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Wednesday, 01 September 2010 04:32

Why should the manager not be two strata more capable than the subordinate?

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In my previous blog, I used a scientific/engineering approach to address the question of why an employee’s manager should have greater cognitive capacity than the employee.  (I fully recommend Harald Solaas’s further posted comments on the topic.)  In this blog, I’d like to complete the analysis and show why the manager should not be too much more capable than the subordinate.  Specifically, why is it optimal for the manager’s capacity to be just one stratum higher?  I will then use this as a case study to address Nicolay Worren’s posted concern about “the specific scientific studies that support the various hypotheses of RO theory”.

As before, I will use a scientific/engineering approach, using Jaques’s characterization of engineering as “an art grounded in a science”.  “Place the manager one stratum above the subordinate” is an engineering template.  The scientific grounding comprises the laws of cause and effect that justify it.

So let’s explore this question in the context of a Stratum-I-capable employee and see the difference it makes whether their manager is capable at Stratum II or III.

Why should we not allow gaps?


As I noted in my previous blog, because they have current potential capacity at Stratum I, the employee is capable only of declarative processing at the normal adult level. That is:

  • they can declare one factor to justify a conclusion:  “I believe he’s guilty because he has used this mode of operation before.”
  • they can use one method to solve a problem: making a sale by building rapport with a prospect, or by helping the prospect understand the importance of a problem or opportunity they have, or by demonstrating their ability to solve such problems.
  • they can serve one purpose at a time.  They can provide efficient service or friendly service but not efficient and friendly service.


As previously noted, if the manager’s current potential capacity is at Stratum II, they would also be capable of cumulative processing at the normal adult level.  That is:

  • they can accumulate a number of factors to justify a conclusion:  “I believe he’s guilty because he has used this mode of operation before and he had a motive for doing it and he had the opportunity.”
  • they can combine a number of methods to solve a problem: making a sale by building rapport with a prospect and helping the prospect understand the importance of a problem or opportunity they have, and by demonstrating their ability to solve such problems.
  • they can serve more than one purpose at a time.  They can provide efficient and friendly service.


The manager’s greater capacity gives them a higher perspective on the employee’s abilities and ways of solving problems thus enabling better coaching.

But if the manager is capable at Stratum III, they are also capable of serial processing, of getting to Step C by taking Step A that leads to B that leads to C.

  • They can diagnose a problem by determining its antecedent's antecedents.  “Let’s see why the consultant didn’t close the sale they were attempting.  The consultant took all of the right steps:  built rapport, established a need for service and described their ability to help.  But when they built rapport, they strove too hard to make themselves non-threatening and they over-emphasized their similarities to the prospect.  As a result, when the consultant explored the need for service, the prospect didn’t notice the value that the consultant added to the exploration; the consultant came off as just one more participant in the discussion.  So the consultant lacked credibility when building the case for their own expertise.”  The Stratum-III-capable manager can identify relevant factors further back in the causal chain..
  • They can create conditions for success for later steps.  At Stratum II, one can make a sale by building rapport with a prospect and helping the prospect understand the importance of a problem or opportunity they have, and by demonstrating their ability to solve such problems; cumulative processing allows the Stratum-II-capable employee to take all of the steps so they are compatible with each other.  But at Stratum III, one can go further by making a sale by building rapport with a prospect in a way that helps the prospect understand the importance of a problem or opportunity they have in a way that helps demonstrate the salesperson’s ability to solve such problems.


