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British Journal of Management, Vol. 23, S74S87 (2012)

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2011.00790.x

Managerial Autism: ThreatRigidity and

Rigiditys Threat
Olav Muurlink, Adrian Wilkinson, David Peetz and Keith Townsend
Nathan Campus, Griffith University, 170 Kessels Road, Nathan, QLD 4111, Australia
Corresponding author email:

The global financial crisis had a sharply asymmetrical impact on the Australian
economy, with a minority of firms growing rapidly during 20052010. These gazelle
firms experienced internal stress often positive stress or eustress parallel to macro-
economic shocks, and these internal stresses were largely independent of external
factors. Staw, Sandelands and Duttons heavily cited threatrigidity theory (Threat
rigidity effects in organizational behavior: a multilevel analysis, Administrative Science
Quarterly, 26, pp. 501552, 1981) suggests that, when exposed to threat, either internal
or external, decision-makers respond conservatively, adhering to previously learned
solutions rather than responding innovatively. This study examines five young gazelle
firms, established just prior to the economic downturn. It explores management
responses to internal and external threats and suggests that rigidity plays a role as an
independent variable as well as a consequence of crisis. Drawing on the literature on
resilience of individuals in the face of trauma, the study finds that autistic managerial
response in approaches to performance management in emerging firms during a crisis is
likely to produce additional stress. The paper suggests an organizational model for
response to stressors based on Lazarus and Folkmans cognitive appraisal model (Stress,
Appraisal, and Coping. Berlin: Springer, 1984).

Too cool in a crisis have been drawn from [President Kennedys] behav-
iour, then, is that flexibility, compromise, and
For thirteen days in October 1962, the United respect for an adversarys calculus of its vulnerabil-
States and the Soviet Union stood eyeball to ity is essential for the peaceful outcome of a crisis.
eyeball, each with the power of mutual annihila- Instead, the traditional view of what is needed in a
tion in hand (Allison, 1971, p. 39). Graham Alli- crisis toughness and inflexibility seemingly has
sons classic Essence of Decision (Allison, 1971) guided U.S. officials for decades, in confrontations
examines decision-making in extremis. His inter- from Vietnam to Iraq. (Blight and Brenner, 2007,
pretation coalesced, in the decades that followed, pp. 2829)
into what commentators now call the heroic
myth of the missile crisis (Laffey and Weldes, A re-reading of those 13 dangerous, sleep-deprived
2008, p. 564). The myth promulgates the view that days from the context of classic decision-making
brinkmanship that is, ice-cold, inflexible diplo- theory suggests that the cool brinkmanship that
macy won the day. Analysis of declassified commentators admired was, in fact, not the key to
documents in the last decade suggests a very dif- a solution to the crisis, but a response to the stress
ferent story. that the decision-makers experienced. Threat
rigidity theory proposes that, in crises such as
In reality, Kennedy was both more flexible than the these, entities such as leadership groups react by
early post-mortems suggested and more sensitive to reverting to over-learned behaviours, repressing
the Soviet need to salvage something positive from discriminative abilities and reducing sensitivity to
the crisis . . . The appropriate lesson that should stimulation or peripheral cues (Plotnick, Turoff

2011 The Author(s)

British Journal of Management 2011 British Academy of Management. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA, 02148, USA.
Managerial Autism S75

