Sunday, May 29, 2011

Social Media: A Curse or a Blessing?

With seemingly no ‘control’ of what’s written on social media sites, have we opened the flood gates for the most unreal reality ‘show’ ever developed. In fact has social media given a voice to people who shouldn’t have a voice in the first place, those who can suddenly claim to have an unsubstantiated cure for one or more of the world’s problems?

Where is the reality check? And should there be one?

Should our children be able to access social media without any control about what is true and what is fantasy? Youngsters are easily influenced by those they consider role models – but how many real role models are giving solid sound advice through social media sites, which will help ‘guide’ our children forward and how many just love using these global networks for their own glorification through bullshit and shock appeal.

Most social media sites are meant to be moderated by their owners, but it seems these individuals, who have a crucial role in controlling content, are mostly out to lunch (and just forgot to put the sign in the window). In fact it seems to be more about quantity than quality – where the more ‘members’ or ‘followers’ I have the brighter and more popular I must be.

As a case in point on a discussion around accountability one gentleman recently wrote “Nigel, I will stand by my statement that management should not and cannot be trusted. My argument is a moral one that was suggested to me by my Auditing Professor decades ago and I have mulled it over and come to accept it ever since,” now suffice to say I won’t mention his name, but his profile describes him as a Mathematics Education Specialist Helping Parents Take Control of their Children's Math Education – now I have to ask myself, one, what business experience someone like this has to make such a ‘global’ statement on management, that is so clearly wrong and insulting to many managers and, second, what parent would want their kids taught by someone who clearly believes ‘all’ management should not and cannot be trusted.

At least one social media site is now being sued for liable, due to members being able to say anything they want about anyone else, without the need for proof and, up to now, having no fear of being made to account for the statements they make, regardless of how fabricated the comments might be.

Apparently it’s all about ‘free speech’ – but surely as a global community we want free speech to focus on ‘the truth’ and ‘real facts’ and not just being able to say whatever we like because, for example, we’re jealous of someone’s achievements. Does that mean we’ll always agree, no, but at least we’ll have the facts to debate and be able to draw our own conclusions?

Isn’t it about quality rather than quantity – don’t we want to be a part of a business network where we can ‘trust’ the information shared as being accurate, and where we can learn from healthy debate; and social networks where we can ‘share’ with like minded people who want to use the media for good rather than evil. Those individuals looking for some kind of celebrity status should create their own ‘network environment’ – where each week they can argue about whose the best and have some ‘mirror mirror on the wall’ concept to keep them happy and content.

Social media has so much potential to add real value to its groups and members, but only if it is used to promote honest debate and the honest sharing of information. I believe we are fast coming to the time, where unless some proper guidelines are put in place and enforced, there is the potential for social networking to degenerate into a squabble of unintelligent ‘point scoring’ and psychotic rhetoric.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is the Supervisory Role Dead (as we know it)?

“In the popular management literature, the ‘death of the supervisor’ is confidently pronounced and not much mourned. From the 1980s onwards, there has been an insistence that traditional forms of direct supervisory control are inappropriate for new forms of management and organization. This assertion takes its cue from the more general management discourse of ‘turbulence’, ‘flexibility’ and entrepreneurship’ in which radical changes in managerial work are predicated on an equally radical shift in organizational forms from bureaucratic hierarchies to post-bureaucratic networks, a shift that, in turn, is necessitated by increasingly unstable organizational environments,” (Hales, 2005, p.476).

The ‘typical’ supervisor could be described as the non-commissioned officer or ‘sergeant’; someone with years of practical experience who had no interest in ‘formal’ old fashioned management, and would be the link between the work-force and the management; someone who was often well respected by all levels of the organisation.

