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In the introductory piece of this series, we discussed the issue of horrible bosses by reviewing the literature surrounding management and identifying three key dimensions of job effectiveness that are most likely at the root of ineffective management. In Part 2, we will be discussing the first of the three dimensions – Mental Processing Capability. We will begin by reviewing the literature on capability as it relates to managerial effectiveness, followed by a discussion on some of the issues that arise when there is a misalignment of capability between a manager and his or her subordinate. Finally, the piece concludes by identifying symptoms of the horrible boss that are likely caused by issues with capability.

The Literature on Managerial Capability

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In the management literature, the topic of capability is discussed often, highlighting the importance of competence for effectiveness. In “Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organizations”, Ian MacDonald, Catherine Burke and Karl Stewart (2006) contend that as different people look at a problem in an organization, it’s the specific capabilities of each individual that define the unique solutions proposed by each.

For instance, if a maintenance vehicle belonging to a heavy duty manufacturing business breaks down, there are a variety of different employees with different capabilities that will view the situation differently. As a frontline mechanic, the focus would most likely be on how to fix the issue today to get the vehicle back on the road and working as quickly as possible.

Alternatively, a first line manager might be thinking about identifying some of the issues that might have caused the truck to break down in the first place and how to implement preventative maintenance or training for drivers. Higher up in the organization, someone may be thinking about supply chains, and whether or not the organization is ordering the right type of trucks or equipment. At an even higher level, there may be thoughts focused around whether the organization needs to be doing this type of work and if these trucks are necessary at all.

The point is, while there is only one problem, it is essentially the capability of each individual that dictates the approach for deriving the solution to the problem. This aligns to complexity of work in the organization in terms of people being able to use their capability to solve problems. Someone whose problem solving capability is appropriate for front line work (defined by Elliott Jacques as Stratum 1, and the mechanic in our example) won’t be very good at director level work which is more concerned with how to best implement changes to the supply chain to solve the problem.

When Capabilities are Not Aligned

Level of capability must be aligned properly between a manager and his or her direct report or there can be issues. For success in work, each employee needs to have a manager who is one stratum above them in terms of capability. A front line worker like the mechanic in our example needs a Stratum 2 manager with diagnostic capability to be able to solve problems at the next level of complexity. During the course of doing work, if the mechanic runs into problems with the procedure or something that cannot be solved at that level of capability, he needs to have a manager to go to for help.

Similarly, a manager has to have the level of capability to set the appropriate context so that direct reports are able to use their capabilities to do work. Often, when capabilities are not aligned, the level of mental processing capability or problem solving that a superior manager has is insufficient to set the context broadly enough for direct reports or subordinates to be able to use their full capability to do the work.

In the next article I will discuss the symptoms of these situations.