Let Them Eat Cake! * That is what Marie Antoinette supposedly responded to the outcry that the people of France were starving and did not even have bread. Highly unpopular among the French people, she was guillotined, as was her husband, Louis XVI, during the French revolution.

Over the past years a growing population of “Marie Antoinette Managers” has emerged, and during the last year, during the pandemic, the phenomenon has become increasingly visible. The outcry from employees are met with responses from managers and leaders that are quite similar to the Let Them Have Cake!

Employees: We are not feeling well, we are suffering from burn-out and other mental health issues.
Managers: Take a self-paced course on stress management on LinkedIn.
Employees: We do not find meaning in our work anymore, we disengage.
Managers: We will hire a coach and write a purpose statement.
Employees: We do not have the authority required to do the job well.
Managers: We will put a ping-pong table in the cafeteria and beanbags in the coffee corner.
Employees: It is not productive to have 40 hours back-to-back zoom-meetings every week.
Managers: Take 1 Friday afternoon off once a month.
Employees: We are tired, fed up and demotivated.
Managers: Get up at 5am and do meditation and yoga to feel better.
Employees: The processes and policies prevent us from doing our job.
Managers: Let’s do Meyers-Briggs tests to see what personalities you all have…

A “Marie Antoinette Manager” is a manager that reverts to “ticking the box”, opting for activities that fulfil the superficial requirements of “doing something” but where it is obvious with a minimum of reflection that the activities are not effective, or even counterproductive.

Maybe you know some “Marie Antoinette Managers” out there? Maybe you worked for one? Maybe you accidently act as one at occasions?

Disclaimer: Marie Antoinette probably never said “Let Them Eat cake!” It was an existing quote attributed to her, that harmed her a lot. She may have cared more for her subjects than what popular belief led us to think *. On that note, I think it would be a mistake to judge any manager or leader that is not responding adequately to the needs of the employees today, except perhaps the CEO in some cases. Each and every manager and leader is a product of the system in which they operate, the culture of the organisation shapes the role and the behavior, and worst case turn them into “Marie-Antoinette Managers”. And for Every “Marie Antoinette Manager” there is probably a “Louis XVI CEO”.

But even if it is not the managers “fault”, or a question of character of the person holding the managers role, the problem persists. Having “Marie-Antoinette Managers” out there is problematic, non the least for the Manager. We know how it ended for Marie Antoinette, and it is only a question of time before the corporate guillotine comes out when teams do not perform.

This is the big challenge:

What we have observed at most of our clients, across industries, is that most Employees are stretched beyond their capacity to turn new requirements into action. There are major Changes that continuously requires a response. Management Expectations shifts and the bar keeps rising. And there is both opportunity and obligation to Learn new skills and behavior. Reconciling these three parameters and taking appropriate action is a big challenge indeed. Individuals, Teams, Managers and Executives struggle with this, each at their own level, and the consequence is an organisation that slows down, and enters into a viscous circle of inaction, frustration and stagnating performance.

When we step back, we see that at individual level, the complexity of choice, decision-making, trade-off, and risk has become extremely high. Reconciling Change, Management Expectations and Learning and turn this into action requires a level of thinking and strategizing that we historically expected only from senior leaders. Most employees are not equipped for this task today.

The good news is that there is a remedy to this dilemma, that is 100% within your control, and for which you need no trainers, consultants, or coaches. This remedy will improve the performance and wellbeing in the team, and it will help you to avoid any (true or false) label of being a “Marie Antoinette Manager”.

The remedy is Collaboration. We as human beings are naturally inclined to Collaborate efficiently. Taking on the Big Challenge (Reconciling Change, Management Expectations and Learning) is close to impossible to do alone, but as a team, it can be done successfully.

The bad news? Not sure if it is bad, but as this is within your control, you are responsible to put in the effort to make it happen.

Where to start? By listening to the team. Take some time to have an open discussion on what you can do together as a team that will allow you to work better together. Creating the right conditions to collaborate well is something every team can do, and anyone in the team, manager or not, is capable to initiate this work. It does not require any specific process, tools, skills. Just look at how kids do it. When you put them together, the first thing they do is to organize themselves to be able to collaborate. They only start fighting after an adult has intervened and imposed some type of arbitrary rules or objective.

Back at work though, it does require time and effort to establish the right conditions to collaborate well. The reward is a significant increase in wellbeing, productivity, and performance, and if the project is coming from the team, there will also be a sense of ownership and success.

If you want to pursue the idea of the team taking charge of how to Collaborate better, you may find the below questions useful to kick-start the effort:

1. What is the Role of the Team and the individuals in the team? This leads to deeper alignment and focus on what is important and allows to eliminate waste & tasks.
2. Are we listening and speaking in a way that it creates valuable conversations? Every interaction is an opportunity to move forward towards the goal.
3. Do we have healthy Human relationships at work? Behaving in a way that recognizes that we are full humans, with emotions & needs makes us more productive.
4. Why are we here? Delve into the company strategy, business model and customer value proposition. How are we expected to contribute? How can we contribute?
5. What do we need to know and what will we do with this knowledge? This is a question that hopefully leads you on to a path of experimentation and learning.
6. How can we describe the ecosystem in which we operate? The exploration of different perspectives of the situation within a team leads to discovery of how to move forward as one Team.

Do not kill these questions with quick answers. Befriend the questions and let them stimulate a great exchange about collaboration within your team over time. Schedule specific time to work on Collaboration within the team, set aside part of your weekly or monthly meetings to this topic, schedule longer meetings on a quarterly or half-year interval, and make sure to keep the work and conversation going in between meetings.
We hope that the above would work for you, to keep you, dear manager, away from the guillotine, and more importantly to keep your team well, productive, and successful.

Love to hear your thoughts, and please share if you found it useful


* Epilog on Marie Antoinette –
I enjoyed reflecting on Leadership while reading up a little bit on Who Marie Antoinette was and what she was about. My first learning was that there is much more to the story than the superficial and stereotypical image I had before. Then, Marie Antoinette could in my opinion be an interesting example of “an individual that take on a high-stake role in complex system” and can serve as a case for interesting reflections on what leadership is all about. Is it about the person (In Marie Antoinette’s case a 14-year-old girl married into the Royal court of France) and the personality, like certain schools of thought suggest? Is it about Skills, Behavior, Techniques (How do you learn to be a queen… when you are 18 years old….)? Or the Role and the System (how does the authority, power and politics in the system shape and determine the action and behavior of the Queen)? It can perhaps help to take a different perspective on what leadership and management in organisations is all about as well?
Marie Antoinette – Wikipedia