This is the first 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 department was several weeks into the work on the project, and the strain was showing on everyone. People were working insane hours trying to get their project work done while getting their regular jobs done as well. People putting in 50 to 80 hours a week was becoming typical, and there was no end in sight. Nights, weekends, and holidays were being taken up by project work, as were the notes from supervisors as to why a certain regular work task wasn’t done. The silent reaction to that kind of demand was usually, “You are kidding, right?”
Many looked to the office of Sarah. Claiming she was ‘swamped’, she had not volunteered to take any burden off of anyone regarding the project, though she had hired a temp or two for some of the tasks. While the staff was appreciative of the temps work, they also looked skeptically as Sarah’s claim, as they were all swamped with work even before the project. Now they were simply overloaded.
In the midst of this, Sarah had decided what her major area of focus was going to be. She needed a new title. Claiming her present title didn’t sufficiently convey the importance of her role, she had gone on a campaign of trying to change her title to something more appropriate. As the machinery of this involved some of the systems that she was in charge of, she would appropriate some of the time of the people of the department to make this happen. It didn’t seem to matter to her that her people were already beyond their capacity. This was important to Sarah, as it would give her the title she so well deserved.
So, it came as no real surprise when a member of her department, involved in getting testing done before the deadline later that day, opened her mailbox to see a note from Sarah designated as high priority. Opening it, they saw all the approvals necessary for the title change had come through and that Sarah had to have it officially put into the system right away, or, in Sarah speak, by end of day.
Dutifully, the employee of the department closed the testing they were doing, opened up another system, and entered the information to officially change Sarah’s title. After saving that information, the employee looked at the clock and saw that, with the time used for that ‘high priority’ task, they would now have to stay late, again, to finish the testing for the day. Otherwise, they risked a note from their supervisor or from Sarah herself scolding them for not getting this done, causing someone to call her and ask why the testing wasn’t done, and suggesting they really needed to manage their time better.
“Yep”, the employee thought to them self, “I now feel so much more respect for Sarah now that she has this new title.” The employee looked to Sarah’s office. She had decided to leave for the day, probably claiming that she deserved the time off for all the work she had done that day.
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…
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.
As I approach my 200th post in this blog, I thought I would shake things up a bit and present a story of a truly good manager and the lessons that this manager’s actions hold for all the Sarahs and Maxines in the management and leadership ranks.
Mitch was understandably depressed. Having received yet another rejection for a job he applied and interviewed for, he began to question what was wrong with him. Was it his approach? His appearance? His talk or mannerisms during the interview? His age? He really wanted to know, but most of the recruiters he spoke with would not provide him with anything more than the legally approved and safe, “You just weren’t right for the job”. He smiled a bitter smile at all the ‘experts’ out there who say that you are supposed to be brave enough to get feedback on yourself so you can do better the next time. How can you do that if the employers won’t give you anything more than the standard answer?
He wanted feedback on his search to have Sarah’s organization be one he saw in the rear-view mirror of his life. He was following all the advice. He was trying to improve where he could and add to his professional and experiential credentials wherever possible. It all seemed for nothing, and he was tired and dejected. He know somewhere, somehow, he would find the strength to go on, but at times like these, he wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm.
Mitch realized one of the advantages he had was that, unlike some of his friends, he was employed still, and grateful for that fact. It also meant he had the advantage of speaking to people in the workplace who might be able to provide some insight on his professional demeanor, habits, and standing. That advantage also proved a challenge, however. Who could he speak with? Who could he trust? Who could he both gain some insight from and know that the conversation would be private? After considerable thought, Mitch chose to ask Phil.
Phil was an executive in the company who didn’t act like an executive. From a working class background, he had never left those sensibilities behind and really looked out for his people. He had come to his standing honestly, and had a great amount of respect from those who worked for him. Mitch had seen this early in Phil and had kept in touch with him throughout his career at the company.
Phil was delighted to hear from Mitch, and readily agreed to meet him for lunch. After listening intently to the reasons Mitch wanted to speak with him, and understanding the confidentiality of the matter, he and Mitch began talking. After the talk, Phil began his assessment of both the situation and of Mitch.
While Phil was distressed to hear what was going on with Mitch, he assured Mitch that, from his perspective, Mitch had a good number of strong gifts, and that from Phil’s vantage point, he used them well and professionally. Based on his interactions with Mitch, Phil could see no glaring professional gaps in Mitch’s presentation, presence, or demeanor. In other areas, he was honest when saying he didn’t see anything glaringly bad, but also had not interviewed Mitch, so could not be as sure that there weren’t issues.