and Van Den Eede, 2009; Staw, Sandelands and using a three-phase field, questionnaire and inter-
Dutton, 1981). Such responses can be adaptive for view approach. They conclude that, when faced
familiar or ritual threats (Kavanagh, 2008), but with a crisis, organisations abandoned both their
crises by their very nature are often rare, unex- formal and informal control mechanisms to exert
pected and novel, what Rittel and Webber (1973) specific, high intensity forms of control over the
call wicked problems such as the Cuban missile errant systems (p. 275). We suggest that this
crisis. Economic crises, described by Meyer (1982) characteristic of rigidity, a limited ambit of focus
as transient perturbations whose occurrences are combined with a tendency towards a habitual,
hard to foresee and whose effects on organizations rote or repetitive response, constitutes managerial
are disruptive and potentially inimical, share these autism, by which we infer the primary character-
characteristics and form the background to this istics of autism, an inward focus, and a tendency
study. to looped responses (Kanner, 1943).
The threatrigidity response, that is, the ten- Euskes study hints at a qualitatively different
dency when exposed to externally sourced stress kind of response to that proposed by a simple
to access only a subset of information or engage in threatrigidity hypothesis, and calls into the equa-
what has been called in the psychological litera- tion the work by Lazarus and Folkman (1984),
ture premature closure (Keinan, Friedland and who, through their work on coping, have opened
Ben-Porath, 1987) has its roots in the work of up a detailed theoretical and empirical literature,
psychiatrist J. A. Easterbrook in the 1950s (East- heavily founded on laboratory studies, on the
erbrook, 1959). Easterbrooks work gave rise to range of responses to stress. Like threatrigidity
an explanation of the Yerkes Dodson law, which theory and Euskes study, however, this body of
proposes an inverted U-shaped relationship work has one curious shortcoming. The problem
between threat and cognitive processing, and is best understood by posing a question: if threat
which came to be known as the Easterbrook commonly leads to rigidity, what does rigidity
hypothesis (Anderson and Revelle, 1982). He sug- lead to?
gested that, as arousal increased, the ability to In posing this question, it is useful to turn back
focus on peripheral cues was eroded: threat, in to one of the papers that inspired Lazarus in devel-
other words, led as much to over-simplicity as oping his hugely influential cognitive appraisal
rigidity. Prior to this special issue, there were model of coping. Janis and Manns (1977) work on
remarkably few articles explicitly touching on per- the role of imminence in increasing stress that is,
formance management systems (PMS) and envir- the degree to which an event is temporally proxi-
onmental jolts or shocks, let alone the impact on mate could be lifted from a handbook on crisis
PMS of internal sources of stress. In relation to management. Faced with an imminent disaster,
threatrigidity studies specifically linking the phe- the individual
nomenon with PMS, we are not aware of any
published papers in the field. However, there is a is constantly aware of pressure to take prompt
large and growing literature showing that manag- action . . . He superficially scans the most obvious
ers revert to low-risk strategies when organiza- alternative open to him, and may resort to a crude
tional performance falls below an aspiration level form of satisficing, hastily choosing the first one that
(e.g. Bromiley, Miller and Rau, 2001; Nickel and seems to hold promise of escaping the worst danger.
Rodriguez, 2002), a crisis not so much in perform- In doing so, he may overlook other serious conse-
ance as in expectations of performance. quences, such as drastic penalties for failing to live
There is a limited spread of papers examining up to a prior commitment. (Janis and Mann, 1977,
the impact of external stressors, such as the avail- p. 74)
ability of staff, on PMS (Brewer, 2005), and there
is an extensive crisis management literature Janis and Mann hint at the serious consequences
(Smith, 2005) which can be fruitfully applied to and drastic penalties, but the literature is largely
the current topic. Euske, Lebas and McNair silent on what these consequences and penalties
(1993) do consider the impacts of crises, although are. This study focuses on the role that rigidity
the analysis is peripheral to the spine of an other- plays in mediating managerial response to a crisis,
wise fascinating study. The team examined a drawing insights from the psychological literature
handful of large firms in Europe and the USA in suggesting that rigidity is a non-adaptive

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response to threat, and can lead to a recursive heavy investment in infrastructure-related indus-
increase in threat or stress. tries, the continued strength of mining (Gruen,
There is no integrated literature or theory on 2010) and $12.7 billion in one-off bonus payments
rigidity as a causal variable. Rigidity-like vari- to individuals. The stimulus package not surpris-
ables can be found in a large range of studies ingly had asymmetrical effects on the economy.
ranging from societal (loosetight) variability to This paper explores the transit through the crisis of
individual settings (e.g. Oreg et al., 2009). In one a small subset of companies which not only stayed
of the key early studies on organizational climate, dry, but thrived, during the storm: start-ups that
House and Rizzo (1972) developed an organiza- attained gazelle status during the period 2005
tional scale which gave rise to five dimensions, 2010, companies benefiting directly or indirectly
including formalization, tolerance of error and from an influx of Commonwealth money, but
conflict and inconsistency, rigidity-related con- experiencing what Turner, Ledwith and Kelly
structs that were borne out in empirical work. (2010, p. 745) refer to as the crisis of growth.
Similarly, in familial studies, Skinner, Johnson This paper uses the OECD definition of a
and Snyder (2005) identify autonomy, coercion, gazelle firm, that is, one with a staff of at least 20
chaos and structure as four of their six core within five years of establishment. By focusing on
dimensions (p. 186). What Mellahi and Wilkin- small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the paper
son call the curse of success literature (2004) sug- helps to fill a gap in the PMS literature, which has
gests that successful firms and the current study been dominated by large corporations (Hudson,
focuses on winners can become trapped in con- Smart and Bourne, 2001).
servatism in an effort to cope with the competitive Research exploring the prevalence and practice
pressures associated with rapid growth. Smaller of PMS in SMEs indicates that performance man-
firms such as those investigated in this study, tend agement is a largely informal process, which does
to be characterized by informality, even in their not fit well with typologies of existing PMSs
routines (Wilkinson, 1999). It is not, however, a (Hudson, Smart and Bourne, 2001; Tennant and
curse merely of the gazelle companies which we Tanoren, 2005), and SMEs typically have man-
have defined in this paper as those that have agement teams with lower levels of formal quali-
grown to have at least 20 arms-length employees fications (Fuller-Love, 2006) and fewer formally
in the five years since birth. Mellahi, Jackson and qualified human resources (HR) staff, making it
Sparks (2002) exploration of one giant gazelle easier to explore managerial response to crises
that came to grief, Marks and Spencer (M&S), as a function of the degree to which they are
suggests that one of the core causes of the M&S formally equipped to do so.
failure was what they called organizational In this paper, we define PMS, following de
atrophy (p. 26), where internal levers were not Waal (2003), as the formal routines deployed by
pulled sufficiently rapidly in response to external managers to maintain organizational stasis or
change. progress, with this paper focusing in particular on
the personnel aspect of PMSs and the way in
which their routines are modified by organiza-
Coping in a crisis tional stress. The literature suggests that mana-
gers of SMEs generally orient towards short-term
The global financial crisis has been described by activities, resulting in suboptimal management
former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as of staff, information systems and innovation
one of the greatest assaults on global economic (Tennant and Tanoren, 2005), which suggests
stability to have occurred in three-quarters of a that their crisis management capacities will be
century (Rudd, 2009, p. 20), but ironically, the immature.
crisis brought with it bonanza for some Australian A highly evolved literature on response to crises
companies. Munificence associated with govern- can be found in the work on the psychology of
ment attempts at stimulus led to a surge in growth coping, although, from a management perspec-
in companies positioned to benefit. The impact of tive, the literature suffers from an overly indi-
the financial crisis on the Australian economy was vidual focus. Dominant among the models to
softened partially and to a much greater degree emerge from decades of intense research activity
than elsewhere in the world economy through in the field is the cognitive appraisal model of

