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.
Adam was ready to go for his Masters. He had been in his job a year and now was ready to take advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement plan and go for an MBA. He had talked to the Benefits Manager, understood that he was eligible, and verified that the school and the degree was on the approved list by his company. His manager was on board with this, and he knew the process to begin his work.
He then hit a wall named Anna.
Anna was his manager’s manager, and a direct report of Sarah. Her approval was not needed for the reimbursement request, but Sarah’s was, and Sarah was likely to speak with Anna about Adam’s paperwork. It wasn’t that Anna was against Adam continuing his education. It was that she wanted him to take her choice of education and not his.
For years, Sarah was interested in having her staff look more professional by getting a certain certification. She had it, so it must be good. She had made this ‘request’ of several of her people, including Sam, and always held out the carrot of promotion within the department when the person received the certificate. Unfortunately, it never happened. So, while Sarah made a big announcement to her colleagues that another one of her people has this prestigious certification, they went nowhere in the department. Kind of one sided, don’t you think? Yet, if someone didn’t get the certificate, or failed the examination, Sarah made sure they went nowhere in the department. Sensing a pattern here, aren’t you?
Anna, being a bit intimidated by Sarah, didn’t want to upset her boss. So, she as kindly as possible suggested to Adam that he go for this certificate as well. Implicit in this ‘suggestion’ was the statement that she would not be approving his MBA request, although it would also be of benefit to her department and to the company in general. It was against every principle of the program, but that didn’t matter in Sarah’s department. It was only what would make Sarah happy, and nice, compliant staff was what made her happy. Anna would not disrupt that peace, and her job, for anything.
What’s more important to you as a leader of people — making them happy, or making your boss happy, or making life easier for you? Sometimes is has to be the second in that list, but more often it should be the first in that list. And, if you do the first in that list, it usually leads to the last in that sequence. If your main focus is making life easier for you over the happiness of your employees is paramount for you, you will succeed at your goal, as your employees will never be happy. However, that probably doesn’t matter to you, as you want a smooth ride for yourself. Courage doesn’t factor into it, only preservation does.
And that is an education in itself.
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.
In my last blog, I mentioned that Sam, an employee of the company, decided to resign and take a new job. That blog focused on how his manager’s manager, after denigrating he and his fellow employees’ talents, heaped false praise upon him when learning of his leaving.
Sad to say, that wasn’t the most head shaking thing to happen to Sam during the two weeks he spent at the company after he had resigned. That honor would go to Sarah, who now was the head of the department, but once was Sam’s immediate manager. Sarah and Sam made a good team until they had a disagreement on how to manage an employee who reported to Sam. If you know Sarah, and if you don’t, please feel free to read some of the blogs about her, you know this independent behavior of Sam’s would not go unpunished, and it didn’t. Since then, Sam and Sarah had a professional relationship, but any warmth or friendship between the two were products of a bygone era, at least as far as Sam was concerned.
So, with this in mind, you can understand Sam’s reaction to what Sarah did. During that two weeks, Sarah stopped by Sam’s desk, told him she heard he was leaving, and said the following: “That will leave me as the last of our little group that started here!”
Let that sink in. Not, “I wish you the very best of luck” or “You deserve to be happy” or even “Well, good luck in your future endeavors”. No, her comments were not directed to Sam’s future, but rather to herself. Sam was once again grateful for his training in keeping a neutral expression and placid smile on his face, as he knew the real story behind that comment, namely:
- There were four original employees in Sarah’s small group
- She had fired two of the four people
- Her treatment had driven the third person, Sam, out of the department
It was small wonder that she was the last person standing, as she had made sure that everyone else no longer worked for the company.
As mind numbing that comment was to Sam, he also realized it was a fitting ending to his relationship with Sarah. Nothing was ever or would ever be her fault. Her actions over the years had demonstrated she would practice yoga master movements in order to blame someone else for her own shortcomings. He was sure that there were no mirrors ever in her house, as she never seemed to reflect on her behavior or her actions. This last comment by her was fully representative of the manager and leader he had known during his tenure in the department. It was the person the Maxines of the department had learned to play so very well to their advantage. It was the person that the employees of the department feared more than respected.
Sarah had once last chance to prove that her ascent up the ladder had given her the skills befitting a leader. Sam could confidently leave the company knowing that he had made the right decision, as Sarah had proven that things would never change.
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.
Last week, I wrote about the meeting on the latest engagement survey for Sarah’s organization. In that article, I mentioned that the results were not the item most people focused on, but rather how those results were interpreted by Sarah and her leadership team. That wasn’t the only thing people were noticing in Sarah’s meeting, however. In this particular case, some employees were tempted to break out the stopwatch app on their smartphones. Why? Read on…
As I wrote about, everything that seemed to be positive for the department was claimed by Sarah, and everything not that positive was blamed more on the company. After the first comment that Sarah made, Anna, one of Sarah’s direct reports, who had been graced with two promotions in one year (which was against company rules, but that is the subject of another article), chimed in, “You’re right Sarah! That makes a lot of sense.” That comment, made about 5 seconds after Sarah’s comment, made more than a few eyes roll.
