If it weren’t for the managers…

Photo: W_Minshull CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9oAXAK

There is some evidence that authoritarian, bureaucratic management styles are still at large, but that does not license stereotyping and overgeneralisation. Photo: W_Minshull CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/9oAXAK

“If only it weren’t for the managers, the goddamned managers, always getting tangled up in the system. If it weren’t for them, the world would be a systems thinker’s paradise.”

In a previous post, an article for an issue of HindSight magazine on automation, I reflected on a quote in Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano. The actual quote relates to front-line actors, and is posed sardonically in the book by an engineer/manager. The article actually started out as a reflection on managers, and how they are perceived by the systems thinking community.

For the systems thinking community, it seems to be managers who are “always getting tangled up in the system”. Those on the front-line are often seen as the virtuous victims of management. Such sentiments are rife on blogs and twitter, and can be seen in the writings of systems thinking gurus such as W. Edwards Deming and Russell Ackoff. In short, managers are seen as egotistical, ill-informed, and controlling. There is some evidence that authoritarian, bureaucratic management styles are still at large,  but that does not license stereotyping and overgeneralisation. I have seen the same with safety professionals. New thinking on safety can whip up a new libertarian mindset that castigates and excludes those with a more traditional compliance mindset.

These sorts of assertions seem ironically anti-systemic. Instead, of looking at system barriers to new thinking, they find new bad-apples. This stance cannot have helped systems thinking efforts over the last few decades. It has probably hindered them greatly by entrenching old views, and perhaps helps to explain the relatively low traction of systems thinking in organisations today. An alternative narrative is needed which avoids stereotyping, blaming, belittling, and devaluing. If managerial decisions seem bizarre to us, we need to try harder to understand them from humanistic and systems perspectives. Here are some pointers that might help to explain why managers do what they do.

1. Managers act within a paradigm

The beliefs and assumptions of managers are shaped and sustained by a collective mindset. On accepting a more senior role, managers land in a particular paradigm, and often a new sub-culture. The paradigm tells managers – and everyone else – what and how to think, say, and do. It emerges from and shapes managers’ education, and the professional and organisational culture(s),  It is inherited and changes slowly.

For a manager, to act in a way that runs contrary to the prevailing mindset – to be a goat thinker – risks mental conflict, frustration, isolation, ostracism, immobilisation, ethical dilemmas, and rejection. Challenging the mindset can be a huge risk. For this reason, conformity often results. Conformity changes how people respond to situations, even changing how they see situations that – from the outside – look very different.

2. Managers do things that make sense to them

When we look back at our own decisions, we generally think that they were reasonable at the time, given our goals, knowledge, expectations and focus of attention at that time. If what were were doing seemed unreasonable, we would not normally do it. This is the local rationality principle. What we do is rational to our local situation and context by default. When we look back in hindsight, what we did may seem irrational. But at the time, it was rational to us – the right thing to do at the time. We accept the local rationality principle for ourselves, and increasingly we accept it for front-line staff.

When judging the performance of managers, when things go wrong, we tend to think that they should have known better, should have done better. Local rationality does not seem to extend far beyond our own actions. To look at it in a different way, we make a fundamental attribution error. Our failures are down to the context. Managers’ failures are down to them as individuals. But what managers do is locally rational to them, in their context. If it were not, they would not do it. The relevant question is why it makes sense to them. This is something that we must discuss in a balanced way with managers. Taking the blame out of hindsight works both ways.

3. Managers have to make trade-offs to resolve conflicting goals with limited resources

Decisions often have to balance conflicting goals, and this is true especially for managers’ decisions. The goals of an organisation tend to conflict at various levels throughout the organisation Departmental purposes may work against one another, and it is no simple matter to rise above these goals to the organisation’s superordinate purpose: to serve the customer. Often, there are no good options among those available, and time and resources are nearly always limited. Managers must satisfice. Managers find themselves inside a complex, uncertain and political situation, while others can judge each decision from the outside.