Phil then went and examined the strengths that Mitch had, and asked Mitch to consider using those strengths in a different career path than Mitch had considered. He laid out his argument that there were other callings out there where Mitch might be a worthy candidate, and some he might enjoy. Phil promised to keep an eye out for these opportunities with his colleagues in other organizations, and encouraged Mitch to look for them himself.
Finally, Phil drew upon his own job hunting experiences, including the one to find his current position, and acknowledged it was a tough market out there. The job doesn’t always go to the best or brightest or even the most qualified. ‘It’s a numbers game, when you come down to it.’, was his advice on the matter, and told Mitch he had to keep up the fight and find that one special employer who would recognize all that Mitch had to offer.
Mitch thanked Phil warmly, with Phil wishing Mitch success and offering to meet on a regular basis to see what was happening.
Now, what just happened there? It may look like a failure, as Mitch was no closer to finding a way out than at the beginning of the lunch. Phil provided no instantaneous solutions or cures for Mitch. Yet, what Phil did in that short span of time was an indicator of what made him such a good manager.
What he did was provide Mitch with two great gifts — hope and possibilities. He took time to analyze Mitch’s attributes and give an analysis of them, not a cursory, ‘You’re just fine!’. He took time to bolster Mitch’s resolve with stories of his own that related to Mitch’s situation. He provided Mitch with new possibilities to explore that were good for Mitch, and opened up new vistas to explore. In the big picture, Phil gave his time to Mitch and made Mitch the center of the universe over that lunch, which was something Mitch needed.
In doing that, Phil showed one of the greatest skills a manager can have…the ability to listen to and interact with their employees. A manager who can put the employee at the center of their world for a short amount of time has employees who know they can trust and work with their manager, and thus want to work with their manager to achieve great things. The goals are still the same, the work has not decreased one iota, and the manager hasn’t made any concessions. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. The employee sees they matter to the manager, and that the manager is willing to listen and to brainstorm new possibilities and help the employee see their own potential.
A good manager helps every employee see the greatness within them, and then helps shepherd it to the forefront. It is the best investment they can make in their staff. Sadly, too many don’t want to do it.
Sarah’s department retreat had not happened yet, and she had a request transmitted from the corporate coach who would be conducting the session: “Please have your people contact me, confidentially, so I can get a good pulse of the department”. Though this was fraught with danger, as if the coach was not going to treat this confidentially, there would be retribution by Sarah. Still, even with this danger, there were a fair number of employees who took the corporate coach up on this offer.
The coach very patiently and kindly listened to all the callers, and made a surprising revelation. Each caller had said the same thing about Sarah and the department. Each caller had indicated that it was a not a safe to say environment, that there was retribution, that Sarah was never wrong, even when she was…all topics that readers of this blog have become familiar with in the tales of Sarah. The coach then promised that these issues would be addressed in the coaching sessions.
The first session came and the staff waited for these issues to be addressed.
And, with the exception of the coach saying that everyone was expected to speak openly and candidly, which the staff who had been around a while promptly ignored, not another word was said regarding any of the issues that was spoken about to the coach. The staff began to worry that they had spoken to freely and that the purpose of the coach’s invitation was to gather evidence to pass along to Sarah. After all, one person had mysteriously ‘been terminated’ shortly after the session.
The second set of sessions did not have the coach ask for any feedback on either the previous session or on the progress, if any, of Sarah. During this set, the coach went further, extolling the virtues of Sarah and saying how much he admired her. To be fair, he also complimented the staff, but only Sarah stood out for special treatment. The staff saw very starkly that the coach had not lived, and was not going to live up to his promise.
We all prefer the soothing words over the words of criticism. It is human nature to want to do so. We prefer to hear that we are doing well over the idea that we might be doing something poorly. However, we need to hear what is wrong, especially when so many of those who have had dealing with us say the exact same thing. If all we desire to hear, or reward hearing, is the good and not the bad, we are deliberately avoiding items that might make us a better leader, manager, or person.
When you aid in this, by deliberately avoiding some appealing truths, what does that say about your worth as an adviser, coach, or confidante? Are you simply selling out to the highest bidder?
If, as a leader, you say you value honesty, but then don’t want to hear it. If you favor those who only say favorable things about you. If your interest in improving by looking at your weaknesses is nil. If that is you, don’t bother calling yourself a leader, and don’t expect anyone else to, either.
Well, except those you pay to do so.
It happened as it usually happens at the company. The employee is called into his or her manager’s office and is told that they are no longer employees of the company. The security guard is summoned, the employee’s keys, purse, or such is brought to them, and they are escorted out of the building.
Yet, this isn’t an article about that process.
