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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Watch Out for Inspirational Bosses?

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In his most recent Ask a Bureaucrat column, David Reed takes on an interesting question from a frustrated would-be innovator. Hedy Lamarr wants to know how to find a boss who will back her up when she has ideas for improvements at work -- but she "can't just ask 'do you support innovation' because [her] current boss would say yes to that, and it's not true."

Reed considers this dilemma in light of results from a workplace survey:

Through no fault of her own, Jenna was having a hard time filling her boss vacancy... (Image by Tim Gouw, via Unsplash, license.)
The researchers were surprised by their findings. One might expect "transformational leadership" to be better [at encouraging innovation] than "transactional leadership." But supervisors who had a transactional style -- that is, supervisors who reward employees for performance -- reported more change-oriented organizational citizenship (innovation) by their employees. Supervisors who had a transformational leadership style -- who try to motivate by instilling their values in employees and inspiring them -- reported less change-oriented citizenship behavior by their employees.


... Here's the explanation that I think applies to your current boss not supporting your innovation: If a supervisor is concerned with performance, then she will be happy with any change her employees come up with that improves performance. But if a supervisor is concerned with telling employees how they should think and feel about their jobs, so she can be a "transformational leader," then innovation by her employees threatens her role. [bold added]
I can see a fellow traveler being nonplussed for a moment -- especially one who thinks of former CEO of BB&T, John Allison, who is a very value-oriented and successful boss. Recognizing and rewarding initiative, as part of a mutually-beneficial trade is in line with the ideals he espouses and practices.

But that moment, if it happens at all, will be a short one. That's because such a reader will also recall that a common phenomenon in our culture is what Ayn Rand called the theory-practice dichotomy:
[Consider the catch phrase:] "This may be good in theory, but it doesn't work in practice." What is a theory? It is a set of abstract principles purporting to be either a correct description of reality or a set of guidelines for man's actions. Correspondence to reality is the standard of value by which one estimates a theory. If a theory is inapplicable to reality, by what standard can it be estimated as "good"? If one were to accept that notion, it would mean: a. that the activity of man's mind is unrelated to reality; b. that the purpose of thinking is neither to acquire knowledge nor to guide man's actions...
That this is such a common idea (and seems credible) is in large part because many people do not tie their abstractions down to reality. What do "innovation," and "values" mean to the boss in the question? What does "leadership" mean? This is especially true regarding moral concepts, which partly accounts for the common but mistaken idea that the moral and the practical are opposites.

After considering the advice in this light, I think the column leaves us with a general rule of thumb: If a potential boss/management hire makes much of "inspiring" his team or bringing his "values" (What values?) into the workplace, this merits following up at the very least. Sure, you might be interviewing the next John Allison -- but be on the lookout for management fads, vagueness about the meanings/details of implementation of (buzz)words, or even moral convictions that conflict with business success.

-- CAV

Note: Although the advice and the study deal with government workplaces, I think it is safe to say that it somewhat applies to what passes for the private sector.

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