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Managerial Autism S77

Figure 1. A crisis response model based on the cognitive appraisal model of coping

response to stress (Lazarus and Folkman, 1984), potentially adaptive responses to temporary
which, as the name suggests, is more complex and stressors, pragmatic coping is associated with
mediated than earlier models of response to stress. rigid personality characteristics, and the flexible
Stress, as the title of a paper by one of the pioneers adaptation can become a stable characteristic,
of the field, Hans Selye, put it, was initially con- enhanced or reduced by developmental experience
sidered to be merely a syndrome produced by (Flores, Cicchetti and Rogosch, 2005). Avoidant
diverse nocuous agents (Selye, 1998, p. 230). coping styles are perhaps the ultimate in rigid
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) foregrounded the responses to stressors, capable of freezing response
interaction between the nocuous agents and the at all stages of the threat response process.
individuals response to that agent. Stress, they Figure 1 adapts the Lazarus model to manage-
posit, occurs when the demands posed by the rial coping in a crisis, and draws in the role of
environment are appraised or perceived to exceed rigidity in determining response. It sorts the cog-
the resources of the respondent. Such perceptions nitive appraisal process into key questions, from
may be false positives, that is, those occasions an initial assessment of the relevance of the crisis
where individuals believe they are capable of through to an assessment of the effectiveness of
dealing with the crisis, but they are not, or false the response. This appraisal process allows for
negatives, where individuals believe they are not the possibility that a habitual response, however
capable of dealing with the threat, but they are. rigidly applied, may nevertheless be appropriate.
Regardless, short of this tipping point, the indi- The model in Figure 1 suggests at least two
vidual may in fact respond positively to stress points where rigidity can arise as a response. First,
(experienced as eustress, a term introduced it may arise at an early stage of assessment, where
earlier by Selye (1998)). Dealing with a threat the manager perceives the crisis cannot be effec-
below this threshold may count as a challenge tively responded to and takes a ride out the
rather than a stressor. Equally, it is possible to storm approach. Alternatively, it may arise later
experience threat and challenge simultaneously. in the cycle where, having responded ineffectively,
There is limited literature linking coping models the manager decides not to change tack but,
with managerial response to crises (exceptions rather, repeats the same response in hope of a
include DAveni and MacMillan (1990) and Lee better outcome.
and Ashforth (1993)), but the role of flexibility/ The following study focuses particular atten-
rigidity in this process is clear: if the assessor is tion on the role of knowledge of formal perform-
able to modify responses as the nature of the ance management processes as a mediator of
threat changes in time, stress is likely to reduce. responses to stress. Specifically, it posits that
Bonanno (2005; Mancini and Bonanno, 2009) formal education in such processes and, more
proposes a breakdown of coping styles into two generally, knowledge itself may set up expecta-
broad categories: pragmatic coping and flexible tions that can facilitate or impede such responses.
adaptation, and while he regards both as being Scholars in the management literature generally

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S78 O. Muurlink et al.

