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.
It had become the new method of dealing with the abundant stress in the company. It was the stress leave, and more and more employees had been taking it. The latest was Ellen, who had finally had it with her new department leader. The leader, who had risen in the ranks, often decided to sneak up on people to spy on what they were doing on their computer. Her ‘my way or the highway’ approach to the work to be done had her staff doing tons of extra work in order to do things the way she wanted, even if it didn’t make sense. She also arbitrarily changed their job responsibilities, adding travel or other duties, without talking with the staff first, and simply expecting them to accept these changes without question.
Ellen did what many staff members had been doing. Seeing no recourse from Human Resources, she asked her doctor to write her out on a stress leave. The doctor, seeing what was being done to Ellen, happily agreed. She thus became one of the lengthening list of people who was taking advantage of this in order to find another job while having some income flowing. Was it what she wanted to do? No. Like many of her colleagues, she wanted to come in to do the job she had at one time loved. The fact that so many were taking this option showed there was a problem with who the company was promoting, not who the company was hiring to do the work.
What was Human Resources’ response to this growing trend? Did they begin to investigate why this type of leave was rising rapidly? Were they working with managers to try to improve their performance, especially at the executive level? Were they identifying which behaviors were causing this? No to all the above. Human Resources only consultation with these managers was to tell them that the employee’s job was protected for six months. After that, HR would help the manager fire the employee. They did this with astonishing frequency, almost becoming effortless experts at it.
Thus Ellen became the latest person in another growing line: employees released by the company because HR couldn’t be bothered to find out why the employee, who had been with the company 10 years, was now willing to be fired rather than come into the office.
It is a poor doctor that decides to treat the symptoms of a disease but make a conscious decision not to look for its root causes. The same with a company’s HR department. When their decision is to always support the manager, whether the manager is right or wrong, then they set the stage for employees to take any way they can to cope with the situation.
In other words, when you decide to ignore the elephant in the room, you can’t blame anyone else for having to clean up what the elephant leaves behind.
In my last blog, I mentioned that Sam, an employee of the company, decided to resign and take a new job. That blog focused on how his manager’s manager, after denigrating he and his fellow employees’ talents, heaped false praise upon him when learning of his leaving.
Sad to say, that wasn’t the most head shaking thing to happen to Sam during the two weeks he spent at the company after he had resigned. That honor would go to Sarah, who now was the head of the department, but once was Sam’s immediate manager. Sarah and Sam made a good team until they had a disagreement on how to manage an employee who reported to Sam. If you know Sarah, and if you don’t, please feel free to read some of the blogs about her, you know this independent behavior of Sam’s would not go unpunished, and it didn’t. Since then, Sam and Sarah had a professional relationship, but any warmth or friendship between the two were products of a bygone era, at least as far as Sam was concerned.
So, with this in mind, you can understand Sam’s reaction to what Sarah did. During that two weeks, Sarah stopped by Sam’s desk, told him she heard he was leaving, and said the following: “That will leave me as the last of our little group that started here!”
Let that sink in. Not, “I wish you the very best of luck” or “You deserve to be happy” or even “Well, good luck in your future endeavors”. No, her comments were not directed to Sam’s future, but rather to herself. Sam was once again grateful for his training in keeping a neutral expression and placid smile on his face, as he knew the real story behind that comment, namely:
- There were four original employees in Sarah’s small group
- She had fired two of the four people
- Her treatment had driven the third person, Sam, out of the department
It was small wonder that she was the last person standing, as she had made sure that everyone else no longer worked for the company.
As mind numbing that comment was to Sam, he also realized it was a fitting ending to his relationship with Sarah. Nothing was ever or would ever be her fault. Her actions over the years had demonstrated she would practice yoga master movements in order to blame someone else for her own shortcomings. He was sure that there were no mirrors ever in her house, as she never seemed to reflect on her behavior or her actions. This last comment by her was fully representative of the manager and leader he had known during his tenure in the department. It was the person the Maxines of the department had learned to play so very well to their advantage. It was the person that the employees of the department feared more than respected.
Sarah had once last chance to prove that her ascent up the ladder had given her the skills befitting a leader. Sam could confidently leave the company knowing that he had made the right decision, as Sarah had proven that things would never change.
The atmosphere was light and there was laughter around the table as the family got together. Sam was enjoying himself, finally able to tell some of the stories about his new manager, but also surprised at how widespread the epidemic of bad management was. The next round of stories went something like this:
Sam related that his manager came to him, excited for some new content sent to her by a provider. It was on a flash drive, and as she wanted to give a copy of some of the content to others, she asked Sam what kind of reusable media the department had to copy the items. Sam mentioned to her that they had a stock of flash drives, probably about 25 in number, that had been left over from an old project and were just sitting in the closet. Occasionally he or his co-worker Ralph would use one for some purpose, and it was handy having them there.
His manager thanked him and headed off to the supply closet. She returned a few minutes later, dashing into her office, her hands and arms filled with flash drives. Pausing for a moment to process this, Sam walked to the supply closet and was greeted with an empty box where there were, minutes before, 25 flash drives for the department to use. He related that, to this day, not one of the flash drives has reappeared for a business purpose.
As soon as the comments about this died down, one of his relatives piped up about something similar in her workplace. Like most offices, her office received little thank you gifts from the vendors they used throughout the year. It may have been a bowl of fruit, some other edibles, or something creative. Usually, before her new manager took over, these were put in a common area for all the employees to enjoy. After the new manager arrived, things went differently. The new manager would take each package and bring it into her office, never to be seen again. Oh, she did say that anyone could come into her office and enjoy the snacks, but she would either stare at the person the whole time they were in there, or the food would mysteriously have disappeared when someone went to avail themselves of something. The manager was always at a loss of where these would go, but was seen many times carrying rather heavy bags out to her car.
Being a good manager is made up of many tiny things. Fairly or unfairly, each one of those things are visible to your employees, who will form an opinion of you based on the actions you take. You don’t need to be perfect, but you do have to have a favorable balance in order to gain the respect of your people.
When you show that you never learned how to share, you give the impression that you only care about your happiness and well being. Nobody else matters. Your happiness overrides everything. If extrapolated into how you are going to deal with people whose work lives are in your hands, what are they bound to think? They are going to think that you will manage them with the same greed that you have shown in your other actions, thinking nothing of them, but only of yourself. And, if this is how you are going to rule them, they might as well take whatever they can whenever they can. After all, isn’t that what you are modeling to them?
If you want a genuinely caring and giving culture, start with yourself. If you only think of you, don’t be surprised when your employees only think of themselves.
Last week, I wrote about the meeting on the latest engagement survey for Sarah’s organization. In that article, I mentioned that the results were not the item most people focused on, but rather how those results were interpreted by Sarah and her leadership team. That wasn’t the only thing people were noticing in Sarah’s meeting, however. In this particular case, some employees were tempted to break out the stopwatch app on their smartphones. Why? Read on…
As I wrote about, everything that seemed to be positive for the department was claimed by Sarah, and everything not that positive was blamed more on the company. After the first comment that Sarah made, Anna, one of Sarah’s direct reports, who had been graced with two promotions in one year (which was against company rules, but that is the subject of another article), chimed in, “You’re right Sarah! That makes a lot of sense.” That comment, made about 5 seconds after Sarah’s comment, made more than a few eyes roll.
The next time Sarah made a comment, there again was Anna, once again congratulating her boss. “That’s a great point. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way!” One expected Anna to break out the pom-poms at that point and lead everyone in a cheer.
This back and forth went on for several more rounds, each time Anna chiming in earlier and earlier about the rightness of Sarah’s statements. If they wouldn’t be noticed for it, several staff wanted to break out the stopwatch app to time how long it would take for Anna to say something in response to Sarah’s comments. Others wanted to pass along lip balm to Anna. Still others were waiting for Anna to simply say to Sarah, “I don’t know what you are going to say next, but I’m sure it is brilliant.” As you can see, Anna’s comments were not taken seriously by anyone, save for Sarah herself.
