This is the first in a set of articles detailing some of the management behaviors that took place while a certain department was working on a very labor-intensive project. This won’t be detailing the project specifically, but how management handled the stresses on the department resulting from the project.
The department was several weeks into the work on the project, and the strain was showing on everyone. People were working insane hours trying to get their project work done while getting their regular jobs done as well. People putting in 50 to 80 hours a week was becoming typical, and there was no end in sight. Nights, weekends, and holidays were being taken up by project work, as were the notes from supervisors as to why a certain regular work task wasn’t done. The silent reaction to that kind of demand was usually, “You are kidding, right?”
Many looked to the office of Sarah. Claiming she was ‘swamped’, she had not volunteered to take any burden off of anyone regarding the project, though she had hired a temp or two for some of the tasks. While the staff was appreciative of the temps work, they also looked skeptically as Sarah’s claim, as they were all swamped with work even before the project. Now they were simply overloaded.
In the midst of this, Sarah had decided what her major area of focus was going to be. She needed a new title. Claiming her present title didn’t sufficiently convey the importance of her role, she had gone on a campaign of trying to change her title to something more appropriate. As the machinery of this involved some of the systems that she was in charge of, she would appropriate some of the time of the people of the department to make this happen. It didn’t seem to matter to her that her people were already beyond their capacity. This was important to Sarah, as it would give her the title she so well deserved.
So, it came as no real surprise when a member of her department, involved in getting testing done before the deadline later that day, opened her mailbox to see a note from Sarah designated as high priority. Opening it, they saw all the approvals necessary for the title change had come through and that Sarah had to have it officially put into the system right away, or, in Sarah speak, by end of day.
Dutifully, the employee of the department closed the testing they were doing, opened up another system, and entered the information to officially change Sarah’s title. After saving that information, the employee looked at the clock and saw that, with the time used for that ‘high priority’ task, they would now have to stay late, again, to finish the testing for the day. Otherwise, they risked a note from their supervisor or from Sarah herself scolding them for not getting this done, causing someone to call her and ask why the testing wasn’t done, and suggesting they really needed to manage their time better.
“Yep”, the employee thought to them self, “I now feel so much more respect for Sarah now that she has this new title.” The employee looked to Sarah’s office. She had decided to leave for the day, probably claiming that she deserved the time off for all the work she had done that day.
Arnold was in a panic. Things weren’t going the way he had planned them, and he wasn’t happy about it in the least. If all had gone as he had manipulated, he would have had Vince exactly where he needed him, things going just as he wanted, and the near future looking good. Unfortunately, Vince had thrown his plans into such disarray that he didn’t know what do to next.
Arnold used to be Vince’s department head. Since taking the job, Arnold had relied upon Vince and his colleagues to look good to the client. Arnold’s clients would ask for a solution, which Vince or one of his colleague would work hard to provide. They were then mandated to hand it in to Arnold, who would take it to the client, take credit for it, and then reap all the praise for the great work.
In Vince’s case, Arnold added a bit extra to that formula. On a regular basis, Arnold would criticize Vince for one thing or another, demeaning his knowledge, running down his experience, and basically making Vince feel like he was lucky Arnold didn’t fire him and that Vince was fortunate to still have a job. This was Arnold’s way of ensuring that Vince stayed worked for him, and not seeking a better job or asking for a raise or promotion.
The whole system began to unravel when the company they worked for underwent massive downsizing and restructuring. Within a two year span, thousands of the employees were either downsized or their business unit sold to another company. It was a bloodbath, in no uncertain terms, and caused Arnold’s self-preservation instincts to jump into high gear.
The latest ‘restructuring’ was being announced, and though Vince no longer worked directly for Arnold, his work was integral to Arnold’s sterling reputation with his clients. As the rest of Vince’s colleagues had already been laid off, Arnold relied upon Vince more than ever.
So, in order to keep this good thing going, Arnold announced to Vince that he was going to ‘save’ him from the latest round of layoffs. The latest restructuring gave Arnold two employees, and he was going to make sure that Vince received one of those slots. Vince greeted this with less enthusiasm than Arnold expected, but he accepted the offer.
A week later, after the application deadline for all the ‘restructured’ spots was over, Arnold came to Vince and told him he could no longer consider him for that position. He used the old excuse of, ‘you don’t have the skills necessary’, though offered no explanation why he didn’t know this a week and a half ago. In reality, Arnold had been told in no uncertain terms that, if Vince took the position, he could no longer do the work for Arnold that had made him look so good. As this was the only reason why Arnold wanted Vince in the position, he quickly reversed course.
