A few years ago, a CIO explained to me in a conversation somewhat casually that he was also only a middle manager. Maybe that was just his justification for not being able to act further in the matter presented to him — it was about support for the dissemination of Working Out Loud in the company. However, this remark also shows a little bit the tension between aspiration and reality in which many managers today find themselves.
On the one hand, they have found a suitable leadership attitude for themselves or are actively working on it (e.g. with the Manifesto for Human Leadership and the one or other workshop format for it) and strive to lead their area of responsibility accordingly. On the other hand, they are almost always — like the CIO mentioned at the beginning — somehow only middle managers, in so far as they are embedded in less modern or at least differently influenced structures and processes and in so far as they interact with differently socialized people. In many cases, in the dreary everyday life of the company, this will then feel as the German economist Knut Bleicher so soberly describes it:
We work in structures of yesterday with methods of today on strategies for tomorrow mainly with people who have created the structures of yesterday and who will not experience the day after tomorrow in the company.Knut Bleicher
In 1957, the American social psychologist Leon Feistinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe this unpleasant inconsistency between aspiration and reality. Cognitions are mental events that are associated with an evaluation. Conflicts can arise between these perceptions, thoughts, opinions, attitudes, desires or intentions that we find so unpleasant that we have to resolve them somehow. Like the fox in the famous fable of Aesop, who does not want to admit to himself that he cannot reach the grapes and therefore claims that they are sour anyway and therefore he does not want to reach them at all.
Tensions between aspiration and reality arise for modern leadership in two directions. On the one hand, between the attitude of a gardener who provides the framework for the development of human potential and the often diametrically opposed demands of the organization, for which good leadership means first and foremost keeping a firm grip on his business like a chess master. On the other hand, not all employees are immediately willing and able to accept the newly won freedom and the responsibility that comes with it and to deal with it constructively, so that the garden often produces more weeds than fruit in the beginning, much to the dismay of the gardener.
Most people do not really want freedom because freedom means acceptance of responsibility, most people tremble at such acceptance.Sigmund Freud
The situation is further complicated by the fact that both areas of tension reinforce each other. The first disappointment about employees who don’t follow through as expected is followed by the mockery of other managers and finally an appeal from the boss to put his own business back in order. This cognitive dissonance is difficult to bear and it is not uncommon for ambitious managers to then give in to their fate and lead people as they seem to need to be led and as they are expected to lead.
But correcting one’s own aspirations and ultimately bending oneself is only one way to mitigate this dissonance and certainly not the most fulfilling and healthy one. A better alternative for reducing dissonance is the addition of new consonant cognitions also known als selective exposure (cf. Wikipedia). Although the concrete experience in everyday managerial life may initially be disappointing and frustrating, it is not always and everywhere. But these rays of hope are easily buried under the avalanche of all the things that do not work as hoped. Recognizing these, consciously highlighting them and celebrating them helps immensely. And from time to time it is also worth looking over the fence of one’s own organization into the garden of other organizations and leaders, either through personal exchange or at least by reading relevant literature (highly recommended in this context: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux).