The Exclusive Club

You could hear the pure joy in Sarah’s words in the email.  She was announcing the promotions of three of her managers to higher level manager positions within the organization.   Sarah extolled their virtues, recounted their successes, and gave each one of them her heartiest congratulations, and encouraged the staff to do the same.

If you looked at the numbers, as much of the non-managerial staff did, you began to notice a recurring pattern in the department.  In the past eight years, there had been about twelve promotions of existing managers into higher level managerial positions.  In the same eight years, the number of non-managers in the department who had been promoted into the management ranks?  One.

It wasn’t that the opportunities weren’t there.  In that same time period, there had been five openings for a manager within the department.  All save for one was filled by an outside candidate.  It wasn’t that employees in the department hadn’t applied.  In at least two of those instances, staff from the department applied for the positions.  What were they told?  “We’re not even going to consider you for the job”.  Great recruiting tool, huh?  In the one time when they did hire internally, an extensive search was conducted externally before management was forced to realized that no one had the skills that the person right in front of them had.

What Sarah and her predecessors in the department had done was to make management in the department an exclusive club.  The velvet ropes had been put up and a ‘No Staff Allowed’ sign had been hung on them.  On the other side of the ropes there were promotions and self-congratulations, all in view of those who knew, no matter how hard they strived, how far they advanced in knowledge or skill, they would not get the chance to pass beyond those velvet ropes.  Their colleagues within the company, those colleagues with progressive managers, were moving up the ladder.  Sarah’s people knew they could not even step on the first rung.  The only chance they would have is to move on to another company.  When that day came, Sarah and the group behind the velvet ropes would wonder why they were leaving.

They would not worry long.  They would console themselves with another round of internal promotions.

You’re Good, I’m Outstanding

The management staff of the store had been told by their manager to spread the word to all their reports.  In terms of the self-ratings in their reviews, they were not to rate themselves above a 3, though the scale did go up to 5.  “Nobody is a 5”, said the manager, and indicated that was the same for the 4 rating.

Upset, but obedient, the management staff communicated this to their staff, and obeyed the same for themselves.  When staff asked why, all they could do is explain that this is what the head manager wanted and communicated, and that she had said nothing more than that.  The staff, knowing this head manager, understood what was being said to them.

About a week later, one of the management staff came into the head manager’s office, which was open, to drop off the reviews for his staff.  Sitting in plain sight was the head manager’s self-evaluation, ready to be sent to the regional office.  The ratings the head manager gave herself?  All 5’s.  Apparently, she felt nobody but herself was outstanding.

Have you ever had a manager who let you know that to get the top rating on your review, you pretty much had to leap tall buildings with a single bound, work 25 hours a day, and single-handedly double the company’s stock price during the rating year?  Then, when you have worked as hard as you know how to, exceeded all your goals, and needed IV coffee just to get to your desk, your manager sniffs derisively and says, “You did average work this year.  Good work.”  This setting of the bar so beyond expectations is a major demotivating factor for staff, who feel that management is only looking at the bottom line of the company in terms of raises, and not on what the employees are contributing to their department and the organization as a whole.

What is more galling is when those same managers, who say that you would have to win the Nobel Prize in order to be considered for the highest level, turn around and give themselves an evaluation of ‘outstanding’ year after year.  When they actually get that rating from their management, who have a different expectation of what the highest rating means than your manager, you have then turned your staff from disengaged to outright hostile.  What you have demonstrated is that the only thing you care about is what goes into your wallet, not your staff’s.  Pity you, such an outstanding performer who is saddled with all these ‘average’ direct reports.

When you set the bar so high that it is unreachable, it is not an incentive to the staff to try to reach it.  Instead, they slump their shoulders, shuffle under that bar, and wonder why they should do anything more than just the bare minimum to keep their jobs.  After all, there is no hope for them to actually get a higher rating, so why try?

When you compound that by not following your own standards, using the lowered expectations of your management for your high ratings, and then beaming because of it, you have demonstrated that the only thing you are managing is your own career.  If your management’s expectations of you are more reasonable, why aren’t yours for your staff?  Who are you in your position for…them or yourself?  The answer could tell you a lot about whether you are a good manager in your staff’s eyes.

