Category Archives: Engagement

The Project: Bonus Behavior


This is the third in a series 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.

It was in one of the team’s staff meetings that Sarah announced that Ilene, for all her hard work on the project, was to receive a bonus.  With great fanfare, she presented Ilene with the bonus, thanking her for all her hard work.

The staff clapped for Ilene, for not to do so would have attracted Sarah’s attention, and nobody wanted that.  It wasn’t that Ilene didn’t deserve the bonus. She did.  She had worked many hours as the primary person on the project.  Always known for her good cheer, she was popular with her peers, and was always ready to pitch in to help one of her fellow co-workers.  No, it wasn’t that Ilene was either disliked or didn’t deserve the award that caused the undercurrent of tension in the conference room applause.

Then what was it?  It was the face that Ilene alone was being singled out for a bonus for her work.  Many of the staff felt that the only way Ilene was able to head this project was that many of her duties had been temporarily shuttled to other people in the department.  Thus, while Ilene had her hands full with the project, the other staff members, already burdened with the work in their job, now were faced with additional responsibilities that they were accountable for.  This led to extra hours, staying late, working night and weekends, and some very stressed and tired people.

Even this would have been overlooked by the staff if they had also received some recognition for their efforts.  They hadn’t, and that bothered them.  If you just walked in and heard Sarah, everything was done by Ilene and she managed to do everything related with the project without any assistance whatsoever.

The staff didn’t even look to monetary rewards, though that would have been nice.  They were reasonable people, and being such, recognized that the department didn’t have the financial resources to hand out checks to everyone from the department who helped out in some way.  The management and leadership, though, didn’t even offer a hearty handshake to them to thank them for their efforts.  Instead, they were just given more work to do and the expectation was set that it had to get done.

What could have management and leadership done?  How about each area head take their group out to lunch on the company to thank the staff?  How about giving one half day off to each member who took on some of Ilene’s work during the project?  How about an ice cream social for the teams as a thank you, and then announcing they had the rest of the day off, and management would cover the office for the rest of the day?

No, none of that was done.  Management had made one person, Ilene, very happy, and made the rest of the staff feel as if they didn’t matter whatsoever.  Morale would sink ever lower, people would get frustrated and leave, and management would shake their head and wonder why.  After all, didn’t they just give Ilene a bonus to show their gratitude?  They would continue with their blinders, confident that they were managing things well.

As for the staff?  Well, they probably would be told that they didn’t appreciate anything management did for them, even when management didn’t do squat.


The Project: A Vacation


This is the second 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 project was taking a piece of everyone’s soul.  People were working extra hours, at night, and on the weekends.  One person told the story of having Easter dinner and doing testing of the latest code in between getting Easter dinner ready.  The bags under the eyes of everyone were growing steadily, tempers were getting short, and mistakes were being made simply from exhaustion.  The deadline was everything to the heads of the department, and no excuse would be accepted for that deadline to be allowed to slip.

So, based on this, it was the perfect time for Sarah to take a vacation.

She had a very good reason for it, of course.  This was when she always took her vacation, and it was, you know, the ritual that her family looked for.  She couldn’t disappoint them, could she?  After all, she worked hard for her vacation, and since she and her fellow department heads had extra vacation days that nobody else in the company had, they were hers for the taking.

It didn’t seem to matter to Sarah that other people in the department had given up their vacations or pressured to work more.  It didn’t matter that the department was near the emotional breaking point.  No, that was their problem, not Sarah’s.  It didn’t seem to matter to her that the impression she was leaving by taking a vacation in the midst of everyone else’s herculean efforts to get their work and the project’s work done was one of selfishness and uncaring.  She deserved her vacation, and she was sure that the refreshed, sun tanned, and rested appearance she gave to the department at the end of her vacation would be an inspiration to everyone.

It did surprise her that nobody really seemed interested in tales of her vacation.  They were all too busy and too tired to really stop and listen to stories.  They needed to meet the latest deadlines and get started with another round of testing.  Yes, it surprised Sarah, and it even disappointed her some, but she was in such a good mood from her vacation that she didn’t give it a second thought.

