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.
Sam sat down at his desk in his new job and began his morning routine. After signing into the computer, he would open up the mail program to see what came in overnight. Then, he would proceed to get into the other programs he needed to do his job.
One of the pieces of mail he found in his Inbox that day was a routine announcement from the department’s administrative assistant. She forwarded along to new employees, like Sam, the schedule of days where the company would be closing early in anticipation of a national holiday, where the company would be closed. While it was a rather routine email, it made Sam smile, as he recalled a similar conversation at his old company, but a much different outcome.
Several months prior, Sam had a conversation with a fellow employee of his former company. It was a rather routine conversation, skipping from subject to subject. One of those subjects was an innocent comment wondering why the company waited so long to let the employees know that they were being dismissed early on a day before a holiday. Granted, they realized that they didn’t have to be let out early. It was something that the company decided to grant. They did appreciate that. However, for as long as any of them had been with the company, they had always been let out a couple of hours early on a day before a holiday.
The issue, if you can call it that, came with the announcement of this early dismissal. Sometimes it would come a couple of days before the holiday. Other times it would come a few hours before the dismissal. Leadership always seemed to keep the employees on edge wondering whether they would be leaving early before a national holiday. Again, while it is a gift from the company, people could not plan to take advantage of that time until it was too late.
As it was around the time of a holiday, this topic came up, with Sam wondering why the company seemed so arbitrary in this. His colleague surprised Sam by actually having an answer. It seems, the colleague revealed, that the leadership of the company was dead set against announcing the early dismissals all at once for the year, or even well ahead of time for a very curious reason. That reason? The employees would then be given a new benefit, that of a few extra hours off due to a holiday. The leadership of the company did not want employees to think they were ‘entitled’ to this, decided to make this on a case by case basis, so employees knew it could be taken away at any time. Somehow, that explanation fit the company, but also made him feel a bit like a dog at the table begging for scraps. The leadership was being ‘kind enough’ to give a few extra hours off, and they would never let the employees forget it.
As the memory faded away and tucked itself back into his ‘bad old days’ folder, Sam read over the communication from the department’s administrative assistant. There, listed out, were the early dismissal days before national holidays, from that time until the end of the year. It felt good to be invited to the table instead of begging for scraps.
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.
He prepared well. He had his evidence, had practiced what he was going to day, brought examples, and was going to ask for solutions, not demand them. He made the appointment with the department Director and walked in ready to have a discussion about the hostile work environment that he was experiencing in the office.
It did not go well, thanks to the Director.
Instead of weighing the evidence, the Director dismissed each and every example that Ralph brought in. Instead of discussing why Ralph felt this way, he trotted out every instance where Ralph had done something wrong. (according to the Director and Ralph’s Manager) Instead of bringing in a neutral third party from Human Resources, the Director once again told Ralph what a crappy department this was and that the Director had gotten there just in time to save it from itself. Instead of seeing both sides of the story, the Director decided to blame Ralph for everything. Instead of taking copious notes about this conversation or bringing in Human Resources, the Director just talked, at one time confusing the issue and having to be corrected by Ralph.
Instead of giving Ralph’s concerns due consideration, the Director decided to make the work environment even more hostile towards Ralph.
A few days after this talk, the Director and Manager pulled Ralph in to inform him he had been placed on a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’, which could result in termination if he did not fulfill it to the letter. The plan was filled with misstatements, uncheck claims, and was fully one sided, as Human Resources didn’t bother to speak with Ralph at all about his side in the matter.
In short, everything that the company had said about a safe to speak environment was torn up in tiny pieces, and set afire by the Director, Manager, and Human Resources.
If you as a leader of people can’t get past your own ego and take a few critical comments, then you are no leader of people.
If you as a leader of people can’t listen to those comments, carefully consider them, and change your behaviors based on them, then you are no leader of people.
If you as a leader of people believe yours is the only voice and opinion that counts, then you are no leader of people.
A good leader wants to solve problems to make their people happy and productive. If the only solution you have ends in the words, “I’m right”, then don’t expect much else from your people. Then again, your ego probably won’t allow you to expect anything from anyone, as you are the only person who matters in the world.
Be that leader your people need and want. Ditch the ego and open your ears.
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?
It had been a long week, and all Ralph wanted to do was go home. He had been berated about his work all week from his new bosses, especially his new Director, and he just wanted to leave a once promising workplace. His co-worker, Sam, had tried to help him understand that it wasn’t him. His work was good, but these new bosses had to go prove themselves, and they were doing it by berating the both of them. Ralph knew this to be true, but was still tired of the attacks.
