Fish and Houseguests

End of the RoadThere’s an old saying that fish and house guests get stinky after about 3 days.  I’m not sure what the statistic is for a blog, but everything has an end.

This will be the 225th post in this blog.   We began this with a specific purpose, and now that purpose has been satisfied.  Like the picture above, we’ve come to the end of the road.  We’ll keep the blog up for a while, but there probably won’t be any more posts.  There are new mountains to conquer, and new roads to travel.

We can’t leave without some recognition.  Thank you to all of you who have become fans of the site, read about all our characters, and identified with the situations we wrote about.  It is your encouragement that kept us going for 225 blogs, and some great times relating our stories.

Remember, you always have the power to make your work situation better if you just give it your best effort.  That’s what we’ve done here, given our best effort, and what a ride it was.

It’s time to find another road…

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The 24 Comments

Edited Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stiff Wind

In my last blog, I talked about Nelson, who had been asked to provide some training in a technology that his department head thought could help boost the visibility of the department, and help it meet its goals an objectives.  That blog talked about Harriet, his manager, and how she had hijacked his presentation, as she had done on multiple occasions to various colleagues.  There was another, separate issue that hung over the room during that particular session, however.

The department head seemed to like Nelson’s presentation.  She complimented it during the meeting, and thanked Nelson personally for taking the time to put it together.  Yet, her comments during the meeting revealed that, although she would say one thing, her old prejudices still had a tight grip on her.

One of the reasons why the department head has asked Nelson to give this demonstration was because he had shown a proficiency in teaching technical topics to various audiences.  He had even been hired because of his comfort with technical topics and his ability to translate them into language that everyday employees could understand.  Yet, after several years of being exclusive in this particular category, he was beginning to tire of it.  He needed to stretch, to grow, to expand his universe.

He had opportunities to do so, from time to time.  Staffing shortages, interim periods, crunch times.  During those situations, he had been called upon to teach something else but technical topics.  He believed he had acquitted himself well, and his attendees had rated him highly.  He knew he could always improve, but with each class, he believed he was improving, and proving himself to be more than what he was hired to be.  Moreover, each time he taught one of these classes, he had given himself a reprieve from burning out.  In an economy that wasn’t fully recovered after five years, very few could afford to up and quit.  That did not mean he would always have a job, especially if the burnout had begun to show in his job performance.

It had been a long road, but Nelson had, class by class, created a reputation of being able to teach topics that didn’t require a mouse, keypad, or computer program.  He just wished that the department head was able to see this.  When, in the meeting, she mentioned that, if anyone needed assistance with some professional skills training, they were more than welcome to contact Harriet, Nelson saw that much of his work had been for naught.  It was not that the staff could contact Nelson or Harriet.  No, they could contact Harriet…period.  If they had technical questions, they were more than welcome to contact Nelson.  The walls were still there, never to be scaled, and never to be broken down.  Nelson sighed, packed up his equipment, and shuffled back to his desk, wondering when he would be so burned out that he could not even keep up the pretense of enjoying his work.

Any job applicant will attest to the fact that companies boast the fact that they want to grow their employees.  Phrases like ‘develop from within’, ‘hire from within’, and ‘create bench strength’ are widespread on company websites and in company literature.  As the story above relates, sometimes it stays on the literature and never makes it into corporate culture.

The management ranks will say that it is the employee’s primary responsibility to develop themselves.  After all, the manager cannot take the class for the employee, can they?  While this is true, managers have a big part to play in the employee’s development.  Beyond allowing it to happen, they also have to be open for the employee to grow.  If a manager has mentally slotted the employee in a niche, and the manager never expands that thinking, no matter what the employee does, they won’t be able to grow in the company.   A manager with a limited imagination can be as devastating to an employee as the lack of funds or the lack of ambition on the employee’s part.  Leadership has to open their own mind to the possibilities of their people in order to allow that growth to happen.  They have to see the employee in a new light.  They have to take off the blinders.

If you have ever tried to walk against the wind on a particularly windy day, you know that you make very little progress in the face of such stiff resistance.  The wind is unyielding.  After a while, you tire and find shelter, hoping to either get your own second wind, or waiting out the wind storm.