After all, if other people needed a vacation, they could take one, couldn’t they?  Funny how they didn’t though.  Sarah wondered why for a few seconds, before sharing some of her vacation photos on her social network.

A Little Lie from an Executive Never Hurt

Pants on fire

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.  This is the second of two blogs that focus on two of those questions, both asked of the HR Department.

“With all the automation that has taken place”, the question to the HR department head began, “why do you have so many more staff now than you used to?”  It was a fair question.  There were more staff now, even though there was more automation in the HR processes than ever.  What the writer failed to realize was that there were many more HR services than before, as well.  So much had been added to what HR provided that, even with the automation, there needed to be additional staff to handle all the extra responsibilities.

That would have been the professional and honest response from the head of HR.  It also would have provided a strong response to the question. While not everyone may have been satisfied with the answer, it would have been accurate and made people think.  Sadly, this was not the answer that the HR head had provided.  What did she say?

“The HR Department has not grown.  We have not grown in many years.”

There was only one thing wrong with this answer.  It was a lie.  Additionally, it was such a bad lie as to have neon lights on it and a barker on top of it calling out, ‘Hey everyone, look at the lie!’.

Staff who had to visit HR people sitting outside of HR’s area because there was no more room within HR’s area knew this was a lie.  Any one who attended the grand opening of HR’s new space, which took over the area adjacent to it because they needed room for more people knew it was a lie.  Anyone who saw the smaller desks now used by most of the cubicle dwellers in HR because of space saving measures knew it was a lie.

So, why did the head of HR presume to make such a boldfaced prevarication in a company newsletter?  Only she would know, but here are some speculations.

  • She figured nobody would read the article, and if they did, nobody would give a second thought to the claim
  • She figured she was at the top of the heap, so why bother being open and honest.  She has gotten what she came for.
  • She didn’t want to be bothered giving the real answer, so just made something up that was more face saving

Whatever the case was, the one thing that was true was that she had lost a large chunk of integrity not just for herself, but for her department.  She showed that she cared so little for answering a tough question that she threw any answer at it, even if that answer wasn’t accurate.  How could anyone believe her from now on, and how much had she damaged the reputations of those who worked in the department?  Based on the answer she gave to the question, she probably didn’t care.

Part of leadership is answering the tough questions and being called to account for your decisions.  When the best you can do in that area is to utter an untruth so brazen that the majority of the company knows it is an untruth, the damage goes beyond you.  A leader should care about such things, as that is something else they do — care about their people.

Excuse me, dear leader.  Your pants seem to be on fire.

Statistically Speaking, It’s a Poor Way to Manage

Helen was excited when she heard that her department was the next to be remodeled.  Having seen what had been done with other department areas in the building, she was looking forward to brainstorming with the builders about how her department could look.

She didn’t want to do this alone.  She wanted to hear from her staff about their opinions on what they wanted for the department, and to that end, invited everyone for a meeting to announce the news.  After announcing about the impending renovation, she opened up the floor to suggestions, thoughts, and concern for the upcoming renovations.

One of the first, and most frequent, comments, was about the cubicles.  From what the staff had both seen for themselves, and from what they had heard from those who now inhabited the new cubicle design, those spaces left much to be desired.  Noisy and without privacy, they had heard nothing but complaints by their current inhabitants.  With that evidence, they campaigned for higher walls and more absorbent materials in the higher cubicle walls to provide them with a greater sense of privacy.  Many of them were speaking to donors, and thus had to have some privacy in these conversations.

Helen listened to these comments and then proceeded to make a comment herself.  The feedback that the staff heard about the new cubicles was false.  How did she know this?  She had done research on the subject and the statistics bore her out.  The cubicles were not noisy, afforded privacy, and were designed for maximum efficiency.  As the statistics supported this, there would be no further discussion of these erroneous reports from other staff.  She then moved the meeting along to any other suggestions that the staff might have.  Not surprisingly, the ideas, which had been free flowing, now seemed to have become rather stilted.

