Hired or fired? Experts rate Trump’s management style

The US president is breaking all the rules of good business with his chaotic leadership

Some Trump defenders have said that the president thrives on chaos, but there is no empirical data or research that supports the notion that chaos is a productive management tool. Photograph: Al Drago/The New York Times

Some Trump defenders have said that the president thrives on chaos, but there is no empirical data or research that supports the notion that chaos is a productive management tool. Photograph: Al Drago/The New York Times

 

For someone who promoted his management skills and campaigned as an “organisational genius”, it has been a rocky White House debut for Donald Trump, the first president to go directly from the executive suite to the Oval Office.

“Chaos” seems to be the word most often invoked, closely followed by “turmoil”. In less than two weeks, Trump has created upheaval at the nation’s borders, alienated longtime allies, roiled markets with talk of a trade war and prompted some of the largest protests any president has faced.

His choice for Labour secretary, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination this week following protests and disclosures that he had employed an undocumented immigrant to work as a domestic in his home. And, less than a month into office, he has suffered his firts high-profile casualty with the resignation of National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn.

All new presidents undergo a learning curve. But Trump promised a seamless transition and, with a real chief executive in charge as opposed to a career politician, an administration that would function as a well-oiled machine. So it doesn’t seem premature to ask some leading management experts for an assessment of Trump’s first weeks, purely from the viewpoint of organisational behaviour and management effectiveness.

The unanimous verdict: Thus far, the Trump administration is a textbook case of how not to run a complex organisation like the executive branch.

“This is so basic, it’s covered in the introduction to the MBA program,” says Lindred Greer, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. By all outward indications, Trump “desperately needs to take the course”, she says.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford and author of Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t, says Trump’s executive actions as president “are so far from any responsible management approach” that they all but defy analysis.

“Of course, this isn’t new,” he tells me. “His campaign also violated every prudent management principle. Everyone, including our friends on Wall Street, somehow believed that once he was president he’d change. I don’t understand that logic.”

Effective management

There is an enormous amount of literature and data exploring what constitutes effective management of complicated organisations.

“The core principles have served many leaders really well,” says Jeffrey Polzer, professor of HR management at Harvard Business School. “It’s really common sense. You want to surround yourself with talented people who have the most expertise, who bring different perspectives to the issue at hand. Then you foster debate and invite different points of view in order to reach a high-quality solution.”

This is often easier said than done. It “requires an openness to being challenged, and some self-awareness and even humility to acknowledge that there are areas where other people know more than you do”, Polzer continued. “This doesn’t mean decisions are made by consensus. The person at the top makes the decisions, but based on the facts and expertise necessary to make a good decision.”

Trump has violated several of these core principles. John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, was still discussing the proposed executive order restricting immigration when Trump went ahead and signed it. Nor was secretary of defence James Mattis consulted; he saw the final order only hours before it went into effect.

Not to consult thoroughly with top cabinet officers before deciding on the order “is insane”, since they “have the expertise and should be on top of the data”, says Greer. “Ignoring them leads to bad decisions and is also incredibly demoralising.”

And there’s another reason to consult, says Polzer. “When people are genuinely involved in a decision and their input is heard and valued and respected, they are more likely to support and buy into the decision and be motivated to execute to the best of their abilities, even if the decision doesn’t go their way.” Conversely, people who aren’t consulted feel they have no stake in a successful outcome.

Far from encouraging and weighing differing views as part of the decision-making process, Trump appears to view dissension as disloyalty. After career state department officers circulated a draft cable questioning the effectiveness of the immigration ban, White House press secretary Sean Spicer responded, “They should either get with the programme or they can go.”

“Debate and dissent are essential to reaching any thoughtful outcome,” Greer says. Comments such as Spicer’s “will discourage anyone from speaking up. You end up with groupthink, an echo chamber where people only say what they think the president wants to hear.”

And while it’s understandable that the president was eager to act swiftly to follow through on his campaign promises, his directives came across as needlessly hasty and poorly thought through. Some had to be reframed or significantly modified and clarified after the fact.

Execution and substance are inextricably linked, the experts say. “When you’re on the receiving end of a policy decision, the merits of the decision and the execution go hand in hand,” Polzer said. “If either one is done poorly, the outcomes will be bad. Even good plans that are poorly rolled out aren’t going to work well.”

Empirical data

Some Trump defenders have said that the president thrives on chaos, and it has proved to be an effective management approach for him in the past. But every expert I consult says there is no empirical data or research that supports the notion that chaos is a productive management tool.

“I’m not aware of anyone who advocates that,” Polzer says. “I don’t really know what’s going on in the White House, so I don’t feel comfortable commenting on that specifically. But I can say in general that in organisational settings, less chaos is a good thing.”

Everyone agrees that there is still time for Trump to right the ship. Other administrations have had course corrections and personnel shake-ups. But having to reorganise only weeks into a first term is not promising.

If this were the private sector, “someone would be fired,” says Greer. That seems highly unlikely, since Trump has not even acknowledged a problem, instead blaming the media for an impression of upheaval in the White House.

That is a fundamental flaw, says Pfeffer. “No good business makes decisions that are based on falsehoods,” he said. “My sense is that Trump takes no one’s counsel but his own. That’s bad management, period.” – Copyright New York Times 2017

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