The Guardian’s 1986 advert still educates

A while ago, I was part of a leadership team and we had some performance concerns about our management team. The ‘middle management’ layer were perceived as “stargazing” and “unaccountable”, seemingly waiting for someone to tell them the answers, and just “weren’t getting it”.

Just from that paragraph, you may already have a hunch about what was going on, and no doubt everyone involved had their opinion and an intervention they favoured at the time – some may have been valuable. Unfortunately, in most cases, our narrowness of perception means that we’re not aware of what’s really happening, and that’s the point I want to pick up in this article.

Please note that for simplicity I refer to a leadership team and a management team. This is a generalisation to help see both groups in this article

First, let’s look at the groups involved.

For the leadership team, imagine a typical group of leaders as you might in any business. Capable, responsible and driven to produce results for the team, shareholders and the organisation at large. As is common, their view of the world was one based on a balance between ambition and the realities of events happening week-to-week. When things went badly, there was a clear ownership and resolve to act, and when things went well, there was celebration and then moves to aim higher.

Every single one of those leaders were immersed in how the organisation was performing. They collectively held many thousands of hours’ experience with customers, suppliers, teams and shareholders, and believed – as you might – they had a finger on the pulse.

Yet despite this capability and genuine drive, they were frustrated by others not behaving in a similar way. Management teams didn’t seem to make the right decisions, delayed acting or completed tasks to a minimum, no added-value level. Individuals shone, but overall the frustration was generalised as ‘Why won’t they take accountability?’

Leaders: “Why won’t they take accountability?”

For the management team, imagine a group of managers as you might in any business.  Capable, professional and well respected, wanting to deliver the best results for their teams and the organisation.  Certainly, none of them were ever hired to simply occupy a seat, and a number had been promoted during their tenure.

Their view of the world was one predominantly guided by current events (operational targets, delivery dates, incidents, team challenges etc.) and associated rectifying action, while alongside all had agreed objectives or goals to grow their teams and increase results.

Like the leadership team, they were immersed in data about progress and performance, held thousands of hours’ experience with customers, suppliers and teams, and likewise believed they had a finger on the pulse.

The view looking ‘out’ had two main themes at play:

Theme 1:  We need more information!

Managers who were frustrated by a lack of data, context and associated freedom to make decisions.  They were respectful of the hierarchy in the organisation and didn’t want to act out of alignment (with its potential ramifications), so maintained a stable, conservative approach to their work and aims while requesting further instruction.  Inaction was explained by not wanting to do the wrong thing, and if you hadn’t already concluded for the leadership team this was the source of the ‘stargazing’ label. 

Managers: “When are they going to tell us what’s happening?”

Theme 2:  Leave us alone!

Managers who were frustrated by the interference from the leadership team and other managers.  They considered that they had a clear view of the necessary outcomes from their teams and wanted to deliver and deliver well without distraction.  Where information or context might have been missing, they favoured action over sending queries up the line (apologise for what you have done, rather than haven’t etc).  This meant that sometimes assumptions led these managers to deliver the wrong thing or make a poor contextual decision.

Managers: “Why won’t they all just leave us alone?”

And so that brings me to The Guardian advert.  The advert from 1986 stages a situation where you, the viewer, are challenged as to your reading and perception of a situation. Here’s the video:

First, we see a man dressed in leather jacket, camo trousers and boots running down a street, apparently fleeing from a car that’s just pulled up.

We then see the scene from a different angle, with the man running up to a smart businessman and then roughly grabbing his briefcase.

Finally, the angle changes and we see the scene again, although this time it reveals that the man was all along running to save the businessman by pushing him out of the way of some falling bricks.

In the words of The Guardian, “it’s only when you get the whole picture you can fully understand what’s going on.” And there’s a contemporary point in that to our leadership team, or stargazers, navel-gazers or otherwise:  we assume our view of the world is broad and encompassing and make conclusions based on it.  That’s a very natural, human and understandable thing to do, however unfortunately our conclusions may therefore be false.

Indeed, if we can draw so many conclusions in such a short space of time with this simple advert, its unsurprising that the perceptions of the leadership or management teams were misaligned. 

  • Did the leadership team intentionally and malignly holding back data to wield power? 
  • Did the managers set out to avoid taking accountability in decisions?
  • Did the other managers go ‘rogue’ for some egocentric reason? 

It’s all unlikely at best, and the embarrassing truth was more simply that people just weren’t talking or listening.

So what to do.  If you’re faced with a similar situation, get listening as quickly as possible; we need to be regularly probing, learning and testing our assumptions.  As Stephen Covey would say, “To be understood, seek first to understand” and it very much applies.  Here are some questions you might ask to get you started:

  1. What are you working towards?
  2. What else are you working on?
  3. What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?
  4. If there was just one thing you could stop doing, what would that be?
  5. Why do you do what you do?
  6. How can I help you achieve those goals?

From this foothold, you can ask more questions and build on your knowledge.  Typically by asking these questions you’ll prompt the other person to be curious and ask similar questions.  Don’t give up if they don’t ask – keep the conversation going and help to remove those insidious assumptions that are holding you all back.

Now we’re talking.

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