As a manager, you are sometimes placed in the difficult position of having to decide between two employees, with equally compelling arguments.  You know you will disappoint someone, but you are expected to make the decision and not every decision will make everyone happy.   What happens when one of the contenders isn’t a person at all, but cold, dry statistics?  What happens when you decide to put your faith in those statistics instead of what your flesh and blood employees are telling you?

The answer to that last question is simple.  Your employees’ faith in you goes away.  By choosing cold, hard numbers over those who can make or break your department, you send a strong signal to your employees about what really matters to you, and it isn’t them.  Statistically speaking, you will probably be seeing a greater turnover in your staff, as they find managers who care more about people than numbers.

I’m Taking My Ball and Going Home

Blogger’s note:  This is an entry in the occasional series recounting one department’s reaction to a poor showing on the Employee Opinion Survey.  The department has scored somewhat poorly in the past, as well.

There is an old saying that goes, “You can either be part of the problem or part of the solution”.  Max believed in this philosophy, so when he heard of the department’s poor showing in the Employee Opinion Survey, he proposed to create a course on how to get better engagement from staff.  He would offer this to the entire department and to the entire company, if there was an appetite for it.  His course would be well grounded in research from leading organizations, and since Max had previously taught a course in better engagement strategies, he thought this would be well received.  Max, as it happened, thought wrong.

While his manager supported the idea, when brought to the head of the group, Max was turned down.  It wasn’t that it would be assigned to someone else, as had happened to Max before.  This time there simply would be no course.  The head of the group didn’t feel this was a good use of time and vetoed the whole project.

While not shocked at this decision, Max did wonder why this decision was made.  After all, the head of the company wanted better engagement scores, the latest survey showed some shocking deficiencies, and there was a mandate for all poorly scoring departments to improve.  This class would be tangible proof that the department was trying to improve its standing, and help the company in general. It seemed like a win-win to him.  As the group head was not providing any further feedback on her decision, all Max could do was speculate.

Max thought of the old saying, “I’m taking my ball and going home”.  It came from a time when a child would bring a ball or some play item that was necessary for a game to be held.   If things weren’t going the way that child wanted, they would literally take their ball and go home, thus preventing anyone else from enjoying themselves.  Max couldn’t help but feel this was what was happening here.  The head of the group, who had received some poor scores, didn’t want to do anything that might help both her department and the company.  No, that might mean there was fault or she would have to change her management style.  The better alternative is to simply ignore the issue, hoping it goes away.  And, if the rest of the company suffers, oh well, too bad.

As Max had no communication around the reasoning of this decision, he had to go on what history had taught him.  History had taught him this was the most likely reason.  Do you see why the department ranked so badly in the survey?

We in the corporate world are told that we are all stewards of the company’s growth and reputation.  We must act in ways to uphold or improve the reputation of Mother Corporation.  Why then, when we try to do that, we are stifled in our attempts.    Managers, staff…everyone…is supposed to be in this together.  Not be in it when we feel like it.  Not when it is convenient.  Not when it might not cast a bad light on some people.  Always.  If higher management can’t do this, why should staff follow?  Come to think of it, why should they think good of a management that would rather leave the playground than play by anyone else’s rules?

Truth or Saccharine



It seemed to be a common reaction among those departments which didn’t score well in the employee opinion survey.  The leaders of those departments must have been told that they needed to get the scores up, and they needed to raise department morale to do this.  What seemed to be the conclusion that each of them came to independently?  Why, let’s act happy and excited in all our communications.

To accomplish this, the notes became less formal and more ‘chatty’.  The greetings became happier.  There were more smiles.  There were even attempts at small talk in the hallways and aisles.

The sum total effect on this with most of the staff?  Nausea.   Eyes rolling so far up into their sockets there was a danger of them being stuck in that position.  Anger at being so disregarded to think that fake enthusiasm would satisfy them.