Information is a case in point. Information often flows fairly freely down the organisational hierarchy; organisational gravity tends to take care of that. But it faces many barriers on the way up. Managers at various levels may be unaware of the extent to which the information that they receive is blocked, filtered, and distorted to fit what others want to tell them, what others think managers want to hear, and what others can convey without adverse consequences. But we are unlikely to know what information manager had when he or she made a decision, let alone the perceived quality of the information.

In the end, managers have to try to manage a mess; a system of problems in an uncertain and complex environment. They have to reconcile very different opinions, with fairly little data at the time that it is needed. Like everyone else, managers must often act on instinct or gut feeling.

4. Managers work within a system of constraints

Managers often don’t have free rein to do whatever they want. They have to answer to many on all sides: senior managers, accountants, HR, health and safety specialists, committees, trade unions, shareholders, staff… Laws and regulations that must be adhered to, and management systems and standards that must be applied. Time for decisions is limited, and so is money. In a bureaucratic organisation, other divisions and departments are islands that can disrupt the flow of work and sub-optimise decision making. Compromise is the watchword.

5. Managers work within a different system of rewards and punishments

The reward system often looks very different for managers compared with other staff. Financial and non-financial have a profound effect on behaviour, and few of us are immune to these effects. If a reward system for a particular project favours on time completion, perhaps with a bonus attached, then this may well be prioritised over other considerations, such as quality of service, safety or security.

Similarly, managers may have less secure roles than other staff, such as short-term fixed contracts or contracts that allow for easier termination. Their position may be more tenuous than we think, and affected by the same sorts of anti-systemic inventions and interventions that systems thinkers deride. Consider the position of the Chief Executive of South West Staffordshire Primary Care Trust, (2002-2006), William Price: “As Chief Executives we knew that targets were the priority and if we didn’t focus on them we would lose our jobs” (cited here, in Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry Volume 2: Analysis of evidence and lessons learned (part 2)).

What is a system thinker to do?

If systems thinking is to have any real traction in organisations, the judging, blaming, belittling and stereotyping has to go. For me, the key lies in applying the implications of the local rationality principle, which means trying to understand their world and their experience in it. This means talking to managers with empathic understanding (see also here). The following advice is adapted from the Systems Thinking for Safety: Ten Principles:

  • Listen to managers’ stories. Engage managers in conversations so that they can tell their stories from the point of view of how they experienced situations at the time. Try to understand the person’s situation and world from their point of view, both in terms of the context and their moment-to-moment experience.
  • Understand goals, plans and expectations in context. Discuss with managers their goals, plans and expectations, in the context of the flow of work and the system as a whole, including the demand, pressure, resources, and constraints.
  • Understand knowledge, activities and focus of attention. Focus on managers’ ‘knowledge at the time’, not your knowledge now. When trying to understand decisions, consider how things made sense to managers based on what they knew and what they had to do.
  • Seek multiple perspectives. Seek alternative perspectives from other managers. Ask staff what they think they might do in a simulation situation, with similar resources and constraints. Discuss different perceptions of events, situations, problems and opportunities, from different perspectives.


  1. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply


    Thanks ever so much for this insightful article.

    I hope that it will stimulate a good discussion.

    Also, I hope that it will be serve as a sort of template for similar articles about other special situation people, e.g., regulators. third party assessors..

    All the best,


  2. Rodney Currey Reply

    Steve good article. I’ve often thought about managers as you have depicted. And I have analysed many on why they make the descions the do etc. My conclusion is they are rewarded for their behaviours and their decisions. They are employed or promoted as they are efficient, reliable, consistent, ruthless, abusive, resilient, demanding, stay on track no matter what or by whatever means, and eager to please their masters without any reluctance.
    Generally they are groomed this way, and their bad behaviours and decisions are quietly endorsed and encouged by senior management.
    Further they are overworked and given too many responibilities to manage. They are given little resources and small budgets. They are heavily burdened and carry the driving force of making the company effecient and profitable as far as where labour and productivity are concerned.
    This is generally the age old working model of how to run a business and really hasn’t changed much from the industrial era.
    People are still an unrealised asset to any business. Most businesses see people as a liability not an asset.

