As a young researcher in the South African Gold Mining Industry in the 1980’s, I was often shocked by the degree to which line management seemed to be incapable of understanding that the employee discontent and conflict that they experienced at work was the direct product of how they personally treated the people in their charge.
The reason they struggled so much to recognize this was that these managers very often had an engineering background. Because of their engineering background, they had a machine metaphor to understand organizations. They tended to think of an organization like a machine, and if a particular component was broken then one needed to employ the services of a specialist mechanic to fix the problem. If it so happened that it was the ‘Human Resource’ component that was broken then they needed to employ a specialist technician, in this case, a ‘Human Resource Specialist’ to fix the problem.
Surrogate Management happens when leaders don’t lead
The negative outcome of this kind of intervention is that it does not address the source of employee discontent, it entrenches it. This was seen clearly on the mines. Greater degrees of H.R. intervention, if accompanied by management stepping back, always resulted in greater employee discontent. An investigation into trust in management on a range of mines in the gold mining industry at the time actually showed that there was an inverse relationship between the degree of trust invested in management and the degree of sophistication of the HR Function. Quite literally, the more sophisticated the HR function on a mine became the
Quite literally, the more sophisticated the HR function on a mine became the less employees trusted management. The reason for this trend was that it was clear that employees wanted their immediate supervisors to have both the responsibility and the authority to address their concerns, and would only see the authority of their immediate superiors as legitimate if this, in fact, was the case.
If the task of looking after your people’s concerns is delegated to a third person, it demonstrates to them that their bosses, in fact, do not care about them and are therefore not trustworthy. We have come to call this phenomenon ‘Surrogate Management’.
Surrogate Management happens when an organization employs a stand in or proxy function to look after the human problem so that enterprise leadership at every level is free to pursue the business of maximising profits. Over the years this initial understanding has only ever been vindicated. The biggest threat to employee engagement and industrial peace is the employment of surrogates to deal with the problem of employee discontent. Leaders need to look after their people, they can’t outsource this responsibility without negative consequences.