Thursday, August 26, 2004

PART III - Dusty Baker's Cubs:
Unleashing Social Tension  

As discussed in the first two entries (here and here) in this series, employee-centered management is a way to increase organizational effectiveness, especially so when the talent is the product. Baseball is the beacon for this kind of management in part because baseball has had a 20-year head start on other endeavors, but also because it is so open, making its experiments, both successes and failures, public lessons.

The baseball field manager who seems to understand the employee-centered model best is the Cubs' Dusty Baker. He is both an active tactician (while it's popular among sabermetrically-inclined fans to diss Baker's decisions, others, Leonard Koppett most notably, think he's very skilled both at using "The Book" and varying off of it) and a real "players' manager". As a players' manager, he puts them, their development, their interests, their careers at the forefront.

Employee-centered management is, in execution, more complex than just employee-centered or not so. There are other twists that go along with it that can give the the basic approach a lot of different textures. These twists require a manager's attention because the employee-centered approach, while universal in baseball and another


One of the twists on player-centered management is:

  • Inbred team-building (Us vs. Them) <-----> Expansive team-building.

That is, the application of Us vs. Them inspiration to make the team/group be more competitive against outsiders while being more cohesive and mutually supportive within the team. Campaigning like this with a group can increase cohesion and competitiveness, and it naturally is a sensible approach to support the employee-centered idea that the team members are especially valuable.

It can backfire, though, when the manager drifts into what I call binary thinking.

Binary thinking, a very common management failure in lots of areas, presumes that things are either all one way or all the opposite. Big organizations fall into binary patterns because managing them is so complex that to simplify the task, they usually bind themselves to simplistic rules. Hiring freezes. Zero-based budgeting. Hiring only MBAs. No free pizza at company meetings. Like a manager who always calls for the bunt with a runner on first and no-one out, or the manager who never calls for it, it guarantees less success than the environment is offering and, over time, guarantees underperformance. The failure to understand and act upon the reaility that every situation has its own aspects that have to be judged and reacted to is a landmark weakness of contemporary management.

So a manager who believes that more Us vs. Them inspiration is better than none and that therefore you can't have too much of it (binary thinking) is lighting a fuse. There are all kinds of human systems that show this.I won't rattle on about them, but without a healthy perspective, little sub-societies that achieve through fueling extreme Us vs. Them passions produce situations where the team gains and the organization loses.

If the manager is inflating her players by deflating others (like a zero-sum games), the team loses its flexibility, it's ability to deal constructively with other groups in its own organization, its ability to listen and learn from others.

I don't think Baker's leads his Cubs like this, but this kind of binary extreme Us vs. Them can generate incidents like the report of Moises Alou going after the team's media entourage for not being rah-rah enough. It can create in the players a view that the team's greatness should go unquestioned, that there are two (binary) choices: You're either with the Soldiers of The One True God (in this case, the Cubs) or The Great Satan (in this case, everyone else, or perhaps just the Cardinals). If you think I'm exaggerating, you haven't worked in a serious range of organizations. (And yes, many of the most irritating and undeserving and poorly-socialized twits in the world work in sports media, but they are part of the greater endeavor, the pipeline of info and unsubstantiated speculation that juices attention to the team and sales of vital memorabilia like Cuno Barragan game-worn sweat bands, ad philium)

How does this happen?

It happens because a manager needs to inspire the team and uses his own internal neurosis to both build loyalty to himself while creating a fear/anger about the outside. If the manager is "smart" about it, this duality drives the team members to his cause (even if its just an invented one), leading them to try harder. He can even play some brinksmanship games with paranoid overtones (They're trying to get us/me, and we need to make this happen so we don't get toasted). And it does work to varying degrees, depending on the personalities of the people on the team, but a little seems to always work to some measurable degree.

In some cases where I've seen this approach, the manager had come from an abusive family where the dominant parent was emotionally- or even physically dangerous. The kids band together to protect each other, sometimes with the tacit help of the other parent. This isn't always the origin, though.

A little of this approach yields some extra results, but at some point, doing more of it doesn't deliver more value. If you have success with this as a manager, and want to play with it, start including other, adjacent workgroups, into the definition of "Us" Build alliances with other groups that depend on your work and you theirs and talk them up to your team. See if you can talk up your team to them.

But watch how far you take it. Don't erode the ability of your players to see their own weaknesses or erode their willingness to learn from others. Be prepared to put on the brakes at some point and let your staff know the boundaries of the battle. And don't make a common mistake and try to apply the Us vs. Them approach in a non-employee centered setting -- the message becomes "you're not special and they're all out to get us" -- trust me on this one, it's not a winner.

It's a really fine thing that Baker has the Cubs thinking of themselves as a unified team. It's potentially bad if they lose their sense of perspective (like they did in last year's NLCS game 7) and start imagining the fans are against them or the umps are against them or that somebody stole their strawberries.

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