In two blog posts, Ryan Ewers noted a tension existing between goals and progress as well as important interconnections between leadership and trust. While my summary is somewhat perfunctory (the posts should be read in the original), he insightfully highlights that defining goals in terms of a zero sum game may very well undercut progress. Additionally, Ewers points to how a form of social capital (i.e. trust) acts as a binding agent between a leader and their team that increases the potential of accomplishing a given task.
It is important to build on such a discussion, but to shift our gaze to factors at play external to both leaders and teams. In addition to interpersonal interactions attention must also be paid to the broader context within which the leadership / team relationship is situated. Systemic factors act upon the agents in these relationships while also structuring the environment within which they execute organizational tasks.
First, it is important to touch upon what has happened to the titan of organizational structures within which leaders and teams interact: bureaucracy.
Often the butt of jokes or a target of derision, modern life as we know it would not be possible without bureaucratic structure, and nearly all organizations contain elements of it.
In a distilled form we can think of bureaucracy as featuring a 1) a division of labor, 2) impersonal rules, and 3) hierarchical power.
Starting with Weber’s ‘iron cage’ scholars have noted that the efficiency bureaucratic structure engender can come at the cost of dehumanization. If people are transformed into cogs, end goals of an organization might very well suffer.
Perhaps slow to change, bureaucracies are not static. We see modern adaptations that have implications for how goals and progress are defined, as well as how teams and leaders operate within them. George Ritzer speak of the ‘McDonald-ization’ of bureaucracy. There are four major components. First is ‘efficiency’ where organizations seek to choose the fastest means to a goal while minimizing costs. Next ‘calculability’ aims to make the products or services developed amendable to counting, and therefore precision measurement. ‘Predictability’ may push for rote experiences, but guess work is removed from action. A fourth dimension of ‘McDonald-ization’ emphasizes ‘technology’ rendering agents carrying out organizational tasks as button pushers.
Examples help, and Ritzer, as the term would suggest, saw these highlighted in spaces displaying the emblematic Golden Arches. But to show that the concept is more broadly applicable it is helpful to note some the some of the other spaces of consumption Ritzer explores. Beyond McDonalds he sees these trends at play at the local branch of your bank, your grocery store, big box stores, and shopping malls. But it is important that beyond the aforementioned “cathedrals of consumption” these trends can be noted in the business to business world.
Let’s take the example of an IT provider where we see these features melded together. Providing products and services as well as interacting with team members and end users (consumers) virtually cuts down on the cost of maintaining facilities, or time spent ‘in the field’. Nearly every action taken online is measurable, and IT companies are continually improving the tools designed to evaluate the cosmically massive trove of information that is at referred to as ‘big data’. The goal of business analytics is ostensibly the process(es) of developing the most useful ‘metadata’ from organizational actions to produce the most actionable and predicative models.
Another pressing desire is to find ‘what works’, and reintroduce it as many times as possible in a routinized way. Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and software suites, like Office, are paradigmatic. For instance over the multitude of iterations Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office Suite features several commonalities that are easily recognizable. Open different version of Microsoft Word, and you will notice that whether it is in the form of a drop down menu, a button, or a tab, accessing file features of a document has always required a user to gaze towards the upper left hand corner of the screen. A user doesn’t have to think about it.
So, what does the above have to do with goals, progress, leadership, and trust? I suggest a great deal. Let’s take goals and progress first. The structural properties of contemporary bureaucratic organization list towards goals, and progress is in large part defined as attaining as goals. This means that structural forces can constrain a leader’s and team’s ability to define progress as something besides the means of some instrumental or goal oriented action. Even the most capable leaders and teams exercising focused and self-directed action must contend within the institutional logics within which they operate.
In such a context what are leaders and teams who wish to redefine goals to do?
Awareness is certainly a necessary, although not sufficient, factor to consider. With this information leaders and teams can adjust and adapt. With a degree of reflexivity they may be able to leverage some of these very structural properties to emphasize purchase of ‘progress as goal’. This is in large part an empirical question. For instance, ‘Big Data’ can be harnessed to develop qualitative and quantitative metrics that investigate the effect of privileging progress over goals.
A particular metaphor Ewers makes with Quantum Entanglement allows for the assertion that the dynamics of leadership and the effective building of trust are not limited to physical proximity. However virtual networks pose their own complications that also must be addressed if the normative aspirations of leadership can be pursued. The topic of ‘virtual proximity’ and trust will be the topic of my next post.
Our Guest Blogger is an educator and researcher who has held positions in higher education, government, non-profits, and IT services. He writes and teaches about contemporary social issues positioned at the intersection of politics, culture, technology, and globalization. Andrew earned a BA in Political Science and Sociology, and a PhD in Sociology from the University at Albany, SUNY.