March 19, 2015

Surrogate Management: How Leaders are Disabled

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.

Because these managers very often had an engineering background it was as if they had a machine metaphor to understand organisations. They seemed to think of an organisation 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.

The sad outcome of this kind of intervention was that it did not address the source of employee discontent, it entrenched it. An investigation into trust in management on a range of mines in the gold mining industry at the time 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 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 their concerns was delegated to a third person it demonstrated to them that their bosses in fact did not care about them and were therefore not trustworthy. We came to call this phenomenon ‘Surrogate Management’.

By Surrogate Management is understood the employment of 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.

The Problem of Surrogate Management 1:

The Problem of Surrogate Management 2:

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