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Sometimes It Takes a Tyrant to Support Collaboration

April 2, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Sometimes a manager needs to be a tyrant.

On rare occasions, anything less is a disservice to one’s organization and an abdication of responsibility. Even the most open, consensus-oriented manager needs to be prepared to use dictatorial powers now and then.

Those of you who are regular readers of this column are already familiar with my biases. My philosophy tends to fall toward the collaborative end of the managerial approach spectrum, where the other end of the scale is authoritarian. Knowledge work requires the free flow of information, ideas and, yes, knowledge.

But on some things, I think that a collaborative approach is neither desirable nor appropriate.

Most of you are probably thinking about crisis situations as examples: emergencies during which a coolheaded dictator can marshal the efforts of the masses to save the world. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I tend to think that most crises can be managed collaboratively, although certainly in a more directed and tightly coordinated manner than daily operations typically require.

In which discipline is your IT group performing best?
chart chart
How are you fostering innovation within IT?
(Multiple responses allowed.)
Outsourcing routine tasks
IT staff sits with business
Dedicated pilot project group
Training in new technologies

Source: Computerworld Internet Poll of 139 IT leaders, January and February 2007

Instead, I think that an appropriate use of dictatorial power is to defend and maintain a collaborative culture — paradoxical but true. Open and collaborative organizations can be relatively delicate. They are especially fragile when they are new or represent an island of trust in a sea of hierarchy. And they can be destroyed by a handful of people — or even just one — who won’t participate. Mutual trust can be violated in an instant and may be nearly impossible to restore.

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