It would seem that there was one more salvo coming from the Director for the week. He called Ralph in, sat him down, and began speaking to him in a tone that brooked no argument. “It has been reported to me that you have been exhibiting negative behavior in staff meetings. I need to know right now if you are committed to the goals of this team or not.”
Ralph was knocked back on his heels from this statement. True, both he and Sam were not always in support of what the new direction was, but had agreed that they had to support it with their work efforts to keep moving forward. Taking a breath, he asked the Director who had mentioned this to him. The Director refused to tell him. Ralph then asked what was this negative behavior. “You rolled your eyes.” Ralph said very succinctly that he would watch that behavior, and was given permission to leave the Director’s presence. He beat a path out of the office and left for the day, more beaten down than ever.
When the word ‘team’ is used as a weapon, nothing good can come out of that conversation. Teamwork is built, piece by piece, not imposed because the leader wants it that way. Team loyalty is earned. It is a slow process. It is patient, and it can blossom. It has to grow organically. You cannot magically create a cohesive team simply because you have taken over the leadership of a department or group. You can’t make a team by hammering the concept into everyone’s head. Yet, some managers seem to believe this. In reality, they are over a group of people, not a team.
What happens when a good manager hears of criticism or that an employee isn’t happy? In most cases, they will ask the employee if they are okay, if there is something they would like to speak about, or ask some probing questions to find out what the problem is so it can be solved. The good manager will try to get to the heart of the matter to see if it can be resolved. It may not be able to, but the good manager will give the employee a chance to air their grievances, without punishment and without retribution.
The good manager inspires and facilitates healthy debate, not accuse someone of something without even letting them know their accuser. The good manager asks why something happened, not makes a summary judgement about what could be an innocent gesture.
When a manager sets themselves up as judge, jury, and executioner, they are not building a team. That manager is setting up an environment where nobody will speak, there will be whispers in the hallway, and people will give just enough not to get fired. When they pronounce, instead of ask, they have let their employees know what they really think of the team.
What’s your definition of ‘team’, dear manager? Is it one where people have the freedom to disagree, or is simply a handy term to enforce your will?
If you are of a certain age, or know where to find the reruns, you know the image above. It is of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of CONTROL in the classic television series, “Get Smart”. You might also recognize his gesture. It preludes Max saying to someone, “Missed it by THAT much”. It is a funny running gag in the series. Is it so funny when used on a performance review?
Marilyn sat in Julia’s office, awaiting what her performance rating would be for last year. It was a serious consideration, as the rating determined her raise and bonus. Heavens knows she had done her share of work last year for Julia. There was always a new project, a new assignment, and a new request. Plus, for a quarter of the year, her department had been short staffed, but Marilyn and her team never missed a deadline. Still, this was the year that Marilyn also got to know Julia’s darker side — capricious, quick to criticize, and blunt when it came to criticism. She wasn’t sure what to expect.
When Julia finally delivered the news, it wasn’t so bad. She had given Marilyn an above average rating, 4 out of a possible 5, and determined that she had met her stretch goals. Marilyn let out a silent sigh, grateful that this meeting had gone so well. She might have held that sigh for just a bit longer.
No sooner had Julia delivered this news, she followed on with this remark: “You know you only made the 4 instead of the 3 by this much”, she said while pinching her finger and thumb together to indicate how slim the margin had been. The comment seemed to indicate that, though Marilyn had practically killed herself with work in the past year, it was just a hair above acceptable to Julia. Marilyn was later heard to observe that people could only guess what that did for her engagement and enthusiasm. Apparently the criteria for excellent work, according to Julia, was dying in the office while working on all the assignments she gave to the person. Even then, there would have been some negative comment about not having the professionalism to die in the parking lot.
All Julia had to do was to stop. Stop where she said that Marilyn had done work worthy of a 4 out of 5 rating and that was it. She could have said she expected the same caliber of work for the coming year, thanked Marilyn for her efforts, and had a happy and engaged employee for the next 12 months. No, because Julia believed in the theory that giving criticism was the best way to get someone to work harder, she had to continue. She had not seen that, based on past failures with this policy, that she had a dispirited department who looked to the clock to see when they could go home, not to a beacon of leadership coming from Julia’s office.
The theory that criticism only encourages people to do better is about as valid as the theory that a leader who screams all the time gets better work out of his or her employees. The only person it validates is the person giving the criticism, making them feel better about themselves and their ‘management skills’. It also illustrates that they have not read a management theory book in the last 40 years.
