Management by the Lowest Common Denominator

lcdManagement by the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) is a prevalent although inefficient management style in the public sector and one which characterizes the field of election administration. This style of leadership is based on a negative view of people and human nature and is intended to hedge against this nature.  In the field of elections, this is idea is expressed in such terms as:  voters are dumb, poll workers always screw up, temp workers are lazy, observers always cause problems and so on.

Management by LCD explicitly recognizes that mistakes will be made and some individuals can’t be counted on to do what they are asked.  It is true in most organizations that errors are made, misunderstandings occur, some things which should happen don’t get done, and some things that shouldn’t happen occur anyway.  Because these types of things could occur, management by LCD acts as if they must happen.  Because some people will make mistakes or not understand simple instructions, everyone is treated as if they are screw ups and dummies.  This is the idea of the Lowest Common Denominator in action.

In response, rules, policies, decisions, and procedures are developed in anticipation of the actions of the LCD.  This response inevitably leads to repetitive, overly prescriptive and micro-management tactics.  Management by LCD attempts to anticipate every situation and contingency and to prescribe, in advance, a standard solution since others cannot be trusted to problem solve or use their own judgment to handle situations.  Because someone might do it wrong (or differently than the manager), no one is permitted to anything other than follow instructions.  Management by LCD spends endless amounts of time contemplating unlikely “what ifs…” and exceptions at the expense of formulating efficient procedures to handle routine situations.  Ironically, despite all the time and effort to anticipate mistakes and prevent exceptions, mistakes and exceptions are never eliminated.

Management by LCD does not focus on how to best serve the 99% of the customer base efficiently and effectively; rather, it dedicates the majority of its energy and resources to anticipating and resolving potential problems of the 1%.  Of course not all possibilities can be predicted and anticipated in advance since humans are so adept at creatively making errors and misunderstandings.  The fact that exceptions are never eliminated reinforces the need for practitioners of management by LCD to manage in this fashion.  In a viciously circular logic, the inability to prevent exceptions drives management by LCD to expend increasing resources to resolve potential, future problems of a tiny minority at the expense of serving the vast majority.

Not only is management by LCD highly inefficient in delivering services and costly in fiscal terms, it is expensive in human terms as it is demoralizing and punitive to those who work in organizations who practice management by LCD.  Management by LCD prevents capitalizing on the strengths, knowledge and initiative of team members, further contributing to the ineffectiveness of the organization.

Those who have a tendency to manage by the lowest common denominator should take a step back and question their assumptions and ask themselves “Do I give a lot of thought about what people might do wrong or do I do I count on people doing what’s right?”; “Do I try to compensate for possible failures or do I try to facilitate successes?”; “Do I think people are dumb or do I think I need to do a better job communicating expectations?”  “Do I plan for failure or do I plan for success?”  If the responses to these questions point to a style of management by LCD, there are tremendous operational efficiencies, fiscal savings and human successes to be claimed by abandoning “lowest common denominator” thinking.

Stay tuned.


10 thoughts on “Management by the Lowest Common Denominator

  1. Does your commentary change at all in the case where an election administrator has ” team members” he did not choose, may not move or remove, can scarcely discipline, and who often choose to not attend training? Welcome to Pennsylvania. Pollworkers here are ELECTED, but election administrators are not!


    1. No, it doesn’t change. In fact it makes less sense to manage to the lowest common denominator in this case. Treating them all as adversaries or dummies just because a couple of them are just makes them all adversarial and contrary. That is one reason why I consider MbLCD a self-defeating behavior on the part of election administrators.


      1. I believe that one or two elections where the “problem children” are essentially bulletproof and they misbehave to the point of inciting U.S. Dept. of Justice Voting Rights Section scrutiny and STILL they can’t be replaced may tarnish the halo of your optimism just a wee bit.


      2. My optimism is based upon personal experience and success- particularly with poll workers. I guess I would say that until you stop managing to the lowest common denominator for a while, you’ll never experience the benefits. Insisting it won’t work or that someone like me is foolishly all rainbows and unicorns is an indicator of an entrenched LCD manager who thinks more of the same demeaning management practices will solve problems– but it doesn’t.

        Sent from my iPad



      3. Even after I left the profession and moved to another county, I have never found any precinct in which I voted following the plain requirements of statute. They are a collective 0 for 17. Yes, some departures from law are “ticky-tack” minor stuff, but the majority are substantive.


  2. I am a Virginia Officer of Election. I am a Poll Chief and, like all poll workers at least in the County I work and I suspect throughout the state, I am a volunteer. Each election I’m assigned poll workers. They are volunteers. I work the polls in a county with a fairly intransient population so I have the good fortune of a consistent core group of people. A consistent core of good people—really good people. None of them are dummies (your term); all of them are quite capable. Perhaps I’m a dummy. I don’t know, that’s an evaluation for someone else to render. Probably you’re not a dummy.

    Perhaps I am a dummy because I see the myriad of election laws, rules and regulations as much more complex than the ‘simple instructions’ you imply.

    Our poll crew comes together a few times a year to manage a complex AND CRITICAL process and we are all dedicated to that process. That process and the laws regulating that process change. The pre-election training we receive covers those changes and prepares us for the upcoming election but the infrequency with which we conduct elections does not allow us to internalize the changes.

    Our polls are open for 13 hours. Include 60 minutes preparation to open the polls and 60 to 90 minutes to close the polls and we have a very long day. Perhaps you can sustain top performance for 15 hours. I cannot.

    I welcome check lists. I welcome matrices. I welcome branching decision trees. I welcome prescribed, standard solutions to the inevitable uncertainties of election day. I welcome anything that creates a more accurate, consistently fair and repeatable outcome.
    I think that’s what the public wants. I think that’s what the public expects. I think that’s what the public deserves.

    What you call managing to the lowest common denominator I call managing for the unpredictable, managing for the Black Swan and managing for public accountability.

    Perhaps I’m a dummy. Probably I’m not.


    1. I am not sure who you are responding to, the post or Mr Bellman’s comments, but if you think that I believe that pollworkers/election officers are dummies, then you misinterpreted my post. The opposite is the case and I am critiquing the practice of broad negative characterizations of any group based upon the poor performance of a handful of members of the group. Mr Bellman thinks differently based upon his experience.


      1. Scott,

        Neither you, nor pndfam05, should misinterpret where I believe the locus of the blame for all the rampant misadministration of elections at the individual precinct level falls. The expectations placed on people paid extraordinarily little, who only ply the trade 2 days a year usually (primary and general), is extraordinary. Whenever they even get close. I’m duly impressed.

        No, the fault, dear sirs, lies with our federal and state legislators, and the ideologues who impel them to create laws too complicated for people who either do, or nearly do, qualify under the term “amateurs”. Even these legislators, the type for whom I now work, cannot POSSIBLY begin to understand the laws they themselves pass, without considerable staff.

        In the days before the overcomplication of elections – before HAVA, before Bush v. Gore, before UOCAVA, before the NVRA of 1993 – “amateurs” could indeed run elections, and DID, both at the local election office jurisdiction level (counties usually, towns in New England) and at the precinct. Most of those new laws required a distinct increase in the professionalism of election administration, a commitment to which stopped at the LEO level if it ever got there at all. The precinct has been left to its own devices, and THAT is where error abounds.

        It’s not their fault. They’re ill-equipped, and ill-served by bad law.


      2. Keep in mind, I’m talking about Pennsylvania, where voter intimidation under threat of literal violence is a fact of life in our major cities in EVERY election. Yes, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, I’m calling YOU out.


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