The Six Million Dollar Question

The project was finished, the thank yous said, and it was time to consider how to reward all those who served so well for endless hours worked.  They knew they did not want to give a cookie, like in a previous project.  The project leader knew that cash was always good, and decided to hand out bonuses.

But not to everybody.

She handed out bonuses just to certain people, those she felt had led the project to its success.  Those who worked the late hours, but did not lead a team on the project would not only miss out on any bonus, but those who did get a bonus were sworn to secrecy so those who didn’t would not feel left out.  In other words, rewarding people in secret was the buzzword of the day.  Unfortunately, we all know how well secrets are kept in corporations.

Soon enough, the secret was out, and Emma, who had worked very hard on the project, went into her boss, the project leader, to understand why she wasn’t given a bonus.  The answer given was that there wasn’t enough money to give to everyone, so bonuses were only given to the project leads.  It sounded reasonable, though unsatisfying to Emma, who knew she would not win this argument.  If there wasn’t enough money to go around, what could she do?

The argument that there wasn’t enough money to go around lost some of its validity when it was revealed that, thanks to the hard work of all the project participants, the project came in under budget to the tune of $6,000,000.  Six million dollars.   The project manager mentioned it to show how well she had managed the project.  In addition, it was discovered that, contrary to what the project leader claimed, staff other than the leads had received bonuses.   The staff who had not received bonuses were left with the feeling that they were lied to in addition to being cheated out of money they could have used.  To this, the project manager had no answer.  She was more interested in flaunting her prowess  in managing the project than to use some of that money to properly thank all her staff, not just those she felt should be rewarded.

When you keep secrets from your staff because you rewarded only some of them, you are setting up an environment where you will never be trusted or respected again.  More than that, you encourage divisiveness between the haves and the have nots.  When you compound that with the fact that there was enough for a reward for everyone, but you opted to fabricate an excuse for why some people could not get the reward, you have pretty much told your staff that your only concern is yourself.  When you model that behavior, you cannot expect your employees to want to give their all to the company, act with integrity, or have any trust in your management at all.  Your power has gone from influence based on respect to a staff simply doing what they are told for fear of being fired.  They fear being fired because you, as a manager, have shown you have no respect for them or their work.

One of my favorite sayings is that every decision has its consequences.  So this manager could trumpet the savings she had and reward her friends on the project, she disenfranchised scores of employees who may never have the motivation again to put in the hours needed to make  future projects successful.  See what money you can save, but first and foremost, respect those who labored so hard to make it a success,. It is a long term investment to ensure that when that staff is called upon to give of themselves once again, they do so willingly, because their manager is one who cares as much about them as he or she does about the project.

A Novel Idea for Rewarding an Employee

In my last blog, I talked about a manager who believed she was effective at giving rewards because she gave out ‘award miles’ to her staff on occasion to celebrate an achievement.  She could not understand why this wasn’t the motivating factor that it should be, and why her staff didn’t feel sufficiently motivated or rewarded.  It must be their fault.  It could not be hers.

Not to disagree with the manager, but it is her.  She had a good idea for rewarding her people, but she made a critical mistake.  What could this manager have done differently?  Well, for starters, stop talking and start listening.  Have a conversation with each of your employees to see what they considered a reward.  This manager thought everyone was the same as her.  She considered that prizes, giveaways, and such were a motivating force for her, so she thought it was the same for everyone.  Research shows differently.

The research shows that everyone has different motivating factors, and a good manager takes the time to find this out.  Then, the manager applies the knowledge when a reward need comes about.  To Employee A, she may give a few hours off without having to declare it.  To Employee B, it may be a well-deserved thank you in private in her office.  To Employee C, it may be that certificate in front of the group.  Whatever it is, it is something that has significance for the employee.  Is it time consuming for the manager to find out?  Yes, and that is part of the magic.  The employees see that the manager cares so much that they have taken the time to find out.  That itself is a reward.

The other thing is empower the employees to reward themselves.  The manager in question has been asked several times in the past if they could get a share of the ‘reward’ pot to give out to each other.  The manager has steadfastly refused to implement this.  Whether it is a control issue, I’m not sure, but the lack of implementation of this has caused a greater morale dip than the temporary boost any ‘miles’ give.  By empowering the employees, the manager would be showing trust, and by giving up a modicum of control, she would be signaling things don’t have to be her way.  It is a win-win situation.

Rewarding is both easy and difficult.  With the proper thought, time spent, and implementation, it can be the greatest catalyst for engagement there is.  Done as a throw away, without little thought or creativity, it can do nothing or kill an already sunken morale.  Take the time.  Your employees are worth it.

Shiny Trinkets

A manager sat in her office very proud of herself.  She reflected over the ‘awards’ she had given out to her staff.  The staff member would receive a certificate of some value, which could be turned in for a prize of some equivalent size.  This proved to her that she was adequately rewarding her staff, and would pull out her spreadsheet showing the person and the award any time she was questioned about her dedication to her staff.  She could not understand why her staff was not happy at times, or didn’t appreciate all the work she had put into this effort.  After all, there was the spreadsheet.

What she didn’t want to, or refused to, understand that was rewarding employee behavior was much more than the shiny trinkets she was handing out with such great fanfare.  While promoting the idea that rewards did not have to be monetary, these were the only type that she seemed to give out.

She didn’t realize that for every award she gave out, there were dozens of time she was critical of a staff member for doing something or not doing something, instead of sitting down with the staff member to find out what kind of difficulties lay in the path of getting something done.  For every award that she gave out, there were dozens of missed opportunities to walk over to a staff member and say, “You did great work on this project, staff member, and I wanted you to know I appreciate it”.  No,she was too busy for praise.

She didn’t realize that the awards meant less to her staff than her simply understanding that the workload she placed upon them was unreachable, and that the greater reward would have been her clearing out any preconceived notions of what was an acceptable workload and what was not.

The award quickly faded away every time she said, “It’s not that there is too much work, it’s just that you are inefficient”.  The award quickly faded away every time there was silence when a staff member completed a task or project, because she was too busy on her ‘manager stuff’ to take time out.  The award quickly faded away when she would assign five more assignments on someone the day after the award and walk away thinking nothing of it.  The award faded away when the very next day she would be critical of some little detail and not want to hear any explanation or excuse.

Read any parenting book and it will tell you that bad parenting is just buying gifts for your kids, using that as a substitute for spending time with your children, playing with them, reading to them, talking with them.  The same can be said for the manager-employee relationship.  Good management is more than just shiny trinkets.  It is having your employees trust you implicitly, for they know you have their best interests in heart.  It is knowing how to bring up issues and truly see what the problem is, not just blithely blame someone.  It is knowing when the employee is at the end of their rope and needs your assistance.  It is taking time with them to say, simply, ‘good work’.

Shiny trinkets, when not accompanied by all the above, are the lazy manager’s way of interacting with their staff.  It is ‘buying them off’, and then patting yourself on the back for your good management practices.  A good manager doesn’t have to buy their way into an employee’s heart.  A good manager never has to buy anything ever, and will still have the most engaged workforce the manager can hope for.

Forgo the shiny trinkets.  Be a good manager, instead.

Heaven and…the other place

An employee was transferred from her first manager to a new manager.  As she didn’t exactly get along with the first manager, she was afraid of what was going to happen to this second manager.  This person knew her, had worked with her, and they had a good relationship.  However, this person was now her manager, and goodness knows what the first manager had said to him regarding her.  Frightened, but resolute, they began their managerial relationship.

Two months later, she was asked by a c0-worker how it was working for the new manager.  Her response?  “It’s only the difference between hell and heaven”.   What caused this difference?

Looking back, the employee would say that the new manager knew how to give a compliment.  The new manager knew how to praise her.  The new manager, when seeing something wrong, took the time to coach her through the process of correction, not just yell and tell her to do it better the next time.  Yes, the new manager was tough.  He needed to be, to get through the work they had to do.  He was also fair, and that made the world of difference.

Take your pick of the source.  It could be Gallup, it could be leadership institutes, or it could be any one of a dozen books on good managing.  All will say the same thing.  The more positive you are in the relationship with your work, your employees, your team, your (fill in the blank), the better that group will perform.  Higher performing teams will see a ratio of 6 positive comment to 1 negative comment.  Low performing teams, will see less than 1 positive comment to each negative comment.

Notice I  said ‘comments’ here.  Not bonuses.  Not gifts.  Not rewards.  A simple comment.  A simple expression of gratitude, thankfulness, or stating that someone did well on some small thing.  The power of words is simply immense when it comes to employee morale.  In economic terms, those words are a powerhouse.  For using positivity in your managing relationship, your team could see skyrocketing productivity, increased sales, greater retention, and a tight-knit working relationship.    All because you, as a manager, chose to see the good, made the time to express that sentiment, and expressed it in a format that was significant and meaningful for your employee.

Have to express the bad, the criticism, the faults?  That’s fine.  Everyone has to do that at one time or another to a subordinate.  If you have laid the groundwork of positivity, you will find that the criticism is taken much more seriously and much more genuinely than that manager who never had a good thing to say about their direct report in their lives.  Why?  You have demonstrated you have seen and talked about the good.  So, when you see and express the bad, your employees know you are being fair.  They may not like the sentiment you are expressing, but they will take it much better.

Don’t think you can do it?  Take heart from this story from the former advice columnist, Ann Landers.  A wife was always criticizing her husband.  Everything he did annoyed her.  Their marriage was tense and cold because of it.  One day, she decided to keep her mouth shut.  No matter how much he annoyed her, she would keep her mouth shut.

She found something amazing happened.  Their marriage improved.  He became more responsive.  They began talking again, not shouting.  They became happy together, again.   While, as a manager, you can’t just ignore the bad, you can make sure that you focus on the good every time you see it.

You can be more than a good manager, you can be a beloved one.

Lessons Forgotten

In my last blog, I described a project where the people on the project were treated rather terribly.  The top leadership were insensitive to people’s needs, incredible hours were being worked, and when it was done, the leadership thought a cookie (literally) and a thank you note were adequate compensation for the heartache implementing the system caused among the employees.

Fast forward five years.  Because so much customization had been done to the previous system, the cost to upgrade it was prohibitive.  The decision was made to spend that money in creating a new system entirely.  We will leave the wisdom of replacing a five year old system to others to debate, but suffice it to say, the staff was not happy to hear this.  In this particular organization, which had a long tenured staff, there were many people who remembered the first implementation and the personal chaos that ensued.

Some lessons had been learned from the first project, as told to me by several of the key people on the project.  They wanted to be more realistic about time frames, and they were.  Feedback was more welcomed than the first project, where giving you opinion could result in punishment or dismissal.  Buffers had been put into place in case there was a delay in the project, where few had existed before.

Still, not all lessons had been learned.  As the project grew nearer and nearer to the completion date, people were once again told they may have to work extra hours for weeks on end in order to meet the deadline.  Once again there were people who would come in at 8 am and not leave until 10 pm every weekday.  The rush-rush-rush mentality began creeping into the mindsets of managers, all driven by the head of the company, who publicly promised that he would resign if the project didn’t launch on time.

One vignette, I believe, illustrates this well.  In one department, the manager, who was also a chief project manager on this endeavor, would hold a weekly status on how things were going.  While she had an overall view of the project, her subordinates in her department were responsible for testing the product to see if it worked properly, and report if it did not.  When she announced what the testing times would be, she received feedback from her team that the timeline was too tight, and that they could not do all the testing necessary along with doing their regular jobs of keeping the old system running.  The manager’s response?  “Well, you’ll just have to work nights and weekends then.  Can’t you see how important this project is?”

This was reiterated in a more professional way by the same manager at an ‘all hands’ meeting held right before the Christmas holidays.  Addressing a group of over 100 people, this manager said that she realized it was the holidays, but they needed to keep on track, so ‘we might ask you to put in some extra hours’.  This was not well received by people who had already been doubling the amount of hours they usually worked.

In talking with this manager’s staff, it became apparent that this manager was a workaholic, and being such, didn’t see what was wrong with people putting in extra hours.  She failed to see that others weren’t workaholics, and was trying to appeal to them on a level which didn’t hold any significance for them.  Rather, being veterans of the previous project, they wanted as little as possible to do with the project, as they remembered the scars from five years ago.