Want to encourage your employees to do better? Then encourage them. You don’t have to offer them false praise or congratulate them for showing up. You do have to pounce on their doing good work, and praise them for doing great work. You recognize what they did right more than what they did wrong. And, if you catch them being wrong, work with them on making it right, not hold it over their head like a swinging blade.
Do that, and you will truly be the one who is Smart.
Betty was sure that she had been on this conference call for days at this point. At least it felt like that. She would have drifted off to do some other work long ago if it wasn’t for one thing. That one thing was Bill.
Bill was a higher level manager in the company. Betty didn’t begrudge him this. However, it was common knowledge among her colleagues how Bill got there. Rather plainly, Bill would have others do the work he was responsible for and then bask in the credit given to him by his superiors for a job well done. His greatest skills, it was said, was how fast he could forward something off to someone else to complete and hand back to him.
This had been rather successful for Bill. Combining that with a pleasant personality, he had risen up the ranks to a position of prominence within the company. The downside to this was that, now that he was at this higher level, he was being held accountable for work commensurate with this level, and he didn’t know how to do it. In addition, the longer he passed his work off to others, the more people became aware of his work habits, and the greater push back they gave to him.
This is why Betty made sure she paid attention during the conference call. Bill was at it again. This time, he was trying to take a report that he should be doing and trying to hand it to Betty. Betty was resisting, and a cadre of her colleagues were supporting her. Bill didn’t know how to compile this report, having never had to do it before. He had always given it to new employees who didn’t know any better. Betty was a veteran, and Bill was finding it very difficult to get agreement that Betty should do his work. Thus, the conference call dragged on and on. Bill was nothing if not tenacious. He knew the stakes were high. His superiors were watching for him to deliver work based on his higher level, and if he didn’t, there would be some very difficult questions asked of him. The conference call would continue until he could once again make sure he didn’t have to do his own work.
Countless surveys about management show that employees are engaged when they see their managers and their leadership working as hard as they are. That engagement drops when they see the manager or leader doing less work while they, the employees, do more. That already lower engagement plummets when the employees see that the only thing the manager is adept at is handing off their work. That can be mitigated a bit if the employee at least receives credit for the work. When the manager uses it to advance their own career, forgetting about the employee’s effort fully when it comes to claim credit, the employee is not only disengaged, but they become wiser. Either they will not do the work or do it so poorly as to embarrass the manager. It is a dangerous game, but it shows what happens when an employee goes from disengaged to actively sabotaging the company.
If your prime reason to becoming a manager is to make sure you hand off all your work to someone else, and then leverage that power to make sure nobody says ‘no’ to you, don’t expect sterling work or much loyalty from your staff. Also expect to be found out on your way up the ladder, as eventually you will be expected to do work only you can accomplish. When that moment comes, don’t expect a lot of people backing you up. Rather, they are probably at the bottom of that ladder setting fire to it.
The New York Times recently ran an interesting article regarding the releasing of Henrique de Castro, the top person Marissa Mayers, Yahoo CEO, had recruited from Google. I found it interesting not from the perspective of Ms. Mayers, but from the comments that employees made about Mr. de Castro.
A bit of background. Ms. Mayers worked with Mr. de Castro when they were both at Google. When Mayers became the chief executive at Yahoo, she recruited de Castro to revitalize the advertising business at Yahoo, which is in need of revitalization. Thus, in a sense, de Castro would be the chief advertising presence at Yahoo. When you think of a good advertising person, what qualities come to mind? I’ve listed a few here:
- Knowledgeable about the company’s products and services
- Having the ability to ‘schmooze‘ (a definition of the word is linked)
Let’s look at the terms that the New York Times article uses for Mr. de Castro:
- “…was fond of using spreadsheets but was weak in his knowledge of Google’s products, said a person who worked with him at Google.”
- “…he was not a charismatic salesman willing to schmooze with Madison Avenue marketers to persuade them to spend their ad dollars on Yahoo…”
- “…very smart, they also said he was a poor communicator with an arrogant, abrasive manner.”
Does this sound like someone who you would want to place in front of the CEOs of the companies you wish to do considerable business with and get their advertising dollars?
Okay, so maybe as the public face of Yahoo, he would not have been ideal. Perhaps his strength was in his ability to motivate his employees to remake Yahoo and bring it back to the powerhouse it once was. Here’s what the New York Times article says about Mr. de Castro’s leadership style. Please recall he has already been characterized as being a poor communicator with an arrogant, abrasive manner.
