Get Off Your High Horse

Owners and managers who refuse to hear the ideas of employees are stuck - and usually stuck-up.

By Anthony Noel

In every organization - from a one-person show to a conglomerate with thousands of workers - recurring problems are a clear sign of poor management.

One common problem for "little guys" is time management, while big companies' problems often can be traced to their sheer size.

In companies between these two extremes, problems seem to advance from every angle. Growing pains. Inadequate staffing and/or high employee turnover. Facilities and equipment acquisition and maintenance. Production scheduling. And the list goes on.

The key question for managers facing recurring problems is this: Are your "solutions" really making things any better? Answering that question - heck, just asking it - requires an earnest desire to become a better manager. Evaluating one's own performance is difficult for even the most objective among us. Doing it well requires a willingness to discover that the biggest hindrance to solving a problem might just be one's very approach to it.

One definition of "insanity" goes like this: "Expecting something to change things for the better, despite taking the same approach again and again." Yet many managers wonder why their employees think they are crazy!

In fairness, for managers who try to correct familiar problems by treading a familiar path, insanity probably is the wrong diagnosis. The right one, usually, is hubris - also known as terminal cockiness. And I do mean terminal.

The threat posed by managers who are overly convinced of their own prowess is difficult to overstate. Deftly weaving an analogy with animal society, songwriter Graham Parker puts it this way:

"The baddest animal in this zoo

Is not the lion, the tiger

Or the pink-assed baboon.

It's not the giant centipede

Or the vampire bat,

Not the black mamba

Or the feral cat.

Yeah, there's one creature much worse,

of course.

Well, I'm talkin' about the high horse."

(The song is called "High Horse," and you can find it on Parker's "Deepcut to Nowhere" CD.)

Finding real and lasting solutions to problems has never been easy, but it becomes nearly impossible when an owner's or manager's inflated sense of superiority comes into play. Just as pride goeth before a fall, an overdone belief in one's management skills almost always precedes - and prolongs - the effort required for finding and solving the root causes of problems.

Notice the word "finding" in the previous sentence. It implies that some searching has occurred. Good managers always search for little problems in order to preclude their development into bigger ones. But as an organization grows, some managers inevitably begin laboring under the false notion that the company's success means they have it all figured out. It's a belief that is highly contagious, and when it has taken hold with one or two members of the management team, the others often follow.

In reality, no manager ever has it all figured out. Growing organizations face a proportional growth of problems, and when a company's growth is coupled with managerial cockiness, it often can take weeks for a given problem to be acknowledged, let alone get a fair hearing.

So, how does a manager - and more broadly, the growing organization - combat this? They do it by soliciting, and actually listening to, employee input.

This does not mean putting suggestion boxes at strategic locations. No, getting employees to think about problems and their solutions requires establishing a culture where give-and-take with managers is the norm, not the exception.

Unfortunately, managers who have been bitten by the hubris bug have all kinds of "reasons" for not hearing the ideas of line employees or middle managers, none of them any good. One (to which few managers will admit) is the purely ego-based fear that giving the idea of an "underling" credence somehow threatens their position. On the contrary, it enhances it.

That's because good managers use every resource at their disposal in getting the job done, and employees - the ones actually on the ground doing that job - are any company's richest resource for finding the most direct solutions to challenges.

Another egocentric rationale for squelching employee input is the manager's belief that if an idea from someone "below" him or her could really work, he or she, the "more superior" manager, would have thought of it a long time ago. They believe this, despite the fact that they are not working with the circumstances contributing to the problem directly, day in and day out, as the folks on the front lines do. Plenty of logic at work there, huh?

Also common is management resentment that line people are noticing something is wrong at all. "If I ignore it," they reason, "they will just have to deal with it and it will go away." It won't, of course. The "deal with it" approach only delays the inevitable. Sure, it takes the problem off the manager's plate temporarily - until his employees have had enough. Then the problems start in earnest.

Though managers in general hate to admit it, and bad managers never will, recurring problems are systemic. They are due to a basic flaw in the approach management has taken in addressing the situation, if it is being addressed at all. Until that approach is changed, the situation won't improve and will likely get worse, killing employee initiative and, eventually, commitment to the organization.

Managers who are stuck in a constant swirl of the same issues are usually too self-important - bluntly, too stuck-up - to see the way out. But, it is right there in front of them, punching the time clock, every single day.

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