We Are All Balloons in Boxes

Today, Esther Derby wrote on Twitter:

Mystery of the week: why do #mgrs hire ppl for thinking ability, then get upset when same ppl question mgmt dictates?

I have my suspicions, but first I want to describe how I’ve come to think about this problem.

Imagine a shelf full of cubbies in it. Each cubby has a smallish box that isn’t much bigger than a shoe box. Each box has a person’s name on it, and they are neatly arranged in the cubbies. If you looked into the box, you’d see a balloon. Those balloons would be inflated to varying degrees, some are even pressing on the cardboard walls of the box.

From the perspective of a manager, they want things to be predictable and organized. They want to know what will happen and how people will react to specific circumstances. They try to arrange things neatly and let that structure stand as long as they can. This is why all the boxes exist and are arranged. It is a simple, nice, neat structure that is easy to understand both intellectually and emotionally.

Unfortunately we aren’t all shaped like little boxes, and we aren’t all the same size. We’re like balloons, all sizes, shapes, colors, capacity, and inflation. People become jaded when they begin to feel constrained by the walls of the boxes they have been put in, and its inflexibility. People de-inflate and disengage when they simply become too tired to keep pushing.

The thing that is scary and challenging is that we almost always know the opportunity to do better exists, but most of us are never able to reach it. Because there is no light in the box, and you never know just how far you can take things.

I don’t have any real solutions to this little dilemma, all I have ever tried to do is try to work with managers who crave their organization and tidiness see alternatives to get the results they too desire on terms that feel appropriate to them.