The lesson from this project is that a good manager needs to find the significance for their employees in order to have engagement.  He or she needs to find the way to have people decide they want to put in the extra hours, or go the extra mile, especially if the manager is handicapped in this by ghosts from projects past.   A good manager will be filling that reservoir of good will every day, so when he or she needs to draw from it, they can.  Failing that, they need to find a way to respect their people.  Saying, “Well, you will need to work evenings and weekends” is not finding that respect.  That is bossing people around.

While the old joke that goes, “We have a great incentive plan here.  Work and get paid.” holds appeal to some managers, they will never get the traction that a manager who realizes their people are primary can get.  That manager will have a better quality product, better quality team, and people who will walk through fire for them.

I tell you, when they are done with this, there better not just be cookies.

The Thank You Note

Two projects…five years apart…both ripe with lessons for the good manager.  The first project is listed here.  The second will follow in another entry.

Five years ago, a company was undertaking a massive project.  It was changing the technology behind how it interacted with its customers.  It was a massive project that was going to take years.  However, the promise was there that this would significantly improve the customer’s experience with the company, increase automation, and capture incredible amounts of data, which could later be mined.

As it was a technology project, the main driver in this was the IT department of the company.  If you have read any project management theory, you know that IT, or any other service provider in an organization, should not be the driver of a project.  They sit at the table, yes, but it is the business that drives the project.  Unfortunately, nobody at this particular table had read project management theory.   IT was in the driver’s seat for this project.

However, being the driver, IT was also under the gun to deliver based on the unrealistic timelines they had set out.  The head of IT at that time didn’t want to say ‘no’, so an incredible burden was placed upon the IT staff.  It is not an exaggeration to say that staff in that department had to decide between quitting their job or facing the breakup of their marriages or other relationships.  People were working double shifts on a routine basis for months at a time.  If they complained about the hours, they were sanctioned.  If they brought up a defect, they were silenced.  Nothing mattered but getting the project done.  Human Resources at the time processed an incredible amount of separations from the company, and had to search for an incredible amount of skilled technical people to fill in those gaps.  It was not a good time to be a member of the IT department, and it seemed no one in management cared.  The project had to be a success.  The human cost was both staggering and ignored.

The project delivered, and the system went online on the day mandated.

Again, project management theory mandates that a project be closed.  Good project management theory states that you need to thank those who put all the effort into the project so they will feel appreciated and, if you need to call up on them again, they will want to work on your future projects.  While the appreciation needs to be given throughout the project, the bare minimum is appreciation at the end.  If this is the measure, then this project followed the rules…sort of.

Soon after the project was finished, an announcement came from the head of the company via an e-mail blast.  In it he expressed his appreciation for everyone’s hard work, and as a token of his appeciation…there were cookies in the company cafeteria.  While I don’t know the exact wording of the note, it is said that the note hinted that each employee should avail themselves on one cookie.

One cookie.

One cookie.  For three years of hard work on some people’s part.  For the straining of marriages to the breaking point.  For abuse from some managers (definitely not all) to get deadlines met.  For making people’s lives a living hell.

Somewhere along the way, it must have been made known that the staff wasn’t exactly, shall we say, as appreciative of this as the upper management might expect.  The suggestion was floated that a nice bonus for the IT staff and others who worked on the project might be in order.  This was presented to the head of IT, who rejected it.  Nonsense, she was reported to have said, people don’t want money.  What they want is to feel appreciated.  So, instead, let’s write each person a personalized thank you note.

A thank you note.

Well, it would be hand written, so the staff would know that is was truly appreciative.  Luckily, wiser heads prevailed and the staff involved in the project did get bonuses.  They never did get the note, however.

Sarcasm aside, this episode offers some great insights into what good management should look like.

First, a good manager is courageous enough to say when something is impossible.  In this case, the head of IT should have said that the timeline was not feasible for her staff, and that the company would have to reduce the scope of the project, give the project an extended timeline, or greatly increase the staffing levels.  The managers of staff who were killing themselves should have told the upper management about the sacrifices being made and how it was unfair.  Now, in fairness, some managers did, and they were quickly swatted down by upper management, who only had eyes for the deadline they had promised.

Second, a good manager has his or her eyes on the employee.  How effective can an employee be who is working a 14 hour shift five days a week?  If the manager could not change the project timeline or staffing numbers, then they needed to get creative about their people to get them rest, or at least a break.  Again, reports were that some did, but others showed a callous disregard for their employees’ welfare on a consistent basis.

