Let’s help managers help themselves: the oxygen mask theory

In many areas, it is expected that problems are solved on the ground, i.e. that employees find the solution to their problems and ailments by themselves. Most of the time this is not even the result of a lack: things were designed to happen that way. The problem is that, contrary to what one might think, this is not only not a good thing, but also applies to subjects for which it is not appropriate and, conversely, does not apply where it should.

The staircase is swept from the top, digital transformation happens from the bottom

When it comes to change, leadership and exemplarity, I often say that the “staircase is swept from the top“. In other words, if you want things to happen at the bottom of the ladder, they have to start happening at the top.

As far as the digital transformation was concerned, we started from the principle that knowledge generally came from “people” (as opposed to employees, as if the customer didn’t have a job and the employee had no life outside of the business) and in particular from young people, saying to ourselves that if we let things be born and propagate from the bottom, they would eventually work their way up.

This did indeed lead to “quick wins”, but at some point the problem arose of the gap that was sometimes created between generations at the same level, but also between certain managers and their teams and generally between the top and the bottom of the pyramid.

Too many businesses have considered that “some people won’t be able to do it anyway” and that they will have to live with it. That the same maturity in uses and tools would not be required from teams and their superiors. After all, some decide and others act. And I even think that in many cases the staff have found it logical.

But in the end we ended up with the side effects of this situation. Managers unable to explain how to use this or that solution, unable to inspire new uses because they don’t understand the fundamentals, which is problematic on several levels. They can’t help and unblock a situation in a hurry and they sometimes feel limited and useless. The same perception is held by employees who, without any value judgment, feel that they have nothing to expect from them and that they are far from being exemplary.

Put on your oxygen mask and then help others put on theirs.”

This reminds me of the safety instructions issued on airplanes. In case of depressurization, passengers are asked to put on their own mask first before helping their neighbor to put on his or her own mask if he or she has difficulties.

Incitement to selfishness? Not at all. A person who has succeeded in putting on his mask can help many. If he does things in the opposite order, he may suffocate before he can help anyone else, and therefore not help anyone without having helped himself. Everyone loses. The idea is that you have to know how to help yourself before thinking about helping others.

A manager who has not put on his mask, in other words learned the fundamental principles of using this or that tool (and the logic behind its operation) will not help himself and will not be able to help his teams. In the end, everyone can lose. First of all from a purely practical and operational point of view, then in the longer term in terms of feelings, confidence (in others and in oneself), perception of the value of each person for the group, and efficiency.

I took the example of digital transformation because it speaks to many but it is a much broader managerial topic.

At a time when there is a lot of talk about well-being at work and a benevolent work environment, we are seeing the emergence of more or less questionable logics.

Leaders are not immune to bad behavior

Businesses are nowadays very sensitive (at least in words) to the impact of negative, violent and toxic behaviors at work. They raise awareness of what is right and wrong, tolerated and not tolerated, and take advantage of the opportunity to remind employees of the positive elements of their business culture in which they believe, without being aware that their employees have never seen the materialization of these elements.

The target? Field staff first and foremost, and most often the direct manager, the proximity manager, who is the embodiment of authority, for better or (precisely) sometimes for worse.

And elsewhere? Everyone is aware of the issue, at all levels, but too often people think that the problem is limited to the field. From the top, leaders think that the problem is at the bottom, convinced that they perfectly embody the values and the culture of the business and that we have the wisdom linked to experience and that in any case they would not have reached a more or less high position without it.

This could be anecdotal, but in a business with 15 hierarchical levels, this posture may concern at least ten of them. People at the upper levels think in good faith that they must change things for those for whom they are responsible, but that at their own level everything is working well. So the different programs aiming at healthier and more respectful behaviors only affect the few strata where people don’t have enough power to say no and pass the monkey to the level below… because below them there is not much left.

This is all the more problematic because while my example of digital transformation might suggest that the solution is to attack both from below and from above, when it comes to behavior, we have never seen a toxic, discriminatory or other culture born on the ground. It is born at the top and spreads downwards because the top is legitimate and exemplary. I am not talking about “at the very top” (even if sometimes…) but about a level that is high enough to break certain rules without being reproached or even noticed.

But in the same way, according to my theory of the “oxygen mask”, one cannot want to cure a business as long as one does not realize that one is more or less part of the evil. Because most of the time, the main people in charge don’t “realize”, in good faith.

The paradox of managerial (in)action

Through two examples, but there are many, we have seen how important it is for the management line to be able to get involved, to propose solutions, to go back down to the field to solve problems.

On the other hand, there are many cases where the field complains about its excessive interventionism in daily life and would like, on the contrary, to be recognized for its ability to solve its problems, to propose solutions and to admit that on certain subjects it knows better than anyone else what is good for it. This is a subject that can be linked to everything related to micro management.

How can we explain the fact that managers are interventionist where subsidiarity should apply and that they leave teams to their own devices where we should be involved? A culture that values a certain managerial posture that is more oriented towards technicality and the operational than towards creating a context that allows others to succeed ? There must be some of that.

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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