Head or Heart? Dilemmas in Management

November 5th, 2010   •   no comments   


One of the most difficult and perplexing challenge facing leaders and managers today is the trade-off between using one’s head and one’s heart. Should decisions be made purely on a bottom-line basis, or should they be done in the interests of all stakeholders?

As you would have guessed, there are no easy solutions to this, considering the dynamics of the modern organisation and its multiple demands.
First, a survey of the two schools of thought amongst business gurus.

The former are what I would call the “Headmasters”. To them, leadership and management is a rational, logical, analytical and structured proess. Strategy follows a clearly defined path, and the job of board members, executives, managers and employees is to adhere as closely as possible to this. Flow charts, boxes, maps and network diagrams are absolutely musts here, and everything follows a step-by-step pathway.

Embracing much of the textbook literature in MBA classes, purveyors of this approach usually hail from a more systems thinking background. They include Michael Porter (whose Five Forces still stand today), E. Jerome McCarthy (the famous inventor of the 4 Ps in the Marketing Mix), Philip Kotler, Robert Kaplan and David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard, Michael Hammer (of the infamous Business Process Reengineering which led to massive downsizing in the US), and of course W. Edwards Deming, the earliest perpetuator of the Quality Movement.

On the other side of the metaphorical management fence are what I would call the “heart and guts” management thinkers. While statistics and facts are important to this second group, they are usually adopted in a selective fashion to fit an existing hypothesis which they already have. Much of the gurus in this category use behavioural economics, psychology, socio-cultural studies, and history for their ideas.

Many of the inspirational writers/speakers, social media proponents and pop psychologists fall into this category. They include renowned Purple Cow author Seth Godin, bestselling journalist turned thinker Malcolm Gladwell (of Tipping Point and Outliers fame), Daniel Goleman whose famous Emotional Intelligence ideas received tremendous traction, Nassim Nicholas Taleb of the Black Swan theory, and of course Anthony Robbins (Unlimited Power) and Stephen Covey (of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame).

(There are of course a lot more ideas and a lot more gurus, but you get the drift…)

In the increasingly complex modern workplace, traditional lines between departments, functions and personnel are fast blurring. The boundaries between office work and home life is also fast breaking down, with telecommuting rising to the fore, flexible workplaces, and of course the demands of a “24 by 7” customer. All of this adds up to more uncertainty, more changes, and of course added stress.

While this occurs, leaders are still held accountable for business results and performance. Whichever way you lean, it is undeniable that cash is still the blood that fuels organisational growth and health. The recent subprime mortgage scandals which led to the current great economic crisis (still playing in many parts of the world) has led many government legislators to impose new and more stringent measures of corporate and fiduciary governance.

Balancing the two spheres of influence is a complex issue that cannot be easily answered. Ultimately, every person who works in an organisation has to serve the interests of that organisation. While roles can be fluid and flexible to some extent, principal deliverables and responsibilities must still be made clear. At the same time, one should spend time listening, understanding and being empathetic to emotional concerns and feelings.

Of course, as Stephen Covey would have shared, one should try to think “Win-Win”. Are there ways to merge corporate thrusts with personal and personnel concerns? Can we go for a compromise solution if it doesn’t hamper the original intents of the organisation? What is the best way to reduce conflicts, gain buy-in, and minimise defections when introducing a necessary but unpopular new measure?

Honestly, I don’t have the solution to these questions, but I believe that there are ways to manage the tango between the head and the heart. It necessitates one to switch quickly and dexterously between two modes – the analytical, calculative, and logical self with the intuitive, feeling and compassionate self.

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