Third, a good manager knows how to show appreciation.  Use your favorite search engine and query ‘non-monetary rewards’ and you will find hundreds of articles on how to thank an employee without breaking the bank.  I can be pretty sure that one cookie is not in those lists.  A tray of cookies is good for the end of a club meeting, not a three year project that took hundreds of thousands of person hours.

A thank you note is actually a good way of showing appreciation, but not for a three year project that took hundreds of thousands of person hours.  Equating a monetary bonus with a thank you note is simply an indication that the manager is so out of touch with the sacrifices made by his or her employees that they need some serious reeducation and intervention.

A coda to this story.  Shortly after the project finished and the technology was in place, a powerful group of advisers to the company called for an audit of how the company handled the implementation of the technology.  The audit reflected serious mismanagement on both the project and people sides of the house.  Some people, including the head of IT, were let go, realignment of some business units were undertaken, and a project management methodology was put in place different from what was in place before.  As good as these steps were, it is also disturbing that more money had to be spent on a project when many of the issues could have been avoided by some good management practices.

Next time, we will fast forward five years, to see if any lessons were learned.

Good Goals, Part One

If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.  That is the sense I got from an employee who told me about the following scenario with his manager.

Each year, the manager of the group would have the employees write their goals for the year.  The employees would write them up, the manager would review them, make any suggestions, and then have a discussion with the employee.  For almost every employee, the manager would put in this one goal:  Get the XYZ certification.  Didn’t matter who the employee was, they were to get the XYZ certification.   The employees knew why this was so important to the manager.  She believed that the more certified people they had, the more professional the department would look, and thus the manager would look better.  Some employees, whose main job responsibilities were in line with the XYZ certification, saw the wisdom of it, or the futility of arguing, and went for the certification.  The employee in question, however, only touched upon the main body of the certification.   He was reluctant to study for and take the test for this certification, as he didn’t want to set himself up to fail.

Yet, every year, the discussion would happen.  “You should go for this certification”, would say the manager.  “I don’t work in the areas where 80% of the test questions are, so I don’t feel like I would do well with the test”, he would reply.  “I still think you should take it”, would be the reply of the manager.

Now there would be variations to the conversation.  The employee one year tried to be very proactive and offer to take courses that would teach him about the other parts of the department.  That was rejected…he should just take the test.  Another, he suggested that he cross train with others in the department so he could get to learn the business better.  That never happened, and he would receive the ‘suggestion’ to take the certification test.  In another year, he offered three different alternative, all of which were rejected, and the manager expressed her disappointment that he would not get certified.

It became comical.  One year he flat-out asked, “Can you give me three reasons why I should take this certification?”  The boss stood there both dumbfounded and seething, unable to come up with three reasons.  As comical as it was, it was also hindering a good relationship with his manager.

Some of you might say for him just to give in and take the certification test, even if he failed.  I disagree.  This was on his goals, meaning money would be riding on him successfully completing his goals.  If he didn’t pass the test, which was a distinct possibility, he had no doubt his manager would have said he didn’t meet his goals and deny him a pay increase that year.

The issue, as I see it, is this.  No one is helping the employee be successful on this goal.  As much as he has proposed ways to gain knowledge in the areas where he has little, no one has helped him out.  No, the manager, and probably the manager’s manager too, is more interested in showing a piece of paper than helping an employee gain the understanding necessary to be successful in testing for the certification.

I will agree that goals need to be tied to the organization’s and the department’s objectives.  However, they also need to be attainable and relevant to the employee.  When a manager sets out goals that are good for themselves and the department, but puts nothing in for the employee to be successful, then they have instituted something grossly unfair that will ultimately lead to failure, mistrust, and poor working relationships.  The person who will be most affected by the goals, the person working towards them, deserves at least an equal say in what those goals should be.  Sadly, too many managers think in a very self-interested way.  These are the same managers who offer no support to the employee in attaining these goals, but will readily knock the employee down if they are not completed.

One of the main factors in setting goals is if they are attainable.  That should be the prism which a manager looks through when writing goals.  If the focus is only on what will make the manager or the department look good, then it is time for the manager to set some goals for themselves — namely, go back to management training.