Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 27 February 2013

Advice to Minister Gordhan

It is budget season again. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will address the nation on Wednesday and there will be a few proud moments as he delivers a considered, professional document. It will not be a budget that reflects the aspirations of all South Africans, but it will be an impressive display by the head of a ministry that functions. Regardless of what people may think of the ideological leanings of the budget, most South Africans are likely to agree that the Treasury works. Yet the fact that it is one of the few government departments that actually functions at full capacity should bring us to a screeching halt.

Professor David Berg is an organisational psychologist at Yale University. I met him last year in a seminar he ran on personal and professional development. He has spent countless hours thinking and writing about the importance of middle managers in getting things done. His analysis provides much needed nuance to a South African discussion that always seems to get stuck in the same place: with so many smart and hard-working people employed in the public sector, why are things going so horribly wrong? The easy answer most people provide is that there are more lazy and incompetent government employees than there are good ones. I want to believe (perhaps foolishly) that this is not the case.

I sat in Berg’s class last year as he talked through a phenomenon that every senior manager ought to have described to them when they first step into a leadership position. As he provided the analogy, I found myself sitting up, recognising the short-comings of my own institution as I listened intently.

The scene he described was of a group of professionals – let’s call them doctors – at a conference. They meet early, before the official programme of seminars and presentations begins, to go for a run. They are not a running group per se – although they each run regularly. Most of them do not know each other. They are in a city they do not live in, and are running for the first time together. They all signed up to meet at 6:00 and so here they are.

As they run, they begin to separate into three distinct groups. There is a small knot of fast-paced runners up front, and a way behind them, a group of a few runners who are slower lag behind. The group that has fallen behind is in good shape; their pace is simply slower than the rest. In the middle is a small group of runners who do something interesting. They occasionally catch up with the fast runners and, with bright-eyed enthusiasm, one of them will tell the fast group to slow down a bit to let the others catch up. A few minutes later one of them will slow down and jog alongside the slow ones. The runner will lean in and give them encouragement. “You can do it,” the runner from the middle group will say, or will simply provide an encouraging smile, running close by and picking up the pace to gently nudge the slowpoke.

Berg notes that no one told any of the runners to do this, but in almost every group of runners, people play these roles. This behaviour and its effect – primarily group cohesion – is an astounding metaphor for the role that middle managers play in most organisations. At their best, those who sit in the middle of the organogram are negotiators and collaborators. They ease tensions and resolve conflicts and, most importantly, they help keep things moving and get things done.

There is a rich body of evidence that suggests that at their worst, middle managers choose sides and block progress, undermining their bosses or scaring their subordinates. Berg described their actions as either “sliding up” or “sliding down”.  Middle managers who slide up do so in order to empathise with the top level – senior leadership. Those who slide down, wish to demonstrate solidarity with the lowest levels of staff.

Thus, middle managers are caught in a difficult place and often they have to make choices about which way they will go. Rather than serve as the connective tissue of the institution that employs them, they sometimes choose to tear it apart – opting to play politics over understanding their roles.

Every year since he has been responsible for the Treasury, Gordhan has admonished public servants for their spending habits. He has not been afraid to talk about their poor performance or about the vast sums that are swallowed by fruitless and wasteful expenditure. Many of those he is talking about are in the middle ranks. Those at the top are either completely corrupt (which is another column for another day) or are working incredibly hard because they are carrying the burden of those underneath them not pulling their weight.

When Gordhan speaks today, he will be focusing on the “hard” issues. He will talk about money and CPI, and GDP. These are important. But in the absence of a skilled and loyal cohort of middle managers who are aware of the multiple roles they must play, and who are capable of navigating incredibly complex interpersonal relationships, the problems that plagued Gordhan and the auditor-general last year, the year before and the year before that, will continue.

Gordhan would do well to spend a few minutes in his speech talking about how the government is going to transform the public sector. I am aware that this is not his terrain – that is the job of Madame Sisulu – but surely that minister will recognise that the budget will continue to be a pipedream unless public servants learn how to do their jobs better.
We need a national focus on empowering middle managers. And perhaps this focus should extend beyond the public sector. Indeed, perhaps it is time that in a country obsessed by its leaders, we recognised the importance of “middles”. Like those runners in Berg’s example, they are a key part of our social fabric. DM


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