It was a great evening. Good friends. Good food. Many laughs. Larry, whose story you can read here, was having dinner with Sam to get his ideas on getting back into the workforce. Larry had retired from his job at the mutual workplace that he and Sam had worked, but in truth, he was forced to retire by a management intent on wearing him down so he would leave. That was over six months ago, so Sam was happy that Larry wanted to talk.
Over dinner, the conversation naturally drifted towards their prior, shared workplace, with stories being swapped, and gaps filled in from different points of view. Larry was ready to jump back into the workforce, but hadn’t prepared a resume for many years. That was where Sam came in. He had gained a reputation among his former co-workers as a good resume doctor, so Larry sought him out.
“I don’t know why it took me so long to jump back in the job hunt”, Larry admitted. It was over six months ago that he retired, and he was not the type of guy who would just want to sit and take it easy for the rest of his life. Sam smiled. He knew exactly why Larry had taken so long. He needed to heal.
If we are fortunate in our work lives, we have workplaces that we cannot wait to get to each morning. They nurture us, uplift us, and give us the ability to grow as a person and in a community. Those places have low turnover and are the places where you have to ‘know someone’ to get hired into.
If we are less fortunate in our work lives, we go to workplaces that are simply workplaces. You put in your time each day, do your work, and clock out. They are not very uplifting, but they are also not damaging. They are simply places you spend eight hours or more doing your work so you can get to the people and things you enjoy.
If we are unfortunate in our work lives, we work for those places which are designed to damage our hearts and souls. We have managers who believe only by degrading you can they raise themselves up. They believe that the only way they can show that they are truly in power is to make your life miserable. An insult or slight is always on their lips, and the only words they know about your performance is ‘never good enough’.
They seem to enjoy inflicting pain and look for new ways to do it. They are always the victim, and you are always the aggressor, though the truth is just the opposite. Nobody is happy under them, yet in too many cases they stay in power.
When you finally escape that workplace, you think you can just go on with you life. Sadly, you have to, but you can’t just walk away like nothing happened. Those workplaces affect both your heart and soul. They leave scars and injuries. Those scars take time to heal. You may not want to admit it, give into it, or think it is silly to think that way, but that doesn’t change what has happened to you. It also doesn’t change that you need to heal. Hopefully where you have gone to upon fleeing that workplace is one which allows you to heal and see the true worth that you have.
Larry took this all in and had to agree with Sam, though he did have one question. How did Sam know this? Easy, Sam replied, he left the organization later than Larry did. Guess who was still in the process of healing?
It had been particularly stressful around the office for Ralph. It was obvious in word and deed that his management wanted him out of there, and was making sure they had enough ‘documentation’ in order to get rid of him when the time was right. He had been demeaned, harassed, and bullied by his management, and the management level above that supported it outright. It would teach him to believe them when they said he could go talk to them about anything.
The added piece to this was that Ralph had a diagnosed, chronic condition that was aggravated by the stress he was encountering. He was experiencing flare-ups of this condition that were debilitating him to the point where his health was truly suffering because of it. He needed to take some action, but sadly hadn’t learned his lesson.
One day, he walked into his boss’ office to let her know he was about to file papers to take some short term leave to get this chronic condition sorted out. He did this as a courtesy to her, as others would have come in, dropped the papers, and walked out. His boss’ (and the boss’ boss) action to this announcement? Within an hour, they had drawn up the papers to have him fired. Two hours later he was no longer an employee of the company. They would not be denied their revenge at having him fired for actually being honest with them.
The machinery soon went into high gear. The department head brought everyone in to her office to announce this and assure everyone that they were all valued employees…which none of them believed.
She told them they could come to her with any issue and it would be listened to…which none of them believed.
When Ralph’s departure was to be communicated to the corporate communication group for a routine announcement in the next newsletter, the announcement was blocked by the boss’ boss. He didn’t want anyone to know of his actions. Yet, within two hours, the news had spread throughout the company by the oldest form of communication available…word of mouth. His department, already suffering in the eyes of the employee, suffered more by the firing and by the covert nature of the operation.
Ralph’s co-workers were brought in to be told of the extra work they would have to do, but that they were valued…which none of them believed.
