My mother spent the latter part of her career in HR. Of course at the time, the 1980s and 1990s, it was still called Human Resources — a term that has largely gone out of vogue as it is considered uncaring to think of humans as resources, or because it is thought that HR provides a façade for totalitarian dynamics. Instead, it is de rigueur to call such teams ‘People and Culture’ or some other such guff. But if we step back from the emotion, and seemingly endless recourse to some distorted post-modern Foucauldian philosophy of power, and allow ourselves a moment of logical reasoning, people are a resource of an organisation — arguably its most important resource. Though there is a case to be made that time is even more valuable, because people are invariably available and frequently come and go from organisations, particularly in these unmannerly times of low employee loyalty and high opportunity to move. This makes the case for time remaining the scarcest resource available to organisations. But I digress.
Drawing on her long experience of the workplace, my mother would remark ‘if you cannot be replaced, you cannot be promoted’. By this, she meant that while being of value is important, if you are irreplaceable, you can easily end up mired in a role because the organisation cannot move you — even if your capability merits promotion. It is a position I have found myself in from time to time. So much so that when I have left some companies the role I formerly occupied was never able to be replaced; responsibilities that once fell to me parcelled out to multiple people around the organisation — much to the chagrin of those who remained. To ensure I do not become stuck again, I try and follow my mother’s guidance and always work to ensure that I can be replaced. Often working to delegate or automate my duties so that I can move on to the next great adventure.
However, while this advice was sage, it has become distorted with the retelling. To the extent that it is now quite common for people to claim Great Managers Make Themselves Redundant. Yet this is to misunderstand the original intent of the guidance and the meaning of redundancy. In many ways, it is another example of a category error.
Redundancy in the modern workplace has become polarised into boons and curses. It is a boon for anyone, weary of their role and the organisation, who receives a large payout as they bid a less than fond farewell to the business. A curse for those who still want or need their job and suddenly find themselves victim of the dreaded organisational restructure. A process that is variously used to improve team performance, remove social loafers, or even provide the necessary scapegoat for a failed project. Though you are unlikely to ever get a manager to admit the latter.
In a time of economic uncertainty, in which organisations struggle for their financial footing and the future looks bleak, mass job cuts stalk the employment landscape. Most prominent, only because it was in the news only the other day, is Star Entertainment cutting 500 jobs.
Negative connotations to the phrase aside, the notion that a manager makes ‘themselves’ or their job redundant is highly problematic because it essentially means the work is no longer necessary. While this can, and should, happen as some roles are truly a waste of organisational resources, it ought not be the case when a manager is performing a necessary role and creating value in the organisation.
Once we have placed the concept in its proper place in the library of organisational thought, we see that it is a misnomer to say great managers make themselves redundant. Instead, we are on better philosophical ground to say great managers free up their time. A process which is rooted in that mantra of organisational behaviour — trust.
Organisational Trust Relationships
Throw the query into your search engine of choice, and thousands of results will be returned. On this blog, I have frequently written about different types of trust relationships — be they technical, evidential or organisational. Perhaps most challenge in the discussion of a trust relationships is that when they are of real substance they buck a common fallacy. Namely, that every viewpoint or perspective is valued and should be respected.
While it is arguably easy to build affiliation by valuing everything, because it makes everyone feel to be ‘inside’ the tent, long term efficacy is eroded as teams and organisations have to make hard choices which either reject or even invalidate an individual’s point of view. When this happens, the worst kind of failure in a trust relationship happens — the breaking of trust.
I say worst, only because if someone never trusts me then it is logically impossible for me to break their trust. But if I establish false trust, better named affiliation, by making all the right noises and consistently telling someone they are right and that their viewpoint is valid, when I inevitably have to make a call that goes against their position, they will feel betrayed. In the realm of organisational behaviour, it is better to have indifference or apathy from a colleague than a sense of betrayal. Indifference can readily be moved in one direction or another, betrayal can take years to mend, if indeed it can ever be healed, and is unlikely to be forgotten.