Realizing where this placed his gravy train, Arnold approached Vince and told him that he was going to fight to have Vince placed on a new team. What Vince replied with threw Arnold into a tailspin. Vince’s reply? “No, you won’t.”
If this had been a Hollywood film, Vince would have had a wonderful speech about how Arnold had finally gone too far with his lies, deceptions, manipulations, and other acts. Instead, he simply said, “You didn’t want me the first time. I don’t want to be part of yours or any other team in the company any longer.” He further admonished Arnold not to try to get him on any other team.
Arnold was dumbfounded. He had worked so long manipulating those around him to his own advantage. He thought he had Vince convinced that he was so worthless that only Arnold’s kindness and largess was saving him. Apparently, he had underestimated Vince’s resilience, as well as his tolerance for the nearly inhuman way he and his colleagues had been treated by Arnold’s peers.
A few days later, Arnold came back to Vince to offer him another ‘solution’. Vince could come back as a contractor! Vince looked at Arnold and asked, “If I don’t want to be part of this place as an employee, why would I want to be part of it as a contractor?”
In the end, Vince was laid off from the company, and Arnold didn’t even wish him well on his way out. He found a position soon after, but kept in touch with some of his former colleagues. From them he learned that, within six months, Arnold’s reputation with his clients was in tatters. He was no longer working miracles, and his clients weren’t happy about that. The two people he had hired for the spots under him, one of them his good friend, weren’t working out, and his life was miserable. Vince, still healing from the abuses heaped upon him at the company, reacted with muted recognition, and got back to work at his new job.
The picture above is from an old cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor. One of Popeye’s famous lines was, when he had enough, “That’s all I can stand; I can’t stand no more”. If your way of keeping your good people is to threaten, manipulate, criticize, and make them feel altogether lucky to have a job, be prepared to be surprised. Each employee, like Vince, will have their Popeye moment and decide that living with the abuse is no longer the way they want to exist. They will then do something surprising that you never expected, because your own ego won’t allow you to believe anyone but you is pulling the strings.
And, when that employee leaves, and you are left scrambling to have to fill some very big shoes, remember Popeye. Remember as well that, if you simply treated your employees with respect and courtesy, everyone succeeds. If you don’t, only your employees will emerge stronger at the finish.
It had become the new method of dealing with the abundant stress in the company. It was the stress leave, and more and more employees had been taking it. The latest was Ellen, who had finally had it with her new department leader. The leader, who had risen in the ranks, often decided to sneak up on people to spy on what they were doing on their computer. Her ‘my way or the highway’ approach to the work to be done had her staff doing tons of extra work in order to do things the way she wanted, even if it didn’t make sense. She also arbitrarily changed their job responsibilities, adding travel or other duties, without talking with the staff first, and simply expecting them to accept these changes without question.
Ellen did what many staff members had been doing. Seeing no recourse from Human Resources, she asked her doctor to write her out on a stress leave. The doctor, seeing what was being done to Ellen, happily agreed. She thus became one of the lengthening list of people who was taking advantage of this in order to find another job while having some income flowing. Was it what she wanted to do? No. Like many of her colleagues, she wanted to come in to do the job she had at one time loved. The fact that so many were taking this option showed there was a problem with who the company was promoting, not who the company was hiring to do the work.
What was Human Resources’ response to this growing trend? Did they begin to investigate why this type of leave was rising rapidly? Were they working with managers to try to improve their performance, especially at the executive level? Were they identifying which behaviors were causing this? No to all the above. Human Resources only consultation with these managers was to tell them that the employee’s job was protected for six months. After that, HR would help the manager fire the employee. They did this with astonishing frequency, almost becoming effortless experts at it.
Thus Ellen became the latest person in another growing line: employees released by the company because HR couldn’t be bothered to find out why the employee, who had been with the company 10 years, was now willing to be fired rather than come into the office.
It is a poor doctor that decides to treat the symptoms of a disease but make a conscious decision not to look for its root causes. The same with a company’s HR department. When their decision is to always support the manager, whether the manager is right or wrong, then they set the stage for employees to take any way they can to cope with the situation.
In other words, when you decide to ignore the elephant in the room, you can’t blame anyone else for having to clean up what the elephant leaves behind.
It was company policy to refresh each employee’s computer every three years. Sarah was no different, so when the call to renew her laptop came to the coordinator for the department, the coordinator approved a new laptop for her. Soon enough, the IT department informed Sarah that they would be stopping by to install her new laptop. That is when this whole thing began.
Sarah had decided she didn’t want the typical renewed laptop. Oh no, that would not do for her. Now, she had not told anyone this, but this is what she wanted. What did she want? Well, she wanted something different. She wanted a laptop made by a company that has a fruit theme. This didn’t bother the IT department, as they had two different types of fruit-themed laptops available for users.