assume, no doubt intuitively, that learning Methodology

helps to manage uncertainty (Moynihan, 2008,
p. 1540), but we suggest that a priori this will only Isolating the participants
be the case if the learning encourages a flexible By tightly constraining selection requirements,
approach which allows management to match the researchers were able to identify a very small
their response to the crisis. Parker, Storey and van complete population of companies, from which
Witteloostuijn (2010) make this point, suggesting 71% agreed to participate in the study. Subjects
that routine application of even best practice were identified by a process of hierarchical elimi-
management strategies is unlikely to foster firm nation (Tversky and Sattath, 1979). The raw data
growth in a changing economic environment (p. set from which participants were extracted was
203). This infers a consonance hypothesis, which the 2009 Dun and Bradstreets Whos Who in
presumes that, where organizational structure Business Australian database. Filters to extract
matches a challenge, performance should be opti- only those participants with at least 20 employees
mized, although such an approach applies to established in the previous five years were applied.
crises somewhat awkwardly. Crises are, by their The field was then further narrowed down to only
nature, non-routine and thus intrinsically more those companies based in greater Brisbane,
difficult to manage (Dynes, 1970). Logic suggests Queensland. The subsequent list of 303 compa-
that disjuncture between performance manage- nies was further interrogated to remove compa-
ment style and the source of the threat is more nies that had ceased to exist or had been placed
likely where managers rely on a set of deeply under administration, as well as subsidiary com-
embedded procedures (Hedberg, Bystrom and panies or joint ventures. This list was cross-
Starbuck, 1976), which Hannan and Freeman referenced with the Australian Securities and
(1984) suggest will occur in older and larger com- Investments Commission in Australia database to
panies not the younger and smaller ones exam- ensure that companies established at the same
ined in the current study. Learning can thus be address but under a different name prior to the
one of the risk factors in managerial stress, when five-year limit were eliminated from the results,
over-learning leads to a routinized response set in removing false positives from the list. The result-
times of crisis. Increasingly, performance man- ing list of was further reduced by removing
agement is incorporating reflexive and recursive amalgamations of professionals (e.g. dentists) and
processes which allow systems to respond flexibly mining companies. The 13 remaining companies
to emerging crises (Bae, 2006). The role of prior were contacted, and a further six companies were
experience in generating expectancy and, in turn, eliminated on the basis that they had ceased to
the role of expectancy in generating distress are trade or violated either the youth or employee
established in the psychological literature (e.g. count parameter. Of the seven remaining, one
Harwood, McLean and Durkin, 2007; Janzen declined to participate, one declined to participate
et al., 2006; Jarrat, 2008). immediately, and five agreed to participate imme-
This paper takes the exploration of PMS diately in the study. This study focuses on these
systems in SMEs deeper than the mere presence/ five firms.
absence of a formal PMS system and, recognizing
the dearth of such formal systems in SMEs,
explores instead the degree of formality of PMS as
a causative agent. It examines the response of The design of this study is qualitative, using a
management strategies of five Australian SME case-study format (Baxter and Jack, 2008). Inter-
gazelles during the emerging financial crisis views and site visits were conducted over a period
during 20052010. of four months, with researchers taking a cross-
The paper explores our earlier question: if sectional approach to each of the five companies
threat leads to rigidity, what does rigidity lead to? identified in the selection process. Fifty-two
The model suggests that rigidity in response ulti- formal and informal semi-structured interviews
mately gives rise to a new threat: stress. It further were conducted with staff holding senior, middle
attempts to tease out the role that formal PMS and entry-level roles, supplemented with non-
systems play in mediating the presence of rigidity participant observation and a documentary
in organizational responses. review where appropriate. The following analysis

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Managerial Autism S79

focuses, however, on the seven owner-managers interpret (Turns, Atman and Adams, 2002), and
of the five companies identified for study. All can produce large, unwieldy and idiosyncratic
formal interviews were taped, transcribed and results which are difficult to interpret and impos-
coded in NVivo by categories such as managerial sible to compare (Brumby, 1983, p. 9).
stress, the level of business and formal education, This paper is the first in the management litera-
and degree of formality in policy frameworks and ture to deploy a technique of visually assembling
adoption. These categories were subsequently and displaying knowledge, clustered iconographic
ranked by two independent raters. charts (abbreviated as CIX) (Muurlink, 2011;
In addition to taking a company history and Muurlink and Islam, 2010), introducing four key
gaining an insight into overall company function- changes to concept mapping. First, it reintroduces
ing, questioning focused on the employment rela- the traditional axes of the graph. By restoring this
tions aspects of PMS, and potential sources of element of the Cartesian coordinate system, it
innovation/change in the way employment rela- allows two concepts out of three or more concepts
tions were handled. The questions probed the to be emphasized in a familiar two-dimensional
presence of formal policy, the evolution of policy, representation. Secondly, CIX foregrounds
and the presence or absence of teams, and team- ranked instead of ordinal relationships. By com-
building, formal feedback systems and employee bining ranked and categorical variables (as
flexibility provisions (both shaped under federal opposed to any attempt at absolute or scaled
Fair Work Act provisions or developed on an ad values), the method preserves the reflective proc-
hoc basis for the company). The managers were esses of concept mapping, but allows inter-rater
all asked about working hours, stress levels, agreement to approach absolute levels in qualita-
company financial performance, staff turnover, tive research, although in using ranking to order
sense of control and sense of social support data, it needs to be acknowledged that no strin-
interior and exterior to the company, in order to gent assumptions about the population other than
build a picture capable of answering the research the ordinal nature of the findings are being sup-
question. Direct questioning aimed at uncover- ported (Siegel, 1957). Thirdly, unlike traditional
ing PMS was eschewed in favour of detailed concept mapping, CIX makes use of natural
questioning of practice, particularly relating to signs where possible: that is, visual representa-
non-financial goals, enabled PMS systems, both tions that are intuitively related to the concept
formal and informal, to be revealed in an unob- being represented. Finally, as the name suggests,
trusive manner. clustered iconography encourages the simultane-
ous presentation of a number of variables in a
single cluster of icons relating to a single organi-
Clustered iconographic charts
zation. It has become customary to reveal descrip-
Concept mapping was developed at Cornell Uni- tive statistics even in largely qualitative studies,
versity by a team headed by Joseph Novak (1990), but the CIX approach additionally allows the
as a means of physically representing the emerg- audience access to greater detail in the data itself.
ing science knowledge of students, but has since The approach thus complements trends in social
spread to many disciplines, including manage- science towards an open source approach to
ment (e.g. Kolb and Shepherd, 1997). Concept research (Bodie, 2007; Willinsky, 2005).
mapping has its theoretical origins in constructiv-
ism, which holds that meaning is recursively
constructed by individuals, drawing on their expe- Results
rience (Jonassen, 1991). Concept mapping offers a
Overview of participants: formality of PMS
structured visual representation of variables, very
different from the traditional graph or table, While the five companies to emerge from the
created through a more reflective process, and selection process are sectorally diverse, the group
emphasizing complex causation (Kinchin, Hay also have a number of characteristics in common.
and Adams, 2000). However, studies have ques- For the owner/managers of four of the five firms,
tioned whether concept maps are capable of truly this was their first owned-managed enterprise;
intuitive interpretation (Kolb and Shepherd, however, all but one of the managers, the young-
1997). Furthermore, the maps can be difficult to est, came from highly paid, senior positions prior