As Colin Hales mentions “it is argued, the traditional ‘manager’, individually responsible and accountable for planning, co-ordinating and controlling a clearly defined area of work within constraints set by procedure and regulation, is being superseded by the performance-driven leader, ‘conductor’ or ‘coach’ charged with the fuzzy, unregulated task of facilitating and co-ordinating the performance of a variegated network of actors both inside and outside the organization. The implication is that managerial work shifts from narrowly-defined routine administration to more wide-ranging, non-routine ‘leadership’, whilst the managerial gaze switches from the vertical to the lateral,” (p.477).

Part of the logic behind the ‘death of the supervisor’ is the belief that much of the managerial theory is actually put into practice, which may be disputed by those at the coal-face. For example it’s said that, “with the spread of self-managing teams, through which there has been a transfer of responsibility for day-to-day planning and monitoring of work operations from managers to team members, front line managers (FLM’s) have either disappeared or lost their supervisory function and acquired the residual function of facilitating, co-ordinating, mentoring, coaching and leading teams that otherwise supervise themselves. The FLM’s tasks are, therefore, to build the team; give technical assistance and advice; train, develop and coach team members; brief teams and communicate business objectives; inspire and motivate team members; co-ordinate people, processes, materials and equipment and liaise with other teams,” (p.477-478).

Secondly, “that instead of, or as well as, losing their routine supervisory functions downwards to work teams, FLM’s are acquiring broader managerial functions from above. As the result of a conscious devolution of managerial responsibility as part of market-driven decentralization to smaller business units, FLM’s have acquired erstwhile middle management functions and become ‘minigeneral managers’ of an area of work designated as a cost- or profit-centre,” (p.478).

The research by Colin Hales, was developed from a comprehensive survey of 135 organisations in the UK that examined how the FLM role is presently constituted and how far and in what ways it has changed; and hence should be taken seriously.

Colin Hales found that “on the one hand, the well-documented task and authority characteristics of the traditional supervisory role appear to have changed very little. For FLM’s in the great majority of organizations, the core responsibility remains the immediate direction and control of an area of work and day-to-day supervision of those who carry it out, rather than management ‘at a distance’. Their span of control is relatively narrow, their contacts are primarily internal and vertical and their authority, involvement in decision-making and accountability are mainly confined to operational routines.

However, FLM’s are not merely supervisors: in most organizations routine supervision is framed by responsibility for actively monitoring and improving performance. Apart from a few exceptions, ‘performance-oriented supervision’ is at the heart of the FLM role,” (p.495).

One problem facing some organisations is that the FLM is too far removed from their work-force and hence can’t resonate with their needs and concerns; especially if these positions are filled by people who haven’t moved up from the ‘grass routes’ and have been brought in from outside. That was the strength of the ‘old fashioned’ supervisor – the ‘old timer’ who was the conduit between the work-force they ‘parented’ and the management structures above.

Hales concludes that, “developments in the role of FLM have not taken the form of a radical transformation away from supervision and towards team co-ordination or business management. Rather the role exhibits remarkable stability over time and consistency across organizations. Performance-oriented supervision is at the core, surrounded by a penumbra of additional managerial responsibilities relating to stewardship, translating strategy into operations, unit management and, exceptionally, business management. Most FLM’s remain part of a hierarchical system of direct supervision, individual managerial responsibility and vertical accountability. Their authority is usually confined to operating routines, sometimes extends to resourcing and only exceptionally to HR matters and they are more likely to be consulted on routine operational matters than strategy. Yet they are personally accountable for day-to-day operational fluidity and, in some cases, broader performance metrics. Where responsibilities, authority and accountability are shared, it is upwards with more senior managers or specialists not downwards with members of the work team. Changes to the FLM role have been as much a strengthening of the supervisory core as a broadening of the role into business management responsibilities,” (p.501-502).

Hopefully the role of the FLM will not be diluted over time as this still remains the critical link between employees and management. This one position is often more aware, than any other, of the problems and concerns facing the organisation; are able to accurately gauge the commitment and motivation of the work-force; and through their role have a significant impact on customer service and organisational performance. Understanding the importance of this position is critical to optimum organisation design and performance.


