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Are you the sheriff of Nottingham?

By Michael Huston and Donald A. Kennedy

Executive Summary
Employees often develop a mistrust of management. The situation of dissenting employees, their immediate supervisor and a benevolent upper manager can be related to the characters found in the Robin Hood myth. In organizations where dissent is discouraged, employees may decide to jump the chain of command to find a champion for their ideas. The common reaction of punishing this behavior may not benefit the organization as a whole. In order to help decide what action to take, it is important to reflect on whether you may be the evil sheriff of Nottingham.

We recently presented a paper using the Robin Hood myth to help demonstrate the impetus for and potential perils associated with not following the expected protocol within an organization. We drew parallels between Robin Hood and any modern day employees who might circumvent the chain of command to address what they perceive as poor judgment by their supervisor. Audience reaction was positive and of higher intensity than typical from a technical crowd. It appears the topic hit home. From the employee’s perspective, it seems that viewing management with suspicion and distrust is common. Rather than leave it at that, we decided to address the problem from the perspective of those who could make an improvement. Here, we revisit the analysis and examine the issue from the managers’ point of view. Could your subordinates be regarding you as the evil sheriff of Nottingham? What if you are seen as good King Richard? How can you best use your power?

We all know the story, but for the purpose of this piece, here is the condensed version that highlights the relevant themes:

Robin Hood witnesses the corruption of the sheriff of Nottingham and the wickedness of Prince John. Good King Richard the Lionheart has been away on a crusade and is unaware of his subordinates’ excesses. Robin defies local authority in the belief that the king would not allow the evil behavior if he knew about the situation. Unknown to the sheriff or the prince, Robin eventually gains access to Richard, enlightens him and appeals to the king’s morality. The king punishes the wrongdoers and rewards Robin Hood for his loyalty and honesty.

It's all about fealty

In the myth, Robin Hood is rewarded because of his unfaltering allegiance to the king. Fealty refers to the duty citizens (employees) have to be unquestionably obedient to the king (company) and his appointed representatives (e.g., your boss). A few years ago, Don Kennedy was interviewing for a job. He was asked directly why he wanted to work for this company. He responded with “to get high performance in a company, you need to build teamwork and develop skilled, highly motivated people. Good leadership is important. The name on the building or the logo on the letterhead isn’t what makes a company a good place to work.”

Kennedy’s approach was well-intended, but evidently it was not what the interviewers wanted to hear. The interview was cut short at that point, and Kennedy was sent away knowing he had said the wrong thing. Ample literature details that for people to get ahead in organizations, they must show that they believe the logo and name on the side of the building is most important. During his next interview at another company, Kennedy replied to that same question with: “I am excited to find out why this company consistently returns higher profits per dollar of revenue than your competition. I have friends at both companies and you both seem to have high caliber people who do many of the same things, and yet this company just seems to be better.” Kennedy was too busy unpacking his things at his new desk to listen to what the response was. Chief executive officers have said that although everyone wants performance and efficiency, toeing the company line is even more important. 

The Robin Hood employee

Originally, we focused on situations that went beyond simple dissent but fell short of whistle-blowing. In the cases presented, employees had an idea that they thought would improve their organization’s situation. They would lobby their boss with the idea, but the idea would die there. Feeling that the matter was too important to drop, they would take it to someone higher in the organization. The employees wanted to get their ideas implemented, not promote themselves or discredit anyone.

The reaction of the person they appealed to was much colder than they were expecting. They sometimes discovered that their boss and this person had a social tie outside the company. Or maybe their boss was handpicked for the job by this executive. Implying that the boss displayed poor judgment reflected directly on the judgment of the executive who selected the boss. In the instances where the ideas were implemented, that happened after the Robin Hood employee’s termination. By having an expectation similar to the myth’s outcome, the employee had a false hope that he would find more benevolence higher up the ladder.

The conclusion and recommendations of the paper were reached after an extensive review of the pertinent literature. The outcomes in the cases were supported by the findings in the literature. If you are in an organization where dissent may be discouraged, it is likely that circumventing your boss is a dangerous tactic. If you are in an organization where dissent is welcomed, you will not need to circumvent your boss. Therefore, Robin Hoods were encouraged to stay hiding in Sherwood Forest and resist any appeal to the king.

Here, we address those who can help the Robin Hood employee. This requires looking at two different roles. First is the immediate boss who plays the role of the evil sheriff of Nottingham, who thwarts the desires of the employee. The second is the good King Richard, who has been appealed to in the hopes of helping Robin.

What can sheriffs do?

That many employees have at least a suspect view of management intentions is well-documented, starting as early as the Hawthorne experiments in the late 1920s. In one part of that study, the workers received a small incentive for increased production. A proposal then was made to pool the payments over a longer period because a nickel would not buy much, but 50 cents could make a more memorable purchase and have a greater impact. The workers refused this idea, stating that they believed their bosses would renege and think up an excuse not to pay them if the sum grew too large. The researchers reported that this view was “irrational” since the defined job of managers is to motivate and encourage their subordinates. Even though workers thought their supervisors could not be trusted, they possessed a general positive view of the company at a high level (just like Robin Hood). The Hawthorne researchers advised that, even though these suspicious feelings were unfounded, managers acknowledge their existence.

