Management’s retreat from involvement (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Frisbees and hula hoops both came out when I was a kid, and at about the same time.

A year later almost nobody seemed interested in hula hoops, while Frisbees have thrived as a perennial favorite for forty years or so as a cross-species success. (Memo to Frisbee Corp: Invent new model made of diaper material to absorb canine saliva.)

Some management “fads” are more durable than others, too. One in danger of following the hula hoop is employee involvement.

The idea of employee involvement is pretty simple: If you’re making a decision that affects someone, they may have intelligent ideas to offer, and you’ll benefit from hearing them.

There’s a useful adjunct to this idea. If you’re making a decision that affects someone, asking for their ideas is a matter of simple courtesy.

If I’m reading the tea leaves right, this thought process has started to lose its luster among managers at all levels. Based on what I’ve been hearing, there seem to be two basic reasons for disenchantment with it.

The first reason — the one managers emphasize — is that it’s inefficient and wastes everyone’s time, including the employees we’d been involving. Even worse it causes unnecessary anxiety, leading employees to worry about what might happen when instead they can toil away in happy ignorance until management is ready to tell them the answer. (For the record, I’ve never once heard any employee thank a manager for keeping him or her out of the loop, but I’ve heard quite a few managers congratulate each other for this fine logic.)

Management’s retreat from involvement probably comes from our having made it a panacea. Many of us applied it indiscriminately to every possible decision. Worse, we confused it with consensus decision-making, so every departmental decision took time away from work and took a long time to make.

There is, I think, a second reason managers have started to retreat from involvement, and it isn’t pretty.

Many who aspire to management do so because they desire power. Wanting power (that is, the ability to influence events and outcomes) is neither good nor bad. It’s why you want the power that matters. It doesn’t take a psychotherapist to realize many managers want power because they were bossed around earlier in life.

These managers want their turn, and having to involve employees in decisions takes away from the emotional satisfaction of making decisions and making them stick.

They want to be the boss because they want to boss people around. It’s their turn.

This group of managers either washed out during the empowerment and involvement fads of the past decade, or they learned to paste a smile on their faces, getting even with everyone by instituting the appearance of involvement while actually ignoring every idea offered to them by employees.

The survivors are removing their velvet gloves, revealing their rusting iron fists and unpleasant personalities.

They’ve mistaken Frisbees for hula hoops. Right now we’re dealing with the best employment market in twenty-five years, at least as far as employees are concerned. Unpleasant managers will retain only those employees too inept to be hired by good companies or too afraid to start looking. Companies that allow these managers to dominate their ranks will slowly crumble as their best talent leaves for better working conditions.

Involvement doesn’t have to mean holding hands and singing Kumbaya. It’s more a matter of simple courtesy, asking peoples’ opinions before making decisions that affect them.

So in the cold hard world of commerce, simple courtesy gives your company a big competitive advantage.

Is this a great country or what?