Tag Archives: managers

Leaders vis-a-vis Managers

Many theories float around as to what is the difference between Leaders vis-a-vis- Managers; I hope to show some more clarity on the matter by referring to my Hands, Heart, Head, Voice model of leadership.

To recap, the four main functions/ traits of a good leader are elaborated below:

  1. Hand / Executing themes/ Task focus
  2. Heart/ Relationship building themes/People focus
  3. Head/ Strategic thinking themes/ Strategic focus
  4. Voice/ Influencing themes/ Cultural focus

IMHO, the traditional way in which leaders and managers are defined, leaders are predominantly leaders, because of their ability to think strategically or to inspire positive cultural changes; while managers are managers, because of their ability to execute the given tasks and because they can develop individuals and get work done out of them.

Much has been written about the task vs people orientation of managers; similarly its important as leaders to be aware of the strategic vs cultural focus you bring to the table (i.e whether you believe culture eats strategy for breakfast, or the opposite). Each style has its unique advantages, but as you grow from a supervisor to a manager to an executive to a real leader you will probably progress form Hands to Heart to Head to Voice.

Now, lets look at some other dynamics between the Hands, Heart, Head and Voice.

Hand Vs Voice : Here task focus is pitted against a culture focus and the real deal is about having tangible vs intangible results.  Culture is notoriously hard to measure, but any changes are as noticeable and as effective as any bottom-line results.

Voice vs Heart: Here a focus on organizational culture is pitted against a focus on individuals that make the organization and their needs. Issues of alignment are top-of the mind in this dynamics. Another way to think about the dynamics is whether you work one-on-one with individuals to bring out their best; or whether you inspire and motivate and work with, and via, large collectives and groups.

Heart vs Head: Here a focus on people is pitted against a focus on strategy and another way to look at the same is whether as a leader one is human-centric or more business-oriented.

Head vs Hands: Here a focus on strategy/ thinking is pitted against a focus on tasks/ execution. Another way to conceptualize is to think in terms of whether you are making moves that are strategic in nature or that are tactical in nature. How much of your time is spent making strategic decisions and executing strategy vis-a-vis in tactical maneuvers of day to day operations.

Be warned, that as a leader, you need to use all of your Hands, Heart , Head and Voice and a good leader/ manager, though having a predominant style, is flexible enough to rise to the occasion and use other styles as and when the situation so demands.

Its fun to apply this to an org structure, say the C-suite of executives of a tech company: while Hands may be the COO, responsible for day to day operations;  Head will typically be the CTO/CSO, responsible for providing a competitive strategic advantage; Heart will be the CXO, the Chief Experience Officer providing the human-centrism;  while Voice may be the CEO/CIO responsible for culture/ innovation etc.

In a similar vein, when startups form, all these things need to come together: an inspiring idea (Voice/ culture/ innovation) having a viable business model (Hands/ execution), to be executed by a stellar team of like-minded people that has been put together ( Heart/  people) and which has a clear business plan ( Head/ strategy.

While the prevailing wisdom is that the ‘idea’ guy should not be the CEO (makes for a ‘weak CEO’) , I think if CEO is to be the leader that everyone is to look at, they should be the ones to influence and inspire the employees, and need to have good Voice abilities.  What do you think? Do let me know via comments!

For developing non-cognitive skills of Employees, focus on their Managers!

A recent article by Paul Tough, focuses on how one can increase the non-cognitive skills of students. He shows, how, the evidence increasingly points, that we cannot ‘teach’ these skills, but by creating the right environmental conditions and via real-world interactions, these somehow develop.

These non-cognitive skills are skills like grit, resilience, self-control and perseverance; and these have been shown to have differential and significant impact, over and above cognitive factors, on academic performance and outcomes like the CGPA.

The article starts with documenting the well-known finding that (chronic) stress in early childhood is associated with worse outcomes later in life. It then goes on to document another finding, that irrespective of whether the early childhood is stressful (barring aside extreme adversity) or not, if the child-parent interaction is full of warmth and supportive and consistent, then it leads to development of  positive non-cognitive skills like attention and concentration.

For children who grow up without significant experiences of adversity, the skill-development process leading up to kindergarten generally works the way it’s supposed to: Calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills. Just as early stress sends signals to the nervous system to maintain constant vigilance and prepare for a lifetime of trouble, early warmth and responsiveness send the opposite signals: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. These messages trigger adaptations in children’s brains that allow them to slow down and consider problems and decisions more carefully, to focus their attention for longer periods, and to more willingly trade immediate gratification for promises of long-term benefits.

