Dysfunction in the ranks: Staff officers vs. line officers

When the term "line management" was invented, it came from the military reference, i.e., "line officer." The analogy is apt.

A line officer is someone who stands in the line of fire, responsible for the lives of those under the officer's command. A line officer is accountable for the results expected.

Staff officers are those who support the line officers, performing critical services in administrative, logistical, analytical, engineering and other functions. The "staff manager" or professional in a business operates in much the same way. Or should.

When we do business process improvement and organizational design consulting, we look at the "system" of the organization and its various methods of accomplishing work. We analyze the workflow, the functional efficiencies, the business model and how the chain of value results (or doesn't) in a profitable, quality delivery of products or services. We also look at how decisions are made.

By far, the most common dysfunction we've encountered in the decision-making processes of an organization is related to the confusion and competition of authority that arises when staff managers are either asked to make line decisions, or simply attempt to without being asked.

An example: A line manager, who is accountable for accomplishing the revenue growth and profitability of a business unit, must get Human Resources approval to add staff, after that line manager has already submitted an approved business plan to his or her supervisor. The HR manager is being asked to give approval to the recruiting decision, and often to the candidate selection decision, when the HR manager has no responsibility for the operating performance of that business unit.

Another example: The finance manager has to approve capital expenditures for a line manager to acquire the necessary production equipment which was part of an expansion plan that was submitted and approved by the line manager's hierarchy. The finance manager has no responsibility for the ability of the production group to meet its monthly volume objectives.

In these cases, both the HR and finance managers have specific expertise that is critical to making sound decisions. The mistake being made in these instances is that the two staff managers should be engaged as advisers, rather than as approvers.

The business plans of both line managers would benefit by the advice and guidance that the specialists in HR and finance can give. But it is not their responsibility to achieve the results, so the ultimate decision as to whether to hire, or whether to acquire equipment, should not rest in their hands in any way.

How many times have you heard a fellow line manager say, "I need to add five employees. My boss approved it, but I can't get HR to sign off on the requisition"? Or how often have you heard, "I submitted my budget for manufacturing expansion and got it approved by the general manager, but I can't get the CFO to approve the vendor we've selected"?

It's true that specialists have knowledge and expertise that few line managers can duplicate. And it's also true that ignoring that expertise can result in judgment errors by the line manager. But it's the line manager who is ultimately accountable.

If staff managers are allowed to intervene in the line decision process -- or worse, if they are expected to -- then they tend to make decisions that err to the side of inaction. In other words, when a staff manager is faced with saying "yes" or "no" to a risk, the tendency is to say "no," because it's less likely to result in criticism. When you say "no," then there is no evidence from the contemplated action to show that your decision was a poor one.

The psychology is risk aversion, not intelligent risk-taking. Anyone who has been a profit and loss manager knows that progress comes from commitment to action, and the goal is to make more right decisions than wrong ones. In contrast, the motivation of staff managers who are included in line decisions is usually to make no wrong decisions. And as Wayne Gretzky once said, "You make exactly zero percent of the shots you don't take."

The field officer, in the middle of the battle, does not ask the supply sergeant whether or not to take the hill that offers the best artillery position in the valley. If he did, the sergeant would likely reply, "It's going to be better if you take that other hill over there. It's lower and closer. I can get you supplies quicker and more often." If the field officer had to get the sergeant's approval, then the battle could be lost because the targets were out of range.

Every organization would do well to analyze how line decisions are made. If the staff role is to advise and guide as invited, then the battles might be won. If the staff role is to review and approve, then you might as well make them the line officers, because you don't win the war from behind a desk.

Sewitch is managing director of consulting services, RSM McGladrey, a full-service, international consulting and financial services firm. He can be reached at

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