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Bruce Holland

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Why Good Managers Behave Badly

I have spent most of my life working in large organisations. It wasn’t until I left and went consulting in 1992 that I really started to understand the impact a large organisation has on its people. When you’re inside it’s just the water you swim in. Like most of the managers I work with today, I had no idea of the impact the organisation was having on me.

The Stanford Experiment

This observation is not new, for years systems scientists have been telling us that in a system people will not do what they know is right, they will do what the system is setup to make them do. At Stanford University, in 1971, Zimbardo and his team set out to test the idea that people act according to the system they find themselves part of. In the Stanford experiment, Zimbardo selected 24 predominantly white and middle-class males whom they deemed to be psychologically stable and healthy, to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison.

The guards were provided weapons and clothing of a prison guard including mirrored sunglasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners wore ill-fitting smocks and stocking caps, rendering them constantly uncomfortable. Guards called prisoners by their assigned numbers, sewn on their uniforms, instead of by name. A chain around their ankles reminded them of their roles as prisoners. The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered, and accepted, sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. Guards forced the prisoners to count off repeatedly as a way to learn their prison numbers, and to reinforce the idea that this was their new identity. Guards soon used these prisoner counts as another method to harass the prisoners, using physical punishment such as protracted exercise for errors in the prisoner count. Mattresses were a valued item in the spartan prison, so the guards would punish prisoners by removing their mattresses, leaving them to sleep on concrete. Some prisoners were forced to go nude as a method of degradation, and much worse.

Lessons for management

I'm not suggesting that managers usually behave like the guards did, however, it's really important to understand that these guards behaved not as they were brought up to behave but rather as the system "prison" intended them to behave, just as managers in their system "organisation" behave in the way the organisation intends them to behave.

If the system is set up to produce good behaviours the managers will behave well. On the other hand, and more often, if the system has been allowed to develop haphazardly the managers will probably behave badly even if they would like to behave well.

In my Irresistible Leadership Program I help people understand systems thinking. Usually they don’t believe they act according to what the system wants them to do. I use a simple exercise to help people see the truth in what I’m saying. A small group of people are instructed to lower a hulahoop, each using only one finger. Although they all know the objective (to lower the hulahoop), and they all try to achieve the objective, the hulahoop inevitably rises. It’s just part of the hulahoop system.

Most organisations spend lots of time and money selecting good people into the organisation without thinkng much about the system these people are going to work in. It would be more advantageous if the organisation spent more time and money designing the system into which the people are placed.

Ordinary managers in a great system can produce outstanding results. Great managers in a poor system act badly, and it's not their fault. if your managers are behaving badly maybe you should ask me to help you look at your system.

Do it now. Don't put it off any longer!
Warmest wishes,

Bruce Holland
Virtual Group Business Consultants
Phone +6421620456 or Skype Bruce.Holland
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Key words: Leadership, leadership development, leadership management, leadership training, leadership program, leadership skills.

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