Good management should be the wind at the backs of their employees, not the one that is impeding their every step.  Want to be that enabling wind?  Throw out your preconceptions.  View your employees in a new light.  Allow them to see new vistas.  Live up to what is on that website and brochure.

You, dear manager, might find a whole new group of people you never thought existed.

The After Session Whispers

women said, woman listening to gossip

The latest attempt at a teambuilder was innocuous enough.  The instructor was competent, the material solid.  It contained its usual share of ice breaker and team activities in order to break down barriers.  What was most interesting about was the talk after the teambuilder, not the talk during it.

One of the ice breakers was that you had to tell the group about a mistake you made in your professional life.  It was designed to be a group catharsis, showing everyone in the room that we all made mistakes and we are forgiven.  Each member of the group dutifully told a tale, most humorous, and the teambuilder continued on its merry way.

When it was over, small groups gathered around the room, or left together, busily chatting on their way up to the team’s space.  The topic of most of those conversations was how long did the person have to think of a ‘safe’ mistake story to relate.  To a person, they all feared that if they told the ‘wrong’ story, or something too close to the present, it would be cataloged and recorded by the head of the department for use against them.  They also feared it would be used as gossip fodder by those close to the head of the department.  So, each person carefully crafted a story that would satisfy the teambuilder leader, but one that would not be used against them at an unspecified future date.  Ironically, the teambuilder did foster conversation for the team.  It just happened that the conversation was about how much they didn’t trust their leader.

What would those conversations be with your department, your group, or your reports?  Would they prepare carefully crafted statements meant for your listening pleasure and then, when out of earshot, say what they really thought?  Do you promote an atmosphere where this type of behavior doesn’t have to happen, or have you or someone in the department fostered such a lack of trust that clandestine whispers are the only way people can honestly communicate?  Would you be subject to that same irony found in the story?  Would the only team building come from everyone agreeing how they couldn’t say something without fear of it being used against them?

Pay attention to the after session whispers.  They may tell you more about your people than any teambuilding trust building exercise ever could.  And, if you are privy to some of those whispers, take them seriously, and start a self-repair effort immediately.  The best way to stop the whispers is to give them nothing to whisper about in the first place.

Following Up? What’s That?

It was the move that Employee Relations had told every employee they needed to do.  If there was an issue, the employee needed to report it to Employee Relations so something could be done about it.  Little heed was given to the comment by many employees that, if ER did not do its job well, the employee might be subject to some kind of retaliation.  While this issue was brought up many times, it never was properly addressed by Employee Relations.  The following story illustrates just this concern.

Two employees from a department had the same complaint about their supervisor.  The supervisor wasn’t doing her job.  Since this job affected the welfare of the company, it was a big concern for the employees.  Since the employees worked diligently, and often past their usual hours, to get the data into the system that was needed by the company, they were understandably upset that the supervisor never reviewed or approved the data transfer when it needed to be done.  Instead, she would just tell one of the employees to approve the data, without review, and let it go at that.  The employees, who would then be responsible if the data was incorrect, were reluctant to do this.  The supervisor didn’t care.  She didn’t want to do her job.

The employees brought their complaint to the employee relations department of their company.   The ER department, to its credit, handled the complaint with professionalism and courtesy to the employees.  The supervisor’s manager was contacted, provided the details, and together they worked out an action plan for this supervisor to do the job she was being paid to do.  The employees were thanked.  ER checked this off of their collective To Do list and moved on.

Except, there was one problem.  The supervisor didn’t follow this plan of rectification.  The supervisor’s manager didn’t put the plan into place.  The problem persisted until one day when it truly did cause a major problem for the company.  THEN something happened.

There are many areas to ask questions here.  Why didn’t the supervisor’s manager implement the plan, or keep a better eye on the supervisor?  Why wasn’t the plan followed?  Most prominently, why didn’t ER do any follow up?

Here, we have a case where employees did the right thing, endangering themselves so they could put forth a complaint.  Didn’t it deserve a one month, six week, or eight week follow-up to see how the solution was working?  If ER had done this, they would have found out nothing had been done and the supervisor continued her errant ways.  Moreover, if they had followed up, maybe an embarrassment for the company might have been averted.  Now, with a certain organic substance hitting the fan, what once was a small problem is now coming to the attention of people higher up on the organization chart.