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to establishing these businesses. The owner man- and limitations of his age, and has empowered a
agers also had a high degree of variability in the team of older specialists around him. Owing to
degree to which they were formally educated, in the tight margins characteristic of supermarket
particular in HR. This anticipated variability in retail, performance management at the CEO
both formal and informal HR knowledge pro- level is, not surprisingly, focused on financial
vided a good matrix from which to examine the
markers (the figures always paint the picture),
question of response to crisis as a function of
knowledge and experience. but owing to consciousness about his age, the
All seven of the managers spoke of a transition CEO did place considerable emphasis on team-
towards greater formality in policy, with only one building and distributed control.
company ironically, the largest in the sample Airpowers principals are a former senior power
starting without some core policies in place. These station engineer and an experienced accounting
nascent structures were often borrowed from executive. Their company went through a sig-
previous employers, or consisted of a set of off- nificant incubation period, but while the busi-
the-shelf policies provided by employer groups. ness had significant formal footings as a result,
Briefly, in terms of descending levels of formal
many of the PMSs became more ad hoc as the
training and previous knowledge of formal PMS:
company aged. The principals, both tertiary
Equal Trainings managing director was for- educated, also have actively recruited line man-
mally trained in HR at a postgraduate level, and agers capable of taking responsibility and man-
had working experience in a senior HR role. Not
aging performance in their teams. As one of the
surprisingly, only Equal and Airpowers princi-
pals explicitly referred to performance manage- principals put it:
ment as one of their roles. The company was set
So I guess it comes down to Ive got a belief that
up with a complement of well-thought-out poli-
rules dont make people perform, its their own
cies, drawing on the managers experience as
motivation and trying to strive towards a common
well as professional outside advice, and the for-
goal, expectations of the company.
mality of the performance management struc-
ture was increasing as the company aged. In Bourke Civil, the smallest and simplest of the
recent times, the manager had introduced a per-
companied identified for the study, was also
formance development system, which took a
holistic view of individual staff performance, unique in that it required a high degree of
and integrated with training opportunities and formal education of all its key staff, owing to
performance review processes. The managers the nature of the business. The sole principal,
attempt to influence the direction of the business like the principals of Airpower, was tertiary
was much more detailed: trained in a technical field, passionate about the
So weve got five values in the organisation which I company and highly involved in both the
live and breathe and Im trying to get the organisa- personal and professional lives of his staff. In
tion to live and breathe. So Ive taken those five his own words, it was a pretty chummy sort
values and built a number of competencies around of outfit, without living in each others
them that are job specific and from those com- back pockets. Performance management was
petencies there will be a number of job specific focused on economic and quality control issues
behaviours. with a strong client perspective, with the princi-
Orange Retail has the most extensive formal pal, an engineer, developing his own unique
management structure of the five cases, with a project management system with a strong repu-
board of directors, a full-time HR manager, an tation for pulling beleaguered projects back in
internal company accountant and a health and line. The nature of the companys business was
safety officer. Driving the companys direction, such that it tended to populat[e] a whole bunch
however, is a dynamic young CEO with no of other peoples organisational charts, provid-
formal business experience, but a formal busi- ing staff on an as-needs basis to complete par-
ness education. The CEO recognizes the risks ticular projects.