The challenge for all managers, and employees, in establishing trust is in making hard choices early. If someone has an invalid point of view, failing to challenge it early will only lead to more difficult conversations down the road as you end up having to deal not only with the individual or idea, but the inertia that now exists around a bad idea once it has got traction in people’s minds.
It is important to pause here and observe that invalid does not mean false or wrong. This distinction is often hard to convey in societies that tend toward Manichaeism as people are most comfortable with things that are clear or, to use that popular phrase, obvious. The challenge comes, in an age of scientism, that employees can easily feel marginalised or out of step with a manager or organisation if their take is not endorsed or seen as the prevailing view. An outcome that can lead to cliques within teams and, in more extreme cases, be a cause of bullying as team members who feel to be ‘right’ about their view or approach undermine other team members in an effort to strengthen their own position.
Often no malice is intended, at least not initially. Merely a case of people being neurotic about their own position or knowledge and seeking to be seen as being ‘right’ — a position they feel can only strengthen their value to the organisation. Such approaches militate against the very nature of an organisation, which at its simplest is defined as groups of people who work interdependently toward a shared purpose. Not to say anything of the duty of care all managers have in ensuring that no employee is bullied at work.
Once the interdependent nature of work and shared purpose or goal is apprehended, we can readily see that an employee may be ‘right’, either in the logic or moral outcomes of their view, but still hold an ‘invalid’ view in the broader context of achieving an organisational goal. To return to the example above of organisations making staff redundant in periods of economic downturn. While it is preferable to retain staff, if a manager is faced with the potential of total organisational failure and everyone being out of work or letting some people go in the short term, then an employee may be ‘right’ to think all staff should be kept on because they do good work, but their view is invalid in the prevailing business context.
How a leader maintains team trust when navigating such highly charged conditions can either make or break an organisation. A process that is seldom helped by adopting the popular trope that what everyone thinks is true and thus of value and respect.
In my experience people who are thinkers rather than ideologues are highly adept at seeing the logic of a situation when all the relevant information is presented, and a decision closely argued. We can find a choice distasteful, yet also acknowledge it is the optimal path to take. Generally only authoritarians bitterly object to opposing views, abjuring reasoned deliberation because their opinion or viewpoint is ‘obvious’, and therefore must be accepted, valued, and respected as valid. Individuals of entrenched ideology will always be some form of a risk to an organisation, even if only as a flight risk, and reaching for the affiliation lever seldom achieves the long term results desired. Worse, it can see good people leave because partisan politics has taken over the organisation.
A manager can burn inordinate amounts of their and the wider team’s time managing around such turbulence. Only by getting to the heart of the problem and addressing the invalid perspectives, though I must stress in a sensitive way, can managers ensure effective interdependence within and between teams, and set the organisation up for successful attainment of the stated objectives.
Time to Focus
Returning to the start of this piece and recalling the difference between replaceable and redundant, we can start to see why the nuance matters. For a truly redundant manager has not only done themselves out of a job and income but failed to provide development opportunities for their team — after all, the role is now redundant and therefore while the boss may be gone, the organisation has no need to elevate one of the team to that much sought after promotion.
A manager who makes themselves redundant, I would argue, also fails to account for organisational continuity as they are militating against one of the essential elements of all organisations — the division of labour. The role of a manager should be vital in the planning and organisation of work. If they build autonomous teams they will still have ongoing work in refining the objectives and continuing to develop the autonomy necessary in team members for effective interdependent work.
Managers can discover this the hard way, and either find themselves redundant or worse — getting in the way of team development and the achievement of organisational goals. I am sad to say I have worked with too many managers who are very busy and terribly important, but who consistently failed to build autonomous teams. Instead keeping themselves in a job to solve for problems which should have long since been put behind the organisation.
Instead, if leaders approach their role with the goals of enabling teams, developing autonomy, calling out invalid thinking and approaches to work, and ensuring they can be ‘replaced’ in the day to day of task management, then managers are freeing up their time to work on strategic planning. A process which will yield real organisation change, develop strong trust between employees, and ensure that less time is wasted repeating the mistakes of the past and more time invested building a better future.
Good night, and good luck.