Tag Archives: structure

Trust in the workplace (Part 1): Accountability-based management

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:

Three level unit

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


Managers need to connect the boxes!

Or as I stated this imperative at another time a few years ago:

      Talent management is dead without managerial leadership.

This provocative insight is usually met with the managerial response “we don’t have enough time”.  The challenge is thus: where do we get more time from?  We can’t create time, so we have to find ways of wasting less of it.

The last 20-odd years have shown me three key “time-wastage avoidance” methods:

  1. Match capable individuals to the task
  2. Be clear about expected results
  3. Foster commitment to the desired outcomes

I have since found two bodies-of-work that usefully address all three opportunities spelt out above.  Not surprisingly, these two schools at first appear to contradict one another.  After all, the concepts of “hard” and “soft” are opposites…I will explore Elliott Jaques’ “Requisite Organisation” (RO) theory and then Richard Barrett’s work on deliberate culture transformation.

Jaques: the ignored visionary

The late Jaques’ very long career, that effectively created management science, is still remarkable.  His background includes advanced studies in science, medicine, sociology and psychoanalysis.  He was perhaps more importantly a researcher of the human condition under real conditions…if you accept that adults spend most of their waking hours at work, you will be pleased to hear that he spent years answering difficult questions like:

  • What is work, really?
  • How do jobs get “sized” (with no manipulation!)?

Elliott’s startling insight was directly inspired by interactions with the union reps.  “Bigger” work is fundamentally different because of the longer time-horizons required.

Jaques’ addressed the key issue of matching appropriately capable individuals against a hierarchy of different roles (categorised as the different levels-of-work).  Some roles only require careful attention to the here-and-now; while others require wrestling with what lies out-of-sight and far into the future…

His 1990 Harvard Business Review article is called “In Praise of Hierarchy”.  He clearly lifted out its key insights:

“Managerial hierarchy is the most natural and effective organization form that a big company can employ. As organizational tasks range from simple to complex, there are jumps in the level of responsibility. As the time span of the longest task assigned to each managerial role increases, so does the level of experience, knowledge, and mental stamina required.“

Jaques basic prescriptions for “requisite organisation” (yes, he did prescribe a better way) are straightforward, but it still takes courage and persistence to implement:

  1. Get the right structure (determining the right number of levels is a crucial first step)
  2. Get the right people for the right roles (ensure incumbents have the required capability for their role)
  3. Teach the right managerial practices

His approach requires major adjustment in thinking about organisations.  For instance, employees do not report to managers; instead managers are accountable for their subordinates.  This shift in power relations means that it is in the manager’s best interest to invest in their subordinates’ success.

He has been called “authoritarian” by Tom Peters.  This misrepresentation of Jaques is a tragedy.  He is in fact the opposite of the unfeeling “structuralist” he is painted as.  He wrote:

“An institution or pattern of organization may thus be defined as requisite to the extent that it reinforces the expression of behaviours supportive of confidence and trust in human interactions, and reduces suspicion and mistrust.

For those who want an additional, non-abusive approach to “managing” values let’s turn to Barrett.

Barrett: the accessible visionary

Barrett’s “value-work” was launched when he wrote “Liberating the Corporate Soul”.  His culture-transformation tools are now being used globally.

What makes the tools powerful, and attractive to CEOs, is that they are a measurement methodology for managing culture change.

The Barrett model shows leaders that not all values are of the same type.  It is useful to think of them as occurring at different levels of needs and motivations.

Using Maslow-like triangles, Barrett presents us with Seven Levels of Consciousness.  The obvious similarity between this and Jaques’ levels-of-work is that lower levels are concerned with the short-term, while higher levels are long(er)-term in focus.Image

Where they differ, is on how to access the higher levels.  Jaques’ model needs the highest levels to be for individuals with the required cognitive capability.  Barrett has the highest levels requiring not mental aptitude, but spiritual attunement.

By gathering an organisation’s perceptions of what its current and desired sets of values are and then plotting this, deep insights are made.  After doing this, it becomes clear what an organisation’s culture is and should be.

The amazing result of doing such a values investigation is that desired future state and the implied journey to get there, is generated by the employees in an organization.

But organisational change is preceded by personal change.  For leaders ready to embrace the challenge Barrett’s tools are very useful.  It will take courage and honesty, but as Gandhi said:

“We must become the change we want to see in the world.”