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Managerial Autism S81

Queentech, the one manufacturing firm in our

sample, provided the clearest contrast to Equal
Training, in that it was formed with a loose
business plan by principals with neither exten-
sive HR nor other formal tertiary education, or
indeed extensive business management experi-
ence. Nevertheless, in the five years since estab-
lishment, it had grown to be the largest in our
sample, partly driven by the sales acumen of the
senior partner and strong quality control in a
competitive market sector. Quality was the only
sector where management exerted tight control.
The companys two principals, however, did
show an at times extraordinarily high degree of
paternalistic interest in developing staff to their
Im always just seeing people, analysing what
theyve doing as Im walking past and Ill think, Figure 2. The relationship between formality and managerial
okay well, Im going to put a bit of time into you
and see if I can mould you, because theyre young,
theyve got ambition, drive, motivated and they
want to learn. external factors (such as the financial crisis or
These interventions included helping staff to macroeconomic hurdles such as red tape) and
secure loans from banks. internal, firm-specific factors (such as quality of
staff, availability of bank finance) stressors, these
gazelle managers clearly had a highly internal
Stress and formality focus. The Queentech general manager was the
one exception, frequently returning to a theme
While all five of the companies are, at least by
of complaint about union inflexibility and the
Australian definition (Nankervis and Stanton,
governments role in prejudicing the tendering
2010), medium and not small companies, they
process central to Queentechs flow of new busi-
exhibited a key characteristic of the small emerg-
ness. However, even this manager downplayed
ing firm: informality. The level of informality,
the role of the financial crisis, describing it as
however, differed in both degree and quality.
nowhere near as big as what [Australian treasurer
Figure 2 incorporates some of the key elements
Wayne] Swan blew it up to be. Awareness of the
which appear to be intuitively associated with
relevance of the crisis, and the need for vigilance,
managerial stress, including company size (indi-
rather than fear, characterized the managerial
cated by the area of the circle), rate of growth
mindset. Queentechs general manager, for
(indicated by size of the spurs on the outside of the
example, drew the link between the historical
circumference of the circle), profitability (thick-
origins of his family home and the current-day
ness of circumference) and size of core manager
group (indicated by size of the pivot at the centre
of each circle). Managers were directly asked to My old house, it was owned by the Hargraves fami-
rate their current stress levels, and their discourse lies back in 1885, the people behind the Edgells
in describing company growth and challenges was canning factory, and the Hargraves through the
examined for indirect indicators of stress. Mana- depression in the 30s had 400 staff and all their
gement of the companies was then ranked from 1 profits went to keeping all these people on, it was
to 5 in terms of level of stress, with ranks used in like one big family. Then theyd ordered all this tin
presenting Figure 2. In terms of the locus of for all their cans, ex-England, and they couldnt
sources of stress, if one considers both global, make the 20,000 payment on it and the bank

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S82 O. Muurlink et al.

manager at the time stepped in and took over the the participants explicitly referred to a deliberate
whole place for that one 20,000 debt . . . Its a daily inward focus in their attitude to external crises. As
reminder to me. the general manager of Orange Retail pointed out
Only the largest company in the sample, Queen- in discussing one of the companys growth-
tech, and the smallest, Bourke Civil, in fact through-acquisition strategies, we cant sit on
directly acknowledged any impact of the crisis. hindsight; weve got to move forward. Bourke
The principal of Bourke, Karl, and his staff Civil, which did experience the greatest direct
describe the moment when the companys signa- impact of the global financial, resisted the temp-
ture contract with a large firm building a power tation to diversify its operations other than
plant in western Queensland collapsed in mid- making a deliberate push into an offshore market.
2008, cutting off cash flow. The second of the two rigidity responses shown
in Figure 1, an autistic tendency to respond repeti-
And it went one day, Shes all over Karl. Sorry . . . tiously (and ultimately in vain) to stressors, was
And that project was a huge part of our workload at much more explicitly observable in the companies
the time . . . Suddenly we just had job after job, we with more formal performance management train-
had half a dozen jobs fall over. And so we had an ing, particularly in relation to Equal. Gazelles
issue with, well we just didnt have the work, and experience strain on resources, both human and
there was no prospect of other work coming. [We otherwise, and processes as a result of growth
were thinking] . . . wheres our next breakfast (Fischer and Reuber, 2003), and evidence of this
coming from? strain permeated the interviews, with one of the
With these two exceptions, the weather outside managers admitting to undergoing counselling to
was clearly subsidiary to significant internal stres- avoid a nervous breakdown. Equals manager,
sors for the managers of the five case study firms, best equipped formally to handle the HR aspects
as they grew from concept to substantial opera- of employment growth, seemed almost hampered
tions in less than five years. Chief among the by the knowledge. Despite escalating problems
sources of internal stress were frustrations relat- with staff management, the manager persisted with
ing to staff, either the absence of what one fundamentally the same approach:
manager described as the care factor, the think Weve recently moved towards a . . . performance
factor that is, employees passively fulfilling development model . . . where we have a six-
their roles or the emerging need for policy to monthly and a 12-monthly review and then we go
cope with staff requests. Witness the case of through all of . . . their performance and whats
Equals manager, who began with a suite of off- happening in the marketplace with salaries for this
the-shelf policies, but found a need to add and type of job and whats happening with the business
adjust policies: for example, private vehicle use and is the business performing well?
Equals recruitment strategy, for example, used
Well, Im trying to [build a business] except for all a deliberately high hurdle approach, with the
these people snipping at my heels trying to drag me manager emphasizing repeatedly a deliberate
down with their kilometre reimbursement rates. Oh, approach to recruiting excellence. Im hiring
Christ [laughing]. people who match the values of our business, the
Turning to the crisis response model presented in manager said. I have very high expectations. The
Figure 1, we proposed two different points at manager admitted the approach was not working,
which rigidity could arise. First, at the early and expressed frustration at the lack of autono-
appraisal stage, one might observe a form of mous behaviour on the part of even senior staff.
studied non-observance (Goffman, 1963) of The managers attempts to shape staff behaviour
threats, which arises when the actor (in this case, around concrete measurable behaviours was, in
the manager) recognizes that there is a threat her own words, failing:
which cannot be effectively accommodated by the So thats the performance development framework
firm. A form of sticking to the knitting response Ive tried to develop and then with some people Ive
could be observed in the participants in their put in place these bonuses which then have to be tied
negation of the role of the broader financial crisis to KPIs as well so its extremely complex. Im tired
in their performance management radar. Two of just thinking about it. People are so frustrating.

