Love Me or Get Fired!

It was a big task, but Barbara thought she was up to it. She has proposed to create a whole new system from scratch, though there were plenty of vendor alternatives on the market. No, this was going to be her baby, her inspiration, and her legacy. This system was going to be built.

There was very little input from others about this system. Yes, there were a few focus groups asking what end-users would like to see in the system. Unfortunately, there weren’t any focus groups for those who really used the current system about what they really needed. Thus, when the first iteration of the system was unveiled, there were more than a few questions and more than a few criticisms leveled at the effort.

Stung by this, Barbara vigorously defended the system, leveling accusations at those who criticized the system as ‘hater of innovation’ or ‘not giving the system a chance’. When the critics brought up key functionality that the system did not possess, Barbara would counter that they really didn’t need that functionality and were just looking for things to criticize. When other said maybe they shouldn’t use the system, but stay with the legacy system, Barbara doubled down on her defense of the system and refused to even acknowledge those concerns.

In her own organization, Barbara mandated only support for the system. She did not want to hear about the shortcomings and ordered her direct reports to vigorously defend the system against any stakeholders who might dare to level criticism. For those direct reports who did come to her with concerns about the viability of the product, Barbara had a unique strategy. She threatened to fire them.

It wasn’t an outright threat, as Barbara knew that might warrant HR coming to visit her and investigate. Instead, she would usually say that she didn’t think anyone who wasn’t a ‘team player’ had a place in her organizations, and that the employee better think long and hard if they wanted to level any criticisms against the system. For the majority of her direct reports, that bought their silence rather well, though they still had serious reservations about the system. Barbara could live with that.

One of the most difficult part of being a leader is shuttling your ego to one side and listening to ideas contrary to your own. Even more difficult is admitting that you might not be correct about a course of action you have taken. None of us enjoys admitting that, nor having to reverse course and suffer the backlash that will ensue.

It is also one of the most critical parts of being a leader. If your ego can’t take that kind of examination of your actions, then you don’t have a right to be sitting in that leadership chair. If your reaction to being told you might be wrong is to immediately threaten termination to an employee for being ‘disloyal’, then you should vacate that position immediately, as now you have demonstrated that you care more about yourself than your company or your employees.

We all make mistakes. It is how we learn from them and go forward that defines us. If your reaction to hearing about possible mistakes is to find any and all ways of silencing those who told you, then you don’t deserve a position where you are allowed to make any decisions at all.

Table Scraps

Dog begging for table scraps

Sam sat down at his desk in his new job and began his morning routine.  After signing into the computer, he would open up the mail program to see what came in overnight.  Then, he would proceed to get into the other programs he needed to do his job.

One of the pieces of mail he found in his Inbox that day was a routine announcement from the department’s administrative assistant.  She forwarded along to new employees, like Sam, the schedule of days where the company would be closing early in anticipation of a national holiday, where the company would be closed.  While it was a rather routine email, it made Sam smile, as he recalled a similar conversation at his old company, but a much different outcome.

Several months prior, Sam had a conversation with a fellow employee of his former company.  It was a rather routine conversation, skipping from subject to subject.  One of those subjects was an innocent comment wondering why the company waited so long to let the employees know that they were being dismissed early on a day before a holiday.  Granted, they realized that they didn’t have to be let out early.  It was something that the company decided to grant.  They did appreciate that.  However, for as long as any of them had been with the company, they had always been let out a couple of hours early on a day before a holiday.

The issue, if you can call it that, came with the announcement of this early dismissal.  Sometimes it would come a couple of days before the holiday.  Other times it would come a few hours before the dismissal.  Leadership always seemed to keep the employees on edge wondering whether they would be leaving early before a national holiday.  Again, while it is a gift from the company, people could not plan to take advantage of that time until it was too late.

As it was around the time of a holiday, this topic came up, with Sam wondering why the company seemed so arbitrary in this.  His colleague surprised Sam by actually having an answer.  It seems, the colleague revealed, that the leadership of the company was dead set against announcing the early dismissals all at once for the year, or even well ahead of time for a very curious reason.  That reason?  The employees would then be given a new benefit, that of a few extra hours off due to a holiday.  The leadership of the company did not want employees to think they were ‘entitled’ to this, decided to make this on a case by case basis, so employees knew it could be taken away at any time.  Somehow, that explanation fit the company, but also made him feel a bit like a dog at the table begging for scraps.  The leadership was being ‘kind enough’ to give a few extra hours off, and they would never let the employees forget it.