When there is an ugly and pervasive stain on a wall, some might try to paint over it, in an attempt to cover it up.  In most cases, the stain bleeds through the new paint job, making the wall look even uglier.  Why did those people do it in the first place?  It was a quick and easy way to cover up the stain without too much effort having to be expended.  And, in many cases, it was a failed attempt.

A good manager, like a good painter, knows they have to get to the root of that stain and eliminate it, not just cover it up.  Without expending the time and the effort to eliminate it, it will come back time and time again.  Might it require a huge amount of work?  Yes.  Will the work be ugly and dirty at times?  Possibly.  Will it get results?  Most likely.  Only after that stain’s cause is eliminated or rectified can you put a new coat of paint over it.  Whether we are talking about the walls or what goes on within the walls, the solution is the same.

Stop trying to throw a coat of paint on a stain with fake smiles and inane chatter.  Get to the heart of the matter, find the root causes, and eliminate them.  You are showing you are willing to invest your time, your effort, and some of your ego, into true and lasting solutions.  When your staff sees you doing this, their smiles will be genuine, and their appreciation real.  When you show your staff that you have their best interests at heart, the smiles are no longer saccharine.  They are the genuine ones of appreciation.

Elephant? What Elephant?

No matter how you looked at it, the statistic was sobering.  It was the reaction that the departmental leadership took towards it that made people want to get drunk.

The statistic came from a reputable company engaged in the employee opinion survey.  It stated very plainly that half of Henrietta’s department did not feel it was a safe-to-say environment.  It was outlined in red, almost screaming from attention.  Maybe because it was screaming for attention that Henrietta decided to ignore it.

Yes, ignore it.  As Henrietta went through the other statistics, she ignored that particular statistic with amazing vigor.  Like the proverbial elephant in the living room, she refused to talk about it, outlining what areas that the department would be working on for the coming year.

She did ask for comments on the statistics.  Emmy, her second-in-command, who had been in charge of the department during when the survey was taken, made it a point to indicate that there were a lot of good points that staff was happy about, which Henrietta gladly accepted.  Blanche, the person assigned to deal with any issues that staff had with management, chimed in that she thought it was a very good report.  There were a few comments from other staff members about what could be focused on, but longer term members of the staff were conspicuous for their silence.  This was not surprising, as for five years they now had seen the same problems reported, and the same problems routinely ignored.  They knew better than to speak up, as it truly was not safe to say in the world of Henrietta, Emmy, and Blanche.

Outside the earshot of that triumvirate, there were a lot of comments.  Disbelief that there was not even a mention of this issue.  Anger at how their department’s leadership could so callously ignore such a glaring statistic.  Frustration that they could get away with this and the top-level management of the company had allowed it to happen, as they had allowed it to go unchecked even with five years of data showing the same thing.

The shock waves from this particular data point are obvious.  How can you have any meaningful change if half the department is walking on eggshells and feel they can’t tell you what is wrong?  And, judging by who answered and who didn’t, it was also obvious that the longer term staff, who had suffered the wrath of speaking up, were the ones who felt that way.  What does that do to your talent retention strategy?

What does your ignoring that pachyderm in the parlor say for how committed you are, as the department leadership, to true reform?  As I have said before, when people have thought they have reached rock bottom and you hand them a shovel, it does not enhance any faith or trust in your leadership.  When those higher than you choose also to ignore a problem that has become systemic, it also diminishes to nothing the employees wanting to improve your company’s bottom line or reputation.

Management and leadership involve taking risks.  It involves getting your feelings hurt at times.  It involves looking deep inside of you to see what can change in you to make things better for those you lead.  When you jettison those attributes so you don’t have to face some unpleasant truths, you also jettison any hope for fixing your department and repairing your people’s faith and trust.  If that is something that is fine with you as a leader, then I suggest you and the elephant depart the premises.  Maybe then there will be room enough for some real leadership.


