When Leaders Fail to Lead – The Rise of Surrogate Management

As a young researcher in the South African gold mining industry in the 1980s, I was often shocked by the degree to which line management seemed to be incapable of understanding this simple concept: That the employee discontent and conflict that they experienced at work was the direct product of how they personally treated the people that they managed.

When Leaders Don’t Lead, Surrogate Management Takes Over

Because these managers very often had an engineering background it was as if they understood their organisation by using a machine metaphor. They seemed to think of an organisation like a machine, and if a particular component was broken then one needed to employ the services of a specialist mechanic to fix the problem. If for example it was the ‘Human Resource’ component that had broken down then they needed to employ a specialist technician, in this case a ‘Human Resource Specialist’ to fix the problem.

Surrogate Management – How Leaders Are Disabled

The sad reality of this kind of intervention is that it only has one outcome. Rather than addressing the source of employee discontent, it entrenches it. An investigation into trust in management on a range of mines in the gold mining industry at the time showed that there was an inverse relationship between the degree of trust invested in management and the degree of sophistication of the HR Function. In summary, the more sophisticated the HR function in a mine became, the less employees trusted management.

The reason for this trend was that it was clear that employees wanted their immediate supervisors to have both the responsibility and the authority to address their concerns and would only see the authority of their immediate superiors as legitimate if this was in fact the case.

If the task of looking after their concerns was delegated to a third person, it highlighted to them that their bosses didn’t really care about them and were therefore not trustworthy. We came to call this phenomenon ‘Surrogate Management’.

Surrogate Management is understood as the employment of a stand in or proxy function to look after the human problem so that enterprise leadership at every level is free to pursue the business of maximising profits. Over the years this initial understanding has only ever been vindicated. The biggest threat to employee engagement and industrial peace is the employment of surrogates to deal with the problem of employee discontent.

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