Hales, C. (2005). Rooted in Supervision, Branching into Management: Continuity and Change in the Role of First-Line Manager. Journal of Management Studies; Vol. 42 Issue 3, p.471-506.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Do You Define Accountability in Business?

Gerald Ferris et al, in a 2009 article mention that perhaps one of the most fundamental principles of best practice is accountability; that is holding employees answerable for their decisions, actions, and behaviour; where “organisational characteristics and job characteristics affect accountability which in turn affects employee influence tactics. Furthermore, the accountability-outcomes relationships are believed to be moderated by job characteristics, like job ambiguity,” (p.519).

The argument made by Ferris and his colleagues is that “hierarchical level influences both the degree of accountability the employee experiences, as well as the amount of ambiguity or uncertainty present in their jobs. Job ambiguity is believed to increase with increased hierarchical level, whereas the hierarchical level-accountability relationship is less clear. On the one hand, there is conventional wisdom and thought that as one occupies jobs in higher levels of the organisational hierarchy, there should be concomitant increases in accountability. An individual is more visible with more power and is held more responsible for the performance of their unit or the company as a whole. On the other hand, we see evidence of abuses in terms of CEO compensation, unethical behaviour, and so forth which has led some to actually suggest that certain types of accountability decrease with increases in hierarchical level. So, there appears to be a rationale for either a positive or a negative relationship between hierarchical level and accountability, depending on the type of accountability,” (p.520).

Also, job ambiguity is proposed to relate to accountability such that as ambiguity increases, accountability decreases. The logic here is that as ambiguity or uncertainty in the job and its outcomes are higher, certainty or clarity in performance outcomes should decrease, thus decreasing feelings of accountability.

There is an argument that job ambiguity shouldn’t exist at any level, and that the existence of any ambiguity would be a reflection of poor leadership or poor organisational culture or both. Any job ambiguity is likely to be caused by the fact that as you climb the corporate ladder, the boundaries of accountability can start to overlap, forming potentially ‘grey’ areas. However, I personally believe, that in a best practice organisation the hierarchy would formally or informally remove any grey areas that were found to directly impact optimum organisational performance.

What Ferris et al highlight, and which one might think is obvious, is that “if one knows that they are going to be evaluated by their boss, they will employ both behavioural attempts to perform well, as well as influence tactics that may sway the judgments of the evaluator,” (p.521). Yet this seems to assume that the evaluator, which would be the manager or supervisor, is going to be swayed by ‘influence tactics’ in the first place. I would expect a best practice manager to simply evaluate the outcomes in relation to the ‘brief’ and not be ‘swayed’ by behavioural influence.

Ferris et al mention that “a foundational element in organisational systems is that people in the workplace are held accountable or answerable for their decisions and actions. Yet our understanding of accountability antecedents, processes, and outcomes is woefully deficient. Our knowledge base to date has been largely drawn from laboratory experimental research in social psychology,” (p.528).

But are the right people being held accountable in organisations – are they in yours, for example. Is it clear who is accountable for what or can this change depending on whether there is a positive or negative outcome to the task?

Ferris et al conclude that, “while accountability is generally believed to be fundamental to the functioning of organizations and the practice of management - employment discrimination litigation, the demonstration of unethical behaviour, and abuses of CEO compensation suggest to us that accountability mechanisms are not automatic features of organizational systems, and must be actively implemented. It is critical that individuals be held accountable for specific job-related behaviours, and not simply be allowed to create the impression (i.e., through employee influence tactics) they are doing the right things. Goal setting systems (e.g., MBO) allow such abuses when subordinates set challenging goals (thereby creating a favourable impression on the supervisor), and supervisors subsequently fail to follow-up to ensure goals were attained,” (p.530).

The word accountability links to organisational and behavioural values, like honesty, pride, transparency, participation; and is, or should be, ingrained in the organisational culture. Otherwise accountability can become a tap that is turned on when things are going well, and turned off when they aren’t.

