Is a “People Whisperer” the Optimal Manager?

This morning NPR did a story on a woman writing a novel about a female horse trainer of the late 19th century, who used the “horse whispering” or “gentling” technique and was superior to the others in her profession.  The traditional method of breaking horses at the time (and still prevalent) was to have some big brute of a guy get on the horse and ride it, bucking and kicking, until it tired out and was “broken”.  Needless to say, horses trained in this way often developed personality disorders or other peculiarities that were occasional problems for the owner or rider.  I quickly began to see implications for the management of human organizations.

I thought about the Dog Whisperer TV show (on cable), which my wife and I like, and realized that, if there can be horse whisperers and dog whisperers who get superior results in dealing with those animals, why shouldn’t we recognize people whisperers.  These would be people who are skilled at reading, understanding, and working with other people.  It occurred to me that the people whisperer, like the dog or horse whisperer, succeeds by building a deep understanding of the species’ instincts, the society’s mores, customs, and conventions, and eventually the group or individual’s psychological makeup. 

It may be observed that managers of human organizations have too many people to deal with, and do not have the time to understand every individual, and thus need to use the more forceful (and inconsiderate) methods, but I disagree.  Just as the dog whisperer is more successful because part of his knowledge involves understanding the psychology of the pack, a good manager understands basic principles of organizational behavior and group dynamics, along with the culture and environment of the organization he or she is dealing with, and is thus much more effective than a manager who uses command-and-control techniques.

I won’t go into the destructive side effects of command-and-control management techniques.  The results are clear in the histories of the companies in which this sort of thinking (culture) predominates.  I suggest (and there is room for a study here to confirm or refute) that organizations with a command-oriented culture tend to succeed in boom times, but crash in hard times, in a scenario I have often described as muddling.  When things go well whoever is in control takes the credit, and when things go badly they blame first factors outside the company and then people or factors inside the company.  There is more volatility in their long term performance, higher turnover among the staff, poorer overall quality in their products, and inconsistent returns to their investors.  I can add that I have secured jobs with a number of these companies, often when their fortunes were in decline or bottoming out, due to my ability to synthesize my past careers and take on multiple responsibilities.  They were not generally comfortable places to work, and sometimes I have been released when they were caught in their next decline.

I believe that companies with a more positive and collaborative culture will keep their “people whisperer” managers longer, experience less volatility in the face of market and other changes, and generate a lot less misery and stress among their employees.  I also believe their culture can extend to their suppliers and customers, who will also be more willing to do business with them and, essentially, participate in their success.

Organizational culture is a huge topic all by itself, but I believe that the critical factor is, as W. Edwards Deming said, “the intent at the top”.  Every manager has a strong influence on the culture of the organization under his control, and it follows that the head of the company has more ability to affect the organizational culture than anyone else in it.  A mid-level manager has the same influence on the part of the organization beneath him, but will be exposed to the opinions and possibly interventions of his peers and superiors, making the maintenance of a subculture different from that of the total organization potentially difficult.

I once worked for a mid-level manager who joined in on some lunch hour sessions I organized to watch a series of training videos by W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, and others that I found in the company’s library.  The teachings of W. Edwards Deming, in particular, though they started with the use of statistics to improve product and process quality, revealed the fundamental influence of culture in the workplace with specific demonstrations of how business results came from the systems and the expectations placed on employees, not on employees being specifically good or bad.  My boss found the material interesting enough to attend these viewings with us on many occasions, and I noticed that during this period his management style went through a transformation. 

When I first worked for this man, he was very controlling, to the point of being vindictive.  Once, in a hallway discussion with another person, I made a point that contradicted something he had said, and not in any “in your face” kind of way.  I believe I was objective and professional about it.  I later realized he must have felt embarrassed by that, however, and a couple of weeks later in a large staff meeting he put me on the spot and joined the others in questioning my judgement on a particular matter in an aggressive and embarrassing way.  I felt a lot of pain from being “hung out to dry”, but I figured out later that that was his revenge for my contradicting him in front of a peer previously.  We had a few other unpleasant confrontations over the following months, and I saw him behave similarly with others.

After he started viewing the Deming videos with the small group who had joined me, his manner significantly changed over a period of months.  He began to defend his people in meetings rather than “throwing us under the bus”.  He became increasingly collaborative, and the performance of his organization improved significantly.  If nothing else, it actually became fairly pleasurable to work for him, in spite of the fact that the company was going through very hard times, with layoffs occurring twice each year.  Somehow, and I believe it was due to his new leadership style, the group continued to be highly productive even as our numbers were cut in half over just a few years.

Unfortunately, I noticed that his relations with his mid-level peers in the management became harder for him.  A couple of them who worked most closely with him did not understand his changed approach to management, nor perceive the benefits of the more collaborative culture he maintained among his people.  I saw evidence they were accusing him of being “soft on his employees”, for example, and realized he was having to fight off criticism, however unjustified, to keep our work environment the way it was.

Sadly, after several years he eventually gave up the fight and voluntarily took a non-managerial position, which may have been part of the downsizing the corporation was experiencing as a whole, but was also, I believe, a matter of fatigue on his part gained from bucking the corporate culture.  I have since understood that it is a tough proposition for a mid-level manager, however enlightened and effective, to go against the culture of the larger organization.  It may cost him or her promotional opportunities, for instance, as well as the day-to-day stress of being noticeably different and misunderstood among peers. 