But wait, Sarah said, she didn’t want either of them. She wanted something special. She wanted something that they didn’t regularly stock. After consultation with IT, they came up with the fruit-themed laptop that she would accept. This set the wheels turning for the coordinator for the department to spend a few hours having to fill out the proper forms for a special request, give the justification, and do the research for the price and possible vendor. It then had to go through the Byzantine approval system. Happily, he must have burned the right incense and incanted the right ritual, as the request went through. Sarah was happy.
As part of the request, the coordinator was advised to make sure he ordered all the accessories for the computer at the same time. Again, spending time researching all that Sarah would need, he added in all but one thing. Would Sarah want a new monitor?
Her monitor at present was satisfactory for what she would use the fruit-themed laptop for, but the coordinator knew better. This laptop wasn’t satisfying a huge business need. No, it was satisfying an ego need, which Sarah was the latest victim of, having seen many of her peers succumb. Because of that, he believed soon after the laptop arrived, she would want the same monitor that the other executives had. The coordinator went to the fruit-themed vendor’s website, surfed for monitors, and found the one monitor they sold. It was:
Bringing this to Sarah, the coordinator advised Sarah of her choices and the respective prices. Sarah’s decision? The $999 monitor, which the department would pay for. Despite that the CFO, one of Sarah’s peers, told everyone in the department that it was everyone’s duty to avoid unnecessary expenditures, Sarah authorized the monitor for her…for $999. It would take more incense, more rituals, and more paperwork to push it through. Every time the coordinator would be asked why did someone need such a ridiculously expensive monitor, he would simply say that it was what Sarah wanted. Having dealt with enough executives of the company and their expensive toys, the ordering department put the request through.
Helping the company be fiscally responsible could wait for another day. Sarah needed her monitor that could be viewed by the International Space Station. The coordinator sat back, resumed work on his standard laptop, viewing his standard screen, and got on with his day.
It had been a bad year for Sarah’s department. The company didn’t win a best places to work award, which Sarah was in charge of applying for, in two years straight years. The staff had some very critical things to say about the services her department had provided. Her performance ratings still had some serious issues, with her department not being a safe to say environment among the top items.
At a staff meeting on this, Sarah announced she had come up with a unique way of dealing with all this ‘bad news’. She was simply going to ignore it all. There would be no work to improve the situation, no going forward plans, and no focus groups. She was simply going to pretend they didn’t exist. She would close her eyes and they would all float away.
The staff, upon hearing this, simply nodded blandly. They were not surprised, as they knew Sarah. Nothing was ever her fault. Someone else was always to blame. There was never a hint of introspection. She would find someone to blame and then go from there. In this case, she couldn’t, so it made sense to them that her fall back position was to simply ignore the existence of the problem, and then dare anyone to bring them up once she had made her decision. Nobody would, as they enjoyed paying their mortgages.
When we are small children, we believe that if we pull the covers over our head, we will be protected from the monsters under the bed. As we grow up, we learn that there are not monsters under the bed, but there are some uglier and more dangerous monsters in the world. We also learn that we need to not hide under the covers, but rather face our monsters. Legitimate criticism, if we learn from it, makes us stronger and better.
Leaders can’t afford to have their heads under the covers fearing the monsters under the bed. They can’t just say they are going to ignore the criticisms, while readily dishing out criticisms about others. It’s not the sexiest part of leadership, but a crucial part of it. Too bad some just can’t get out from under the covers.
The annual meeting to discuss the latest engagement scores was held by Sarah, with about typical results. Some scores went up, some went down, and some stayed the same. That wasn’t news. As any employee who had watched this dance for several years knew, the focus of the meeting, and the major entertainment, was how the scores would be spun. This year was no different in that aspect.
You had to listen more closely this year for the entertainment, however, as it was subtle, but it was there. It wasn’t in what was said about why the scores were what they were, but in the different explanations for the scores. For any scores that were good, or had shown improvement, Sarah and her supporters immediately complimented each other on how well ‘the department’ did. However, for any scores that had shown a decline, the story was quite different. For each one of those, the explanation was that ‘the company’s’ scores on these areas must be represented by the data, not the department’s. In other words, any poor scores were not reflective of the department, but rather that the company’s poor scores were dragging that number down. Thus, it was not the department’s fault the numbers were low. They could then be blithely ignored and have no concerns whatsoever given to them.
This see-saw effect happened throughout the meeting. It was obvious that any good scores were reflective of the department, and that any bad scores were the result of everyone else dragging down what would have been stellar numbers for the department. This flexible interpretation made Sarah and her supporters feel good and walk out of the meeting assured that they were doing a wonderful job.
