Saturday, March 9, 2013

Where does the buck stop?

I don’t know that I was ever very good at working in a team setting where all members of the team had equal input and worked together on one project or sub-project. I did not enjoy this when I was younger, and I don’t really enjoy it now. I am not comfortable with ‘shared leadership’ or having to report to multiple ‘leaders’. I come from a generation that feels more comfortable with one leader who plans and delegates individual projects/sub-projects to the different group members, each of whom will then be responsible for his or her specific task. But it is the group leader who has the ultimate responsibility for the outcome of a project or new venture, because it is that person who planned it and delegated it. In other words, it is important to me that each person in a group understands his or her function and role in the group, and can proceed accordingly with the tasks in front of them. I think that each member of a group should have responsibility for a project or a sub-project, and that the success of that project or sub-project is dependent primarily on individual input, not on teamwork. Your contribution to the team is your piece of work. A bit daunting perhaps, but the feelings of responsibility and happiness from a successful project outcome are worth their weight in gold. You progress intellectually from such experiences, and that in my opinion should be a goal in the workplace. I have been a group member who was given responsibility for specific projects, and I have been a group leader who has done the same with the people who worked for me. From the feedback I received from them at that time, I know that each person was satisfied with his or her individual projects. There was no overlap between projects, so there was no danger of one person feeling as if his or her project was merely a regurgitation of someone else’s project, or worse still, ‘busy work’ that was of little to no interest to anyone. That is the worst feeling of all—that what you are asked to do is just busy work and not really important overall. If someone hit a roadblock, I discussed the problems in detail with the person involved, not with all members of the group. I did not feel that it was up to the other members of the group to solve whatever problems arose for one of the group members; that was my job as leader. I still feel that way. Group members may talk among themselves, suggest different ways of tackling a situation or problem, but in the end, the decision about what to do was mine to make after discussing the problem or setback with the person involved. This is my approach and I am relatively unapologetic about it.

I chose to write about this today because I saw a poster ad for a new TV show the other day that essentially says the following: ‘when you are faced with one of life’s most important decisions, thirty heads are better than one’. There is a picture of a young woman standing in front of a group of about thirty individuals, to emphasize the fact that no important decisions should be made alone or in a vacuum. This does not resonate with me at all; I think it’s quite ok to ask others for advice, but asking thirty people for such advice seems a bit much to me. To then require that they help me make a crucial decision that affects my life seems untenable; it would never cross my mind to behave like this. An important decision that affects my life is mine to make, and mine alone. Of course this means that I alone bear the responsibility for a bad decision, but that’s the way life works. One head or thirty heads cannot ensure the perfect outcome to a decision, because we don’t live in a perfect world. There is no such thing as a perfect decision or a perfect outcome. You take a risk each time you make a decision; you also take a risk in the sense of knowing that you must live with the ramifications of your decision. It is possible to learn from mistakes or bad decisions, although as I get older, I don’t look at my bad decisions as mistakes; they were simply bad decisions that in many cases were rectifiable. You are allowed in this life to make another decision to counteract a bad one. Nothing is set in stone. We are flexible individuals who change and grow with the years. If we stay fluid, we don’t trap ourselves in outmoded ways of thinking and behaving.

I guess what bothers me about this particular ad is the emphasis on group thinking. It makes me nervous, because it seems to me that we are giving away our personal responsibility for our decisions to others; we are in essence diluting out our personal responsibility. We can always blame ‘the group’ if things go wrong. In this way, we don’t have to feel bad about the outcome of ‘our’ decision. But is this a good thing in the long run? If we extend this type of thinking to the workplace, what are the long-term effects? Who has the ultimate responsibility? Should there be one person who sits with that responsibility? President Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that said ‘the buck stops here’. I have more respect for that type of thinking than for a plaque that would say ‘the buck stops here, but also in the next office, and in the office down the hall, and in the office after that’.

There are ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians’ in modern workplaces. That may reflect to a large degree the complexity involved in running modern workplaces in today’s world, most of which are too large. But it’s gotten confusing—confusing to try to figure out who you should talk to when there is a question or a problem. If I want to or attempt to solve a problem myself, I am discouraged from doing so. We are informed that there are others we should talk to—this or that office or department that deals with this or that. So yes, I attempt to contact them, in accordance with company policies. I speak to one person, who then refers me further on in the ‘chain of command’. It’s often difficult to get an answer or a solution to a problem, such that the problem or question is then put on my ‘to do’ list (which is essentially my ‘must wait indefinitely’ list). In this way, problems ‘go away’; there are no problems when you cannot get the answers. It’s a type of contradictory logic that leads to an obstructional workplace. I’m sure there are many such workplaces these days, characterized by multiple levels of leadership, ‘team leadership’, group thinking, dilution of responsibility, confusion as to who’s in charge, too much bureaucracy, and systemic obstruction. Ultimately, these organizations will come to a standstill after a while in terms of innovation and efficiency. If the problems arise from the fact that most companies are too large, then I am all in favor of returning to smaller and better-run companies, where it is clear to all who work there who the leader is and where the buck stops. And I am all in favor of working at a job that is clearly-defined and not to be shared with others; not diluted out to the point that there is little point left in doing that job. ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, as the old saying goes. It’s true.

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