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Should workplace culture be tough and autocratic or caring and collaborative?

Category: Blogger's Corner, workplace culture, autocratic, tough

workplace culture

Why choose one, asks Peter Honey, when you can have the best of both worlds

I have spent a most of my life consumed with doubt, torn between conflicting arguments. I once read an obituary (funny how they become essential reading once you’ve passed three score years and ten), which had the following gem: “He had a mind, not so much open, as permanently vulnerable to a succession of opposing certainties.” Sums me up perfectly – though I’d prefer to describe it as being open minded. Sounds like a strength that way.

Over the years I have experienced many contrasting work place cultures from tough and autocratic on the one hand to caring and collaborative on the other. As a psychologist, my default position (in as much as I have one) is to prefer the latter but, and here’s the rub, I have to admit that I have witnessed plenty of the former that delivered the goods. For example, I read an article about Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon. Apparently, he is a demanding boss and Amazon’s working culture has been described as ‘deliberately adversarial’. Proposals are subjected to relentless scrutiny and Bezos has to get to the bottom of everything and is a ruthless user of the ‘five whys’ strategy where the answer to the first why is greeted with a second why, and so on until the root cause of a problem is flushed out.

I have known many CEOs in the Jeff Bezos mould. Their management style is based on the assumption that only the fittest and most capable will thrive in a demanding workplace and that competition will ensure that only the best ideas survive. In the organisations I have known with this culture, HR was always marginalised and HR people spent all their time feeling impotent and grumbling about senior management. I know because I was one of the shoulders they cried on.

By contrast, I also have first-hand knowledge of CEOs who were caring and supportive, convinced that trusting and empowering people made commercial sense. These organisations were less stressed, much more tolerant and had HR departments that tended to be happy and enthusiastic. But, apart from staff turnover figures being much lower, these organisations didn’t seem to produce results that were noticeably better than those of their stressed competitors.

Perhaps that’s the point; there is no right way. Is it theory x or theory y? Take your pick.

Faced with ‘opposing certainties’, my way of achieving consonance is to argue that there is a time and place to be directive or consultative or collaborative. It’s just (just?) a question of working out when to use each approach to maximise the likelihood of success.

This leads me to suggest (it’s tricky, but I’m about to slide off my fence) that HR people need to become experts in situational leadership so that they are equipped to help senior management decide what style to use when. It would be much more useful than taking sides and would be a welcome antidote to grumbling about autocratic CEOs.

A good thing about being permanently consumed with doubt is that I will never become a fanatic or a politician or even a CEO. Just an even-handed psychologist bleating ‘on the one hand this and on the other hand that’.

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