How we lead teams in our organisations is undergoing a shift that reflects changes in society. Nick Smith talks to an author whose new book explains the 'death of deference'.
Just about everyone reading this will be familiar with the uncomfortable sensation of being asked - or even told - by their line manager to do something that is almost certainly a bad idea. You have an obligation to carry out the command despite your misgivings, and you head back to your desk worried about how to evade the issue without putting your head on the block. You may have the best intentions: perhaps you want to protect your boss from making a mistake. But because we live in a society where we still defer to those higher up the food chain, you've still got to get your head down and get on with it or risk a charge of insubordination.
This, though, is bad for business. So says Robin Ryde in his new book, which explains why this culture of deference either needs to die, is dying already or, in some enlightened outposts, is already dead. 'Never Mind the Bosses' is a challenge to the Old Brigade who still believe that the art of management is simply that of applying more pressure on already over-committed underlings. If in the process you are autocratic, inflexible or downright nasty, then that's the cost of doing business.
But, says Ryde, there is a difference between the 'death of deference' and respect for your colleague. "Humans need to be nice to each other," he says. It's just that the old fashioned deferential way of doing things stifles creativity and expansion.
As with so many management books, 'Never Mind the Bosses' sermonises on just how fast-moving the modern world of commerce is, further explaining that this is why we have to look for new solutions to leadership issues. But Ryde is keen to point pout that recent news events such as the arrival of Wikileaks, the Arab Spring of 2011, the Global Financial Crisis and the social media revolution are in fact culturally relevant to the way in which we construct our attitudes to authority today.
'Never Mind the Bosses' is an undisguised nod to the seminal 1970s punk album by the Sex Pistols that kicked over the traces in a way that is hard to believe today. It was important because, as Ryde says, the fittest, leanest and most agile companies today ' especially in the world of innovation ' have learned from this posture of lack of deference.
In order to understand the point properly it's important to take the emotion out of what the New Wave of music was actually saying. Of course these people were noisy, angry and not very pleasant to look at, while for devotees of the kind of music they were usurping, their tonal output was not very pleasant to listen to either. But there are four lessons to be learned and they are valuable to anyone trying to get new products to the market quickly and effectively.
Lesson one is that when deference is withheld it quickly becomes clear how flimsy the structures of deference are. Imagine sitting in a product-development meeting where your manager says "I'm interested in everything; there's no such thing as a bad idea." Of course he's not interested in anything other than the established order of things and in his mind; before he even hears them, most ideas will be bad, or if tolerated, met with the usual budget-based objections.
Lesson number two is that we can prove there is an authentic demand for something that is alternative to mainstream product. Third, the musical movement demonstrated that, in order to accomplish something of significance, you didn't necessarily need to be revered for your experience or expertise. Fourth, and most significant, is the lesson that radical thinking can lead to the doors of success being held open for younger talented people.
Ryde is keen to stress that 'Never Mind the Bosses' is a book about management and not a book about punk rock. With a string of academic and practical leadership credentials behind him, he sees the lessons from cultural revolutions for what they are. "We're not just talking about angry people smashing things because they can't have what they want," he says, before explaining that one of the most important outcomes to emerge from the 1970s was self-reliance and investigating a DIY ethos. He recalls that bands without record deals distributed their own recordings, exploiting technology that seemed to invite the dissemination of information. Admittedly, this may well have only been the photocopier and the dual-cassette recorder, but networks were quickly established and new labels were formed working on different principles to corporate giants such as EMI. Customers were treated with respect, were given affordable product and encouraged to (illegally) duplicate and distribute at will.
Fast-forward to today and it's easy to see the similarities in the digital domain. We routinely publish what we want on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs and websites. We hardly ever need to defer to anyone before we make our thoughts public. And so in our private lives we are free to be as creative as we want.
But work, says Ryde, is different: "most of us are caught in a parent-child, rather than adult-adult relationship, where we are scolded and cajoled to perform better, where the parent figure will express disappointment and use directive language". The effect of which is that the child (or the deferrer) becomes withdrawn and performance slows into inertia.
But all is not lost, as Ryde's book is a diagnostic model for improvement in this performance based on his five-point cycle called 'SPEED'. This takes us from the symbols of management to effective discourse between management and the managed, taking in discussions on the psychological contract of deference, executive powers and engagement.
What it all boils down to is this: if we really want to come up with a company that behaves and designs products like Apple then we've got to change. You can't run companies these days where the workers behave like sulky teenagers who are jealous of the boss's Mercedes-Benz and speedboat. We've all got to behave more like adults says Ryde, respectful ones, who understand what each other is trying to do. Oddly enough, it took all the excitement of a foul-mouthed, fuzz box-driven revolution in music to lead us to a model for doing so. *
'Never mind the Bosses' by Robin Ryde is published by Wiley, £18.99