Why Managers Hesitate To Bring People Together

Why Managers Hesitate To Bring People Together

11.10.14Ron Ashkenas

For many managers, the perception that convening people outside of their hierarchy is risky and difficult. As a result, many managers unconsciously avoid taking this step

Out of the many ways that managers get things done, one of the most underused is what I call “convening authority”: the ability to bring people together to share information, build alignment, or solve problems. To explain, let me share a quick example, in two acts:

In Act One, the manager of a corporate engineering group was tasked with reducing the cost of common materials used by a number of different product teams. To address the issue, she met with fellow engineers in each of the teams to understand their processes and how they utilized the materials. She also met with people from procurement and others in the supply chain organization to pull together a consolidated picture of the costs. Armed with this information, she then held one-on-one sessions with product-team managers to give them customized recommendations for reducing material usage and costs. Each meeting was cordial and the managers seemed to appreciate the input. Over the next few months, however, only a few of the recommendations were implemented, and there was little overall impact on material costs.

Now comes Act Two: Frustrated with the lack of progress, the manager decided to organize a working session for all of the product managers and their engineers, along with people from supply chain and finance. Although scheduling was a challenge, much to her surprise everyone invited agreed to attend. At the session, she shared the overall product cost data and the business requirement to make a substantial reduction. She then broke the group into cross-product and cross-functional teams to review the earlier recommendations, and lay out what it would take to make them happen. Within a couple of hours, the small groups had identified a number of common barriers to implementation, such as customer acceptance testing, renegotiating with suppliers, recalibrating equipment, and others. Working together, the group then developed a work plan for addressing these problems, eventually leading to a substantial reduction in material costs.

The question raised by this case of course is why our manager didn’t start by convening all of the interested stakeholders in the first place. The easy answer perhaps is that she didn’t think of it, or didn’t realize that she had the authority. But the deeper reason, which is true for many managers, is the perception that convening people outside of your own hierarchy is risky and difficult. As a result, many managers in matrix organizations unconsciously avoid taking this step.

The funny thing about this anxiety is that most managers don’t hesitate at all to call meetings for their own direct staff and those who report to them. But bringing together subject matter experts, decision makers, and stakeholders from areas that don’t report to you is much tougher: You have to make sure the issue is weighty enough to warrant people’s time; you have to think through the potential participants, the sensitivities of leaving certain people out, and who gets along with whom; you have to collect data and materials so that the meeting will be productive; and you have to prepare an agenda that is compelling and has a high likelihood of leading to success. These factors alone can cause managers to hesitate.

Added to the difficulty of organizing the meeting is the fear that key participants will refuse to attend. We all know that people are busy enough doing their own jobs, so asking them to join in on something that is beyond the normal might easily be seen as an imposition. So rather than get turned down, it’s easier to not call the meeting in the first place.

Finally, calling a meeting with multiple parties from across the organization also requires tremendous facilitation skill. Getting everyone together is hard enough, but making sure that the meeting is productive, that all parties are heard, and that real solutions emerge is daunting. And the truth is that many managers are not skilled at group facilitation. So for those managers, like the one in our case, it’s easier to deal with everyone individually than try to tackle them as a group.

Given all of these fears and uncertainties, it’s no wonder that many managers hesitate to utilize their convening authority. Unfortunately, bringing the right people together from across the organization (and even including suppliers and customers) is often the best way to get things done quickly, particularly in a matrix setting. So if you want to step up to more effective leadership, you may need to conquer your fears and give convening a try.

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