Fortunately, these two employees were not subjected to retaliation by their supervisor, and didn’t endure any additional stress beyond having to deal with this supervisor’s actions, or lack of them.  However, that can’t always be said to be the outcome.  How can employees trust their ER department when the ER department itself can’t even do the most basic of follow-up with the employees?  A simple phone call would have ascertained that nothing had changed, which could have prompted actions, which could have prevented a major issue down the road.   If the ER department wants the trust of their employees, then then have to prove they are worthy of that trust.

Or, more simply put, you want employees to trust Employee Relations enough to report incidents that will keep the company out of trouble, then those same employees deserve more than to be abandoned by ER for sticking out their necks.

All You Do is Wave Goodbye

Author’s Note: This blog is the first in a series regarding development within a department and the role management has to develop their people.  While the topic has been covered previously in this blog, a few recent stories have come to me that indicated the subject was ripe for further investigation.

It was the third time in as many months that the same phrase was heard.  The phrase, “I’m leaving my job” was first uttered by an administrative assistant in the department who went to another part of the company because of a better job offer.  The second time was a mid-level employee who was quitting the department and company altogether for a better job offer.  The third person had just announced to her supervisor that she was pursuing the former job of the first ‘quitter’ because it offered more money and it would get her on a better track to job improvement.  Or, in other words, a better job offer.

The third employee’s supervisor sighed and said she understood.  She realized it was a small unit within the department with very little chance of upward mobility, though the supervisor herself had managed to get a promotion about a year ago.  There would only be movement if there was someone in that unit that left or was dismissed from their position.  It was a recipe for a revolving door.

Taking a broader view, the department had already lost two employees to someone else, and while the third employee wasn’t looking on leaving the department at present, she was going to leave her current job for the same reason…no chance for advancement.  Who knows how many others were looking to leave the department, but had not found the right opportunity yet.

Management’s reaction to each one of these real or possible departures?  Oh well, we’ll miss you.  No exploration of why the person was leaving, no asking them to stay, no negotiation…nothing.  Just a wave goodbye and a dab of the eye with a tissue.  Even when an employee was bold enough to explain why they were leaving, the reasons were buried in statistics about departures from the company as a whole.

Why do people leave a company?  There are many reasons, of course.  The old adage, “People join companies but leave managers” is a popular and justified one.  It could be the company itself doesn’t care about their people and is simply a bad company.  It could be that the person is simply restless, even though the company itself is comparatively good to them.  It could also be that, once the person is in their job, the company does nothing to keep them there.

  • How could a company and its management do that?
  • Keep the job interesting with new assignment, varied duties, and interesting opportunities
  • Don’t just say the company prefers to hire from within, but live those words, showing how much you respect the corporate family
  • Encourage employees to submit new job descriptions that would vary their work
  • Align work to the employee’s strengths instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole
  • Prepare the employee for the next level and then ascend them to it

Sadly most companies don’t do this, but are more interested in filling a hole, and once it is filled, ignoring the person.  As long as the work is getting done, don’t worry about the occupant of the position.  They are expendable.  You can always find another one of them.  So what if it costs upward of $75,000 to onboard a new person in the position.  It’s the company’s money, right?  The only time job growth seems to come with this short-sighted attitude is when management themselves want to move to the next rung of the ladder.  Then it seems to be important.

I once had a manager who believed that job growth was the sole province of the employee.  What I tried to tell her many times was that without the support of management, that growth will never come.  Keeping an employee engaged and wanting to stay in a company is a partnership between the employee and management.  Both have to bring something to the process in order for it to work.  Good managers realize this and do what they can to encourage growth.  Other managers just sit back and use empty words like, ‘it is up to the employee to do everything’.

Without that partnership.  Without management taking an active role in the development of their people, the employees will take those steps alone.  Most of the time, however, those steps will be right out the door.

With ‘Help’ Like This, Who Needs Enemies?

“I have said it before and I’ll say it again, your career development is your responsibility.”  This was uttered by Maria, department head at the annual goal setting meeting she was having with her department.  She was right on a couple of counts.  She had said the same thing many times in the past.  And, it was the responsibility of the person to work on their own career development.  No one should expect their manager or higher to just give them a promotion or new job assignment without the person working towards earning it.