Similarly, you may know you are not the sheriff of Nottingham, but at times employees will disagree with your decisions and directives. You might take the stand that these views are wrong because employees lack your global perspective. The most expeditious response to dissent would be instructing employees to do what they are told. If the employees see you as lacking sound judgment, they may not accept that as an answer and wish to pursue their concern further.

But you can do things to intervene before Robin Hood invites Friar Tuck or other dissidents to meet in the forest or request an audience with the king. In a recent study, social scientists Brian Martin and Will Rifkin focus on employee dissent and liken the dance employees and managers can do to “organizational jujitsu,” where each party implements strategies to strengthen their positions and weaken or take out the opponent. To managers who desire to build organizational health, they recommend a basic strategy of exemplary behavior. They suggest openness and transparency about one’s actions along with efforts to deal directly with employee concerns and perceptions.

Their findings suggested that efforts to silence a Robin Hood usually do not work because this leads to covert operations. So to allay Robin Hood’s concerns, managers need to take time both to listen carefully and to respond as completely as possible. In the struggle for an outcome, employees might be appeased by knowing they are heard and understood even if they do not get their way. During the Hawthorne experiments, the researchers found that employees perceived that conditions had improved following an opportunity to speak, even if their suggestions were not implemented. Managers, because they understand the primary role of fealty, also can play an important role in coaching less politically savvy employees to follow expected protocol. To this end, we would recommend managers advise Robin Hood – not as a threat, but out of care and concern in their role as mentor or coach –  that circumvention is risky and usually does not turn out well for the employee. You also can make sure your subordinates understand that bosses always find out what their employees say about them to those higher up."

Consider what you would do if you find out an employee had circumvented your power. According to the literature, the most common response is reprisal and working to reduce the credibility of the claims. If you successfully get the employee terminated, this will have some reflection on your supervisor’s perception of your performance (probably negative). Getting a reputation for unfair actions may increase your image as the sheriff and inspire other subordinates to plan for your downfall. If instead you turn the Robin Hood employee into an ally, your superiors likely will note this change. Executives have been known to approach employees as a way to gather a feeling about their company. If they ask a former Robin Hood how the concern worked out and she says she is satisfied with how you handled the situation, that creates positive reflections on your abilities. Having an employee concerned for performance factors that you are judged on can only help.

An option for kings

In real cases, when Robin Hood employees call for an audience above their direct boss, the most common reaction for the king is to call the sheriffs in and make it public that they are being accused of evil. We have seen it many times when the executive decides that all employees are looking for the same solutions, and there will be no problem if everyone sits down and works it out. After the meeting, the executive tells the other two to work out their differences and solve the problem together. The Robin Hood employees feel betrayed because if they thought this would work they would not have circumvented their boss in the first place. It would be the same as if in the original story, the good King Richard listened to Robin and invited the sheriff to join them. The king would excuse himself, and Robin would be placed in chains as soon as the king rounded the first corner.

Kings, knowing they have good managers and employees, might be better advised to encourage the Robin Hood employees to communicate directly with the manager, to be clear about their concerns and any information they need to solve them or understand why an alternative is better. As a concerned king, the executive can explain to Robins that their present behavior might be dangerous career-wise if they had appealed to a less understanding executive. Kings can point out that trust and fealty are important, that employees’ efforts to bypass and undermine their direct supervisor likely will irrevocably damage important work relationships. By not reacting directly to the employees’ concerns about their manager, executives convey trust in their managers and, indirectly, their employees. By personally taking on Robin Hood’s concerns, instead, the King reinforces the undesirable employee behavior, perpetuates the myth, and erodes trust and fealty among all managers and employees in the organization. Kings need to help these Robins realize that they need to work within the boundaries of their roles and organization. Relationships and perceived loyalty trump debates over right and wrong. Having your subordinates resolve their problems without your direct involvement is part of business author Stephen Covey’s idea of handing the problem back to where it belongs. This promotes empowerment and avoids creating the precedent of you being the place to go if someone wants to get something done.

Using the narrative to strengthen your toolkit

If you identify with Robin Hood and are contemplating appealing to someone who is not your direct supervisor, we remain convinced that the best course of action is to resist the urge. Remember that the Robin Hood story is a myth and may not reflect how the world really works.

If you are a boss who has a subordinate who circumvented your command, it is important to remember that the employee may have done so out of concern for the company, a concern that you actually wish to encourage. Rather than punishing this perceived lack of fealty, directing this initiative in constructive ways will help everyone look good. You can ask yourself if you would rather be seen as an evil sheriff of Nottingham or the good King Richard the Lionheart.

If you are approached by someone appealing to you about resistance to his idea from a manager who directly reports to you, think carefully about how you handle the situation. Educating the Robin Hoods about the implications of their actions may help them recognize expected protocol. Exposing them to their supervisor may seem reasonable, but it could damage their relationship. Avoiding taking an active role will help establish empowerment and push the work where it belongs.

A way to start may be simply to look in a mirror and see which character is looking back at you.

Michael Huston is a psychologist and associate professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His current research interests include organizational performance, stress management, career satisfaction and work-life balance.

Donald A. Kennedy is the engineering projects coordinator at Bucyrus Canada Ltd. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has worked primarily in project management throughout his career as a consultant. Kennedy has published many articles about the careers of engineers, formal procedures and outsourcing. His clients have included those in the pipeline, power generation, oil refining and manufacturing industries. Kennedy holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering, an M.S. in agricultural engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering management from the University of Alberta.

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