There are two ways to ascend in an organization. You can show your excellence and value to the organization, or you can ascend with flattery and pleasing words. Either way, you will have attained a higher position, and people will have to listen to you. How would you like them to listen to you, though? Do you want them to listen with attention and respect, knowing you earned that spot in the organization? Or, do you want them to inwardly roll their eyes, nod when appropriate, and then talk behind your back that the only strength you have is tied to how hard you pucker?
Maybe you don’t care, which is a sad state of affairs, for it shows you are in for the power alone, and not what you can do for the organization and your people. If that is the case, download that stopwatch app mentioned above. You will need to be in training constantly for how you can continue to curry favor without any substance.
Worse still, if you are the boss who rewards praise and flattery, but not true substance and intelligence, you may want to download that stopwatch app as well. After all, you want to make sure your direct reports kiss up faster and faster, don’t you?
The CEO took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. No matter how much he looked at the report on his desk, he could coax no sense out of it. Putting it aside, he scanned his desk for another matters that required his attention.
His eyes lit upon a letter that had been written to him and to the President of the company. He had not filed the letter yet, so picked it up to reread it. The letter was from a terminated employee of the company, or rather the employee’s lawyer, spelling out rather specific charges against the employee’s now former manager. The accusations could cause the company some trouble, as they could be interpreted as violating federal regulations.
The manager in question was someone the CEO knew. She had stepped up to head several projects in the company and had volunteered to fill a spot on the leadership council temporarily, taking some burden off the CEO. He liked when people did this, so was willing to overlook such reports of the manager’s, shall we say, deficiencies. He had decided not to investigate these accusations at all, but held on to the letter in case the President thought differently. He didn’t think the President would, as he had his own agenda and pet projects, and didn’t bother much with the needs of the company’s staff.
The letter did remind him that he needed to make arrangements to make the manager in question’s temporary promotion permanent. After all, didn’t she help him out? Staff complained too much anyway. He took the letter, and promptly filed it in the round file under his desk.
He sighed. That was enough of a distraction. He needed to get back to his report.
Picking it up, he read the top of it again. It was the employee engagement results from the survey taken earlier in the year. It had shown, as it had in previous years, the same disturbing data.
I can’t figure it out, the CEO thought, reading the data for the 100th time. Why do the staff feel so strongly that the leadership of this company don’t care about them or their concerns at all?
Sarah’s staff was numb on the day after their retreat. It was almost more than could be comprehended by them. Despite her assurances that things were done because they needed to be done, the staff walked around in a daze, either too stupefied to speak or such a swirling maelstrom of emotions as to not know where to start. Let’s back up a bit to find out how the staff got to this point.
The retreat was a multi-day affair, held off-site. The facilitator was respected and knowledgeable, and had invited the staff to contact him confidentially to speak with him about what they found to be issues in the department. Several members of the staff had done so, sharing their thoughts on what the issues were and what their thoughts on Sarah’s leadership were. This was a leap of faith. As part of the department’s concerns were the lack of confidentiality, and the lack of trust that went hand in hand with it, this was a rather daring step. Still, many of them felt that nothing would be done without full honesty, and trusted that the facilitator meant his assurances that everything said would not only be confidential, but ‘sacred’ to him.
The retreat hadn’t accomplished much of what the staff hoped it would. As in past attempts at retreats, the focus had devolved into how the department had to be respected by the other areas and how they could ‘get a seat at the table’. Frustration rose as the facilitator sailed past the core concept — that a department which had such deep internal issues with trust of each other and their leadership could never put forth the face to the outside that would make it get that seat. Granted, it was one of the most difficult things to do. How do you get past trust issues if no one trusted that they could safely speak about the issues? Still, the facilitator was being paid good money to do just that, but seemed to focus on things like shared vision and shared goals.
The latter part of the retreat seemed to do a bit better, at least touching upon the issues, with an exercise that gave a symbolic representation that one person would always be there for another. There were some tears, some hugs, and a general kumbaya feeling among the staff. At the end of it, Sarah, also emotional, indicated that she had ‘learned’ about her staff at this retreat and would work to change her ways in order to understand her staff on their terms and not her own. That statement alone left the staff at least hopeful that there may be some change.
The feeling was short lived. The very next day, Sarah announced that she had ‘regretfully terminated’ one of the most popular managers in the department. Acknowledging that the timing probably wasn’t the best, she still stood by her decision and asked the staff to soldier on. ‘Soldier’ was probably a good term, as the staff walked around shell shocked. They were stunned and devastated by the firing, yes, but also by the instant repudiation of everything that Sarah had said at the retreat. A termination usually happens after a good amount of thought and deliberation. With that in mind, Sarah had to have known this was going to happen as she spoke her emotional words of working better to understand her staff. She understood one of them so well, she decided they had to be fired.
A duck hunter sits in a duck blind, a hidden area in order to keep concealed from the ducks they are looking to shoot. They then blow into a duck call, hoping to entice ducks to them. They use decoys in order to get the ducks close enough to them. When the ducks are close enough, the hunter fires, killing some ducks. It is a practice in deception.
Sarah’s staff walked around in a daze that day. They had been lured in with the sound of a duck call, given the decoy of their department head ‘confessing’, and then heard the sound of the gun firing off a round at them. When the smoke cleared, one of them lay dead, professionally. Some wondered when the trigger would be squeezed again, while others just scrambled to find a place to hide. None of them would ever trust Sarah the hunter again.
If this is your idea of management, then never expect trust, commitment, or loyalty. Expect people with one eye on you, while their other eye is on the door, their resume, the employment section, or on their fellow employees. If you manage by duck blind, expect to always have to use a gun to get your way.
The Persian empire of the 4th century BCE extended over 127 lands, and all the Jews were its subjects. When King Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders, he orchestrated a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen—though she refused to divulge the identity of her nationality.
Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordechai, the leader of the Jews (and Esther’s cousin), defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar—a date chosen by a lottery Haman made.
Mordechai galvanized all the Jews, convincing them to repent, fast and pray to G‑d. Meanwhile, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a feast. At the feast, Esther revealed to the king her Jewish identity. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister in his stead, and a new decree was issued—granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
On the 13th of Adar, the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar, they rested and celebrated.
Rebekah and her co-workers were discussing various holidays, when Rebekah mentioned Purim. Some of her co-workers were not familiar with this holiday and why it was important to the Jewish faith. As she was explaining this, Rebekah’s manager chimed in with an explanation of her own. “Purim? That’s just a Jewish Halloween”. The room fell silent in digesting that particular comment, and those who were happily enjoying some employee bonding just a minute or so ago now went sullenly to their desks.
You may say that Rebekah should have gone to Employee Relations at this instance. Rebekah considered this, but knew her company’s Employee Relations department was nothing more than a defense department for managers. That being the case, Rebekah knew that the only person punished would be her when her manager found out she had been reported. She remained silent, not out of understanding that the manager would never change, but knowing things would never change, especially her manager.
As Rebekah went back to her desk, she wondered what kind of progress had been made in the past 40 years. A manager, in this day and age, making a comment as bigoted as this. It simply boggled her mind. And to know, because the company motto was managers first, last, and always, that nothing would be done save for getting her punished, was equally as galling. If one manager could say this, what were other equally offensive things were other managers saying, and getting away with?
As she sat at her desk, she wondered whether she should plot her own personal exodus from the company.
The queen looked out at the peasants from her chamber. She sighed. Everywhere she looked, she saw them doing thing improperly, not being efficient, or grumbling about the burden of work they had been given. Why couldn’t they be more like her? She knew how to be perfectly efficient, delegate her duties so they weren’t overwhelming, and did her share of grumbling, but with her, the grumbling was justified, not the petty and shortsighted concerns they had. The grumbling against her was the thing that confused her the most. Didn’t they see that she was only going what was best for them?
Her pointing out of their flaws was only meant to have them realize they could improve. Her rather forthright style was so they knew exactly what she wanted. The increasing amount of work benefited the whole kingdom, if not them personally, and had made her the powerful monarch she was today, and who wouldn’t want that? Yes, to her thinking, her subjects should be the happiest, most grateful, and most worshipful people in the land.
She looked out the window and once again saw the depressing sight of those ungrateful, unhappy wretches doing their work in such depressing fashion. She was glad she had this little talk with herself, as it proved once again it was all their fault. She was doing everything properly, and they just couldn’t appreciate it. She retired into her sanctum assured of her perfection.
Of course this never really happened, but for many of the department’s employees, this is the scenario, or one similar to it, that they envisioned day after day. It was especially appropriate today after the department head, receiving the employee opinion data, had proclaimed that she wasn’t sure if the data was at all relevant about her, and that maybe she should wait until next year’s data. This was after last year where she proclaimed, “Yes, but we should focus only on the positive news”. In the intervening time, she had not changed one thing about her managerial style, moved one iota from her ‘brutal honest’ philosophy, (though not tolerating that from anyone else) or throttled back on the backbreaking workload which she delegated to her subordinates. After all, she had received a promotion because of the successes this style had brought, so why change it? It was working for her and her ascent up the ladder. If others didn’t like it, she really didn’t seem to care.
Still, it came as a shock to her that people were unhappy, eliciting another round of excuses from her as to how the data should be interpreted and, with a heavy sigh, saying that the department would try again to rectify these issues. She then went about her business, and her employees went around being miserable.
How are you envisioned by your employees? A benevolent ruler, open to their hopes, dreams, and concerns? An absolute dictator who barks out orders, brooks no insubordination, and looks down on everyone else as not being as superior as you? What names (clean ones, that is) are you being referred to when your employees gather together? If you knew what those names were, what would your reaction be — concern that this was how you were viewed, or an instantaneous judgement that the employees saying those names are misinformed, wrong, and disloyal?
If you find yourself having to make excuses for how your employee see you, then it is you who is living in delusion. It is time for your to descend from your royal tower, go out into the courtyard, and sit down with the townsfolk and listen to them. Once you do this without judgement or punishment, you have begun the journey to self-awareness. Once you have worked to make their lives better person by person, you have begun the journey to becoming a good manager. Do that for a few years, and we’ll discuss your journey towards being a leader.
Sam tried explaining it to his manager, Michele, many times. He tried to put it into language as professional as possible. Nothing worked. Eventually he realized it wasn’t that she didn’t understand, it was that Michele simply did not care.
What Sam was trying to explain to his boss Michele was that he simply processes information differently than she does. Whereas Michele favors snap decisions where she will never change her mind, Sam’s natural tendency was to process the information, weigh the variables, and then give his informed opinion on the subject.
Mind you, were are not talking about months here. All Sam would ever ask was an evening to think it over, to let his mind work on it, and he would come back in the morning with his thoughts on the subject.
Mind you, these were not decisions that would change the fate of the free world. They were routine business decisions that were not critical. Most of the time they were ordinary. Delaying a day would not have made any difference as to their implementation. Still, Michele would have no part of it.
Sam tried…he really did. He brought in research to Michele showing that there are people who simply need time to process. He would tell her that he prefers to mull things over. He even used the term, ‘let me mull this over and get back to you’ with her. All to no avail. She demanded snap decisions.
Why? Sam eventually came to the realization that because Michele was naturally inclined to make snap decisions, she felt that everyone had to. They should all be like her. The worldview she had was that because she was this way, it was the best way to be, and any deviation was simply wrong. It was her way or nothing. Others people’s strengths meant nothing to her. Michele’s was the best way and she didn’t want to know what was best for her employees.
It saddened Sam to see this, as he witnessed other managers in the company work differently. They realized the differences in their staff and accommodated them, as best possible. Someone needed that time to think, as was their wont, they were given time to think it over. The managers there worked with their people’s natural tendencies. Because of this, those employees were less stressed, more productive, and gave a higher quality of work, because they worked the way their brains wanted.
Those other managers realized that the departments that worked best were the ones where the managers shaped themselves to their people, not where they were constantly trying to forge their people into a clone of the manager.
And, for one of the few times in his life, Sam made a snap decision. He had to leave the department, maybe the company, in order to be happy. He smiled as he thought that Michele had finally gotten what she wanted…he made decisions just like her.