Blah, Blah, Blah

The project was huge.   It would span multiple years and cost millions of dollars.  Almost everyone in the company would be involved in implementing this in some way, whether it be building, testing, programming, or training. The project was mentioned at each and every company-wide staff meeting and its importance was reaffirmed at every turn.  Why, then, did Human Resources seem not to care about it at all?

The Training Function was part of the HR function, and there would be a lot of training involved in this project.  The company’s one trainer, already overburdened, was assigned to be the person to teach the company how to work the new system.  He wasn’t alone.  There was someone else working with him to plan out the education, but his was the primary responsibility to produce all training for the company.  Happily, these two people got on well with each other, and understood not only the task, but the bandwidth limits each had.

Throughout the meetings the trainer and his associate would have a conversation where the associate would ask why the trainer’s department didn’t bring on some temporary assistance, as the trainer’s burden was vastly increased by the project.  The trainer replied that he had mentioned this several times, but the powers that be in his department didn’t think it was much of a big deal.

The associate then asked why the trainer, if he couldn’t get help, didn’t press more to have this on his bonus goals — the goals that would lead to a bonus.  Everyone else did.  The trainer would tell the associate that he tried, many times to tell his department Director this, and each time, he was brushed off.

The associate offered to send her Director, who was over the whole project, to talk with his Director and the Director’ boss.  The trainer said it would not make much of a difference.  Since HR did not use the system being developed in the project, it didn’t much matter to them.  Plus, the training function never seemed to hold much interest for them.

The associate was respectful of the trainer’s opinions, though really didn’t believe his protests, thinking that he simply didn’t want to press the subject with his management.  That changed one day when, during a meeting, he recounted the following.

It seems that, during a meeting the Project Manager had with the department Director, the PM took the opportunity to stress how important the project was, how much work the trainer had to do, how vital he was to the workings of the project.  In recounting that meeting with the trainer, the department Director dismissed it by saying, “…and she told me how much work it was, how much you had to do, how important this was, blah, blah, blah.”  She promptly went on with other discussions.   The associate was stunned at this, and finally understood what the trainer was up against.

Throughout the meetings on the project, the associate would ask the trainer what the department Director had him working on, what she considered important.  At various times, the trainer would mention that the he was working on part of the application process so the company could be considered for the Best Place to Work in the state, revising websites at the Director’s direction, and manning tables at a fair for the company to show how much the department did for the company.  The associate began to see the pattern.  What was important to the department Director was an activity that she could brag about as having implemented, building her own reputation.  Something to help the whole company?  That would be secondary.  Get help for the trainer?  No, he would just have to learn to do more, be more efficient, or she would have to discipline him for not completing his duties.

There is nothing inherently bad in wanting to do projects that will display your talents, showcase your abilities, and gain you some notice, especially if it will wind up advancing your career.  However, when a manager doesn’t keep the balance between what is good for the company and what is good for the manager, their ambition takes precedence over everything else.  A good manager realizes that, even when something might not benefit themselves or their department directly, they need to do it for the corporate good.   They don’t put on blinders to the work it will take, the efforts of their employees, or how important it is, simply because it may interfere with their own goals.  For their efforts, they will get the respect of their employees, appreciation and recognition from their peers and decision makers, and greater support for their programs when the time comes.

Managers always talk about needing teamwork to make their goals a reality.  Their managers need it as well.  When that call comes, a good manager does more than say, “Blah, blah, blah”.

Good Goals, Part Two

When you think of goals, hopefully several words come to mind:  enhancement, enrichment, advancement.  What about: punishment?  Unfortunately, some managers use goals as something wholly unattainable to set an employee up to fail.

In the blog entitled Three Tales, I mentioned one employee who expected to get a very poor performance evaluation.  That same employee let me know her supervisor also gave her a sneak preview of at least one goals she was to reach:  to learn Chinese within one year.  When she told me this, two thoughts immediately came to mind.

First, despite all the training, the manager did not employe the SMART method in setting this goal.  What proficiency of Chinese did the manager want the employee to learn?  How will you measure proficiency?  What is the purpose of this goal?  Is it attainable?  In short, is it a good goal in terms of being able to be reached within the time specified, and your success or failure quantified objectively?

Second, is this goal being instituted to set the employee up to fail?  Let’s look at it objectively.  While the company has an international presence, what is the purpose of learning Chinese when there are those who have Chinese as a first language who you can turn to?  Within one year, which is the time period for most goals, what can someone expect to learn of a language that is regarded as incredibly difficult to learn?  Is she to learn how to speak and write Chinese, and for what purposes will this be used?  What other tasks will be lifted from the manager in order for her to learn Chinese to a proficient standard?

