Myths of Modern Management: Acknowledgement

In a time where we measure like never before, it’s a paradox that the biggest danger for an organisation and its employees is the modern and well-meaning manager. Coaching and appreciative management, with democracy, equality, and a large degree of freedom for employees is not the solution; it’s a source of the problem. At the end of the day, the demand for results is the same as ever, but it has become unclear who is responsible for what, which resources we have at our disposal and how they can be suitably managed.

In many forms of modern management, managers are told that they need to have a meaningful relationship and an investment in their employee’s personal development through motivating positive reinforcements. Today we know that this solution simply creates more problems rather than solves them. When we put all of our energy into harnessing positive relationships, although the relationships are valuable, we defer our focus from the activities which actually create sustainable productivity within an organisation.

We must promote a dialogue about our resources and the way we are being managed and led, this is what we need if we are going to fix the problems.

When well-meaning managers follow leadership mottos, such as “you have the potential and the talent,” and “you can do whatever you want,” and it makes employees happy—until they are back at their desks and realising that nothing has changed.  This causes people to feel like everything is their own fault. It isn’t enough that we support each other psychologically. We also need to support each other professionally, supplying the necessary resources in order to solve and finish tasks properly.

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The Myth about Acknowledgement

We have learned that we need to have and give praise and acknowledgement and that we need to think positively. This is actually misleading on the surface. Praise is of course better than shame and punishment, but the drawbacks of praise are also palpable.

Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University has been researching this throughout her life. She has, to her astonishment, discovered that children who are praised for being smart instead of hard working do markedly worse in school. They take fewer chances and choose more manageable tasks, when they can. Their focus on doing well undermines them so much that if you give them the same test twice in a row, they will typically make more mistakes on their second attempt than on their first. This is a fundamental psychological mechanism and the results were the same, when Carol Dweck studied artists, athletes and top performers within business.

Yes, praise makes us happier, but it also makes us stupider–and our happiness is short-lived as praise culture (where we don’t talk concretely about challenges and improvements) turns the workplace into a guessing game, where you don’t know if you’re coming or going. If we settle for evaluating each other with superficial praise or criticism it will be a catastrophe. We should instead show genuine interest and curiosity for each other’s knowledge and achievements.

“Yes, praise makes us happier, but it also makes us stupider.”

The traditional leader scolds and the modern leader praises. But there is also a third way: set clear demands and accompany this with support and curiosity, so that you can create new thinking, pride and sharing of knowledge. False modesty, which can often be met by praise, disappears when we are comfortable, as know that we will back each other up for better or worse.

What Should We Do?

Managers and leaders need to stick with what they are responsible for, that is drafting with employees about how tasks can be solved best. But it isn’t employees who need to be “developed”, it is in fact their competancies and the organisation, which they are a part of, which need to be developed. We need to bid farewell to the insultingly simple solutions that experts present to us. Rather, we need to prepare and support each other to be able to handle the complexity of daily life. We need to nurture a culture where we are aware of our own responsibility to do the right thing, while making sure that we take care of our most important resource: each other.

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The article is based on Christian Ørsted’s book “Lethal Leadership

Translation from Danish by Synamon Mills


Christian Ørsted
6 Aug 2014

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