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Hawk Method of Management

Let’s face it. You cannot truly measure employee output, once you are managing people who are not producing or processing widgets per hour – people we call, erroneously, “knowledge workers.” People who are useful and productive because of the relationships they maintain, the external sources they consult to solve problems, and the imagination they bring to the workplace. What measure informs us regarding the appropriate number of relationships, how many external sources they should monitor (how many subscriptions or journals do you provide for them?), and how many hours they should spend free-associating, daydreaming, or otherwise ‘bring creative?’

An extreme focus on process metrics will lead to such things. Since you are hard-pressed to measure outcomes, (and if outcomes occur it is difficult to measure your product/service’s role in the outcome), it becomes easier to ruthlessly measure compliance with desired processes. You read up on what works after attending a leadership conference, then enforce compliance with the steps that ‘get us there.’ If management is about herding employees to compliance, how else do you measure the manager’s worth?

Admit it: If you could, you would hold your employee’s hands, stand over his shoulder, and direct every keystroke. Only then could you be assured the employee’s time was being spent productively.

Yesterday, I watched as a hawk floated on a thermal updraft, expending very little effort as he surveyed his domain below. I marveled at how he was able to float above the high pines, yet maintain an awareness of movement below, sufficient to suit his needs. A short while later, frankly after I had much forgotten the hawk above, I heard a small bird chirping. I don’t speak bird, but this didn’t sound like a song I’d heard before. It was a high, insistent, repeated bark. I looked up to see the hawk, no longer circling effortlessly, but flying figure eight’s in the sky, its legs out straight below it. With its claws wrapped tightly around a small chirping bird.

This went on for some time. The small bird was still technically in flight, and still able to sing its song, although I suspect the lyrics conveyed a new urgency. The small bird was flying higher, likely, than it ever intended, surpassing its parents and peers. Yet, the scene was not about making the bird more efficient, except as food.

Over coffee this morning, I imagined the metaphor which is now obvious – and which may not be working for the reader, to be honest. Controlling the bird’s every movement was critical to the performance metric for the hawk – but only because the bird was not meant to produce anything more than its corpse. Awareness of the complex environment below was made near effortless by harnessing a peculiarity of the environment – thermal updrafts. The hawk adapted its wingspread and became more glider than flier. Deciding to engage in a one-on-one with the small bird cost the hawk, although not as much as it cost the small bird. Engagement with a single actor in the environment expended much more energy, and – not to be lost – denied the hawk any further input regarding the rest of the environment for the last minutes of the small bird’s life.

The metaphor works for me, to a degree. I find myself engaging in repetitive conversations with those who cannot consider any method of management that diverges from predictive control mechanisms. For some, loyalty to hierarchy seems preferred to experimentation or dissent. A leader’s network and practices optimized for a previous work assignment are applied without modification to new positions and teams. It is useful to consider the agendas at work in most conversations – but especially when people insist on compliance to process at the expense of outcome.

That last sentence seems evident to the worker, and represents much water-cooler (a.k.a. Twitter) talk. The chirping on Twitter (and the metaphor takes an unfortunate turn) regarding leadership or management practices often sounds as if people are flying figure eights in the sky – much against their will, and towards an uncertain end.

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Great post! You bring up an interesting paradox here. If a manager is spending all of his or her time making sure the employee is productive, what about the manager’s time? Should he or she have a manager standing over him or her to make sure his or her efforts are productive? You quickly end up with an infinite regress of managers watching each other and thus no one is being productive except for the poor employee at the bottom of the chain.

According to Gilbert W. Fairholm (The Techniques of Inner Leadership: Making Inner Leadership Work) managers are most productive when they establish the environment for success with their employees. That means building trust and creating networks of employees who enroll into the organizational vision. These employees become self-motivated and then the purpose of the middle manager is to get out of the way and let the employees work.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Metaphor is such a great way of exploring situations with fresh eyes. Thanks for the hawk metaphor as well as the real image to stimulate our thinking, John.

Don’t many managers operate like a hawk – circling high above and engaging the employee only when it’s time to strike the moment the underling has a slight lapse in judgement or awareness? The prey never really know what’s coming until it’s too late…and if they survive the attack (which they never really do, eh?), they are now much more prone to keep their eyes to the sky…tentatively performing even their most basic survival activities, much less finding their full-throated warble.

Matthew Goolsby

Very good food for thought John! I think you’ve touched on the difficult dynamic of balance. How do we allow and empower people to be creative and to do their jobs to the best of their ability, but yet also to get some sort of measurable result. It is an ever-changing dynamic and not one easily done without practice.

Our human tendencies are really to control, but as a hawk surveys the landscape, I think we must look toward a higher goal: To help and serve.

tony joyce

I am inclined to agree with Andrew’s sentiments, as I have observed far too often the aloof manager emerging from his (and her) walled office to publicly pounce on some employee who has made a questionable judgement call. I’ve occasionally suffered from such a public attack, as well as the dreaded call to the private sanctum for the more scathing dressing down. It only takes a couple of these attacks to send the little birds into a defensive posture and a frenzy of chirping at every shadow that they see.

I wonder if something like this could be the Twitter chirping that you hear?

Dannielle Blumenthal

I agree with your major point although I am completely lost with the metaphor part (sorry maybe I am a little dense…I got lost with the Twitter being killed by the hawk who was doing a figure-eight).

Anyway I think the point you make about being stuck in old fashioned ways of measuring effectiveness is right on. The question is – don’t we all already agree on that? I mean is there anybody really running around out there making the case that we should view people like machines when it comes to how productive they are?

If common sense tells us to start measuring productivity in new ways, but we don’t, then something is holding us back. The question is – what? My feeling is that people are very invested in the old way for a lot of reasons – survival among them. They ask themselves, if I am going to be measured the new way, will I be able to compete? After all, metrics like how many hours you were there; how many reports you generated; how long the reports were; how many projects you LAUNCHED (not saw through); etc. – all of those things are easy. But metrics that show results achieved – stovepipes broken through – innovations implemented – money saved – and unfortunately yes, even unnecessary staff eliminated – those are very very difficult, for obvious reasons.

What are we really committed to doing? That’s the ultimate question. Once we know that, and can be upfront about it, then we can measure our success.

Gary Berg-Cross

I have mixed feeling about the metaphor too. Perhaps it is trying to cover too much, but I can appreciate the aspect of an implied wholistic appreciation for what a hawk can perform appart from any performance management system of small features.

We may often just measure what is easier to see that what an underlying system of abilties is. So take a deeper look.

But when we look at a natural creature’s abilities “controlling the bird’s every movement…awareness of the complex environment below was made near effortless …The hawk adapted its wingspread and became more glider than flier. ” – we are appreciating an adaptation over long time through evolution and the hawk’s life mastering those skills.

Our organizations are not the same type of naturally evolved thing, but “we” are trying to play a selection game in improving performance. A hawk has a certain cognitive system adapted for a certain environment and it all plays out naturally. Our selections are not so obviously based on the right factors since there is not natural world that selects.

John Bordeaux

As I indicated, I wasn’t thoroughly satisfied with the metaphor either. Given the conversation below, I should use troublesome metaphors more often!

I think my reading time today will be spent reviewing a few resources to understand better why we are intrigued by partial metaphors…

Deacon, T. W. (1997). The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York, NY: Basic Books, Perseus Books Group.