So, as Ferris et al found, accountability can be a word that is banded around organisations on the assumption that its meaning and importance are understood by all. Just maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to make these assumptions, regardless of the hierarchical level of the person in the organisation. In fact the direct meaning and influence of accountability should be revisited on a regular basis, ensuring the right level of accountability is being placed in the right hands within the organisation.


Ferris, G. R., Dulebohn, J. H., Frink, D. D., George-Falvy, J., Mitchell, T. R. and Matthews, L. M. (2009). Job and Organizational Characteristics, Accountability, and Employee Influence. Journal of Managerial Issues, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p.518-533.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Corporate Governance: Is It Still Mostly Window Dressing?

In a 2002 article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Lawler, Finegold, Benson and Conger highlight how, “corporate boards in the United States have been experimenting with new governance initiatives. Several have become widespread practices among the largest U.S. companies. Many boards are now composed primarily of outside directors and have a profile that is more representative of society as a whole; they operate according to written guidelines, meet regularly in executive sessions without inside directors, and conduct formal appraisals of the CEO. But have these changes resulted in more effective boards? Regardless of these actual potential changes, we believe boards must have three key ingredients in order to be effective: knowledgeable members, up-to-date company information and the power to counterbalance the CEO,” (p.92).

Of course it’s not enough for corporate governance compliance just to evaluate the CEO’s performance, as there also needs to be an honest evaluation of the individual board members performance, including the chairperson; and then an evaluation of overall board performance as a team.

John Carver mentions in his 2007 article that, “just as with the measurement of CEO performance, the chief utility of evaluation of board performance is not in producing a report card. Although a thorough review of past performance is worthwhile, its core importance is the guidance it can provide for future performance. Thus the real virtue of evaluation of the past is its effect on the future. The purpose of board self-evaluation, then, is the continual improvement of governance,” (p.4).

But what business principles are organisations using to assess the performance of individual board members and are these ‘tests’ being used openly and transparently to improve board effectiveness or being used covertly to simply show some kind of compliance to board evaluation?

Lawler et al found that “a well-informed board is close to useless if it can't act. Effective boards have the power to oppose and challenge the CEO; in our research, such power was the single board attribute with the largest direct impact on company financial performance. To be more specific, boards that conducted a formal evaluation of the CEO, that were made up primarily of outsiders (10 out of 12 directors, say), and that had clear control over the nomination of new directors and the CEO's successor had significantly higher returns on assets, sales and investment than those that did not. We are convinced that these elements of board power will remain essential to effective boards for the foreseeable future,” (p.92).

Just having outside directors that control board nominations and CEO succession is not enough, unless these same board members are being evaluated under the same strict criteria. Otherwise all boards are doing is shifting the ‘power’ from a single CEO to a group of non-executives, who may have their own personal agendas, if not evaluated and kept in check.

What corporate boards need are a group of highly effective individuals who bring their unique skills and experience to form a highly focused and diverse team of professionals, consisting of both non-executive and executive directors, whose sole purpose is the ethical sustainable growth of their organisation into the future and where any personal agendas are left outside the door.

To conclude, Carver states that “although most boards are aware that they have options about how they operate, few inspect whether their practices are any more than a collection of happenstance activities that evolved from organizations or individual board members history and preferences. In other words, even though burdened with the responsibility of governance, board members typically do not study governance. This oversight, one we’d never tolerate in other important jobs, is rarely even noticed either by board members, executives, or those who observe, teach, or criticize them,” (p.5).


Carver, J. (2007). Beyond Board Self-Evaluation. Board Leadership. Jan – Feb, p. 4-5.

Lawler III, E.E., Finegold, D., Benson, G. and Conger, J. (2002). Adding Value in the Boardroom. MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter, p. 92-93.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How Do We Differentiate between Individual and Group Leadership?

