A Manager Who Perfected Resistance By Inertia
Dr Peter Honey, regarded as one of the world's leading gurus on learning and behaviour and their application to making people more effective in the work place is best known for the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire that was first published in 1982. Since then, Peter Honey Publications has produced a stream of high quality resources promoting learning for individuals, teams and organisations. Peter also manages to be a prolific author, consultant and speaker.
Derek was a middle manager in a software house with an international presence.
He was an easy-going fellow who liked to take the line of least resistance. His relaxed style was partly explained by his dread of anything that smacked of confrontation. He was a past master at smoothing ruffled feathers and (to offer a choice of metaphors!) pouring oil on troubled waters. If he couldn’t prevent upsets with diplomacy and charm, he simply reverted to plan B, which was to avoid the problem, or the person, until the difficulty resolved itself.
In fact, Derek was a great believer in taking no action and waiting to see what would happen. He found that, more often than not, crises simply fizzled out or events were overtaken by something fortuitous. Each time this occurred, it reinforced his preference for biding his time and doing nothing.
Over the years, Derek’s inertia had successfully seen off many initiatives. He had dragged his feet when the company went through a phase of setting up quality circles (the champion of this venture suddenly left the company to join the firm of management consultants who were masterminding the initiative). He had also survived crazes for management by objectives, process re-engineering, statistical process control, 360-degree feedback, what-if scenario planning and numerous cost-cutting exercises. If each one had been a notch on Derek’s belt, they would have stretched half-way around his generous waist.
Derek’s resistance by stealth always followed a set pattern. When the initiative was first mooted, he would respond in such a way that people assumed he was in agreement. He’d sit back, listening to different points of view, and do his best to remain on the fence. Most times this simply meant not expressing any reservations rather than having to display any pretence of support or enthusiasm. It was extraordinary how a few judicious nods of the head, and a carefully placed smile here and there, would allow him to escape close scrutiny.
The next phase, after a period of acquiescence, usually meant postponing whatever actions he was supposed to be taking. He found that by doing nothing he could spin things out – certainly for weeks, sometimes for months – before questions were asked. Quite often, questions were never asked because priorities had changed and something else was now in vogue. If Derek was called to account, he would concoct a plausible sounding excuse and win more time by implementing a few of the preliminary steps. He would take some token actions that were relatively inconsequential and easily reversed. This took the pressure off and bought him time. The aim was to stretch the process out until all momentum was lost and/or the instigators of the initiative gave up or disappeared.
The company was American-owned and one day yet another important initiative was announced by the HQ in Chicago; it was decreed that diversity was an increasing issue now that the company operated in so many different countries, and a diversity awareness programme was to be launched. The new head of diversity explained, on the all-singing-all-dancing diversity website, that the one-day programme (spelt program) would be rolled out world-wide and that attendance by management and staff in every country would be compulsory. There were to be no exceptions.
The board were persuaded to demonstrate their commitment to diversity by attending the programme themselves. They all emerged with imposing comments about the need to stay competitive by valuing diversity and that, aside from the commercial benefits, it was ‘the right thing to do’. The CEO even made a video underlining the importance of diversity awareness and giving examples of disasters that had occurred in different markets because diversity issues had been overlooked. None of the examples were home grown – they had all been drawn from the experiences of other companies and competitors!
Naturally, Derek identified this as another initiative that would have to be stifled by inertia. However, he saw no alternative but to attend the launch programme in the UK. It was delivered by two American consultants who made no concessions to local circumstances, and were completely dismissive of the sound work that had been done over a number of years, in conjunction with the staff unions, on equal opportunities. Derek lay low, as usual, as his colleagues on the programme started to raise objections and show their displeasure at the arrogant stand being taken by the two consultants. But Derek was surprised to find himself getting genuinely annoyed. He became crosser and crosser as he dwelt on the irony and the arrogance of a programme extolling the virtues of diversity that made no allowances for local conditions.
Eventually, Derek could stand it no longer. To the astonishment of his colleagues, he stood up and told the consultants that the diversity programme was an insult and that it was doomed to failure unless the messages were tailored to take account of the culture of different countries – starting with the UK. ‘One size does not fit all,’ he roared. ‘Surely, this is the whole point of valuing diversity?’
The programme broke up in disarray. The message went back to the States and the programme was suspended ‘pending further consideration’.
When the MD of the UK company next saw Derek at a company function, he went out of his way to thank him for putting his head above the parapet. No one seemed to have noticed that this was completely out of character.