The Unexpected Response


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.

Retiring Your Professionalism

Pouting Baby

It had been a good run for Vance, but he decided he just didn’t want to go into Sarah’s department one more time.  He was eligible for retirement, had planned his retirement well, and was ready to enjoy the rest of his life.  So, when he dropped his papers on her desk, there were no regrets.

This left Sarah in a bit of a spot.  One of Vance’s people was out on medical leave, and the others were scheduled for training that could not be moved the first week after he left the company.  She asked him if he would postpone his retirement for a few weeks.  The answer was no.  She asked him if he would come back as a consultant for a few days a week to provide coverage.  Why would he, Vance asked, come back with reduced pay and benefits to do the same work he had done as an employee?  No, this is when he was retiring that that was it.

You might think Vance was being unreasonably stubborn, but he wasn’t.  He had worked for Sarah for approximately 5 years.  In those 5 years, he had seen his workload doubled, if not tripled, with Sarah being unmoving on giving his people a break in their work.  Sarah had continually demanded more innovation, more programs, and more things that she could report on that ‘she’ had done with the department.  It could be honestly said that Sarah based her rise in the ranks on Vance’s team’s work, with the only reward that they received was a continuous demand for more, more, more.  He did this without one extra person on the team in all those years, doctor verified high blood pressure, and the stress causing his health did deteriorate.  On the times when Vance did try to tell Sarah these things, Sarah would reply, “You’re not overworked.  You’re simply not efficient enough.  Put some of your work on your people. You need to learn how to delegate better.”

Oh, Vance did get one extra day off about three years ago when his team achieved monumental cost savings for the department, but that was it.  So, now it was payback time.  Sarah was now in a spot, and it was Vance’s turn to be intransigent, and he was reveling in every moment of it.

Sarah’s reaction to all of this was pure Sarah.  Instead of finding ways to cover the gap and wishing Vance well, Sarah decided instead to try to recruit people into an anti-Vance clique.  “Doesn’t it make you mad that Vance is leaving you at that time, with all this work to be done?”, she would ask some of his people, trying to make them resentful.  To their credit, no one would join Sarah in throwing Vance under the bus.  He had treated them as well as he could during his tenure and they would not turn on him simply because he decided to put his own interests first.  Sarah was not happy.

How do you treat someone who helped account for your success?  Do you look at the whole of their work and thank them for all they have done?  Do you put on your pouty face simply because they finally have decided to look after their own best interests, something you have done for your entire tenure at the company?  Which is the behavior of a leader?  Which is the behavior of a three year old?

There’s a picture of a pouting face at the head of this article.  I was going to put in another picture instead, but I didn’t think a picture of ‘big girl panties’ would go over too well.

The Knife Thrower

knife in the back

The air was light with laughter and good talk.  It was the first time the work friends had gotten together with Sam after he left the office, and everyone seemed to be enjoying him or herself.  They talked about old time, old friends, old enemies, and it seemed that no time at all had passed since Sam had said his farewell.

Somewhere during this conversation, Sam asked if anyone had come in to take over his spot, and the spot of Ralph, who had left earlier.  That led to yet a new round of conversation and laughter.  It seems they were interviewing for Sam’s spot, but for now they had a temporary worker there.  They also had a contractor come in to teach some classes.

The contractor was familiar to them all.  It was Audra, who had once been with the department, but had left — twice — after claiming she could not juggle both work and home responsibilities.  Audra had come back often to the department, mostly due to her status as FOS.  For those not in the know, that means Friend of Sarah.  Audra and Sarah had developed a fast friendship during Sarah’s early years with the department, and whenever someone was needed to fill in, Sarah suggested Audra get the call.  As everyone knew to translate Sarah’s ‘suggestions’ into ‘mandates’, Audra would get the call.

That was a good thing as well, as Audra would not be called by anyone on their own accord, for one simple reason.  Audra was a knife thrower, and her primary targets were her co-workers’ backs.  There was very little that Audra wasn’t willing to do in order to get what she wanted.  She was frequently in Sarah’s office gossiping about the latest tidbit she heard in the department, or hurling a knife in the back of someone who supposedly ‘offended’ her, or was making her do some work she didn’t want to do.  Her targets were many and numerous, and she implanted knives with the skill of an assassin.

Someone at the table volunteered that Audra had added a new trick to her portfolio.  It seems, before one of the managers came in for the day, Audra would request that her office be opened so Audra could sit there.  Why she did this caused the table to toss around some speculations.  Was it because she was looking to snoop around for something to run to Sarah about?  Was it that she thought herself too good to sit with the rest of the employees?  Was she doing something that she didn’t want anyone else to see?  The sad thing is that nobody, including the manager, would really know, as they could not ask Audra without her starting to sharpen the latest blade and aim for that person’s back.  Heaven forbid they ask Audra not to sit in the office.  The extra large knife would be unsheathed for that one.

The conversation at the table drifted to more pleasant things, but there seemed to be some seriousness in one question that a few people asked Sam.  Were there any openings at his new place of employment?  Sam smiled, and thought that, at least for now, he was able to put away the Kevlar vest, as he didn’t have to worry about anything Audra did anymore.

Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Their Hypocrisy…

Walking Out the Door

It was a seminal moment for Sam.  There was no turning back.  He walked into his manager’s office and handed in his resignation.  It felt incredibly freeing and the culmination of so many years of effort.

Several hours later, Sam was called into his manager’s manager’s office.  The executive wanted to let Sam know what a valued employee he was, if he would consider changing his mind, what a great member of the team he was, and the fantastic quality of his work.

Sam was grateful for the training in maintaining a neutral expression he developed over the past few years.  If not, he might have burst out laughing halfway into the conversation.

This was the same executive who had:

  • Told him the body of his work was extremely poor, but so was everyone else’s who reported to him
  • Ignored all the extra work he had done to keep the department going, and rated him average, affecting his raise and bonus
  • Told him he wasn’t qualified for a promotion available in the department
  • Told him that, in the executive’s previous position, his peers would have tossed out his work as being inferior

So, now being given such head turning compliments rang more than just a bit false with Sam.  It was obvious that the executive was worried about who would do the work that he relied upon for his success, and wanted to keep Sam there and happy.  Sadly, it was too late.  For Sam, it wasn’t just a letter of resignation, but rather a declaration of independence.

Still, if Sam had any hesitation about leaving, the none-too-convincing performance by the executive erased it completely.

Simply said, if you want your employees to stay, then treat them as if you want them to stay.  Don’t expect to rush in at the last minute with sweet words and expect the employee to come rushing back saying, “You had me at hello!”.  Work is not a romantic comedy with a happy ending despite all the hardships that took place in the movie.  As a manager, however, you should not make it a horror movie, either.

Pretty words don’t change ugly actions.  Good managers make sure that they put actions behind the pretty words, so the pretty words are necessary at all.

The Duck Blind

Duck Blind

Sarah’s staff was numb on the day after their retreat.  It was almost more than could be comprehended by them.  Despite her assurances that things were done because they needed to be done, the staff walked around in a daze, either too stupefied to speak or such a swirling maelstrom of emotions as to not know where to start.  Let’s back up a bit to find out how the staff got to this point.

The retreat was a multi-day affair, held off-site.  The facilitator was respected and knowledgeable, and had invited the staff to contact him confidentially to speak with him about what they found to be issues in the department.  Several members of the staff had done so, sharing their thoughts on what the issues were and what their thoughts on Sarah’s leadership were.  This was a leap of faith.  As part of the department’s concerns were the lack of confidentiality, and the lack of trust that went hand in hand with it, this was a rather daring step.  Still, many of them felt that nothing would be done without full honesty, and trusted that the facilitator meant his assurances that everything said would not only be confidential, but ‘sacred’ to him.

The retreat hadn’t accomplished much of what the staff hoped it would.  As in past attempts at retreats, the focus had devolved into how the department had to be respected by the other areas and how they could ‘get a seat at the table’.  Frustration rose as the facilitator sailed past the core concept — that a department which had such deep internal issues with trust of each other and their leadership could never put forth the face to the outside that would make it get that seat.  Granted, it was one of the most difficult things to do.  How do you get past trust issues if no one trusted that they could safely speak about the issues?  Still, the facilitator was being paid good money to do just that, but seemed to focus on things like shared vision and shared goals.

The latter part of the retreat seemed to do a bit better, at least touching upon the issues, with an exercise that gave a symbolic representation that one person would always be there for another.  There were some tears, some hugs, and a general kumbaya feeling among the staff.  At the end of it, Sarah, also emotional, indicated that she had ‘learned’ about her staff at this retreat and would work to change her ways in order to understand her staff on their terms and not her own.  That statement alone left the staff at least hopeful that there may be some change.

The feeling was short lived.  The very next day, Sarah announced that she had ‘regretfully terminated’ one of the most popular managers in the department.  Acknowledging that the timing probably wasn’t the best, she still stood by her decision and asked the staff to soldier on.  ‘Soldier’ was probably a good term, as the staff walked around shell shocked.   They were stunned and devastated by the firing, yes, but also by the instant repudiation of everything that Sarah had said at the retreat.  A termination usually happens after a good amount of thought and deliberation.  With that in mind, Sarah had to have known this was going to happen as she spoke her emotional words of working better to understand her staff.  She understood one of them so well, she decided they had to be fired.

A duck hunter sits in a duck blind, a hidden area in order to keep concealed from the ducks they are looking to shoot.  They then blow into a duck call, hoping to entice ducks to them.  They use decoys in order to get the ducks close enough to them.  When the ducks are close enough, the hunter fires, killing some ducks.  It is a practice in deception.

Sarah’s staff walked around in a daze that day.  They had been lured in with the sound of a duck call, given the decoy of their department head ‘confessing’, and then heard the sound of the gun firing off a round at them.  When the smoke cleared, one of them lay dead, professionally.   Some wondered when the trigger would be squeezed again, while others just scrambled to find a place to hide.   None of them would ever trust Sarah the hunter again.

If this is your idea of management, then never expect trust, commitment, or loyalty.  Expect people with one eye on you, while their other eye is on the door, their resume, the employment section, or on their fellow employees.  If you manage by duck blind, expect to always have to use a gun to get your way.