There is an old saying that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. In this case, failure did have a parent, but it turned out to be dubious lineage. Sarah and her supporters didn’t know who the parent was, but it was obvious it wasn’t them. This finger pointing would allow them to escape any critical review of themselves for another year.
A good leader is one who accepts both the good and the bad news. That leader than engages in critical reflection of that bad news and why it happened, and what can be done to turn it around. That leader does not push it to the side, blaming everyone else for it, but uses it to grow. The result is a better leader and a better situation for those they lead.
If the only mental exercise you get is to figure out a way to blame others for your own bad news, then I congratulate you. You are a master of the spin.
I cannot congratulate you for being a good leader, though, for you have a long way to go before that title is bestowed upon you.
Author’s note: This is the 199th blog I have written for this site. While blog #200 will be reflections on that, I did want to make note of it here, and the reason why this particular blog is being written. It has been saved for quite a long time.
When an employee does something against company policy, or a manager is underperforming in some way, the usual cry is to get Human Resources (HR) involved. This is natural and to be expected. HR is the body that is charged with creating and maintaining a workplace that both respects the laws of a country and prevents lawsuits from ever happening in the first place. Thus, if something is taking place that is unprofessional, illegal, or unlawful, it is HR that is duty bound to set it right. It is an unpleasant duty, but HR is supposed to be the watchman of the organization.
What happens when it is HR that is breaking the rules? What happens when it is HR that has staff acting unprofessionally? Can they be trusted to police themselves? Or, because they are the watchmen, they are free to ignore their own acts and act with impunity. If you are a member of HR and are being treated unfairly and unprofessionally, who do you go to? Who watches the watchers? And, if the watchers know there is no one watching them, do they then act accordingly?
In my collection of stories about good managers and bad, I have heard a lot of HR stories. Many HR organizations are good. They try their best under very difficult circumstances to serve their constituents. However, there are others that let the following go on:
- An Employee Relations person in a college was known for gossiping about any case that came to her. If anyone complained, they found an Employee Relations case leveled against them.
- An Employee Relations manager routinely ignored complaints about managers, but would always prosecute employees when a manager would come to her with a complaint.
- An HR Director, when asked about an executive in the company who had a file of complaints 3 inches thick, responded, “Yeah, she’s a problem”
- An HR person said the following to an employee who issued a complaint about her manager routinely cursing at her: “He outranks you and that makes him right”.
If this is what is said and done outwardly to the company, what does that say about how they treat their own people? If this is the standard they set for the company and expect no pushback, what do they get away with in their own department? What nepotism, politics, and punishment goes on when there is no one to report these abuses to? Much like the stories above, I have heard many of how the HR department acts with impunity to their own people because there is no recourse for their employees. I’ve reported a fair number of them over the past 200 blogs, but there are many more in the files.
Everyone needs oversight, for without it, the temptation to cheat becomes too great. Even the watchers need someone to watch them. Let’s enforce honesty in those who are supposed to enforce honesty in others.
Sarah’s department retreat had not happened yet, and she had a request transmitted from the corporate coach who would be conducting the session: “Please have your people contact me, confidentially, so I can get a good pulse of the department”. Though this was fraught with danger, as if the coach was not going to treat this confidentially, there would be retribution by Sarah. Still, even with this danger, there were a fair number of employees who took the corporate coach up on this offer.
The coach very patiently and kindly listened to all the callers, and made a surprising revelation. Each caller had said the same thing about Sarah and the department. Each caller had indicated that it was a not a safe to say environment, that there was retribution, that Sarah was never wrong, even when she was…all topics that readers of this blog have become familiar with in the tales of Sarah. The coach then promised that these issues would be addressed in the coaching sessions.
The first session came and the staff waited for these issues to be addressed.
And, with the exception of the coach saying that everyone was expected to speak openly and candidly, which the staff who had been around a while promptly ignored, not another word was said regarding any of the issues that was spoken about to the coach. The staff began to worry that they had spoken to freely and that the purpose of the coach’s invitation was to gather evidence to pass along to Sarah. After all, one person had mysteriously ‘been terminated’ shortly after the session.
The second set of sessions did not have the coach ask for any feedback on either the previous session or on the progress, if any, of Sarah. During this set, the coach went further, extolling the virtues of Sarah and saying how much he admired her. To be fair, he also complimented the staff, but only Sarah stood out for special treatment. The staff saw very starkly that the coach had not lived, and was not going to live up to his promise.
