Putting an end to Lone Ranger office tactics

The last time you had a hand in solving a crisis at your office, whom did you emulate - the Lone Ranger, or a basketball coach? Most managers, say business professors David L. Bradford and Allan R. Cohen, charge in like the Lone Ranger, saving the townspeople in the nick of time and leaving them with just as few resources to solve their own problems the next time trouble brews.

''When again faced with a major crisis,'' they write in ''Managing for Excellence: The Guide to Developing High Performance in Contemporary Organizations'' (John Wiley & Sons, $18.95), ''they'll just have to hope for a return of the thundering hoofbeats and another last-minute rescue by the daring hero.''

Better to be a ''very demanding but supporting and inspirational athletic coach,'' said Professor Bradford in a recent telephone interview, ''who works hard to bring his team along, insists on high standards and rigorous effort, but passes on all knowledge that will help the athletes grow.''

The amount anyone can accomplish on a job, business experts have long noted, is directly proportional to the amount of work delegated to others. Yet how many of us cling to details, believing that the job will only be well done if we, personally, do it?

''If your subordinates are complaining that you control too much, if you find yourself doing things others should be doing, if the responsibility for maintaining quality is shifting upwards into your lap,'' says Professor Bradford , ''then you're overcontrolling.''

Noting such axioms as ''You don't turn the institution over to the inmates,'' Professors Bradford and Cohen think that most managers in our ''post-heroic'' age are still in the grips of the manager-as-hero ideal, oscillating between trying to have total control and giving up all control to their subordinates - and then complaining when they mishandle it.

But a well-developed organization, they say, will have control built into the system. They theorize that managers should organize their subordinates into working teams that attack problems. The manager's role is to supervise the attack, ''making sure everyone's voice is heard, that everyone fights fair, and that everyone has access to all the information they need to come up with a good solution.''

Giving the teams really tough problems to solve, they suggest, will ''bring everyone out of the woodwork'' and allow talent to surface. The manager's job in this teamwork is not to surrender all control, but to facilitate that surfacing of talent - protecting, instructing, prodding, and enhancing the team members.

Occasionally, say the authors, the manager will want to break in and let the group know how its teamwork is going. If a team member is being particularly uncooperative, the manager will want to take him aside and suggest ways he can develop his teamwork better.

But once the team is going strong, it should be self-policing, ''so you won't have to lecture Charlie about meeting deadlines - his peers will do it for you, '' the authors write.

Also, they believe, the manager should be helping his subordinates to develop individually, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, building skills, and giving the subordinate, as much as possible, a chance to get what he wants out of the job.

''High-performance bosses regularly promote their best people,'' they say. ''For one thing, it helps them develop the reputation as a good manager, so they attract good people. And when people's aspirations are being met, they're more productive,'' the authors point out.

''Managers manage people, not tasks,'' they explain. But even task-managers may tend to overcontrol.

Anne Montgomery, author of ''The Secretary's Administrative Handbook'' (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95), points to the secretary who calls around for samples of stationery instead of letting the purchasing department do it, or refuses to delegate certain typing responsibilities because the other typist doesn't use exactly her style. These activities pin you to the picayune, she points out, and keep you from focusing on your larger responsibilities and goals.

Such focusing on what Professor Bradford calls the ''overarching goal or tangible vision'' can boost productivity, he believes. ''How is what your department does important?'' he asks. ''How does it change lives?''

Identifying this goal - and generating excitement about it - at the department level shows the worth behind the work, the authors say, and helps the subordinates focus on more than just ''doing the job. If your goal is to be responsive to customers, for example, then when 5 o'clock comes and you need to get something to a customer by the next day, there's no question of going out the door without finishing the work. The mission is its own impetus,'' they say. ''The control system is built into the goal.''

Some of these techniques, if misapplied, can become ''mutual con games,'' the authors admit. Take the situation where the boss calls a team meeting and asks them to solve a tough problem: ''Then everyone sits around trying to figure out what the boss wants them to say.''

Instead, managers should rely on the subordinates to wrangle through the possible solutions. ''In today's market, most subordinates have information that the boss doesn't have -- you know, Do you want to talk to the boss, or do you want to talk to the guy who really knows what's going on?A high-performance boss is going to capatalize on that information by building up a system of trust in the team,'' says Professor Bradford.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.