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British Journal of Management 2011 British Academy of Management.
Managerial Autism S83

According to the manager, the formal PMS had work crew or, in some cases, the management
been on the cusp of implementation for six team, while Bourke recruited heavily (and deliber-
months without success, with staff showing resist- ately) among rugby enthusiasts. Perhaps the best
ance to it, and the manager having insufficient example comes from Sam, the production
time and energy to ram the system through to manager and junior shareholder in Queentech, a
implementation. man who had a sufficiently high opinion of the
As the model presented in Figure 1 indicates, apprenticeship system that he had himself enrolled
this manager was caught, to some degree, in a in a second apprenticeship in metalwork, despite
looped response, attempting to impose a method being in his early thirties. Sam had a similarly
that may not have been adapted to the crisis of highly hands-on attitude to managing perform-
growth. As Figure 2 indicates, Equal Training ance at work:
also was relatively financially stressed at the time
I like to mentor and mould [the new apprentices]. If
of the case study work, but this in itself cannot
I see a shining light out of the bunch I like to put
explain the stress experienced by the manager, as
more time into them. Obviously, my key people,
the manager also owned a second, highly success-
theyre always the people that I put time into, but I
ful company, and was married to a successful
like to have a select few that are shining through,
senior professional providing an additional
self-motivated shining through.
income stream. It is interesting to note that, after
the case study was completed, Equal recruited a For this same manager, however, the early years
part-time HR manager. as noted in the summary earlier, were character-
Conversely, the company with the most flexible ized by frustration, as his untried, intuitive
response to internal stressors, Queentech, had systems came into contact with a messy reality.
the least formally educated management team. His training in performance management began
The two managers described the early phases of with a cataclysmic first year, from a staff turnover
growth as highly stressful, but engaged in a non- perspective:
cyclical response to both external and internal
In the beginning [turnover] was massive. It was
stressors. Were learning by the seat of our
huge, like, 30 in one year, out of a staff of 20. And
pants, the younger of the two managers admit-
their attitude, was going out, getting trashed, come
ted. Particularly in terms of HR management, the
to work trashed, not focused, just fucking pissing
pair clearly went through a cycle of failure, and
me off. But I was very, it was zero tolerance. Mate,
reflection, with over 100% turnover of staff in the
youre not doing your job. Piss off, which wasnt
first year of operation clear evidence of their inex-
the right way to approach it.
perience at the outset. By the five-year mark, their
approach was beginning to pay off. Later, his approach modified: You have to be
The two companies without formal business structured, you know, like . . . Im trying to set up
training in their managerial cadre expressed a a bit more of a structure, Sam admitted. Sams
level of distrust for HR theory at times reaching unease in adjusting to a more formal role remains,
contemptuousness. For example, Bourkes princi- however:
pal declared: Im sceptical of expert businessmen
I am starting to get the right people. But at the
who make their living selling books, rather than
beginning it was just growing that quickly that to try
running a business.
and train people into one of those roles it was just
Similarly, Queentechs general manager had
quicker to do it myself. Or just say, mate, can you
abandoned his one attempt at tertiary business
grab that and put it in that bucket and bring it out
training after just a fortnight: I thought the whole
here, but really the only way to train someone is for
university structure of youre not allowed to
them to understand why they are doing it. But Im
have an opinion, youve got to quote everything
just, it was like, I felt like . . . it was just like steering
from everyone that wasnt me.
a ship and, brrr, it was all: pull jig, it was almost
In contrast to the formal structures at Equal
captain like . . .
Training, management control over staff else-
where in the group of five was relatively informal, Airpowers senior team, with more management
paternalistic and idiosyncratic. Airpower recruited experience, adopted a more confident, laissez faire
heavily from the family members of either their attitude to staff which appeared to be one of the

2011 The Author(s)

British Journal of Management 2011 British Academy of Management.
S84 O. Muurlink et al.