The Efficient Manager Strikes Again

In my last post, I discussed how a department head had two different views of efficiency — her staff being efficient, and her being efficient.   At the time of that writing, I didn’t know that there would be a continuation of the story.

The department head recently sent out a note indicating that she is very busy, even with her new temporary assistant.  There was just too much work, and her next step was to shed some of it.  Her decision?  To cancel the regular meetings with one of the units serving under her.

Let’s step back a bit to recap how she ascended to this current position.  The manager was in a position reporting to the department head.  When the department head went on an extended leave, the manager worked to be elevated to this position in order to keep the department running.  While she offloaded many of her former tasks to her underlings, she didn’t realize the amount of work that was going to be piled on her, work that she could not offload to anyone else.

These meetings that she cancelled had already been reduced from once a week to once a month.  This was even too frequent for the department head.  In her note, she indicated that she would still have her regular meetings with the department managers, but not with any of the staff in the form of these meetings.  Staff could still meet with her if requested, but there would no formal meetings with the non-managerial staff.

This isn’t the first time the manager has followed this pattern of behavior.  In her last promotion, she offloaded all her former duties to a subordinate without a proper transition period and without much attention to him or her former department as she went full force into her new duties.

Good leaders become good leaders because they realize and appreciate the support of their people.  They realize that their people are the heart of their organization, and staying close to them is vital to keep the department running and the morale high.  They do have a good deal of work, there is no doubt about that.  Yet, smart leaders take time from that work and take the opportunity to walk and talk among their people to get the pulse of the department.  Ineffective leaders separate themselves from their staff, staying in their office or working out of other locations, like their homes or remote locations.

Staying in your office, cutting down appointments, and the like may help the leader get their work done, but at a terrible price.  They lose touch with staff, become aloof, and fool themselves that they are ‘in touch’, when actually they have become strangers.  Without that balance of getting their work done and keeping up with their people, they fail both their work and their staff.  The staff feels uncared for, and begins to see the leader as self-interested only.

The old philosophy of ‘management by walking around’ still exists.  The good manager makes sure he or she employs it.

The Mid-Fear Review

Author’s Note:  This is the first of three parts on the mid-year review process entered into by many companies.

How do your employees approach having to go through a mid-year review?  Do they approach it with trepidation?  Fear?  Resignation?  Or, have they been able to look at their accomplishments during the first half of the year with pride and brag about them on paper?  How do we get to that pride?  It starts at the beginning of the year.

When you set your employee’s goals, is it a conversation or a mandate?  Do you sit down with your employee to discuss what is reasonable for a year’s worth of work, or do you decide unilaterally what is reasonable and ignore any protests from your people about the amount of work you expect them to do?  Is that goal sheet an incentive or a way to exert power?

Are your discussions in the first half of the year with your employees goal focused or just business as usual?  While you have to make sure business gets done, is your discussion with your employee focusing at least partly on how they are getting toward their goals?  Or, is the goal sheet forgotten about until you have to think about it again when you rate that person?  Further, do you downplay what you have put down on the goal sheet, only to elevate it to supreme importance come the six month mark?

This is not to say that it is fully the manager’s responsibility to make sure their employee reaches their goals.  Not at all.  The employee needs to be primarily responsible for achieving their goals.  However, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the goals can be reached and, with some extra work, surpassed.    That is the difference between your employees looking forward to the year or dreading what is coming next.

It is the difference between a mid-year review where an employee can point with pride towards their accomplishments or viewing it as another chore where they just go in and get chewed out for not being able to do the impossible.

Use your employee’s reaction to the mid-year review as a barometer to how they feel about their work. It can be very illuminating as to how to get them excited about their work and wanting to push further.  If you treat it as another simply another check box that needs to be filled, how can you expect them to feel any different about it?

Burned Out on Bad Management

Where does the ‘giving it up for the team’ end and the focusing on the employee begin?

