When you hear about a management model that will deliver quick results, certainty and control, tread carefully, as authors Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati explain.
Let’s face it, management models are sexy. Drawing a 2*2 matrix on a whiteboard and explaining each quadrant has this strange, almost magical effect of transforming someone from mere corporate minion to a fountainhead of management profundity and guruness. A situation that a moment ago seemed overwhelming now seems surmountable. Done right, the person holding the marker pen can project themselves an up-and-coming leader, a self-starter or an outside-the-box thinker.
The deeper reason for management model allure is ambiguity – a form of uncertainty that cannot be quantified. To illustrate, playing blackjack is uncertain but not ambiguous because rules of the game are known. Neuroscience studies have shown that this kind of uncertainty is processed by the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the part that governs logical thinking. Casino revenues suggest that humans don’t have too much of an issue with this.
But with an ambiguous situation, rules change as the situation evolves, making it very hard to make sense of it using logical or analytical methods. Such situations are processed by the more primal areas of the brain, those that govern our emotional responses. Thus, for many people, ambiguous situations are associated with feelings of anxiety, and for those who have a low tolerance for ambiguity, the feeling can be overwhelming.
Much of the success of management models lies not in their claimed efficacy, but their effectiveness as ambiguity coping mechanisms. Models provide psychological support by creating a familiar (i.e. logical or analytical) anchor point that appears to reduce ambiguity just like a teddy bear does for kids. Indeed, in this sense, adults are no different from kids: we never stop using teddies – they just take on the form of processes, models, tools and methodologies, rather than fluffy toys.
Sometimes, this is not a problem because the use of such supporting objects is a key part of any learning process. Like kids, as we learn and grow through experience, most of us discard our teddies. But sometimes teddies can hang around for longer than is healthy. In particular, if the process of learning is disrupted in some way, they assume a more ominous avatar. They become fetishes – objects that are held on to with a pathological intensity, not because they lead to better outcomes but because they reduce anxiety for those who use them. Put differently, they become ends in themselves, rather than means to achieving ends
Of course, in such situations, ambiguity never actually goes away – it only appears to. So it is inevitable that reality will reassert itself sooner or later.
The key take-away is this: if a model-peddler is driven by ambiguity-driven anxiety, then beware. Those who cling on to fetishes are not only blind to their affliction, but their continued belief in their fetishes precludes genuine learning and results in the oft uttered “That’s just how we do things around here”.
So when you hear the siren song of a sexy management model with a promise of quick results, certainty and control, the first thing to do is to make sure the model-peddler is not fetishizing their teddy. But before you do that, be sure to understand your anxieties and any teddy bears you might be holding close. Indeed, the first step towards understanding how to get the best out of management models lies in understanding yourself. Only then can you begin to understand the effects of ambiguity in the wider organisation and “see” the teddy bears clutched by your colleagues.
Our new book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity explains how you can become an Ambiguity Jedi and harness it in positive ways. Although ambiguity can truly never be eliminated from the workplace, it is possible to not only live with it, but thrive. Our book shows you how.