As the memory faded away and tucked itself back into his ‘bad old days’ folder, Sam read over the communication from the department’s administrative assistant.  There, listed out, were the early dismissal days before national holidays, from that time until the end of the year.  It felt good to be invited to the table instead of begging for scraps.

 

Let the Hostility Continue!

hostile-work-environment-250x210Ralph knew it was a risky proposition from the start, but felt it needed to be done.

He prepared well.  He had his evidence, had practiced what he was going to day, brought examples, and was going to ask for solutions, not demand them.  He made the appointment with the department Director and walked in ready to have a discussion about the hostile work environment that he was experiencing in the office.

It did not go well, thanks to the Director.

Instead of weighing the evidence, the Director dismissed each and every example that Ralph brought in.  Instead of discussing why Ralph felt this way, he trotted out every instance where Ralph had done something wrong. (according to the Director and Ralph’s Manager)  Instead of bringing in a neutral third party from Human Resources, the Director once again told Ralph what a crappy department this was and that the Director had gotten there just in time to save it from itself.  Instead of seeing both sides of the story, the Director decided to blame Ralph for everything.  Instead of taking copious notes about this conversation or bringing in Human Resources, the Director just talked, at one time confusing the issue and having to be corrected by Ralph.

Instead of giving Ralph’s concerns due consideration, the Director decided to make the work environment even more hostile towards Ralph.

A few days after this talk, the Director and Manager pulled Ralph in to inform him he had been placed on a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’, which could result in termination if he did not fulfill it to the letter.  The plan was filled with misstatements, uncheck claims, and was fully one sided, as Human Resources didn’t bother to speak with Ralph at all about his side in the matter.

In short, everything that the company had said about a safe to speak environment was torn up in tiny pieces, and set afire by the Director, Manager, and Human Resources.

If you as a leader of people can’t get past your own ego and take a few critical comments, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people can’t listen to those comments, carefully consider them, and change your behaviors based on them, then you are no leader of people.

If you as a leader of people believe yours is the only voice and opinion that counts, then you are no leader of people.

A good leader wants to solve problems to make their people happy and productive.  If the only solution you have ends in the words, “I’m right”, then don’t expect much else from your people.  Then again, your ego probably won’t allow you to expect anything from anyone, as you are the only person who matters in the world.

Be that leader your people need and want.  Ditch the ego and open your ears.

The 24 Comments

Edited Text

It was a fairly standard document and practice.  Sam was writing a proposal for the department to do some work for another department.  He had written these many times before, had a template for it, and knew pretty much what to put in the document.

At least he thought he did, before his new manager showed up.  Right from the very beginning, she made it very clear that she was an ‘expert’ in these things and was going to show all of them how to do things the ‘right’ way, at least according to her way of thinking.  So, a new template was drawn up, the new manager told the staff what had to be placed into these proposals, and announced that each and every one of them had to be personally cleared by her before going to the customer.  Though the staff was rather insulted by this behavior, they complied, if only to keep their jobs.  The took deep breaths and began to do their work this new way.

Sam was one of the first to experience what this new way involved.  He wrote the proposal the way that the new manager had indicated, sent it off to her, and awaited her response.  A couple of days later it came back, and when opened, revealed that, on a two page document, she had made 24 separate comments on how it had to be improved.  The amount of electronic red ink on the paper alone threatened to overwhelm the word processing program.

That wasn’t all, though.  The comments were not the type where there was a suggestion of how things might be put differently.  No, they were direct comments about how to write each and every bullet point, or comments about how the items Sam had written down were poor, ineffective, or not of a quality nature.  What the new manager had done was remake the document in her image, according to what she thought was right, and schooled Sam in how things were going to be.  What the new manager had also done, in one big swath of red ink, was to sap any remaining motivation or love of his job right away.  Judging from the looks on the other faces of the employees around him, she was doing a good job in that respect to all the other staff.

We all have our ways of doing things, according to our own style.  Look for assessments of this and you will find dozens of tests to determine your personality or way of doing things.  It is human nature to do things a bit differently from someone else.  What’s more, a good manager knows this.

The good manager, if they want something done to a certain specification, leads the employee to that realization by questioning, self-realization, and explanation.  That manager knows that, while you may get things done with the stick, the carrot is much more effective in making sure people’s actions change to how you want things done.  This approach leads to learning, growing, and, in most cases, getting what you need without many hard feelings.