Larry didn’t disagree with either of those pronouncements, though he was truly sick and tired of hearing that same, banal statement.  Having heard it for six years now, he was tired of hearing it for another reason.  He had worked at career advancement, and each time, instead of being aided by Maria, he was blocked by her.  As Maria droned on about this topic, he recalled the various times he tried to do as Maria said…advance his career, only to have Maria throw it back in his face.

He would have understood if Maria didn’t feel he was ready for the next step and gave him help and guidance towards that next step.  Maria didn’t, though.  All she did was stop him in his tracks, or make contradictory statements, or simply do nothing.  It is difficult to have any career advancement when the other party doesn’t seem to want to even lift a finger to assist.

Larry recalled writing a proposal to Maria to take a bigger role in the new direction of the department, managing the new function and combining it with his present managerial function.  He had been instrumental in getting the new function approved and rolling, and thought it was a logical step.  He wrote out his proposal, thought it out logically, and had presented it to Maria.  Her reaction?  Reject it outright, saying he needed to concentrate on his own function.  There was no further discussion on the topic, even when Maria would continuously come to him to aid the new function with is expertise.

Yet, when Larry went to advocate for his area, showing his concentration on his function, he was criticized for not thinking broadly enough about the department as a whole.  Confused, but willing to take the criticism, he designed his goals towards broadening his understanding of the business and for expanding his mindset.

He brought this new mindset to Maria at their goal setting meeting, and when Maria asked him where he wanted to see himself in the future, he laid out the various possibilities, along with the education he could take to get there.  Maria’s reaction?  He needed to regain his focus, as he was too scattered.

Larry massaged his neck as he had the distinct feeling of whiplash.  He had been told, in the span of a year, when he wanted to expand his worldview that he needed to focus on his area.  Yet, when he did, he was told to think more broadly.  Then, when he did, he was criticized for thinking too broadly.

Still, he soldiered on.  Shortly thereafter, in a meeting with Maria, he was told that a contractor who had been working in the department had been brought on as a part-time employee.  He was told that, since this part-time person would have responsibilities in his area, he would be responsible for her work and development as it impacted his area.  Dutifully, he met with the contractor now employee and shared with her the goals of his area and asked her to begin thinking of areas where she could most likely be of benefit and provide him with her ideas.

Imagine, Larry’s surprise when he received a call from Maria indicating that the contractor now employee had told her that Larry was being a slave driver with her and that she had no time to breathe with his ‘demands’.  Larry explained what he had asked the now employee to do, but Maria’s mind was made up.  He had no right to assign her work, but only was a ‘colleague’ to her.  While Larry had always suspected this now employee had a little too close relationship with Maria, this now confirmed it.  In the span of three weeks, Maria had once again given contradictory explanations to Larry, and blamed Larry for it all.

At the mid-year review, Larry was not surprised at all when he was criticized by Maria for not taking a better interest in the employee and letting her know what he expected of her.  Maria’s purposeful amnesia had once again struck full force.  It didn’t matter to him anymore.  He was numb, resigned to the fact that Maria didn’t give a damn about him or his career development, so her present droning on about career development being the employee’s own responsibility was simply background noise.

Maria was right.  It is not a manager’s job to promote the employee.  It is the employee’s job to work to get themselves advanced in their career, whatever that means.  However, that does not mean that the manager has no role in it.  A good manager encourages.  A good manager provides positive and creative feedback.  A good manager lays out a path to the employee for how they can move forward.  In short, a good manager is supportive of the employee’s career aspirations and helps them see what needs to be done to advance.  The manager does not do it for the employee, and does not make any promises of reward, but does provide a roadmap to where the employee wants to go.

The Marias of this world don’t see this.  They believe that they have nothing to do with their employee’s growth.  There is no encouragement.  There is no support.  In Maria’s case, there was contradiction at every turn, so she not only lent zero support to Larry, but also blocked it with incomprehensible utterances.  Of course, she didn’t see it this way, and kept on saying it was all the employee’s responsibility.

We’ll explore that theme more in the next blog.  For Larry, he is exploring his career…elsewhere.  One thing will be sure.  Maria will probably pat herself on the back for giving such good ‘advice’ to him.