The worst kind of management obsolescence occurs in the mind

People tend to stick with the beliefs they were brought up with—at least until they’re forced to change. That’s why much of workplace culture has hardly been affected by the changed notions coming from the academic world and elsewhere; and why we’re paying the price for leaders still peddling out-of-touch attitudes to work. Is the only answer to wait until the last Baby Boomer quits?

The people in charge in most organizations today are part of the Baby Boomer generation, brought up by parents born before World War II, and trained in schools and universities during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

These people saw the attempted social changes of the 1960s wither and die, replaced by a return to an extreme form of social conservatism, whose espoused values can mostly be translated into property value, shareholder value, and investment value. Their few remaining ideals suffered a fatal blow from the Vietnam War and they settled down to believe in the natural order of free-market capitalism: that a few must lead and make decisions, while the majority are led and have their decisions made for them.

Recognizing that leading was going to be the better option, most have pursued a steady path of personal advancement—eventually reaching levels where they have indeed became the leaders.

Command-and-control as a natural law

Brought up on ideas of natural dominance and hierarchy, many of today’s senior leaders still see no reason to change this viewpoint. While they may engage in a little cosmetic softening on the outside—they are not immune to the benefits of good PR—nothing has changed within their heads. Their mental attitudes are still those formed 30 or 40 years ago.

While the world has been transformed, what we are seeing today is the steady application of old-fashioned command-and-control management to problems inconceivable 30 or more years ago.

Take the rumbling concern about executive salaries. New methods have been found to enrich a favored few. If those in charge seize on them without scruples, this is not simply greed. In the minds of the immediate post-war generation ruling today’s boardrooms, it’s entirely fair that those who have risen to the top should take most of the rewards. Who better deserves them? Their parents lived in a world where individual merit was of small importance in promotions. Pre-War, family ties, social standing, and seniority (based on years of service) were the basis for rising up the hierarchy. The Baby Boomers saw that swept away and adjusted their mental viewpoints accordingly. Their generation invented merit-based pay and has benefited from it handsomely. Why should they give it up?

The current turmoil in the stockmarket is another example. Baby Boomers lived through the post-War experiments in social democracy and government intervention in people’s lives. Most of these forms of social engineering were judged to have failed, to be replaced by doctrinaire free-market viewpoints. Of course, now that the free market is wetting its collective knickers because the resulting greed and lack of regulation have caused horrendous problems, government is expected to return to social engineering and step in to rescue them. The Baby Boomers have learned well the belief that government should keep out of their hair when things are going well and provide a safety-net when they aren’t. Success (and its rewards) is down to individuals, coping with failure (and its costs) is up to society as a whole.

Paying the price of macho attitudes

Nothing in this world lasts for ever; nothing comes without a price. The price of decades of rampant individualism , extreme free-market economics, financial deregulation, and social conservatism is proving to be a heavy one.

What ordinary people are paying for a macho, “me first” society like ours now includes:

  • The stark alternatives of selling your soul to the organization or being shut out of advancement.
  • Accepting that you can lose your job any day for reasons that are entirely beyond your control; and that you’ll be on your own when you do.
  • Fierce competitiveness that cares little for the weak, the sick, or those down on their luck.
  • Continued racial, gender, and sexual discrimination, justified by appeals to “family values” derived from sentimental myths based on idealized 1950s households.
  • Confusing self-reliance with disregard for the needs of others.
  • Such a blind disregard for environmental issues that politicians still can’t act when the effects of past greed and neglect are finally too obvious for even the most dinosaur-like moron to deny them.
  • A nagging fear of loss of savings and retirement benefits due to the actions of a handful of speculators. (Why don’t many people save? Maybe because they don’t trust the savings will still be there when they need them.)
  • Falling trust in the basics of life, like safe food and safe drugs, because maintaining safety and increasing profit rarely go together.
  • Stress, burnout, and cynical layoffs to drive up “shareholder value.” (Not of much interest if you neither own shares nor have enough of a retirement fund to worry about.)
  • An increasing gap between the rich (who get ever richer) and everyone else. (How is it that thousands of ordinary people losing their jobs is a natural and unavoidable part of global competition, and a handful of hedge funds patronized by the super-rich losing their money is a national and international crisis?)

What happens if people lose faith in the future?

Is this a civilized society? Is this how we want to live in the 21st century? Is this the only option available to us?

There comes a time when every generation is replaced and ideas that once seemed unquestionable truths are thrown into history’s dustbin. The imperialism of the 19th century was swept away by the First Wold War. Optimistic beliefs in the return of rationalism and social progress were fatally wounded by the Depression, then killed by Nazism and Stalinist communism. 1960s belief in the power of love and freedom to change society swiftly dissipated under the pressures of the Vietnam War.

We seem to be at another turning point, linked to another war. Far from embracing the ideas and economic structures developed in the last 50 years, radicalized dissidents are trying to replace them with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Newly industrialized nations like China want to benefit from our financial structures, but reject our political and social ones.

In the Western world, a new generation of entrants to the workforce are demanding more equitable treatment and greater control over their working lives. In many cases, a career in a large, “blue chip” corporation—the centerpiece of their parent’s vision of a good life—is dismissed as second-rate compared with becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself.

In Arizona we suffer many flash-floods at this time of year. Monsoon rains cannot be absorbed by parched, thin soils, so they run off into the washes and seasonal rivers, causing sudden floods that rise and disappear in an hour or less.

Sometimes this natural run-off gets blocked. When that happens, pressures build up until the dam of debris is swept away. A raging torrent of water pours down the mountainside, carrying rocks, tree limbs, and even vehicles along with it. In the resulting flood, roads are destroyed, buildings are flattened, and people are killed.

Let us hope that in our generation there can be a peaceful, non-violent change of ideas as Baby Boomers like me finally surrender control. Whether that is what happens really depends on all our choices today. Unless those in charge in our organizations give up their obsolete modes of thinking, they will continue to act as a dam to progress—with sadly predictable results. No organizational structure or mental outlook is proof for long against a violently changing environment.

Sign up for our Email Newsletter

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

Popularity: 96% [?]