Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Human Shield

I winced when reading Robert Sutton’s recent piece on bosses as human shields.  I’ve seen it done and done it myself, and based on both, he’s underestimating the costs of that strategy.  And he leaves out a key trait of the best shields.

The core idea is simple enough; managers who want creative employees to do their best work have to shield those employees from undue or distracting interference.  Sutton outlines a number of strategies by which various managers have done that, focusing on the benefit to the employees who are shielded.  And he’s right, as far as he goes; sometimes, that’s exactly the right strategy.  Observing academic freedom, for instance, allows faculty to experiment with their teaching and to follow lines of inquiry wherever they happen to lead, and thereby allows them to do their best work.  Tying them to an orthodoxy can force them to squeeze round ideas into square holes.  A good academic administrator knows that intuitively, and protects faculty from the kinds of interference that seem to be becoming more popular.

But the human shield strategy has a couple of really basic limits that Sutton didn’t address.

First, it assumes that there are relatively clear good guys and bad guys.  When that’s true, then the job of protecting the good guys is straightforward enough.  But what if the lines aren’t clear?  Sometimes managers have to save creative types from themselves; in that scenario, the good guy and the bad guy are the same person.  At least as often, the good guys are set against each other, and it’s not necessarily clear that one side is entirely right.  

Second, depending on circumstances, it can amount to enabling.  If, say, an experienced chief of staff keeps an addled president in office longer by buffering the more embarrassing failures, then the institution is stuck with an addled president for longer than it could be.  What looks like shielding in the short term can amount to procrastination in the long term.  Sometimes it’s better to rip off the band-aid.  Admittedly, though, this is sometimes clear only in retrospect.  As a former professor of mine once put it, the problem with “to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs” is that sometimes you just wind up with a bunch of broken eggs.

Most basically, though, the human shield strategy can exact a terrible toll on the person acting as the shield.  It can work for a little while, but if the pressures are unrelenting or increasing over time, then the adult in the room winds up taking a beating.  Other people notice, and the atmosphere can get negatively charged.  Eventually, either the shield breaks, or it leaves.  Leaving exposes what had been hidden, and breaking is not pretty.

Still, the undeniable kernel of truth in Sutton’s piece is that managing creative people requires patience, and the ability to play the long game.  That means not getting too worked up about the distraction of the day, even if it’s coming from within.  The self-control to refrain from shooting the messenger can be taxing, and some will interpret it as weakness, but it wears well over time.  Sometimes the shielding is internal, protecting others from your own emotional responses.  I think of that as etiquette.

More than once in my career, I’ve been present when a human shield moved on.  It can be a little disorienting.  The best human shields are transparent; they protect without hiding.  Because sooner or later, the shield will break, or leave, or fail.  When that happens, those who have enjoyed the protection may be in for a rough surprise.  Better they know what’s going on, and maybe even think about it a little, then construct a fool’s paradise that’s unknowingly dependent on something impermanent.