The next time Sarah made a comment, there again was Anna, once again congratulating her boss. “That’s a great point. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way!” One expected Anna to break out the pom-poms at that point and lead everyone in a cheer.
This back and forth went on for several more rounds, each time Anna chiming in earlier and earlier about the rightness of Sarah’s statements. If they wouldn’t be noticed for it, several staff wanted to break out the stopwatch app to time how long it would take for Anna to say something in response to Sarah’s comments. Others wanted to pass along lip balm to Anna. Still others were waiting for Anna to simply say to Sarah, “I don’t know what you are going to say next, but I’m sure it is brilliant.” As you can see, Anna’s comments were not taken seriously by anyone, save for Sarah herself.
There are two ways to ascend in an organization. You can show your excellence and value to the organization, or you can ascend with flattery and pleasing words. Either way, you will have attained a higher position, and people will have to listen to you. How would you like them to listen to you, though? Do you want them to listen with attention and respect, knowing you earned that spot in the organization? Or, do you want them to inwardly roll their eyes, nod when appropriate, and then talk behind your back that the only strength you have is tied to how hard you pucker?
Maybe you don’t care, which is a sad state of affairs, for it shows you are in for the power alone, and not what you can do for the organization and your people. If that is the case, download that stopwatch app mentioned above. You will need to be in training constantly for how you can continue to curry favor without any substance.
Worse still, if you are the boss who rewards praise and flattery, but not true substance and intelligence, you may want to download that stopwatch app as well. After all, you want to make sure your direct reports kiss up faster and faster, don’t you?
It started around post 195. I realized I was about the come across a milestone in this blog that I began a few years ago. I would be publishing my 200th post. For many, that would not very much, but to me, it was, and is, incredible. Over the intervening weeks, as the post counter in WordPress slowly climbed to that magic number, I began to think of what I wanted the official 200th post to be. For inspiration, I looked down the road past the 190+ posts I had written as part of my crusade to make the world safe for employees.
As I read about the misbehaviors of Sarah, of Maxine, and of all the others who I have chronicled, an old question came back to my mind. It was early in this blog when a friend of mine and I met in a restaurant in Irvine, California. Over many topics of conversation that night was a thought that she might want to begin studying organizational psychology. She wanted to do this because she wanted to answer a question. That question? Why, after all these years of books and studies telling us how to manage effectively, so many managers and leaders still fall way, way short of that goal. As I went over the various posts on this site, the answer to that question, or at least a partial answer, came to me.
I can’t say that the thought is original. As a matter of fact, when I first read it, I didn’t think much of it. Over the years since I read that book, chronicled in this post, I have seen the wisdom in its very simple premise.
A good manager is one for whom management is an affair of the heart. They are in management and leadership for all the right reasons. They are there to be helpers and enablers. They are there to grow their people, help them in their career, and make them more than they ever thought they could be. They are there to be supporters, a shoulder to lean on in times of need, and a cheerleader. They fight for their people when necessary. They develop a bond with their people that goes beyond just the manager-employee relationship, making them someone who their employees would walk through fire for on any occasion. Their employees feel safe and respected. They also know that, when they screw up, that they will be told, but even that is okay. Their manager has built up their good will bank account so thoroughly that a withdrawal can be taken out now and then. Those good managers have employees who will work harder and longer than ever expected.
What is a bad manager? A bad manager is one for whom management is an affair of the ego. Their wanting to lead others can be read as wanting to have power over others. They want someone to do their work, especially the work they don’t like. The bad manager doesn’t care about overburdening their people, as long as the result makes the manager look good, all in preparation for the next step up the ladder. Their employees are disposable commodities, to be used, abused, and refused. When there is nothing left of the employees, there is no rehabilitation. Rather, they are fired, disposed of, and a fresh batch of servants brought in. There is no encouragement, no genuine kindness.
A bad manager sees employees as stepping stones, as those who should be told and not heard from. The bad manager thrives on false flattery and praise — anything to keep the ego going. No introspection is allowed. Any dissent from those who might want to disagree? Punishment is swift and humiliating. After all, we can’t have the ego attacked now, can we? When there are indications that the employees en masse are unhappy, the entire blame must be placed on the employee. Nothing can be allowed to penetrate to citadel of their own self-importance.