If you come in as the great hope of the department, determined to show how much you know and determined to convert the masses with the force of your personality, you are going to see a lot of backs turned to you.  If you tell instead of suggest, order instead of lead, and demean instead of persuade, you will get just what you intended:  a group of drones, not an engaged workforce.

A good manager does their job so their people learn and grow.

A bad manager does their job so their own ego can grow.  And they do it awash in a sea of red ink corrections.  That same sea of red ink will wash away your people as soon as they can get the chance to leave.  What will that do for your ego and, more importantly, your productivity?

There’s No “You” in Team

nutcracker and nut

It had been a long week, and all Ralph wanted to do was go home.  He had been berated about his work all week from his new bosses, especially his new Director, and he just wanted to leave a once promising workplace.  His co-worker, Sam, had tried to help him understand that it wasn’t him.  His work was good, but these new bosses had to go prove themselves, and they were doing it by berating the both of them.  Ralph knew this to be true, but was still tired of the attacks.

It would seem that there was one more salvo coming from the Director for the week.  He called Ralph in, sat him down, and began speaking to him in a tone that brooked no argument.  “It has been reported to me that you have been exhibiting negative behavior in staff meetings.  I need to know right now if you are committed to the goals of this team or not.”

Ralph was knocked back on his heels from this statement.  True, both he and Sam were not always in support of what the new direction was, but had agreed that they had to support it with their work efforts to keep moving forward.  Taking a breath, he asked the Director who had mentioned this to him.  The Director refused to tell him.  Ralph then asked what was this negative behavior. “You rolled your eyes.”  Ralph said very succinctly that he would watch that behavior, and was given permission to leave the Director’s presence.  He beat a path out of the office and left for the day, more beaten down than ever.

When the word ‘team’ is used as a weapon, nothing good can come out of that conversation.  Teamwork is built, piece by piece, not imposed because the leader wants it that way.  Team loyalty is earned.  It is a slow process.  It is patient, and it can blossom.  It has to grow organically.  You cannot magically create a cohesive team simply because you have taken over the leadership of a department or group.  You can’t make a team by hammering the concept into everyone’s head.  Yet, some managers seem to believe this.  In reality, they are over a group of people, not a team.

What happens when a good manager hears of criticism or that an employee isn’t happy?  In most cases, they will ask the employee if they are okay, if there is something they would like to speak about, or ask some probing questions to find out what the problem is so it can be solved.  The good manager will try to get to the heart of the matter to see if it can be resolved.  It may not be able to, but the good manager will give the employee a chance to air their grievances, without punishment and without retribution.

The good manager inspires and facilitates healthy debate, not accuse someone of something without even letting them know their accuser.  The good manager asks why something happened, not makes a summary judgement about what could be an innocent gesture.

When a manager sets themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, they are not building a team.  That manager is setting up an environment where nobody will speak, there will be whispers in the hallway, and people will give just enough not to get fired.  When they pronounce, instead of ask, they have let their employees know what they really think of the team.

What’s your definition of ‘team’, dear manager?  Is it one where people have the freedom to disagree, or is simply a handy term to enforce your will?

How to Dry Dishes

My way or the highway sign

It was the first time in months that Ralph had any spark of interest in his job.  It was an unusual sensation for him, and he welcomed it.  Ever since the new management team had come in, he had lost all spark of interest in his job, doing it like an automaton, putting in his hours, and then going home.  He knew his fellow employees felt the same way.  The new management team had come in, expressed disapproval of the way they had done things, and instituted a strict regimen of how they would do their work going forward.  There would be no room for creativity, no room for personal expression.  There would be the way the ‘best practices’ prescribed and that would be it.  In short, since the new management wanted automatons, this is exactly what they got.

Ralph was working on a presentation that had been previously given under the old management.  As it was not up to the new management’s specifications, he was busily correcting it, making sure it passed inspection before he would be allowed to present it.  As he was creating it, he saw a need for a job aid for his fellow employees.  It would allow them to take the heart of the presentation with them and use as they saw fit.  He quickly went about creating the job aid, trying to balance the need to convey information with a little less than corporate style.

Knowing he would have to present it to his new manager, he took the initiative, and told her what he was doing.  She, as expected, informed him she would need to see it to give it her blessing.  He sent it to her, and was summarily asked if he could step into her office.

His manager informed him that context was good, with the right information needed.  The issue was the layout.  It wasn’t in straight lines.  The images were a bit off center from each other.  They needed to be in straight lines in order to ‘look good’.  He was advised that he could use PowerPoint SmartArt in order to redraft this, as it placed things in nice, neat order.  She began to show him how to use the tool when he announced to her that he knew how to use it.  As he walked out of the office, any spark that had ignited had been extinguished wholly by a whole bucket of control freak water.