In a 2010 article in the Academy of Management Journal, Joshua Wu, Anne Tsui and Angelo Kinicki highlight how until recently the study of leadership and of groups had constituted two large, but very separate, literatures. Now, however, researchers have begun to integrate these two literatures in an attempt to understand the role of leadership in groups.

Wu, Tsui and Kinicki’s research “aimed to investigate transformational leadership on groups (as wholes) and on individuals within groups. They focused on transformational leadership behaviours, which inspire followers to pursue higher-order goals and to exert extraordinary effort. Research has shown that the construct of transformational leadership is flexible as to levels of analysis, comprising behaviours targeted at both groups and individuals. Some of its behavioural components are aimed at influencing individual employees by addressing the uniqueness of each follower; where such behaviour represents individual-focused leadership. Other behavioural components are aimed at influencing a group as a whole; where such behaviour represents group-focused leadership. Wu, Tsui and Kinicki adopt the label Differentiated Leadership to refer to the case in which a leader exhibits varying levels of individual-focused leadership behaviour to different group members, for instance paying more attention or providing more support to some members than to others,” (p.90). Where the key question is how differentiated leadership may negatively impact a group’s effectiveness as a consequence of the different levels of individual attention given by the leader.

The logic in this approach is that effective leadership shouldn’t just be praised by the majority of the leaders group, but by the group as a whole.

In their article Wu, Tsui and Kinicki remind us that “group-focused leadership is based on the idea of average leadership style, a concept that implies that leaders view group members as a whole and treat each in the same fashion. Members’ perceptions of their group leader’s behaviour are assumed to be similar and shared within their work unit. Two transformational leadership behaviours – idealised influence and inspirational motivation – are more likely to influence a group as a whole than individual members because of their emphasis on common ground, shared values, and ideology,” (p.92).

“Group-focused leadership is expected to shape members’ group identification, which is a shared cognitive process in which each member defines the self in terms of his or her relationship to the group. The collective nature of group-focused leadership triggers followers’ self-categorisation as group members. A member no longer views themselves as a unique individual but construes there identity to be that of a member of the group. Group attributes such as shared values and common goals become salient to the members, while individualised idiosyncratic characteristics lose prominence,” (p.92).

Some reading this may think that to lead each member in the same way is an impossibility as each individual must have different strengths and weaknesses and be at different levels of development. But the research isn’t looking at the micro level, but the macro level, and individual perceptions; where the leader should be seen by the individuals to give each the same amount of attention – where in that time, different discussions will be taking place. When the whole group needs new skills or direction, the leader gives these to the group at a single meeting.

At the other extreme, “individual-focused leadership is grounded in situational leadership theories and leader-member exchange (LMX) theory. These theories suggest that effective leaders vary their behaviour on the basis of individual differences and contextual factors, resulting in differentiated leadership of group members. The influence in this case is individual members rather than their whole group. Two components of transformational leadership behaviours – individualised consideration and intellectual stimulation – appear to focus more on individual needs, capabilities and effective states than on their collective interests,” (p.93).

Followers under the influence of individual-focused leadership are likely to develop close, direct and unique relationships with their leaders that are characterised by mutual trust, support, and satisfaction.

The importance of this research is that it highlights how “at the group level, differentiated leadership captures the variation of individual-focused leadership among a work group’s members. A high level of differentiated leadership indicates that a leader behaves differently towards different members; where the leader spends more time coaching certain members than others or provides intellectual challenges to some followers more than others. Importantly LMX studies have reported that when leaders form relationships with followers differently within the group, these followers are likely to be divided into sub-groups; an in-group and an out-group, with the former enjoying a better relationship with the leader than the latter,” (p.94).

As we continue to focus on developing the most effective leaders for the future, these privileged individuals must learn to effectively lead individuals and groups into the next decade and beyond – where the leader is as effective leading individuals as he or she is leading their organisational teams.


Wu, J.B., Tsui, A.S., and Kinicki, A.J. (2010). Consequences of Differentiated Leadership in Groups. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1, p.90-106.