Now, as per one conceptualization, its easy to draw a parallel between a child-parent relation and a employee-manager relation; many of us look at our bosses as parental authority figures and look towards them for direction and guidance. If we extend the analogy, its easy to see why the supportive, warm, caring and consistent behavior of managers towards their employee may be an important variable that results in the employees exhibiting behaviors that utilizes and is focused around using non-cognitive skills.

Also important is the emotional intelligence of the manager- how self-aware the manager is and how capable of self-regulation he or she is. The analogy with parent-child emotional interaction and modelling is presented below:

A second crucial role that parents play early on is as external regulators of their children’s stress. When parents behave harshly or unpredictably—especially at moments when their children are upset—the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations. By contrast, when a child’s parents respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones.

So, if one wants to have employees that can focus, self-regulate, do not cut corners in service of short term goals and are creative/ innovative, then along with some behavioral raining in these aspects, a fruitful avenue would be focusing on the EI and attitudes of their managers so that they act in right way towards their employees, and create the right conditions for development and display of non-cognitive skills.

The article then goes on to discuss how neither punishments nor incentives work to decrease the behavior problems or to increase the academic outcomes. Translated to the workplace, carrots and sticks don’t work, neither for controlling dis-engagement nor for increasing performance. One striking indictment of incentives follows:

And yet in almost every case, Fryer’s incentive programs have had no effect. From 2007 to 2009, Fryer distributed a total of $9.4 million in cash incentives to 27,000 students, to promote book reading in Dallas, to raise test scores in New York, and to improve course grades in Chicago —all with no effect. “The impact of financial incentives on student achievement,” Fryer reported, “is statistically 0 in each city.” In the 2010–11 school year, he gave cash incentives to fifth-grade students in 25 low-performing public schools in Houston, and to their parents and teachers, with the intent of increasing the time they spent on math homework and improving their scores on standardized math tests. The students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn’t changed at all. When Fryer looked at their reading scores, he found that they actually went down.

What does work instead, is creating the conditions for tapping into intrinsic motivation: and one way to do so is by providing employees/ students a sense of autonomy, mastery experiences and a sense of belonging/ relatedness. This is based in the rich literature around self-determination theory by Deci and Ryan.

But how does this relate to the non-cognitive abilities? In educational settings, Jackson, an economist, tried to measure the non-cognitive ability of students and also correlate to teacher’s effectiveness and came up with striking insights.

Jackson had access to students’ scores on the statewide standardized test, and he used that as a rough measure of their cognitive ability. This is the number that education officials generally look at when trying to assess teachers’ impact. But then Jackson did something new. He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude way, how engaged students were in school—whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this simple noncognitive proxy was, remarkably, a better predictor than students’ test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.

An analogy to workplace would be productivity as the cognitive skills; and absenteeism, layoffs, on-time promotions and performance ratings as a proxy measure for non-cognitive abilities. And what did he find?

Jackson’s proxy measure allowed him to do some intriguing analysis of teachers’ effectiveness. He subjected every ninth-grade English and algebra teacher in North Carolina to what economists call a value-added assessment. First he calculated whether and how being a student in a particular teacher’s class affected that student’s standardized-test score. Then, separately, he calculated the effect that teachers had on their students’ noncognitive proxy measure: on their attendance, suspensions, timely progression from one grade to the next, and overall GPA.

Jackson found that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year. These are the teachers, in every teacher-evaluation system in the country, who are the most valued and most rewarded. But he also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up—not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too.

Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much; in every school, it seemed, there were certain teachers who were especially good at developing cognitive skills in their students and other teachers who excelled at developing noncognitive skills. But the teachers in the second cohort were not being rewarded for their success with their students—indeed, it seemed likely that no one but Jackson even realized that they were successful. And yet those teachers, according to Jackson’s calculations, were doing more to get their students to college and raise their future wages than were the much-celebrated teachers who boosted students’ test scores.

Now this is huge! It correlates with the parallel  claim I have been making that most of the managers are basically either task-oriented or people-oriented.  Those who are task oriented, are like the teachers who can increase the cognitive ability of students, and are able to drive productivity in their teams; the other set of managers, who are more people-oriented, are like teachers that create the conditions that lead to more non-cognitive abilities in their students, and are able to truly engage employees and bring out their best.