I believe most of these questions are moot.  Instead, the goal is being instituted because the employee is being set up to fail.  Even the most objective of grading criteria for this goal will be discounted, and the manager will say that the goal was not met, and the employee cannot perform the tasks associated with her job.  The goal is being used as a weapon.

There are many ways which an employee can be set up to fail.  Some of them have been addressed here, and others will be addressed in future blogs.  To use a process that is supposed to uplift and enrich in this way demonstrates that a manager’s motives are less than pure and wanting to help the company.  Instead, a manager has already made up their mind about whether they want their employee on the team and is using this process to gain legal ground for carrying out the sentence.  This is, of course, unfair to the employee, dragging out penalizing treatment to which there is no reprieve.

Good managers wield tools, not weapons.  Calling one the other means that something is fundamentally flawed within the manager, and that maybe their goals need to be reevaluated.

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.


Many businesses are in the process of goal setting for their employees at this time of year.  Many of those goals will help the employee gain new skills, new insights, and new experiences.  Others, sadly, will only serve to discourage the employee.  Here’s how you can avoid that.

Many managers use the S.M.A.R.T method of goal setting.  That stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

The S.M.A.R.T. method is a good one for goal setting, if properly executed.  Let’s look at where many managers don’t quite hit the mark.

The first area where many managers fall short is Attainable.  This goal is usually felled by its own weight.

Are you, as a manager, guilty of Adding a Line?  You know…there are ten lines for putting in the goals you want your employee to reach this year, but you can’t resist adding in an eleventh, or twelfth, or even thirteenth?  Since you are already there, why not add a few more?  When you are finished, those 10 goals which would be attainable are now 20, each of which you expect to be done in a superior fashion.  When the employee drags themselves into you at the end of the year and indicates that they were only able to finish 15 of them, despite putting in 60 hours weeks all year, you look incredulous.  The employee must not have good time management skills.

In truth, the employee did manage their time well, but there was just too much work to be done by any one person.  If the manager had kept to the 10 lines, the employee would have been able to complete their goals, be proud of their accomplishments, and had a wonderful review.  However, now, with 20 goals, they were set up to fail from the outset.  This leads to resentment and a lower standard of work — why bother killing yourself when you can never hope to handle the work?

If you as a manager find yourself having to add lines in order to get the work assigned, maybe it is time for you to talk with your manager about adding to your staff.  Take a look at your goals…are they, in aggregate, attainable by your employee.  Or, are you dooming them before they even begin?

Next, let’s look at Realistic.  Again, making sure that a goal is realistic will help grow your employee while stretching their capabilities.  Where does this goal fall down for some?  In one question:  is there agreement that this is realistic?

As part of their incentive goals, a manager suggested an employee take a class from a vendor.  As part of the goal, the employee then had to demonstrate proficiency in that topic.  However, to demonstrate proficiency, the employee would need their manager’s help in assigning work that would allow this skill to be used.  While the manager had read about the course and assigned it, he or she never created a situation where the employee could demonstrate the proficiency.  While the employee looked for ways to demonstrate their learning, they could not, in their daily course of work, have the situation that would accommodate that.  Thus, the employee could not demonstrate proficiency in that goal.   At the end of the year, they were deemed not to have met the goal.  Once again, an employee is set up to fail.

In this case, setting of the goal is not the last step in the process.  The manager needs to create the situation where the employee can shine.  This can be done by assigning a special project, placing the employee on a committee where the learning can be utilized, or even sitting with the employee soon after the class and creating a situation.  By just assigning the goal and saying, “Go apply it to something” is akin to saying, “Here are paints, now go find a landscape”.  Give your employees a realistic chance to wow you with their knowledge.  You owe it to them.

Doing these things will make the goal setting process a much more pleasurable experience.  If a manager’s employees know that these goals can be reached, will help make the employee a better employee, and provide the employee skills which will advance their career, they will accept them willingly and work to not only attain, but surpass them.  If the employees know that the manager is there behind them, helping them to reach the goal, a good thing only becomes better.

Which would prefer?  Your employees eager to hit those goals out of the park or wondering how they are ever going to get their goals done?