due to the self-censorship and way in which the conversation progressed, the dialogue
became defensive and self-reinforcing. How could the CIO have changed the outcome
of the conversation? ‒ by enabling dialogue. With proper dialogue assumptions can be
tested, incompatibilities resolved, vagueness clarified, untestable statements tested,
patterns brought to scattered information and previously withheld information brought
to the surface.
The direction of the solution would be towards testing the validity of assumptions as
well as those made as to the intention of others. When subordinates say that “line
managers do not know what they want” they should be asked, “What do they do or
say that makes you believe they do not know what they want?” The answer to this can
be used to evaluate where the problem is. If it is with the line managers this
information can be taken to them for discussion.
In general, whenever the CIO hears untested or unsubstantiated assertions as to the
behaviour of line management it is important to mention that line management cannot
be confronted unless data and examples are available to support the statements made.
6.5 Attempts to use logic to the exclusion of emotion in inducing change
Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”22)
has shown how through
all of history, the existing scientific theories produced and reinforced a world view
that was so powerful that they ruled out the acceptance of much better theories. This
means that changing one’s view does not necessarily rest upon evidence and logic
alone. There is also a social context in which knowledge generation occurs. One can
thus not appeal to logic and facts in isolation from the historical and cultural values of
those involved in a change process 23).
This is where Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy as explained by Pink6)
Further support for the need to address not just logic but also the emotional aspects of
human nature come from recent neurological research24)
indicating that decisions are
very much affected by brain structure. The ‘new’ brain thinks ‒ it processes rational
data, the middle brain feels ‒ it processes emotion and gut feel, and the old brain
(reptilian brain) makes the actual decisions based on input from the other two parts. It
has been shown that, in general, we make decisions based on emotion and then
rationalize these decisions later.
Under situations of stress our minds start to focus on self-preservation and sensory
information is immediately processed in the limbic system. By the time a message
reaches our cerebral cortex for higher thinking, we have already placed a ‘feeling’
upon how we view that stimulation – is this pain or is this pleasure? Although many of
us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling
creatures that think.25)
People do not react in the same way in similar situations. The Myers-Briggs
is a system for classifying people based on certain
characteristics. It classifies people into 16 subcategories (4 main categories and 4
subcategories in each). The main categories are:
extrovert or introvert (E or I), the mode of regaining energy,
sensing or intuitive (S or N), the mode of obtaining information,
thinking or feeling (T or F), the basis for making decisions,
perceiving or judging (P or J) the way they fit into the world.
The mode of obtaining information and the basis for making decisions is relevant to
this discussion. Intuitives are exceptionally good at seeing what is not yet there, and
sensors are good at observing changes in the present. Both types relate well to
storytelling. Even though the overall brain structure is similar, it is suggested that the
grasping of cause and effect, especially when delayed in time, comes more easily to
those classified as intuitives on the Myers-Briggs personality profile. Sensors, on the
other hand, need to see, feel and experience before they will be convinced. Theories,
unless tried and tested, do not impress them.
About 66% of the world population can be classified as sensors and 33% as intuitives.
As we go higher up the organisation we find that thinking (T) and judging (J) starts to
increase in frequency. The ISTJ type (a subcategory of sensor) is found to have
increased from 19% at the entry level to 32% of executives. This is not surprising
given that ISTJs tend to be natural organisers (ISTJs make excellent accountants).
Another personality type found to have increased from 3% at entry level to 16% at
executive level is the INTJ (a subcategory of intuitive). At the executive level, sensors
and intuitives are still found in a 2:1 ratio.
In my experience, appealing to logic in selling a case for change works with intuitives,
but not nearly as well with sensors.
We will see later on in the section on strategy that top strategists mention strong
emotion as one of the critical components required for developing good strategies.
I have tried to use stories throughout this book to illustrate the theory. Stories appeal
to our emotions and become tangible in a way theory never will.
More reasons why managers do not act
Often managers accept recurring conflicts in resource allocation as a fact of life
and are not aware that a solution exists.
Given the complicated nature of wicked problems, often there is no agreement on
what the actual problems that need to be addressed are.
No agreement on the direction of the solution.
Knowledge and fear of negative effects which will occur as a result of the solution
(errors of commission are punished, errors of omission are safe).
Measurements and incentives which were in place to solve problems that the
business experienced in the past will be in conflict with what needs to be done.
They are not exposed to the system as a whole and thus have no profound