Management 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.