A note is sent out to the staff informing them that the employee isn’t working there anymore. There was no time for goodbyes, no time for a hug, and there is no invitation by the manager or anyone in leadership to come discuss how this firing might affect them. And affect them it does. Each time this ‘rip off the bandage’ approach is taken, it makes the employees who are left behind a little more nervous about their jobs, a little more wary to say anything, and never knowing if their turn will be next. Seeing that the company really doesn’t have any secret information that could be accessed by the employee to give to competitors, the employees wonder why it has to be that way. They are never given an answer.
Yet, this isn’t an article about why the process has to be that way.
The manager, of course, felt they had good reason to let go of the employee. Maybe the employee was under performing. Maybe they were put into a job that they simply couldn’t handle. Maybe their conduct was less than professional. At the same time, maybe it wasn’t any of these cases, but just a case where the employee was thrown into the job without proper training and was trying their best. Maybe the employee was staying late or coming in early, or on weekends, as this particular employee was, in order to get the work done. Maybe the employee deserved firing, or maybe they were running full out to try to be successful in a job where they could not if they stayed on the job 24 hours a day.
Yet, this isn’t an article about that type of unfairness. Well, not really.
What this article is about is what did the manager do to help make this employee successful.
How many times have you heard the company you work in say that people are their most important asset? How many times have you seen a manager of the company, their representative, back up that motto with any action? If you have, and have seen it many times, make sure you go into your manager’s office and give them a very big ‘thank you’, as you definitely have a good manager.
In the case of the terminated employee, that motto wasn’t put into action. There was no tangible action to help the employee succeed, either by truly looking at the workload and if it was feasible to do, whether the employee had the proper tools or training, whether what they expected the job to be really was what the job turned out to be, or whether it could be done by anyone, anytime. No, the manager in question simply ignored the words and pleas from the employees regarding the workload, ignored the employee coming in on weekends to keep up with the work, and the evidence that the amount of work was simply overwhelming. The employee could not do the job and that was that.
‘Your employees are your most important asset’…until you need to put some effort into them, and then it is too much of a burden, so you cast them adrift. If this is the attitude that you take as a manager, or that the company encourages, don’t expect anyone to step up and give their all. ‘All’ is not rewarded. Trying your best is not rewarded. They will give you the same amount of effort that you have given to them, nothing more, nothing less.
It’s time to change the company motto…Sink or Swim.
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.
There is an old saying that goes, ‘Showing up is half the battle’. In most cases that is true. In the following story, showing up is more than half the battle…it is pretty much everything.
The note left no vague notions of what the department head wanted. She wanted the department to attend the latest ceremony celebrating employee anniversaries with the company. It was held every quarter, but representation from the department which held the ceremony, her department, had dwindled in recent quarters, and she wanted to put on a good show for upper management. She ‘strongly urged’ people to attend.
Flashback to four years ago. The newly promoted manager had taken on a new project. Let’s improve the recognition for the service anniversaries at the company. She tasked her newly formed group to do just that. They all did their part, gave her the proposal, which she accepted and told them to implement. She made it explicitly clear that every member of her department was to show up for this first ceremony. Schedules would be changed. Appointments shuffled. Telecommuting days rescheduled or abandoned for that week. This was going to be her first big splash and she wanted to make it count. While not said outright, if you did not show up, you would be in serious trouble. They would have been brought to the Employee Relations Manager and been chewed out.
Flash forward to the current employee anniversary celebration. As the employees of the department surveyed the crowd, they noticed some conspicuous absences. Among those absences? The original manager who had mandated that everyone be there for her debut, and the Employee Relations Manager. The department knew there was now some bad blood between the leader and this manager, and took it as a sign that the manager deliberately snubbed the affair. The ER Manager reported to that manager, so saw no need to attend either.
More than just the not-so-behind-the-scenes bickering, however, this illustrated what was wrong in the department. The manager wanted everyone to attend her ceremony, but now that the department head was running things, she saw no reason to change her plans and attend. In other words, it was one thing for the manager to demand obedience, but not to show the same respect to the department head. What message did this send to the department? “Do what I say, but not what I do”.
It’s very difficult to follow someone who doesn’t walk their talk. Your actions tell more of your character than your words, and when your words and your actions contradict each other, then it is very difficult for people to respect you. When the basis of your power should be...should be…the respect you engender from your staff, you cannot expect much respect when your words and your actions only have a passing familiarity with each other. What is the only other resort? What the department head hinted at and the manager said more plainly…punishment.
You can manage based on respect, or you can manage based on fear. Want to manage based on respect? Start by showing up.
I recently attended a conference for a large group that used the Appreciative Inquiry philosophy. While I have an issue with some interpretations of this theory, this conference’s application of it was spot on, and was used in a very effective manner.
At the end of the conference, I congratulated one of the sponsors of the conference, an executive in the company. We began talking about the philosophy, and the road ahead of the organization to get to its ‘best’ state that had been arrived at by the participants that day. She told me she would be happy if the organization could get to 70% of its goal, and then work incrementally towards achieving the other 30% of the goal. In essence, she would rather celebrate the 70% and not mourn the 30%.