I’m reminded of a story told by a colleague.  Many years ago she was at her grandmother’s house, and was helping her dry dishes.  The grandmother looked at her disapprovingly and told her she was drying the dishes the wrong way.  So not to disrespect her grandmother, she began drying the dishes the ‘proper’ way, but the point of the story was that the dishes were going to be dry regardless, so why was she drying them improperly?  It was that her grandmother saw that doing things her way was more important than the result.  The same could be said for the manager in this story.

A strange paradox in the working world is that when you hold on the tightest to control, you actually control less.  You have your sense of control, but you have unmotivated, uninterested, and unengaged workers who are there to collect a paycheck.  They have no freedom, have no creativity, and have no interest in their jobs.  You are basically saying you don’t trust anyone at all, and have to keep them in line for anything to get done.

By releasing that control, you get people who will use their creativity.  By loosening the boundaries, you can still get what you want, but have people try new and innovative ways of working within those boundaries.  You get your way without having to exert it like a sledgehammer.  By giving up control, you are showing trust in your people, and you get people who want to keep that trust in return.

It is a choice between believing only in yourself or believing in your people.  Your choice will determine whether your people believe in you.

Oh, and that colleague who had the very controlling grandmother?  You may recognize who it is…her name, at least in these articles, is Sarah.

Royally Clueless

250px-Queen_of_HeartsThe queen looked out at the peasants from her chamber.  She sighed.  Everywhere she looked, she saw them doing thing improperly, not being efficient, or grumbling about the burden of work they had been given.  Why couldn’t they be more like her?  She knew how to be perfectly efficient, delegate her duties so they weren’t overwhelming, and did her share of grumbling, but with her, the grumbling was justified, not the petty and shortsighted concerns they had.  The grumbling against her was the thing that confused her the most.  Didn’t they see that she was only going what was best for them?

Her pointing out of their flaws was only meant to have them realize they could improve.  Her rather forthright style was so they knew exactly what she wanted.  The increasing amount of work benefited the whole kingdom, if not them personally, and had made her the powerful monarch she was today, and who wouldn’t want that?  Yes, to her thinking, her subjects should be the happiest, most grateful, and most worshipful people in the land.

She looked out the window and once again saw the depressing sight of those ungrateful, unhappy wretches doing their work in such depressing fashion.  She was glad she had this little talk with herself, as it proved once again it was all their fault.  She was doing everything properly, and they just couldn’t appreciate it.  She retired into her sanctum assured of her perfection.

Of course this never really happened, but for many of the department’s employees, this is the scenario, or one similar to it, that they envisioned day after day.  It was especially appropriate today after the department head, receiving the employee opinion data, had proclaimed that she wasn’t sure if the data was at all relevant about her, and that maybe she should wait until next year’s data.  This was after last year where she proclaimed, “Yes, but we should focus only on the positive news”.  In the intervening time, she had not changed one thing about her managerial style, moved one iota from her ‘brutal honest’ philosophy, (though not tolerating that from anyone else) or throttled back on the backbreaking workload which she delegated to her subordinates.  After all, she had received a promotion because of the successes this style had brought, so why change it?  It was working for her and her ascent up the ladder.  If others didn’t like it, she really didn’t seem to care.

Still, it came as a shock to her that people were unhappy, eliciting another round of excuses from her as to how the data should be interpreted and, with a heavy sigh, saying that the department would try again to rectify these issues.  She then went about her business, and her employees went around being miserable.

How are you envisioned by your employees?  A benevolent ruler, open to their hopes, dreams, and concerns?  An absolute dictator who barks out orders, brooks no insubordination, and looks down on everyone else as not being as superior as you?  What names (clean ones, that is) are you being referred to when your employees gather together?  If you knew what those names were, what would your reaction be — concern that this was how you were viewed, or an instantaneous judgement that the employees saying those names are misinformed, wrong, and disloyal?

If you find yourself having to make excuses for how your employee see you, then it is you who is living in delusion.  It is time for your to descend from your royal tower, go out into the courtyard, and sit down with the townsfolk and listen to them.  Once you do this without judgement or punishment, you have begun the journey to self-awareness.  Once you have worked to make their lives better person by person, you have begun the journey to becoming a good manager.    Do that for a few years, and we’ll discuss your journey towards being a leader.