August 31, 2001

‘Don’t Kill the Bosses!” Offers Solution to Hierarchy Trap That Plagues Workplace

Note to Editors:
To view the first chapter of "Don't Kill the Bosses! Escaping the Hierarchy Trap," visit
http://www.dontkillthebosses.com. To receive a press review copy, contact Heather Vaughn at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, (415) 743-6477.

Los Angeles — Boss-dominated relationships. After all that's been written about the advantages of empowerment, participatory decision-making and team play, how is it possible that companies continue allowing bosses to dominate and their subordinates to fake acquiescence to the extent that both do today? It's a problem everyone knows about and few know how to fix.

Samuel A. Culbert, professor of management at UCLA Anderson, sheds new light on this age-old problem in his new book, "Don't Kill the Bosses! Escaping the Hierarchy Trap" (Berrett-Koehler, 2001), co-written by UCLA Anderson Ph.D. candidate John B. Ullmen.

Through careful research, illustrated by telling case-study examples, Culbert analyzes an epidemic boss/subordinate problem that occurs when people mistakenly use the hierarchical structure - defined by the organizational chart - to form hierarchical relationships. "In the process," Culbert said, "we discovered that people ignore in others certain basic human nature traits that they readily accept in themselves. The result is a brand of self-interested politics that wreaks havoc in the company."

According to the researchers, "When a relationship is hierarchical, you can count on bosses walking around thinking they know more than they do, and subordinates saying what they think the boss wants to hear, rather than saying what they believe is truly valid. In the end, of course, the corporation is the big loser."

A case in point is the Los Angeles Police Department Rampart Division scandal, which Culbert and Ullmen describe in the book as a classic example of "one-sided accountability based on hierarchical relationships." The chief and Police Commission put the onus upon first- and second-level supervisors, but take little responsibility themselves. Moreover, the solution proposed by a blue-ribbon panel of citizens called for an incident-tracking system in which rogue cops could be more quickly identified by higher-ups, but failed to address the system issues involved. Culbert calls this solution "pass-the-buck accountability" and contrasts it to the type of teamwork where bosses identify with their subordinates' success.

"Typically, pass-the-buck accountability favors hierarchical uppers, with subordinates blamed for what goes awry," Culbert and Ullmen write. "Hierarchical relationships allow bosses to walk away unscathed from firing the very employees they hired, selected for an assignment that failed, and for whom they were supposed to provide training, direction, oversight and support."

According to Culbert and Ullmen, the remedy lies in clarifying hierarchical structure and getting rid of hierarchical relationships. They propose a means of restructuring relationships so that subordinates can clearly say what's on their minds, and bosses, after hearing it straight, can make decisions and stand accountable for results. "That's teamwork at its core," Culbert said. "It requires that you help those above and below you to be more effective in producing end-product results; it requires that you open yourself to what others think and then to fully use your intelligence."

The book offers a means for people at different levels of an organization to engage in candid, equal-footing relationships that allow hierarchy to work productively.

"Executives need to change the evaluation system to promote honest, give-and-take interaction within the ranks. Managers need to reconfigure their relationships to better align with the people they lead. Subordinates need to determine when it's safe to speak their minds," Culbert said. "And, human resource and organization development specialists need an improved blueprint for internal training and counseling with managers and executives whose human nature oversights produce mistrust."

Throughout the past 30 years, Culbert has consulted for companies, large and small, studying their problems and then teaching them how to effectively manage. He has achieved wide-scale recognition as an expert and theoretician in the management field, and received honors for his articles and books such as "The Organization Trap" and "The Invisible War: Pursuing Self-Interests at Work," winner of the annual Association of American Publishers award for the best business and management book.

John Ullmen is an experienced consultant and entrepreneur who, while conducting his dissertation research, serves as a senior manager of organization effectiveness at EarthLink.

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