My thoughts wandered to the stories of managers I have been told, and of managers I have witnessed who believe the opposite — that you focus on the 30%. They perpetually look at the mistakes, the errors, and the issues regarding an employee instead of the successes. An employee could do 999 things correctly, and the manager would focus on the 1 thing they did incorrectly. Worse yet, they admit to this and see nothing wrong with it.
These type of managers seem to revel in the negative, having to show the employee how badly they are doing. Whether they believe this will motivate the employee into doing better, or whether the manager believes that you have to keep the employees in line by showing them every mistake, is unknown. It could be psychological — the manager cannot stand to praise the employee for fear that by doing so, they are taking something away from themselves. It could be behavioral — the manager simply does not know how to give a compliment, so instead focuses on what they do know, giving criticism. It could even be a power play, designed to make the manager feel good about themselves by making others feel bad.
Whatever the case, this type of action is as wrong as it is misguided. By focusing on the 30% exclusively, you demoralize your employees, reduce their work output, and basically make the entire department miserable.
By focusing on the 70%, you are giving hope. You are giving a goal to strive for the other 30%. You are not being Pollyana, ignoring that there are issues to overcome. Instead, you are acknowledging that there are problems, but also pointing to how much you have accomplished so far, thus energizing your team to power through the other 30% as well. Your team is motivated and committed to finding the way to accomplish that other 30%. By focusing on the 70%, you are focusing on the rose rather than the thorns.
Which, as a manager and a leader, would you rather have? A team that is united in reaching that next peak, and the peak after that, or a team who really could not care at all because they have been beaten down so many times that getting up is no longer even an option? Which of those two options are better for your company, or is it not about the company for you, but only for your ego?
Appreciate the 70% and then strive for the other 30%. Soon you’ll find that nobody on your team wants to stop at 70% when 100% seem tantalizingly close.
Always interested in who is reading the blog and what brought them here, I peruse the statistics page that WordPress provides for my blog. Many times people are brought to the blog because someone is asking how to write a thank you note to their manager. While the entries in this blog don’t always indicate it, I know of several very good managers. They are the ones who do the things this blog espouses, have loyal employees, and have staff who want to come in and do their best everyday. Those managers are the ones who deserve a thank you note, and those on whom I base the following generic thank you note. Please feel free to use any part of it if you need to thank those rare, good managers.
Dear (Manager’s Name):
I don’t say it often enough, but I want to thank you for being such a good manager. You have taught me that I need to back up my statements with facts, so here are the facts I use to back up what I am saying about you.
Thank you for taking an interest in me and not just what I can do for you. It makes me feel that you are concerned for me as a human being and not just as a robot on whose work you can get your next promotion You have asked me how my kids are. You have helped counsel me during troubled times in my life. We have shared lunches together just talking about happenings in our lives. You have told me not to come in when a member of my family is sick because, in your words, family comes first. You would find a way to get the needed work done. Those times I remember.
Thank you for the compliments, which with you were always generous. It was you who taught me to be specific with them when I gave them, because you always were. You understood that sometimes the smallest of words made the greatest of impact. You never spared your compliments of my work, which made me want to work even harder to gain your respect.
Thank you for taking an interest in my career. The work you have given me has given me the skills I need to move on if I want. You are not just looking out for yourself, but making sure I build my resume, too. It is a rare manager who looks not only at their career, but how they can push their little ones out of the nest so they can fly on their own. You make it very difficult to do that, because who would want to leave someone who does that?
Thank you for helping me be a better employee. When you saw me struggling with an assignment, you sat down next to me and asked me what was wrong. We worked together to find a solution, your hand guiding me, showing me what needed to be done, giving me the skills I needed to complete the tasks. When I didn’t understand something, you patiently explained it to me, even if it took multiple times, for your goal was understanding. You did this all because you wanted me to succeed. You want me to get better. You want me to have the skills so if I want to find a better job, I can. Wait, it is not a better job, it is a different or more higher paying job, because I have a great job with you.
Thank you for your discipline. No, I didn’t like when you had to reprimand me or point out something I did wrong, but I do appreciate the way you did it. You didn’t yell, you didn’t accuse. You talked to me like a rational human being, engaging me in the conversation. You helped me understand what I did and why I needed to do it differently. If you had to give a ‘disciplinary action’, you explained why and what the consequences were. You handled it gently and with concern. Moreover, since you always made sure you gave me compliments on my work, I didn’t feel like you were picking just on me, and that there has to be some bad with the good.
I hope in the future to find as good a manager as you have been to me, and am very grateful for the manager you have been.