What this one act, the firing of a good employee who happened to be ill, did, was to increase suspicion of the department and their leadership from within and without. It also drove any employee conversations and action further underground for fear that anything they say will be taken as a fireable offense. The department, already dysfunctional, became even more dysfunctional by this action.
The department management got what they wanted — revenge upon an employee they did not like. What they did was show just how truly sick the whole management structure was.
If you are a fan of the British science fiction television series Dr. Who, you might know the Ood. Basically a peaceful race, the Ood, which have human bodies and an octopus-like face, have been forced into servitude by a greedy Earth corporation. Part of this servitude is, not to be too graphic, a replacement of part of their brain with a sphere that allows them to speak.
In one episode, the normally docile Ood begin exhibiting very strong emotions. Some are angry to the point of being rabid. Others are filled with vengeance. The explanation is as bizarre as it complicated, but The Doctor explains it best. The Ood are beginning to express repressed feelings and they are coming out in many different ways.
The Doctor figures this out because he has observed Ood Sigma, the personal servant Ood of the head of the corporation which is harvesting and enslaving the Ood. Ood Sigma didn’t exhibit any of the violent emotions that the other Ood were experiencing. He seemed as docile and devoted as ever to the head of the corporation. It is only late in the episode that we find that assumption to be wrong. Ood Sigma has been experiencing emotions, but for him, it came out as cold revenge. No violent outbursts for him. No. Instead, he sought revenge, thinking it out coolly and was willing to play the long game to get to his goal. The revenge, shall we say, was both ironic and fitting. If you have never seen the episode, I commend you to watch it. I won’t say any more here, as it would contain, as another Dr. Who character would say, ‘spoilers’.
So what does this have to do with a management blog? There are great parallels. If you are not a good manager, you have probably seen, and ignored many of the Ood emotions in your group. Anger, despair, vengeance, and even hopelessness. What about the Ood Sigmas in your group? The ones who are plotting to do some kind of revenge for the way they and their co-workers have been treated? Is there some industrial espionage planned? Some big blaze of glory exit? Letters being written? Data being damaged? This blog is in no way advocating or suggesting any of those acts. It is simply stating that, due to a manager’s poor management, irreparable harm may happen to the company or the manager’s department. And no one will ever see it coming. Remember, Edward Snowden was simply a contractor up until one fateful day.
The same managers who either don’t believe their poor behavior has no victims, or simply refuse to acknowledge the damage they have done can cause a wide spread of illness, emotion, and pain. To those managers, I offer some simple advice: watch out for the Ood Sigmas in your staff. Better yet, become a good manager and defuse the situation altogether.
No matter how you looked at it, the statistic was sobering. It was the reaction that the departmental leadership took towards it that made people want to get drunk.
The statistic came from a reputable company engaged in the employee opinion survey. It stated very plainly that half of Henrietta’s department did not feel it was a safe-to-say environment. It was outlined in red, almost screaming from attention. Maybe because it was screaming for attention that Henrietta decided to ignore it.
Yes, ignore it. As Henrietta went through the other statistics, she ignored that particular statistic with amazing vigor. Like the proverbial elephant in the living room, she refused to talk about it, outlining what areas that the department would be working on for the coming year.
She did ask for comments on the statistics. Emmy, her second-in-command, who had been in charge of the department during when the survey was taken, made it a point to indicate that there were a lot of good points that staff was happy about, which Henrietta gladly accepted. Blanche, the person assigned to deal with any issues that staff had with management, chimed in that she thought it was a very good report. There were a few comments from other staff members about what could be focused on, but longer term members of the staff were conspicuous for their silence. This was not surprising, as for five years they now had seen the same problems reported, and the same problems routinely ignored. They knew better than to speak up, as it truly was not safe to say in the world of Henrietta, Emmy, and Blanche.
Outside the earshot of that triumvirate, there were a lot of comments. Disbelief that there was not even a mention of this issue. Anger at how their department’s leadership could so callously ignore such a glaring statistic. Frustration that they could get away with this and the top-level management of the company had allowed it to happen, as they had allowed it to go unchecked even with five years of data showing the same thing.