And this they do by creating the right conditions:

The environment those teachers created in the classroom, and the messages that environment conveyed, motivated students to start making better decisions—to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day. And those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways. Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call “skills” in this case are really just new ways of thinking about the world or about themselves—a new set of attitudes or beliefs that somehow unleash a new way of behaving.

And what are these new set of attitudes or beliefs:

Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington concludes, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The four factors are related to belongingness (where managers can play a big role), mastery experiences and growth opportunities, for creating self-efficacy and feelings of competence(again under manager’s control); and ensuring the work is purposeful and not meaningless (where again managers can play a big role).

Its about time, managers lived up-to their responsibilities, and organizations reward the people-oriented managers too, who are creating the conditions for their employees to grow and flourish. The non-cognitive skills of employees can be developed but via the managers and hence its important to create the right culture where people oriented managers are also rewarded and recognized.

Caught in the middle: Mental Health of middle managers

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques

English: Gibraltar Barbary Macaques (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About three years back a study about concentrations of fecal glucocorticoids in nine female Barbary macaques caught the imagination of science and management bloggers/ journalists.  The study was more methodological in nature, trying to see whether average concentrations of fecal glucoroticoids are a better measure of stress or those collected immediately after and correlated with some aspect of behavior a better measure, but what caught the fancy of the blogoshpere was a small paragraph embedded towards the end:

Female Barbary macaques have a despotic dominance style, characterized by asymmetrical dyadic interactions, often determined through the use of ritualized threats and displacement, as opposed to direct aggression (Preuschoft et al.,1998 ). When adrenal activity was compared between individuals according to their relative dominance rank, we found a non-linear relationship,with mid-rank females tending to exhibit higher,and often more variable fGCM concentration than high-rank, or lower-rank females.

Now to understand the above, we have to digress a bit into the physiology and psychology of stress. Macaques have a hierarchical social structure and use aggression/ threats and displacement to seal their position in the hierarchy.  These aggressive behaviors cause stress. Stress manifests as heightened activity of HPA axis leading to more glucocorticoids in the body (and feces).  Bottom line, you can measure how stressed a macaque is by analyzing the glucocorticoid metabolite in the feces.

And what did they found? Tangential to their main hypothesis, they found that those macaques in the middle of the rank dominance were more stressed than those either high up the hierarchy or at the bottom.

And what are the most common asymmetrical power structures in human context—-its the workplace where power games are not too uncommon.  The authors themselves extended the analogy to middle managers (not in the article , but in their press briefs) and equated the ambition of middle managers, and the consequent conflict with both superiors and subordinates, as one of the reasons for the stress that middle mangers feel.

But is it really the case that middle managers are more stressed than those at the bottom of the hierarchy or those at the top? I have been a middle manager myself so should know, but instead of using anecdotes lets look at research again, this time from a study surveying nearly 22,000 full time workers.

What the researchers found was that middle managers were indeed more likely to be depressed or anxious than their top-ranking or bottom-of-the-pile counterparts. The study divided workers into owners/leaders; managers/ supervisors and workers and found elevated rates of depression and anxiety in middle managers and supervisors as compared to say workers and owners.

Of course one can speculate as to what factors may underlie such a state of affairs; but putting the two researches together, one can see that part of the reason may be the power dynamics that is involved in being a  boss as well as a subordinate at the same time. When the boss asks and puts pressure for something that is not possible in the given amount of time/ resources, the aggression is typically displaced to the subordinates and leads to conflicts and bad blood at both ends.  The middle manger is truly caught in the middle.

What is the way out? Being more assertive to superiors (without being aggressive/ ambitious/ stabbing-in-the-back kind of person) and not displacing aggressive impulses towards subordinates is one thing that comes to mind. The other is totally to stop seeing oneself as a boss or a powerful person and using more influence and persuasion to get things done rather than use authority or control ….this way you detach from the power and dominance hierarchy mindset.  Lastly create a fun climate for both your subordinates and a delightful experience for your managers. We can learn from macaques and chimpanzees to be aggressive or we can learn from bonobos to be more playful and loving. The choice is ours (and has important consequence for our well-being) !

Yesterday, I had written about how relationships are important for workplace well-being; as middle managers that are caught between superiors, colleagues and subordinates we can either get overwhelmed by the hellishness of other people; or we can use these myriad relationships to satisfy our need of relatedness and making a broader impact on the world around us. The choice again is ours!