Gold Fish Bowl Management

Sep. 14, 2012



            Thirty years ago when I was actively making my "Wardism" entries I proposed the following concept of personnel management.  One of my professors wanted me to expand the idea and write a "how to" book.  I never pursued this but have always kept the concept in mind. I'll now share it with you for consideration.


            The basic framework is that of looking at your organization as though it were a "goldfish bowl" whenever you have personnel decisions to make.  One of the hardest decisions a manager has to make is that which arises when a subordinate manager must be replaced. This could be either because of forcible removal, transfer, or voluntary separation. 


            Once the decision is made many managers consider their obligation to be met.  I propose that the success or failure of that choice is the direct responsibility of the supervising manager.  Consider this, if the manager chosen was your first choice to fill the position then why should they fail.  It is either that you are incompetent in the area of personnel selection or that some external influence affected the ability of the new manager to be effective. This leads us to the "goldfish bowl". As we observe the "goldfish bowl" let us remember that we have one huge advantage over the Ichthyologists in that our subjects can converse with us and assist in forming strategies for survival.  While that is an advantage it can also be a disadvantage if we forget that the Ichthyologist performed his/her actions with a distinct purpose of facilitating the changes.


            There are three specific strategies that are used when introducing a new member to a "goldfish bowl" to ensure survival. These may be used separately or at some times incorporated in tandem. In either case they can be adapted to the introduction of a new manager within the organization.


            The conscientious "goldfish bowl" owner recognizes that any new member added to the community will most assuredly be attacked by the community members.  This is not surprising when each fish has fought for or accepted their position in the organizational hierarchy.  Our focus should be on how to most effectively introduce the new manager and allow that individual sufficient time to establish him/herself within the community.


            First: The first method is often used with less aggressive species and is most applicable in organizations where there is less individual competition and more individualized effort. An examples might be education. In these cases it is often sufficient to place the fish in the tank in a position where they are within the community but isolated from direct attack.  This is accomplished, in the tank, by placing them in a screened cage, in this way they are seen, examined, and accepted without direct contact.  In a management situation we might have the individual introduced as an apprentice, manager in training, etc. This allows them to form relationships that will support them when we make the ultimate assignment.


            Second: The second method is often effective when replacing a manager in an organization with long established procedures and more established culture.  In the "goldfish bowl" we would "disturb" the environment.  By moving plants, objects, etc. we would destroy the individual boundaries formed by the current community members and force them to reestablish their territories.  This will distract them from the new member and allow them to find their place in the hierarchy.  In management we might take similar actions. In an office where the self-appointed gate keeper has their desk at the door and the other desks are assigned by perceived "rank" we might reorganize the office layout.  This will force the individual workers to reorganize their procedures and methods while the new manager gets his/her feet on the ground. I once was assigned to "clean up" a maintenance shop that had (on paper) some of the best mechanics yet was exhibiting horrible performance.  I visited the organization as a casual visitor on a Friday and watched as the workers delivered their paperwork to one individual sitting behind a huge mahogany desk that had been built to look "over" the shop area.  It was like watching the Egyptian slaves approach the Pharaoh. No one knew I was to take charge on the following Monday. When they showed up for work on Monday they walked into a shop where every tool box, desk, and trash can had been moved and the Mahogany desk was in splinters.  Was I hated, by some, but they were so busy getting reorganized that I had time to observe them and they had to come to me to get approval for whatever they wanted to do.  The previous department head was removed immediately and told not to come back to visit. You must understand that I was working with very strong willed Marines and while drastic, this worked.  Hopefully nothing this drastic will usually be required.


            Third: The third method used is when there appears to be sufficient room in the "goldfish bowl" to accommodate a new member with minimum interference on the territorial rights of the individuals. This is often effective in cases where the community members know and understand that a change must be made.  This won't prevent them from rebelling and in many cases making success almost impossible but it does open a different avenue of approach.  In this case we introduce two  new members at the same time.  This forces the community to deal with and confront two new members and dilutes their attention. (We often see this in cases such as the Pres/VP where one takes the focus off of the other) When this method is used it is often useful to discuss with the new assignees what is expected of each.  While the organization is trying to adjust to two separate personalities the managers can begin marking their own territories and establishing their own procedures.


            Well, that is the essence of "goldfish bowl management".  I must warn anyone considering this that even when these methods are implemented the supervising manager still has a responsibility for the success of his/her assignee.  There is a method that will make this responsibility a little easier also.  Often, when I assign a new subordinate manager I immediately place an almost impossible work commitment upon that department. Let us understand that almost all workers want to be seen as successful and efficient.  By placing this burden on the department I was putting the workers in a position where they had to depend on the new manager to be successful as a unit. In any case I had to commit myself to a focus on ensuring these new assignees were successful.


            Nothing, is more despicable than a supervising manager who evaluates his/her subordinates, chooses one for promotion, assigns them, and then abandons them to their own devices. These individuals will point to the ones that succeeded and brag but never realize that many of those who didn't succeed were their choices, were amply qualified, but received none of the support they needed to succeed.