The shock waves from this particular data point are obvious. How can you have any meaningful change if half the department is walking on eggshells and feel they can’t tell you what is wrong? And, judging by who answered and who didn’t, it was also obvious that the longer term staff, who had suffered the wrath of speaking up, were the ones who felt that way. What does that do to your talent retention strategy?
What does your ignoring that pachyderm in the parlor say for how committed you are, as the department leadership, to true reform? As I have said before, when people have thought they have reached rock bottom and you hand them a shovel, it does not enhance any faith or trust in your leadership. When those higher than you choose also to ignore a problem that has become systemic, it also diminishes to nothing the employees wanting to improve your company’s bottom line or reputation.
Management and leadership involve taking risks. It involves getting your feelings hurt at times. It involves looking deep inside of you to see what can change in you to make things better for those you lead. When you jettison those attributes so you don’t have to face some unpleasant truths, you also jettison any hope for fixing your department and repairing your people’s faith and trust. If that is something that is fine with you as a leader, then I suggest you and the elephant depart the premises. Maybe then there will be room enough for some real leadership.
In a recent post, I discussed that a temporarily promoted manager found that the workload was too much for her and hired a temporary administrative assistant to assist her with all her crushing duties. As with many of these incidents I relate, this one has a second chapter.
While the manager has gone back to her former position, albeit with a promotion and raise, the temporary administrative assistant was not immediately let go. No, ‘Molly’ stayed around, presumably in order to give the returning division head, who returned from an illness, some assistance in getting back into the swing of things, and to relieve some of the burden of the responsibilities that were partly to blame for the original illness. The original manager has also found the administrative assistant useful, not wanting to give up the last vestige of her temporary promotion. Even with the latter part factored in, it made sense for the administrative assistant to stay on for a while. The admin, to her credit, was also looking to see if she could come on full-time.
How could she do this? Hard work? Proving herself valuable? Asserting her worth? All good answers. How about this: ingratiating herself to upper management by becoming the department stool pigeon.
For those of you who don’t know that term, Dictionary.com defines it as: a person employed or acting as a decoy or informer. After just a few incidents, word spread quickly around the department that you said nothing of importance to Molly, as she would beat a path quickly to her two bosses and sing like Pavarotti. The offending party would then be called into the appropriate office and be asked some questions about why they would say something like this. Note, they would not be asked what the issue in the department that was causing this attitude, as it was automatically assumed to be them.
This was not the first time the department had to deal with this kind of person. A long time employee had a similar reputation, and had found herself shut out from most significant conversations and subjected to whispers around her that would suddenly stop when she approached. Sadly, both this employee and Molly found willing receptacles in the manager and division head for this type of action. At the current time, it is rumored that Molly may be successful in getting that permanent position.
The hope of any manager or leader is that they have a cohesive and seamlessly functioning department. This can’t happen when trust is shattered, especially by a person who believes that gossiping is the way to secure themselves in the hearts of the leaders. It is also telling that the leaders don’t stop this type of behavior, but rather use it in a rather Stalin-esque fashion to spy on their own people. Then, when someone is caught, having that show trial and admitting no guilt whatsoever with the process, but instead blaming the employee. The department goes from one where all the parts are working in unison to suspicion, anger, and being forced to work.
If this is how a manager believes a department should be run, and allows the gossips to run free, then they should be looking at the department not as a workplace, but as a gulag, as it has all the hallmarks of a prison drama. What do you want to be? Leader or warden?
The company called it a Performance Improvement Plan. It was designed to take employees who were not performing to a satisfactory level and provide them a plan where they could improve that performance. The goal was to have a quantifiable way of judging the achievement of a person, and provide them support for getting out of that rut. If the person did not perform well, even under a PIP, then there would be the evidence necessary to terminate the employee. It was designed to give the employee a chance for improvement.
Something changed, though. The PIP became simply an instrument used by Employee Relations to terminate an employee. Once a manager had gone to Employee Relations to complain about an employee’s performance, the ER Manager would bring out the PIP and have that person on the radar for termination. What was once designed as a lifeline had now become an anchor.