factors underpinning remarkably low managerial small, core senior management (who lacked
stress relative to the other four. As Gordon, the support staff) as to the conventional ways of
companys installation and technical-oriented dealing with performance management issues.
manager put it:
It is really quite rewarding to see people employed
for one role and then grow into another role [but]
. . . you dont need an army of chiefs . . . And real-
The period 20052010 presented two challenges to
istically weve got a lot of tradesmen who are very
managers of new gazelles: a destabilized macro-
very happy and comfortable with being tradesmen
economic environment, and the challenge of man-
have got absolutely zero motivation to do any more,
aging rapid growth without the legacy of institu-
and then you have other tradesmen who are
tional and cultural knowledge of more established
young and keen and dont always want to be on the
firms. The results confirm that SME PMSs, par-
tools and have some ambition and drive . . .
ticularly in relation to our focus on employment
His business partner shared this approach to dele- relations, are informal (Wilkinson, 1999). Instead,
gating and, as a result, the Airpower workforce young and relatively small firms such as the five
had a highly dispersed chain of command: Yeah, cases explored in this paper, tend to display less
and people probably have different styles as well. structural inertia being little more than exten-
Ive probably delegated to the point of maybe sions of the wills of dominant coalitions or indi-
appearing lazy [laughs], I dont know . . . viduals (Hannan and Freeman, 1984, p. 158), and
Whereas companies such as Equal and Orange thus capable of changing as rapidly as managerial
were highly cognizant of legislative requirements choice dictates.
in dealing with performance management chal- This study extends previous work on SME PMS,
lenges and structured their performance manage- however, by suggesting, in a sequel to stress
ment approach accordingly. Airpower, Queentech rigidity theory, that rigidity itself can be a source of
and Bourke dealt with problems on an ad hoc managerial stress, particularly during a crisis. The
basis, particularly in relation to staff management. formality of a PMS is only a single determinant of
Their innovation arose at least partially from an the rigidity or otherwise of a business or manage-
ignorance of convention combined with their rial response to a crisis, but it forms a particularly
general flexibility in managerial approach. interesting pivot in threatrigiditystress calcula-
Parallel to the notion of formality/rigidity in tions. It indicates that managers equipped with
PMS, the study allowed an exploration of inno- extensive formal knowledge of business practices,
vation in staff management. The lay concept of such as performance management concepts, were,
innovation as the expression of some sort of if anything, handicapped by their knowledge. The
epiphany on the part of a creative mind or minds link between formality and rigidity is not neces-
(Berkun, 2010) has its place, but in terms of mana- sarily linear. Formal systems enable the efficient
gement research, a Schumpeterian view of inno- processing of information, and can expedite
vation as merely new to the unit of production, decision-making during a crisis. However, when a
rather than more generally novel (Carland et al., wicked crisis strikes, one that presents severe and
1984) prevails. The vast product innovation litera- novel challenges, decision-makers particularly if
ture preferences the former view, while manage- they lack schemata giving their guidance on how to
rial literature leans toward the latter. It is respond are forced to extemporise essentially
interesting to note that, of the five companies, innovative responses. Our findings, then, suggest
Equal demonstrated the highest levels of product that ignorance is bliss, not in reducing a sense of
innovation: its product had few competitors, none responsibility, but in allowing managers a more
of which had realized the core idea in quite as flexible approach when crises strike.
complete a manner. Apart from Queentech, the Thus, this paper posits a possible answer to the
other firms showed relatively low levels of product central question: if threat leads to rigidity, what
innovation, following well-worn business models. does rigidity lead to? It suggests that, just as that
However, Queentech was clearly the most innova- threat leads to rigidity, rigidity may lead to three
tive of the five firms in the way it handled staff, threats to the adaptive functioning of a business:
and reflected, in a sense, the ignorance of the stress, and the autistic characteristics of inward

2011 The Author(s)

British Journal of Management 2011 British Academy of Management.
Managerial Autism S85

focus and a dysfunctional tendency to repeat cal and methodological wizardry can blind rather
responses, regardless of adaptive value. In the than illuminate (Bennis and OToole, 2005, p. 3).
most extreme case described in this paper, a It is interesting to speculate that, unless experi-
company experiencing both the crisis of growth ence happens to provide heterogeneous chal-
and profitability worries, the principal was the lenges, it may only increase the formality of
mostly high educated and familiar with formal response to future crises. Such a suggestion com-
performance management. The principals plements relatively new research on the value of
response to the crisis, however, was to some degree failure as a learning tool in business (McGrath,
formulaic, shaped by training and knowledge 1999; Minniti and Bygrave, 2001). A lack of
rather than by intuition or circumstances. familiarity with failure may lead to an avoidant
In this paper, we focused on the role played by attitude towards future challenges with failure
education in determining flexibility and drew a link potential, leading to what we suggest can be
between this relationship and that between educa- described as managerial autism in response to
tion and innovation, which involves relatively crises. This tendency towards looped, inward-
novel responses to business challenges. Early looking responses to challenges may not only ulti-
studies of this latter connection were predicated on mately cause stress, as this study suggests, but
a more-the-merrier view: for example, that inno- could also potentially lead to business failure.
vation in agribusiness was linked to the educa-
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Dr Olav Muurlink is a psychologist working as a Research Fellow, Centre for Work, Organisation
and Wellbeing, Griffith University.

Professor Adrian Wilkinson is Director of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing. He
holds Visiting Professorships at Loughborough University, Sheffield University and the University of

Professor David Peetz is Professor of Employment Relations at Griffith University.

Dr Keith Townsend is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing.

2011 The Author(s)

British Journal of Management 2011 British Academy of Management.