I made my way
to the first floor
for a huddle
One of the most popular techniques in the deranged repertoire of management gurus is the 'huddle'. I first became aware of this practice when I heard an announcement over the public address system in a department store: 'There will be a management huddle on the first floor in five minutes'. I made my way to the first floor hoping to observe this strange phenomenon.
In an area between the lighting and bedding departments a group of five or six staff members assembled. A moment later another figure appeared, the 'huddle champion', who led the proceedings. I wasn't close enough to hear what was said but body language suggested that she was fulfilling a 'cheerleader' role, giving an upbeat, feel-good talk designed to motivate her colleagues. There was a promotion on in the store and perhaps the talk was aimed at encouraging them to strive even harder to reach sales targets. The members nodded approvingly at what was said but after the meeting was over and the group started to disperse I noticed some staff exchanging looks which suggested scepticism. If they have to experience this on a daily basis, it is perhaps not surprising that a degree of resigned weariness sets in.
The huddle technique may well have had its origins in sporting contexts where it is common for teams to gather round the captain or manager who then proceeds to harangue them in what is intended to be an inspiring manner. Quite often team members link arms or make other forms of body contact: after all, only one consonant separates a huddle from a cuddle (though any hint of eroticism might spoil the moment).
The group might also utter an aggressive chant, aimed to spur each other on and intimidate the opposition. This method is recommended by so-called 'practice enhancement facilitators' (there are such people – I am not making it up) but the evidence of its effectiveness seems thin. By the very nature of competitive sports, there are bound to be winners and losers, and rituals aimed at promoting team spirit can rarely compensate for disparities in skill or fitness.
According to their advocates, management huddles can be used for a variety of purposes: communicating information, reviewing progress, celebrating success, maintaining morale. They are shorter and supposedly more efficient than formal meetings, generally lasting no more than 10-15 minutes. The objective is to send staff on their way with a boost to their confidence and a spring in their step. The evangelical fervour which is apparent on some websites extolling the virtues of huddles is clearly meant to stimulate 'born again' employees to go forth with missionary zeal on behalf of the company. As an antidote, Adrian Furnham's book 'Management Mumbo-Jumbo', which shows just how shallow most management hype really is, can be recommended.
Genuine teamwork requires open and honest discussion, where disagreements can be aired and solutions sought. In extreme form, management huddles are actually a type of indoctrination.
In organisational settings, huddles might be regarded as a cheap and cheerful alternative to 'away days', which used to be a popular means of trying to promote employee loyalty. Staff were sent to a hotel for a couple of days and obliged to engage in a variety of tasks which required them to work together. There was much talk of vision, targets and strategic priorities. I always found these events deeply depressing (I'm embarrassed to admit that I have attended a few) as they encouraged insincerity, glibness and toadying. They did, however, provide a good platform for aspiring spivs who were adept at uttering the kind of banalities which appealed to senior management.
While it is easy to make fun of superficial gimmicks such as huddles, the motives underlying them can be rather sinister. They are sometimes designed to suppress individuality – allegedly in the interests of 'teamwork' – and can easily lead to a form of 'groupthink', in which staff are expected to sign up unquestioningly to some corporate goal handed down from above. Genuine teamwork requires open and honest discussion, where disagreements can be aired and solutions sought. In extreme form, management huddles are actually a type of indoctrination.
Really effective organisations allow the expression of dissent, learning from the process in order to do things better. In the course of my professional experience I came to the conclusion that the best managers were not those who surrounded themselves with yes men and women, but those who welcomed vigorous debate and challenge from their staff. Unfortunately, in the conformist corporate world which now holds sway, examples of such open-minded managers are hard to find. Part of the explanation for the banking crisis was that many senior executives, who were no doubt aware of the imminence of the disaster that was to unfold, simply didn't have the guts to ask the hard questions that really needed to be posed. They were victims of groupthink as well as agents of financial collapse.
It can safely be predicted that the fashion for huddles will soon be replaced by another feeble technique lacking any kind of intellectual basis. Management gurus have to come up with innovative 'products' from time to time, marketing them as new, improved methods of getting the most (if not the best) out of staff. Companies seem only too willing to buy into this nonsense.
Can I suggest an alternative approach, which does not involve paying any 'consultancy' fee to self-proclaimed organisational experts? (It is no accident that the word 'consultant' begins with a 'con'.) Staff are much more likely to show commitment and gain job satisfaction if they are treated with respect, listened to when changes are proposed, given support when under pressure, and accountable to managers who lead by example rather than exhortation. Sadly, however, in a culture which prefers spin and celebrity, common sense is likely to have little appeal.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling