Some years ago I had a big aha moment: the realisation that accountability is profoundly relational. The well-known statement “people take responsibility, but are held accountable” only begins to dis-cover the insights of this deep reality.
Elliott Jaques — whose writings caused that aha for me — spent over 50 years labouring on a systemic design for effective work environments, which he finally called Requisite Organisation (RO). He was arguably the greatest psychosocial scientist to ever study the world of work. For all that however, he remains largely unknown, and when known generally misunderstood and vilified.
Jaques’ collaborators continue to produce significant work. John C. Bryan has written a sublime paper titled “Three-tier Management: A Structure for Trusted Managerial Leadership” based on Jaques’ RO prescriptions. I will largely base this post on Bryan’s inspiring distillation of RO’s deepest relating and relational principles.
Bryan submits that the relationship between trust, the quality of managerial leadership, and organisation structure is not well understood. He proposes that trust requires a structure that supports accountable managerial leadership: a three-level unit comprising an employee, the employee’s manager, and the manager’s manager.
Most management systems today are two-level structures (manager and the direct report). This generally leads to deficits compared to what a fully trustworthy system needs, which are:
- An accountability structure for the quality of the managerial leadership provided
- Developmental support for employees’ future potential
- A means of integrating competing priorities
The essential concept of the manager-once-removed (MoR) role and a three-tier management structure provides these necessities in a management system. The two- and three-tier structures are graphically represented below:
The relational principles in the manager-‘managee’ collective are found to requisitely be that:
- The manager/direct report relationship provides a foundation for trust and operational excellence
- The manager-once-removed role provides additional functions needed for sustaining trust
- The manager-once-removed/employee-once-removed relationship provides for integrating competing activities (what the manager wants and her employee needs)
RO prescriptions for managers
The contemporary attack on management (i.e. the call for ‘flat’ organisations) is based on the misconception that managers are in place to communicate and control. In fact, managers are in place to ensure accountability for creating value. Managers ought to effectively do the following:
- Communicate and monitor progress
- Provide direction, context, resources, and leadership to their direct reports
- Clarify what is expected of an employee, and why
- Provide adequate resources to accomplish assigned tasks
- Give guidance as to whether team members are moving in the right direction at the right tempo
To achieve operational excellence, organisations must gain employees’ trust and commitment. To merit employees’ trust and commitment, organisations must ensure employees receive competent, effective managerial leadership from an accountable manager.
Since managers control the key variables that determine outputs (resources, priorities, task assignments, etc.), trust and fairness require that they (rather than their direct reports) be held accountable for achieving assigned outputs through efficient use of resources and effective direction and utilisation of their direct reports.
Because managers are accountable for the outputs of their direct reports, a manager’s self-interest is in meeting current demand through maximum use of his/her direct report’s abilities. Tasking employees away from current work assignments to develop their capabilities for potential future roles, perhaps in different parts of the organisation, is not in the manager’s self-interest. Therefore, all employees require assurance that someone else is accountable (not HR) for providing development opportunities to help them achieve their potential, as well as for ensuring the quality of managerial support they are receiving.
This is the role of the Manage-once-removed. It cannot be delegated or outsourced to HR!
Why three-tiers are requisite
A two-level management system risks misplaced priorities, amplified discontent and resentment among employees, competing goals becoming conflicts, loss or neglect of future potential, and not having adequate talent-supply ready when needed. It is also trust destroying.
In a three-tier structure, what is often left to chance in a two-tier structure becomes part of an integrated management system. This results in:
- Managers having the structure they require to provide effective and accountable leadership
- EoRs having the structure they need to receive fair treatment and equal opportunity
- MoRs having a reliable structure through which to meet current and future demands
Effectiveness, accountability, and trust are largely reliant on organisation structure and policy – this claim is made at the rational, collective level in Alexander’s “set of windows” and hence where I locate accountability-based management. As Bryan says “…trust means having reasonable confidence in the integrity, reliability, and justice of the management system, as well as in the managers who operate that system.”
This trust-inducing environment does not just happen! The individual-level analysis occurring in much modern HRM striving, largely misses this with its overly “thin view of mutuality”.
Winston Churchill wisely observed: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
So, by being overly distracted with the particularities of individualism, we would end up blinded to the promise of organisation…