Being politically incorrect: consensus is for the insecure
Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Successful management practice
There is a tendency among management gurus and seasoned practitioners to assume a mono-cultural view of successful management practice. That is, if it works for Bill Gates or Dick Smith or Lynn Brindley, then it must work for us. For example, in the modern information environment we are encouraged to believe that management by consensus through teamwork is the ideal, largely because it has succeeded in some organizations in some places. This, we are told, creates a more caring environment in which staff feel empowered and therefore willing to do their best for the organization, and to serve the clients with new levels of commitment.
Cultural sensitivity and social realism
The professional literature is replete with examples of articles that preach this gospel, and it is clearly against the tide, if not downright politically incorrect, to suggest that there is any other approach to management in information organizations. Yet there are other approaches, and anyone who aspires to excellence in management needs to realize this. Not only are there other approaches, but each approach may be received differently in different contexts – this is cultural sensitivity and social realism, which the politically correct seem unwilling to admit.
For example, non-Scandinavians tend to believe that Swedes, Danes, Finns and Norwegians are pretty much the same; but spend a little time among them, and subtle differences quickly emerge. An interesting example of this appears in a paper by Finn Havaleschka (2002) which looks at different management styles of Swedes and Danes.
"Swedish managers appear more organized, structured, and systematic, they seek consensus through social processes. The individual strives for power, and authority is on the group's terms. Danes are seen as more undisciplined and impulsive, with a tendency towards the anarchistic, because individuals strive for power, authority and control based on the individuals' own terms."
In this situation would it be fair to say that a Danish manager who does not follow the consensual approach is a bad manager? Perhaps not in Danish terms. Likewise, in many Asian societies the norm is for carefully structured hierarchies within organizations, with "the boss" sitting at the top of the pyramid, and rarely consulting lower level staff. Similarly, in Ghana much the same holds true. "Traditionally, contacts between superiors and subordinates are supposed to be initiated only by the superiors. The ideal boss in the subordinate's eyes is someone who is a benevolent autocrat or 'good father'" (Badu, 2002. In this situation a manager who works by seeking consensus may be regarded as weak and ineffective. In short, we must realize that the consensual approach is not always the most appropriate one.
Approaches to management in information organizations
Indeed, there are at least two principal approaches to management in information organizations, and we should never forget this. The one already mentioned can be characterized as the "softly, softly, let's-think-about-it, maybe-we-need-to-set-up-a-committee, let's-make-sure-everyone-is-on-board" school of thought. Another is the "let's-do-it" approach. In our view the former, and more popular among "sensitive" managers, runs the risk of being stultifying, leading to loss of vision, then stagnation, and eventually atrophy in many environmental contexts. For libraries and other information organizations, this is fatal, because it means that the organization becomes increasingly irrelevant, and in the fast-moving information marketplace, such an organization is soon left behind as the tide of demand sweeps onwards, looking for sources and resources that are less resistant to change.
"Softly softly... "
Why do we say this about the "softly softly" consensus-seeking approach? Because our experience has shown it to be so. Seeking consensus can lead to confusion and unpalatable disagreement among colleagues. Not only confusion and disagreement might result, but also a lack of progress as people become bogged down in information gathering and team meetings, and frightened at the uncertainty about what might happen as a consequence of a decision. Complexity, lack of coordination, failure to make demonstrable progress – all of these characteristics can result from management by committee or by consensus.
The other, "let's-do-it" approach is more dynamic, forward-looking and really rides the wave of change, keeping pace with demands and doing its best to be creative, proactive and responsive. Information organizations following this approach not only survive but thrive. Continuing the surfing metaphor, of course one falls off the surfboard from time to time, even coming a cropper occasionally, but it is better to be trying than to sit on the shore and shake one's head at the "foolishness" of those hardy enough to ride the waves.
Riding the wave of change
One sees this in so many types of information organizations, from public libraries to government departments to library schools. Indeed, a good case could be made for linking the library school closures in the USA and, to a lesser extent, Australia, to the consensual, conservative approach to change and development. If I may take an example from Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria (SLV), for years that wonderful institution was drowning because, for a variety of reasons, its management seemed incapable of making competent decisions – for a variety of both internal and external reasons. Now, under the current director, the grand old SLV is certainly riding the wave of change, and in a recent visit, after an absence of nearly a year, one could sense the frisson among the staff, among the users.
In so many other institutions, libraries and library schools in Australia, New Zealand, Britain, several developing countries, one sees the opposite – resistance to change. Think of an idea for something new, and what is the typical response among "library types"? "Well, we've never done it that way before, so let's think carefully." "We need to form a committee to consider the implications of that proposed change, to do an input-output analysis, blah-blah-blah." And what almost invariably is the result? Nothing! That's what they want, these teeth-sucking Tories of the stacks, nothing to happen, maintain the status quo – unless, of course, some higher authority says, "jump", and then suddenly the attitude changes.
I feel desperately sorry for those who, from within the organizations, have good ideas and are willing to run with them, but who feel totally unmotivated because they know that the initial reaction will be glum faces and shaking of heads. With them, I say, "why bother?" For the most part it simply isn't worth the energy to cajole, coax and beg others to join in whatever is proposed.
Much better, in certain situations, to rule by caveat, to gather information and in the end make the best educated guess possible, but then to have the courage of one's convictions to, as we say in Australia, "have a go mate". This is exciting, exhilarating and usually productive – just like riding the information wave.
My colleague Philip Calvert in a recent column wrote of the need for charisma among managers. Yes, charisma is helpful, but more than this information managers need to be risk takers, not afraid of criticism from colleagues when they grasp the bull by the horns and try something new. So, whether in a library or library school, I say we need to become more fearless risk takers rather than consensus seekers. The former thrive, the latter die of boredom and anomie. As St Augustine put it, "sin bravely".
References and further reading
Badu, E.E. (2002), "Team management and university libraries in Ghana: the influence of culture", Library Management, Vol. 23 No. 6/7, pp. 287-293.
Havaleschka, F. (2002), "Differences between Danish and Swedish management", Leadership and Organization Development Journal, Vol. 23 No. 6, pp. 323-332.