We all prefer the soothing words over the words of criticism. It is human nature to want to do so. We prefer to hear that we are doing well over the idea that we might be doing something poorly. However, we need to hear what is wrong, especially when so many of those who have had dealing with us say the exact same thing. If all we desire to hear, or reward hearing, is the good and not the bad, we are deliberately avoiding items that might make us a better leader, manager, or person.
When you aid in this, by deliberately avoiding some appealing truths, what does that say about your worth as an adviser, coach, or confidante? Are you simply selling out to the highest bidder?
If, as a leader, you say you value honesty, but then don’t want to hear it. If you favor those who only say favorable things about you. If your interest in improving by looking at your weaknesses is nil. If that is you, don’t bother calling yourself a leader, and don’t expect anyone else to, either.
Well, except those you pay to do so.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a company meeting where the top management invited the staff to write in with their questions. The top questions, based on votes by the staff, would be answered in the session. The answers were, to be charitable, less than what the employees deserved. The next two blogs will focus on two of those questions, both asked of the HR Department.
One of the more popular questions, by evidence of how many people voted for it, was asked of the HR Department, which had received the majority of questions asked. The questioner asked how they could advance in the company. They kept going for new opportunities in their department, always to be turned down. They wanted to stay with the company, but it seemed that only the chosen few ever received promotions or advancement.
The head of HR, very seriously, answered that question in the following way: Talk with your supervisor about how you can advance.
Let’s recap for a moment, shall we? The main reason for the employee writing in, and so many people’s approval of the question, was because this person has spoken with his or her supervisor several times about promotional possibilities in the office. Each time they were either blown off or turned away. By the number of people who voted up this question, it was quite a common managerial behavior in the company. Now, when brought into the light, what does the head of HR say to the person. Talk to your supervisor.
You are advising someone who has hit a brick wall with their manager about moving up in the company to talk with the same manager who is blocking them. Is anyone getting whiplash here?
This question, and the amount of positive votes it received, should have been a red flag in the air for the head of HR. There is an epidemic in their company of favoritism, or perceived favoritism, in the promotional process. People are frustrated and are looking for a lifeline to stay with the company. Your answer, head of HR, which probably took about a minute and a half to scribble down, is akin to saying, “Screw you. This is not important for me. Here is a generic answer that you will accept because I have no time to care about your petty problems.” Yet the head of HR probably wonders why the majority of critical questions are directed at her.
The company is offering a unique way of having people be heard. True, it may bring out some difficult questions, but as a leader, don’t you want these questions to surface so you can understand the critical issues facing the company? By providing such a pat, and in this case, insulting, answer, shows you do not care about the company or its people. Worse, you have squandered an opportunity for you to turn the perception of your department to something positive.
Get hit with hard questions? Welcome them. Embrace them. Treat them as a challenge to find new, innovative, and creative solutions that will truly solve the problem. This is what leaders do. It is only the lazy and uncaring that pull out the pat answers and pawn them off to people in pain.
No one knew who exactly told Kate about this particular management technique, but for those who reported to her, there was a general wish that she had not listened that particular day. She was driving all of them to distraction with her schizophrenic style of feedback.
If Kate had a compliment for you, she would fire up her e-mail and send out a letter of compliment to your inbox. It was a happy thing, of course, and one where you could be proud of your achievements.
However, if Kate had something other than a compliment for you, she would not put it in writing. Instead, she would give you a call, and usually wait until you where there to speak with her. At that point, she would, as the vernacular states, tear you a new one. Once the phone call was done, you would shake your head and wonder how in one minute you could do something that warranted a complimentary e-mail, and the next minute saw you be verbally eviscerated because of some minor infraction.
Why did Kate do this? One thought is that she was pulled aside one day and told that, if something isn’t in writing, you can’t be held accountable for it. So, the good stuff she would be able to take credit for. If someone called her on the bad stuff? You could always deny it ever happened or say that your intentions were misinterpreted.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that your staff is driven to the edge of paranoia. Your compliments are disregarded as fast as they can hit the ‘delete’ button, and every time your name shows up on the caller ID, you can assured of a shudder, an eye roll, or long, exasperated sigh. Nobody is going to believe a word you say, and, in many cases, you will be covertly despised by your people for your ludicrous behavior.
You are a leader of people. Don’t you think it is time you stopped making obscene phone calls? Isn’t it time you begin to face your people as a leader, and not as a strategist, looking only at how you can get away with your petty ranting? If there is a legitimate issue with someone, talk with them, face to face, professionally, and insist on a record of the conversation. While you are at it, pause before you talk to that person and think if you are the one who may need to change your ways or attitude.
Your employees, everyone’s employees, deserve better than the equivalent of heaving breathing on the receiver.