Any person who has spent time in the training world knows of the issue of instructor burnout.  After a while of teaching the same things or the same groups, an instructor can begin to suffer burnout.  They lose interest in the subject, they grow forgetful, and begin to be annoyed by the field they once loved.  Aware training managers try to combat this by varying assignment, having the instructor develop new and interesting topics, or work to grow the employee into the next level of their career.  Those managers or companies who don’t see a turnover in instructors or see a great suffering in their instructional workforce.  Here are two stories illustrating both sides of burnout.

Austin was an experienced instructor who had worked in all aspects of the training industry.  He was hired at the company to teach their desktop and technical curriculum, and help resuscitate the department to one of prominence within the company.  He worked hard to create, innovate, and promote the department’s offerings, becoming the go-to person for training needs within the two curricula.  He enjoyed the challenge of creation, of renewal, and of being part of the new team.

As much as he enjoyed it, three years into the position, he saw that he was beginning to be burned out.  There wasn’t much new to be created within the two curricula, there were other rollouts, but they were pretty much the same in terms of procedural and process oriented training, and there wasn’t much innovation within the other curricula that he was allowed to do.

Austin knew he couldn’t wait for someone else to notice this, so he began to work to move himself away from the technical and desktop and into other areas.  He volunteered to teach classes that another instructor was supposed to teach, but could not.  He proposed new classes to his manager that could be developed and taught.  He even developed courses to teach without prior consultation.  He talked with his manager about a new position description that would have him teach more business skills classes.  He even talked about getting into the new wellness courses which the department was venturing into.

In each case, his manager’s answer was the same:  no.  No, the other instructor would not even consider teaching a few of your classes so you could teach a few of hers.  No, wellness was too much of a stretch for you, keep with what you know.  No, each course you propose isn’t good (though she would later give it to the other instructor to develop).  No, we need you teaching exactly what you are teaching.  The assumption by Austin?  The manager doesn’t care about him and wants to chew him up and spit him out.  With each class, he was becoming more and more burned out, and no one cared.

Austin was soon transferred under a new manager, one who saw that teaching the same thing over and over again would cause burnout even in the best of instructors.  She even said she didn’t know how Austin did it for three years.  To combat this, while still keeping a desktop curriculum going, she offered to teach a few of Austin’s classes while asking Austin to teach some of the classes that she would normally teach.  When an opportunity came along to develop a new class in another curriculum, she asked Austin if he wanted to give it a try.  Soon, Austin had the confidence to propose some classes to his manager that he would like to develop and saw a need for.  He relished the opportunity to teach these classes and gave them attention to see that they were taught properly, asking for feedback, and making continuous improvements.  Just knowing he had the opportunity to teach these reduced the burnout factor with Austin.  While not a new lease on life, at least he did not dread going into work each day.

The difference between the two managers is clear.  One thought only of herself, while the other thought of Austin.  The first manager could not be concerned if Austin was burned out, as long as she or her other instructor didn’t have to delve into teaching a curriculum that she found unsavory.  By her treatment of Austin, I would speculate that there was some personal animosity with her instructor as well, which is another fault the first manager had.  She let her personal feeling interfere with her judgement of the situation.

The second manager saw that a valuable resource to her, Austin, would need to grow and develop if he were to stay with the company.  He needed variety to stay fresh and develop.  She may not have liked to teach desktop skills, but she did, so Austin could get a break.  Austin may not have been as proficient in his business skill training, but he was given the opportunity.  In short, she thought of her employee first, not her own needs.  Ironically, by doing this, she served her own needs well, by retaining a talented member of her staff.

Often this blog has asked who a manager is in their role for…themselves or their employees.  If the manager is in it strictly for themselves, as evidenced by their behavior, don’t expect to have a staff that is willing to go to new heights.  Rather, they will spend extra time looking out for themselves because their manager isn’t.  A manager who does go that extra mile for their staff is one who has a staff who will do anything for the team, because they know the leader of the team is out there for them.  The investment either manager makes will come back to them ten fold, whether that is positive or negative.  Doesn’t it make sense for that return to be positive?

Or can your ego not get out of the way?