I could not have ever imagined writing post #200 in this blog when I began. Now, at this point of the journey, with story ideas coming at me from so many areas, it is difficult to believe that there is so much more to write. There is, however, and, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll keep writing a bit longer to expose those with the affair of the ego and celebrate those who have an affair of the heart.
Thank you to those who have been kind enough to follow these writings, to those who have given comments and feedback, and to those who have stopped in to read some of my words on paper. Thank you as well to the Sarahs and Maxines of the world, for without you, I would have nothing to write about.
To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear: “To post 300 and beyond!”
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.
You had to hand it to the Executive Council of the company. They found new ways to try to get the pulse of the company. In anticipation of the latest all hands meeting, they had harnessed the power of social media to get the opinions of the employees. A site had been set up where employees could write their questions of the Executive Council. Employees could also vote on those questions, improving their ranking.
This wasn’t just a fanciful test of technology. For the past three years, the Executive Council had been the recipient of increasingly poor rankings of trust and leadership, as expressed by the employees. As they were in the midst of the latest survey, and that Board of Directors would be watching the scores, it was important for them to be seen as wanting to get the voice of the employee.
The employees did not disappoint. The questions were sharp, to the point, and pulled no punches. Those questions expressed frustration, anger, and distrust. If those questions were answered in a forthright way that equally pulled no punches, it would reflect a new era in relations between those who were governing and those who were governed.
Based on the title of this article, I think you can guess what happened.
The all hands meeting came around, and, as promised, the top vote getting questions were selected, asked, and then answered. The answers were safe. The answers were careful. They answers were the same things that were heard every single time the questions were asked. No bold promises were made. No trails were blazed. No responsibility taken by any of the executives…only responsibilities assigned by the executives, saying the employees had to find their own answers. For every question asked, a buck was passed. It would never be the executive’s fault that promotions were not given, or bonuses lacked, or that there was unfair treatment. What did the employees hear? “Don’t bother us, peons, we have governing to do”.
The employees left the meeting with ironic smiles on their faces. Once again they had been duped. They had been asked for their opinions, with the implicit promise that these questions, no matter how painful, would be answered. They were answered…with the same trite phrases that had been used by the executives of the company since time immemorial.
One of the greatest traits that an executive can have is that of courage. Many will claim they do have it, usually in response to the latest round of layoffs or cuts they have authorized. That, I suggest, is not courage.
Courage is admitting that you may be wrong in your approach. Courage is having a willingness to listen and change. Courage is addressing questions with the same frankness as they have been asked. Courage is making yourself vulnerable, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and be willing to try the new and innovative, even if it means you won’t be as comfortable or secure as it once was.
Courage is not providing the same, trite answers to questions, but realizing there is something deeper in those questions. It is finding out why those questions were asked in the first place and taking bold, innovative steps to address them.
Come to think of it, that is also called Leadership.
All in all, Val accepted the news rather well. She had been told that her job function at a branch office was being transferred to someone at the central office, so her services to the company wasn’t going to be necessary anymore. It was not going to be an immediate termination, and Val was even given some latitude as to when her last day would be. She could leave earlier, or stay around a few weeks more to help train her replacement in the central office about what she did. It wasn’t exactly a fair question, as Val was told the company would really appreciate it if she could stay a few weeks more to train her replacement. While she had no reason to stay, she agreed, out of a sense of professionalism and duty.
The weeks dragged on and she had performed her duties well. Her replacement had been brought up to speed, her file put in order, and she kept the lines of communication with her replacement in the central office. The one thing that she didn’t know was when her last day was. Nobody in her department had let her know, or even been in contact with her. Val really needed to know so she could give prospective employers an idea of when she would be able to begin working for them.
Out of frustration, she contacted Human Resources, and asked for the Employee Relations Manager. As the ER Manager was instrumental in her exiting out of the company, maybe she would know, or be able to provide some guidance. After a few rings, the ER Manager got on the telephone to speak with Val. Val quickly recounted what had happened and asked if the ER Manager had any insight into when Val would be released from the company.
The ER Manager responded thusly. “You’re getting paid every two weeks. What more do you want to know?” Biting back a retort, Val thanked the ER Manager for her fantastic insight, and hung up the phone. She was quite glad she was leaving a company that would employ someone who acted so unprofessionally.
So, to review, an employee who know she is to be laid off agrees to stick around to help the company adjust to her no longer being there. The company then promptly ignores her requests to know when this period will end so she can get on with her life, as she will no longer have one with said company. The employee calls Human Resources in hopes that they might be her advocate to find a small piece of information. The person she reaches, who is the person who will be escorting her out the door, makes a smart remark instead of actually helping her out.
There is an old saying that you can take the measure of a man (or woman) by how they treat someone they don’t have any need to please. It seems for this ER Manager, it was easier for her to prove she could be a smart ass rather than help an employee.
In short, for Val, no good deed went unpunished.