64 – Ambition, culture and performance. A tale of middle management in local government.

Posted by Whistler                                                                                          750 words


I was recently involved in a discussion where the metaphor of the three stonemasons came up. The person telling the story described the response of the three stonemasons to the question ‘what are you doing?’ You may know it.

The first stonemason said ‘I am making a stone’. The second said ‘I am making a wall’. The third said ‘I am making a cathedral’.

The purpose in telling the story was to illustrate the various motivations of people at work in local government and that, hopefully, we are all here to make a cathedral and we know it. Well, I started thinking about how many of the workers cleaning the same public toilets every day, or mowing the same parks, or emptying the same bins, think they are making a cathedral. The chances are that they are just diligently making a stone. Whether it is used to make a cathedral or not is probably not important to them and never will be.

Then my thinking moved on to thinking about myself and the other middle managers I deal with. Surely we are all making cathedrals? Isn’t it our job to lift people’s ambitions beyond shaping a rock to making the wall and contributing to the cathedral? triangle diagramSomeone suggested to me that if we were making a cathedral it would be triangular or a pyramid to reflect the ‘line of sight’ from the basic rock shaper upwards. Even the prospect of making a cathedral in the 21st century seems highly optimistic when Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia (technically a basilica, not even a cathedral), couldn’t be completed in the 20th century.

The culture survey completed for a colleague’s organisation (using the Human Synergistics model) provided an insight into whether middle managers are linking people’s work to making the cathedral or whether they too are simply making rocks. The idea that councils can somehow achieve the ‘preferred’ culture of being all ‘blue’ with humanistic and constructive behaviours all round defies the day to day reality. The ‘actual’ culture is typically quite ‘red’ and ‘green’, which reflects Australian culture and the culture of most industries in Australia using the survey tool. human synergistics OCIThe only people experiencing a culture anything like the ‘preferred’ culture is the Executive. They are typically quite ‘blue’ like the image at left.

Why is it the case? Someone said to me that they are like characters in the iconic Australian film ‘The Castle’ and someone needs to ‘tell ‘em they’re dreaming’. I actually think they aren’t and that they really believe a ‘blue’ culture exists for them and is achievable for everyone else. Whether that is desirable could be debated. As someone commented to me once, a ‘blue’ culture could be like being on the Love Boat, and that they wouldn’t like to be on it during a storm because it would sink! Often the same executives who believe they are experiencing a ‘blue’ culture are successful by cultivating a ‘red’ or ‘green’ culture. love boat 2One I know of manipulated a community survey process to get improved results and used this as a springboard for their career. How ‘blue’ is that! Plus, every year we compete for limited financial resources through a bidding process. Promotion depends on the favouritism of the CEO. And it goes on.

Unfortunately, I believe the problem is that they want something that they can’t have but instead of accepting this and adjusting their behaviour, they continue to act as though they can have it. Why do I say this? To begin, the political maturity and ambition of local government is generally low and councillors select CEO’s who match their abilities and ambitions.   Then these CEO’s surround themselves with people to support their ambition, which is usually to please the councillors and survive to find better job opportunities elsewhere (particularly at the ‘entry’ level councils where first time CEO’s tend to get appointed). The result is frustration for everyone involved.

In this environment, the smart people tend to leave or just shut up. Attempting to influence the organisation has risks. If you are capable and ambitious but not part of the Executive, you are unlikely to have any effect and very likely will threaten them. This is career limiting. As a result, the people advantaged by networks or fortuitously meeting the current novelty criteria for executives succeed. These people are not always smart and tend to be very focussed on their own career ambitions. They serve the CEO well and get their promotion in turn. Sometimes there are smart and capable people on the Executive and they tend to ‘polish’ the bit of the organisation they have responsibility for, and optimise its performance. Even if this risks sub-optimising the whole organisation.

So, what is the point of the tale?   The senior management running local government can behave in ways that are misguided. They often believe they are capable of creating a ‘blue’ constructive culture (outside the norms for Australia) while they continue to propagate competitive and avoidance behaviours. The selection process for senior management supports mediocre performance and continuation of the status quo. There isn’t the maturity required to better organise and manage councils to retain high capacity people with ambition.

What is really being encouraged and rewarded in middle management is compliant behaviour, not performance.