This wasn’t initially obvious to the staff, who still believed the PIP was designed to assist them. Little by little, the staff found out that it was simply a tool to see them fail. The evidence of this was that when an employee successfully completed a PIP, instead of celebration, what was the employee greeted with? How about a second PIP? Yes, instead of declaring victory, congratulating the employee for their hard work, Employee Relations would coach the manager to create a second PIP. Wasn’t the PIP designed to show improvement and, by completing it, showed that improvement was accomplished? Apparently not.
The second piece of evidence was the terms of the second PIP. If the employee had come through the first PIP with flying colors, the second PIP was made much more restrictive. In once case, the original PIP indicated that the employee needed to respond to an inquiry within 24 hours. The second PIP indicated that the employee needed to respond to an inquiry within 2 hours, no matter when it came in. So, if an inquiry came in at midnight, the response had to come within 2 hours.
The third piece of evidence was how the manager was advised to assist the employee in completing the PIP. There was only one guideline given: document the employee’s failings. There were no guidelines for how the manager was to assist the employee. They didn’t have to do a thing. Indeed, they could even be complicit in trying to get the employee to fail, and there would be no inquiry, no questioning, no repercussions. This was the advice given to managers. The employee had no rights, no voice, and no choice. It was simply documenting their failure, even if they succeeded in every aspect of their PIP.
What message does this send out to the employees of the company? First, that the higher up you are, no matter how bad a manager or person you are, Employee Relations will back you to the hilt. Second, that no matter how much you might want to improve, you are doomed from the start. Third, don’t count on Employee Relations for any help if you are not wielding any power in the company. You are nothing to them, so don’t even bother. ER is now the enemy, to be avoided at all costs, and when ER focuses its attention on you, better start looking at the want ads.
Which leads to one question: Why is it called a Performance Improvement Plan, when the only performance it seems to be improving is Employee Relations’ ability to turn it back on the majority of the company’s workforce?
I was finishing up teaching a course recently regarding what employees could do to have better performance evaluation. I explained to my class that I had developed it because most of the emphasis on performance management was on the manager, not the employee. This course was to help a staff member work with their manager, as an equal, to have better performance.
After class, one student came up to me and asked if she could meet with me. I agreed, as long as the door remained open. (a must in these days of lawsuits) The story she related was an incredible one.
This employee’s manager had recently given her the responsibilities of a higher level position without any increase in pay or rank. Further, he had informed her she would never rise above where she was, because he didn’t think she deserved the position. This was in spite of her now doing the duties of the higher level position.
When she went to discuss this with her manager, the manager’s response was pretty much the following:
- He was thrust into this management position without his consent
- His boss is something unprintable
- If he is miserable, then why should anyone else be happy?
- If she goes to HR with this, he will find out and make her life miserable
I am discussing this with some HR folks to see the right course of action, but advised her to make sure she had her resume ready and be ready to find her next opportunity, as it is always preferable for her to be the one leaving and not the one being dismissed. Sadly, there is little even HR can do beyond coaching, and if they coach him, he will know he has been talked about and make things even worse.
While it is clear that this person should never have been promoted into management in the first place, hindsight will not help the present situation. It might help with foresight, though.
When you go to promote someone into management, what qualifications do you look for? More than a few times, the only requirement is that you need a warm body in the seat. Other times, there is some thought that the person did well as an individual contributor, so why not promote them to management? What is usually missing is one crucial component…getting the input of the person being possible promoted.
Now, you can’t say that you are thinking of promoting the person, as that could create an expectation at least and a lawsuit at worst. Still, you can ask them question about how they would handle a situation and see if it is managerial in nature. You can counsel them, coach them, and prepare them for the position. A good manager provides a supportive environment for those coming up the ranks and makes sure that management is the right fit for the person. If it isn’t, find someone else, hire someone else, or do something that will not make the person feel pressured, ill at ease, and stressed. Yes, you run the risk of hurting some feelings, which is regrettable, but you also will create a management atmosphere for that person’s subordinates that will allow them to grow and flourish.
If a manager doesn’t do this, as shown in this case study, the results can be disastrous. This person will not be the first to leave. The manager will continue his reign of terror. That manager’s manager will offer no support. Eventually, the situation will crumble in on itself, and all that will be left is the finger pointing.
Throwing that stone into the water causes ripples. In this case, it is all the people who are suffering under that maniacal manager, one who never wanted the position in the first place, who are suffering from the wrong stone being thrown in the water.