  3. Shane Durdin Reply

    Hi Steven,

    Your advice is well taken, and is applicable to any person I think. In safety conversations with managers, supervisors or workers that each group is quick to segregate them to a relevant lowest common denominator. This being specifically more so being directed at the poor haphazard worker, but when in all reality all people are fallible regardless of what role they are in. Your key points resonate with me as I challenge myself in every conversation around safety is to understand that persons relationship with safety, as well as impart my own relationship with safety. If I can understand what level of relationship they have with safety, what they are doing with that relationship (building, divorcing, mutual etc) then I can hopefully better engage with them. The further you go up the ‘food chain’ though you need not only understand their relationship with safety, but all of those other relationships in the commercial world which influence their decisions. Thus, the humble safety professional needs to acquire the business acumen I believe to be able to engage effectively at their respective level in an organisation to be able to facilitate a safety conversation in the complexity of the business world.

    1. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply

      The conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions in the workplace are what they are because top management wants them that way, top management tolerates them being that way, or top management does not know that they are that way.

      Top management often surrounds itself with a shield of plausible deniability.

      Top management know that if it does not want to deal with the answer they can carefully control the question.

      Is this the story of Bhopal, Chernobyl, Macondo, Exxon Valdez, Tenerife, Fukushima…?

      1. Rodney Currey Reply

        Yes agreed William. If someone would have mentioned a risk of a tsunami wiping out the Fukushima it would have been quickly disregarded. The latest book (you may already be aware of it) from Andrew Hopkins and Jan Hayes, 2014, “Nightmare Pipeline Failures”…….Fantasy planning, black swans and integrity management. I haven’t read it yet but have read excerpts. Fantasy planning is a good term. I always new of it but never had a name for it. So now I do.

      2. Shane Reply

        So what is your point Bill? Is it that people inherent legacy issues and have influences other than safety on their decisions. Don’t workers on the tools surround themselves in deniability, especially in a unionized workforce? Safety isn’t always first, if ever at all, but your response implies that it is. The assumption too is that management is perfect and not fallible like workers, so to segregate them (managers) out from the blue collared worforce aren’t we essentially pointing the finger of blame at them? If it’s not right to do that at the worker (ie BBS), then why essentially take the same approach with management? I would be careful in the approach to management because we may just change human error into management error.

  4. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply

    In all fairness it is not just management:

    The conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions in the workplace are what they are because the regulator wants them that way, tthe regulator tolerates them being that way, or the regulator does not know that they are that way.

    The regulator often surrounds itself with a shield of plausible deniability.

    The regulator knows that if it does not want to deal with the answer it can carefully control the question.

    Is this the story of Bhopal, Chernobyl, Macondo, Exxon Valdez, Tenerife, Fukushima, San Bruno, Texas City, Three Mile Island, San Onofre, Arkansas Nuclear One Unit One…?

  5. Gavan Reply

    The most insightful treatment of management I have come across is Weick & Suttcliffe, Managing the Unexpected. They discuss mindful versus mindless management and what mindful management entails.

  6. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply

    It’s not just management and the regulators.

    The conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions in the workplace are what they are because independent third party oversight wants them that way, independent third party oversight tolerates them being that way, or independent third party oversight does not know that they are that way.

    Independent third party oversight often surrounds itself with a shield of plausible deniability.

    Independent third party oversight knows that if it does not want to deal with the answer it can carefully control the question.

    Is this the story of Bhopal, Chernobyl, Macondo, Exxon Valdez, Tenerife, Fukushima, San Bruno, Texas City, Three Mile Island, San Onofre, Arkansas Nuclear One Unit One, Tesoro Anacortes, Connecticut Kleen Energy…?

      1. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply


        Thanks ever so much for the question.