This excess capacity serves the manager well in their own role, but it tends to hinder their managerial work in three ways:

  1. The Stratum-III-capable manager will naturally give explanations through serial processing.  A Stratum-I-capable employee takes one action at a time.  They will do A.  Then they will do B.  Then they will do C.  They can follow a Stratum-II-capable manager’s direction to “Do A and B and C”.  They may not be able to figure by themselves how to make those steps compatible, but they can understand why the manager’s recommendation works.  However, advice given through serial processing will be lost on them.  “Do A that leads to B that leads to C” is too much to handle when “Do A and B and C” is already a stretch.  The Stratum-III-capable manager must work at an unnaturally low level to coach or give instructions to a Stratum-I-capable subordinate.  In fact, managers in such situations often find it easier to take on a task themselves than it is to explain to the subordinate how they want it done.
  2. Most Stratum-III-capable managers will not naturally focus on work at Stratum I.  The manager would, in their own career, have focused on each step in a process years earlier.  They are not likely to be interested in coaching a Stratum-I-capable subordinate on Stratum-I work.
  3. The Stratum-III-capable manager will need to do any work at Stratum II required because this cannot be delegated to the Stratum-I-capable subordinate.  This is not a good use of the manager’s capability and is also not likely to be of interest to the manager.


In short, such a gap between manager and subordinate has a tendency to lead to:

  • inefficiency, as poor explanations result in work that must be redone and managers use their capability on tasks that do not require it and,
  • mistrust as the manager becomes frustrated by the subordinate’s relatively low capacity.


What is the quality of the evidence?

Nicolay Worren’s post raises two issues.

The first is that “it is quite common today to find organizations where the manager has a cognitive capacity below his/her subordinates. I agree it is not ideal, and probably is even dysfunctional in some cases, yet some of these organisations are highly successful despite this dysfunction. How would you explain that?”  Most of the engineering templates in RO specify what is optimal, not what is necessary.  So working outside of those templates does not predict total organizational failure but rather a suboptimal combination of effectiveness (reaching strategic targets), efficiency and trust.  I expect this is true of engineering templates in many fields.  The typical result of a car’s not being tuned up to specifications is that the car runs inefficiently or does not reach top acceleration, not that it won’t run at all. 

In some cases, a Stratum-III-capable manager may be skilled and personally motivated to explain things in a way that work for a Stratum-I-capable subordinate.  But even a dysfunctional III-I relationship need not be fatal to the company.  A company in the right business at the right time can do very well even if it is poorly structured, staffed and managed.  (As a client in the financial sector said to me about the good times, just as they ended in fall 2008, “In a hurricane, even a turkey can fly.”)  And a company with a good strategy will beat its competitors if they are no better managed and have weaker strategies.

Worren’s second issue was in regard to scientific evidence.  He said that he feels “the reader should be informed about the specific scientific studies that support the various hypotheses of RO theory. If one tried to search for the ‘science behind the rule’, as you said, I think one would find that some of the RO hypotheses are strongly supported, others partially supported and that yet others lack any empirical support at all.”

In the case of the template discussed here, the scientific research might be conducted in an experiment in which work is given to pairs of people:

  • in some pairs, one person is capable at Str III and one at Str I
  • and in other pairs, one person is capable at Str II and one at Str I.

The tasks might be set up to simulate manager-subordinate relationships and the object would be to see how the dynamics differ.

I am not aware of any such research so I asked Ken Craddock.  He replied that he expects that such “experiments have been done within firms - but the results are proprietary”.  He suggested that the US Army has conducted such research, but I have not personally tracked it down.

In my case personally, while I have been recommending this template to clients for over 15 years, it is not because of any scientific evidence I have been aware of.  To me, this illustrates the point that scientific grounding is an aspiration for RO, not a fully-accomplished mission.  The difference between RO and most other approaches is not that we have, in fact, given a scientific grounding for all of our templates but that we value such grounding.  It is not enough for us to say that companies are more successful when they place managers one stratum above their subordinates; we seek to find the underlying science.  I find it understandable that we have not yet been able to do the scientific research to substantiate our hypotheses regarding why our templates are effective.  Perhaps we can do a better job of a) explicitly linking templates, when we recommend them, to research that has been done and b) clearly stating when we are not aware of any such research but are basing our recommendation on our own experience.

Read 77628 times Last modified on Tuesday, 05 October 2010 14:34

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