“At Google, Mr. de Castro had so many negative reviews from employees that the human resources department had been called in to review the situation…”
In the end, Mr. de Castro’s departure will have a multi-tiered effect. Financially, it will cost Yahoo, “…tens of millions of dollars in severance and stock compensation that he was promised.” It has set back a revival of Yahoo’s fortunes, which aren’t considerable at this point, though the stock price has rebounded nicely. It also has once again rocked the personnel who reported to Mr. de Castro, having them go back to square one, nurture any resentment from Mr. de Castro’s abrasive style, and lose some respect for Ms. Mayer, who has had some rather public mistakes during her tenure at the top of Yahoo. (The controversy revolving around ending telecommuting practices, the Yahoo Mail outrage from users and how it was handled)
For my purposes, it reenforces this principle: A friendship does not mark the end of your investigation of someone’s qualifications for a job. Take a look at how they have done their job at previous employers, get feedback on their personality, and see what others have thought about them. There are dozens of personality and job preference indicators out there that can be employed, especially for a higher level position. Use them, and listen to them.
As has been said here before, a leader is nothing without the support of the people they lead. It is incumbent to bring in the best people for the job. They should inspire. They should motivate. They should encourage. If you, as a leader, are blind to all of that in your hiring decision, then you will get what you deserve.
In Yahoo’s case, it can be summed up to two facts: they are now substantially poorer financially and they will have to start back at square one.
In my previous blog, I recounted a routine one on one staff meeting between Henry and his manager, Violet. In one part of that meeting, Violet updated Henry on the status of his tuition reimbursement request. The request had to be approved by the department head, Lillian, who had not liked Henry for personal reasons for several years. Lillian, true to form, asked Violet some questions that were designed to preclude Henry from using this benefit.
The conversation between Henry and Violet was unfortunate already, but was not finished, either in content or in being unfortunate.
For some time, there had been an opening under Violet, caused by the departure of one of the department’s employee’s. Violet had worked to upgrade the position into something more than it was, in hopes of getting more help for herself and Henry, who were carrying a significant burden. Violet, to her credit, was not interested in handing all the work to Henry, but was sharing it equally between the two of them.
During this conversation, Violet informed Henry that the position now had taken a different spin, and she explained what the position would now encompass. Henry’s paid greater attention, as the position Violet was describing sounded very much like a position he had pitched for himself approximately a year ago. Henry had pitched this because it would have expanded his responsibilities, giving him greater knowledge and allowing him to explore new areas of his profession. When he had come to Violet about this idea, she encouraged him to create a job description for it, which she would take to Lillian. Henry did and, after some modification, Violet took it to Lillian. The job description, and the revised position, were never to be heard from again.
Once Violet had finished, Henry asked two questions of her. First, would his position description change due to the other person having this type of description. Second, could he apply for this position.
Violet paused, looking for the right words. While she had always been forthright with Henry, she wanted to make sure it was said in the most professional and gentle of manners. When she did speak, she explained to Henry that Lillian had a certain view of Henry’s capabilities and where he should be in the organization. There was no changing her mind on this, even though Henry had proven many times over to be more than what his position described. Because of this, it would be futile of him to bid for this position, as Lillian would never approve him for it.
It was time for Henry to pause. When he spoke again, he thanked Violet for her honesty and feedback. On the exterior, they continued with their meeting. Inside, Henry knew he would miss Violet terribly, but he had to move on. He had no chance of advancing in the organization as long as Lillian had any say in his future.
We, as human beings, need change. Some of us welcome it more frequently than others, some crave it more often, but we all need some form of change in our lives. Whether it is a redecorating of our house or something new at work, we need it in order to keep fresh. Sound businesses understand this, but also see that, in keeping up fresh, it also benefits the organization. We learn new skills, new ideas, and new ways of viewing the word around us. In most businesses, managers look for their people to learn something new every year, as it makes the employees more valuable to the company.
So, when the employee comes to the manager wanting to change, wanting to progress, it should be considered a good thing. To want the employee to stay the same, do the same duties, because it fits the manager’s needs or because the manager has closed his or her mind to the possibilities of his or her employee, says a lot about the manager. This is a manager who is looking solely at his or her need, his or her mindset, and his or her prejudices. Too bad for the employee, I really don’t care about them, as long as I don’t have to change my mind or have any to consider anything new. When a leader, who should know better, begins to actively block someone from becoming more than they are, it is time for both the leader to have some serious reflection and for the company to begin to think about whether they need that leader.
Blood in the veins doesn’t help the body if it doesn’t move, change, and circulate. The same can be said about companies, and the departments within those companies. The lifeblood of the company, its employees, need to move, circulate, and change. To continue the medical analogy, if a blockage is discovered, it is removed. Shouldn’t it be the same for blockages in the company’s lifeblood?