        Plausible deniability includes managing in such a way as to incentivize short-cuts, unsafe behaviors, and quality sacrifices while maintaining a facade of adherence to high standards.

        The presidential panel investigating the 2010 BP oil spill could not find any evidence that anyone ever sacrificed safety for cost or schedule.


        There are many entries in “The Rootician’s Dictionary” that include “plausible deniability.”


        I hope that helps.

        1. Rodney Currey Reply

          Yes thank you William. The term is self explanatory, but it’s good to know the the history and application of such a term. Cheers.

  7. Rob Long Reply

    Interesting article Steve. However, i don’t understand humans as ‘systemic’ and the application of such language to people i find unhelpful. I can use a system and be systematic but the ontology of systems cannot be fully applied to humans, particularly when so much decision making is unconscious and non-rational. In the rational space your article makes good sense, and so has great applicability to about 10% of all decision making.

  8. Steven Shorrock Post author Reply

    Rob – the point isn’t about human as systems (or even as ‘systemic’), but about humans as part of systems, i.e. systems thinking. My understanding of humans is broadly in line with humanistic thinking (http://humanisticsystems.com/2012/01/02/human-factors-humanistic-psychology-distant-cousins/). I’m afraid I don’t make hard distinctions between ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’, not do I conceive of a clear distinction between ‘rational’ (homo economics?) and ‘non-rational’ (I do like Gigerenzer’s work on so-called gut feelings, but that is something different). Mostly, my thoughts come from my experience, which is many hours talking to managers/directors/CEOs in many countries and cultures about their experience of being a manager/directors/CEO.

  9. John Wilkinson Reply

    Nice article thank you Steve. I think that if everyone in a system understands their role, tasks and activities well with respect to the full range of hazards (health, occupational safety, process safety, environment) AND are empowered to contribute effectively to continuous improvement for businesses as well as safety purposes, then all parties can contribute effectively. Workers looking upwards can have clearer and more appropriate expectations of their managers and vice-versa. Wrestling with uncertainty and often being balanced on the twin horns of the ‘make a decision / evaluate’ dilemma are familiar-sounding issues but as you say not always well reflected in our understanding of the pressures on managers. Good managers I think need to hold on to some time for informal and qualitative tapping into what’s really going on in their business / operation. this is more than the old ‘Management by Walking About’ but that captures some of the flavour if it is done to some purpose i.e. managers can actively listen and have the background information to tune into weak signals. Time is getting more precious though (our attention is grabbed by more and more possible things to do or read) but that may also reflect some failure to prioritise those more informal – but essential – management skills.

    1. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply



      Your posting dredged my memory:

      In Chapter 20 of “Moby Dick,” Melville’s character Ishmael observes, “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing.”

      All the best,


  10. Matt Reply

    Here we have a very interesting article, presenting the view that systems thinkers should avoid stereotyping, blaming, belittling, and devaluing managers, as they are often operating under pressures and directions from forces that we do not understand or fully appreciate.
    Followed by comments from Systems thinkers stereotyping, blaming, belittling, and devaluing managers for operating under pressures and directions from forces that we do not understand or fully appreciate….
    Look no further for theory validation.

  11. Rodney Currey Reply

    I think workers are generally considered fair game and usually the only game in safety discussions and when being critical of managers it usually draws an negative hands off response. This contributes to the alienation of workers further. If we cannot discuss managers shortcomings it just adds further and confirms to the untouchable or protected species status they enjoy.

  12. William R. Corcoran, PhD, PE Reply

    Go talk to people in management positions.

    What do they tell you?

    They are at the end of their tethers, but still have enough rope to hang themselves.

    They are accountable for much that is not under their control.

    They are working at 99-100% capacity.

    Today’s goals include getting to the end of the day without adding more to a full plate.

    Asking for help is risking admission of inadequacy.

    Although they hate siloing, stove-piping, and parochialism they use them to lessen the pain at dysfunctional interfaces.

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