More unfortunate is my observation that companies and organizations with positive cultural values imposed from the top are rare, at least where my experience is in the rust belt of middle America.  There are certainly enlightened managers, and “people whisperers” around, but their work lives are not as good or productive as they might be, since they must buck their organization’s culture to reach their maximum effectiveness in their jobs.  Still, I can’t deny the observations I’ve made, and see only the need for studies to confirm or refute those observations.  Working for an enlightened manager can certainly be a great experience, while working for a poor one can be a living hell.  I can testify to having experienced both, and even under the same manager.

I look forward to reading any comments you have, as we can all learn about what makes for good or bad management from the experiences of others.

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6 Responses to Is a “People Whisperer” the Optimal Manager?

  1. bigapplezlp says:

    What a nice article, Tim! I enjoyed reading it and personally learned a lot from your insights and experiences.

    I agreed with your points that we need good managers who can understand employees and support them in their career. I also agreed that the “top” have the most influrence to the organizational culture. Your example of the mid-level manager being “oust” because of his “soft” management style demostrated nicely how difficult culture change can be.

    The only thing I would like to discuss with you is how much we can do outselves to change the organizational culture. Here are what I believe:

    1. Good culture won’t fall upon us like rain drops. The same as good fortune won’t come to us by no reason. We need to actively seek it, either through finding organizations that carry good cultures, or through changing the culture of the organization we currently work for.

    2. The culture of “being genle to people” alone won’t persist. For an organization to survive, it must achieve its business goals. In most of the case, the goal is being profitable. “Being soft to people” is the “method” to achieve business goals, not the “purpose”. If your mid-level manager demostrated that the management style he adapted could actually improve the efficiency and productivities, he would have a better chance to survive even in hard environment.

    3. I agreed with you that a isolated sub-organization practicing totally different culture that the large organization would be hard to survive and sustain. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go out there to change the culture within our control. In my opinion, that change should involve influrence not only one’s own team (within control) but also one’s supervisor and peers. Your set a great example that one can influrent his/her manager like the video session you setup. If your mid-level manager constantly and delibrately influrenced his manager and peers instead of passively being criticized by them, he might have better chance to succeed.

    Just my two cents. I am also writing a series of “ideal cultures” for a development organization. I elaborated some of my opinions here, http://bigapplezlp.wordpress.com/. Welcome to visit. I will love to discuss more with you about what the best organization cultures are and how to achieve them by the efforts of ourselves.

    Best regards,
    Linpei

  2. timprosser says:

    Thanks for the comment, Linpei.
    1. I agree with you.

    2. I agree that, whatever style a manager employs, meeting the business goals of the organization are paramount (unless they are impossible or don’t contribute to the success of the whole organization, for example, but that’s a different topic). Unfortunately, demonstrations of the effectiveness of management style can be hard to quantify, depending on how good a job the organization does of understanding its costs. They can also be undermined or ignored by peers or higher level managers who may feel threatened, for example. I do believe that a manager who employs a collaborative, team-oriented style has a better change of surviving, but there are no guarantees. In a real “hard-ass” culture the softer-styled manager may either be incapable of defending themself, and in one in which the average worker is at the bottom “subsistence” level of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs that style may be quite ineffective. It depends a lot on both the culture and circumstances of the business.

    3. I do agree that no manager can be passive, and each must strike the best cultural note they can for the circumstances. In most cases, however, the softer style yields greater productivity and results, from my experience.

    Thanks again for your comment. Also, I really enjoyed your blog.
    – Tim

  3. Rick says:

    Great material, and very true. Try taking a culture that is at odds with a particular manager’s style and philosophy, and then combine it with that manager being new to the orgnaization and being perceived as a promotional threat by the existing peer managers. Talk about fatigue of trying to get acclimated and integrated into a structure where your integration is being passively opposed. At some point you have to acknowledge the offensiveness of it, and not take personally, and do what you can to work around and through it to achieve your own personal goals.

  4. timprosser says:

    Thanks for your comment, Rick.
    You are correct. A manager entering a new organization is always at a disadvantage for a while as they acclimate to their new situation, and extra energy and focus is required. Quickly perceiving and understanding the culture, and the psychology of the individuals and groups around you, is as important as learning the mechanical aspects of the position, if not moreso. A good understanding of human and organizational behavior is a great asset going in, and can be gained with study. Often that kind of knowledge is more critical to success than any other, but the awareness of it doesn’t seem to be prevalent in our society, which is too bad. Of course, that is one of the reasons I write this blog.
    Thanks again for your insightful comment. – Tim

  5. walt johnson says:

    I had a boss that has recently thrown me under the bus in order to make herself look better. I used that opportunity to look for another job and I start next week. I am a people whisper and the job that I was let go from has poured out a tremendous amount of love in the last two days about my departure. Many of my co workers and staff were enraged due to manner in which things were done. I continued to calm them and explain that I have a new calling and a new job where I will be needed and for them not to protest.
    The place where I am going is a “Snake Pit” according to the man who hired me and I am the snake charmer. I am excited about whispering a new tune to these great folks who have been mistreated and get them back on the right track.

  6. timprosser says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Walt. I wish you the best of luck “taming the snakes”.
    (I’m imagining whips, fedoras, and other Indiana Jones accessories.) Keep it as close to fun as possible! – Tim

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