A former colleague and I recently got together for dinner. We discussed many things, among them future career plans. She indicated to me that she may look into Organizational Psychology because a question was lingering in her mind. Namely, why, with all the decades of research on good management practices, do some managers and leaders still act in ways that defy all the research? It was a question that we discussed briefly over our dinner before going on to more pleasant subjects. That question has been rummaging around my mind since that conversation and I thought I would put down some of my ideas here.
A healthy dose of ego is necessary for a good leader to have, I think. There can be too much of a good thing, as the saying goes. As a manager, you have to have the courage of your convictions, the ability to make decisions and abide by them, and portray an air of confidence to your employees. At the same time, when that ego is preventing you from looking at things but from one point of view (yours), refusing to hear anyone else, and considering yourself to be the end all and be all of subject matter experts in management, then ego can be a bad thing. At that point, a manager is viewing the role as something that is good for them, not good for their people. The manager, or leader, is not allowing in any other input, thought, or conversation regarding critical items within the department. The manager or leader may even be punishing the person who dares to speak up, thinking them to be challenging the ‘great and powerful Oz’.
A good manager knows how to balance ego with too much ego. Letting it get out of control can be disastrous for both the organization and the manager’s employees.
You want no complaints and almost certain compliance? Control is the way to go. By micromanaging your employees, you establish a big brother effect that has people afraid to do anything even remotely outside of the lines. Nobody will dare to question or contradict you, for they know the punishment will be swift and harsh. Control is also great for the ego — you get to do what you want and no one tells you different — hey, you must be doing things correctly!
Unfortunately, control also thwarts creativity, breeds resentment, and causes emotions to boil over with your employees. You will never get the best of the group because the group is afraid of you. They come in, do their work, keep their heads down, and go home. This gets the work done, but is no path to excellence. But, that manager doesn’t care. They have the control they crave.
Study after study has shown that a manager is respected more by giving up control of a situation. A good manager sets boundaries, trusting their employees to stay within those boundaries. They encourage creativity, welcome suggestions, embrace feedback, and take criticism. Do they always take the advice or criticism? No. They do take it enough for the employee to know their words are valued, and to understand that sometimes their words won’t be heeded…and understand. Control is kept by respect, not by fear.
The employee of this type of manager knows that every little mistake won’t be dissected, blown out of proportion, and jumped on. A good manager knows mistakes happen, but they don’t happen twice. This ratchets the fear level of the employee down so they can do better work without fear of reprisal for any little incident.
The good manager also gets some unexpected benefits from the team, allowing them to soar above the others.
Why don’t more managers relax control? One of the reasons might be that control is easy. Relaxing control and ruling by respect is more difficult and may take more work.
As the entries in this blog have shown, there are many reasons for a good manager to act one way and a bad manager to act in another. Ego and Control are only two of these, though I believe fundamental to how a manager’s style is formed.
What else is in this mix? Please let me know by your feedback in the comments.
When you think of goals, hopefully several words come to mind: enhancement, enrichment, advancement. What about: punishment? Unfortunately, some managers use goals as something wholly unattainable to set an employee up to fail.
In the blog entitled Three Tales, I mentioned one employee who expected to get a very poor performance evaluation. That same employee let me know her supervisor also gave her a sneak preview of at least one goals she was to reach: to learn Chinese within one year. When she told me this, two thoughts immediately came to mind.
First, despite all the training, the manager did not employe the SMART method in setting this goal. What proficiency of Chinese did the manager want the employee to learn? How will you measure proficiency? What is the purpose of this goal? Is it attainable? In short, is it a good goal in terms of being able to be reached within the time specified, and your success or failure quantified objectively?
Second, is this goal being instituted to set the employee up to fail? Let’s look at it objectively. While the company has an international presence, what is the purpose of learning Chinese when there are those who have Chinese as a first language who you can turn to? Within one year, which is the time period for most goals, what can someone expect to learn of a language that is regarded as incredibly difficult to learn? Is she to learn how to speak and write Chinese, and for what purposes will this be used? What other tasks will be lifted from the manager in order for her to learn Chinese to a proficient standard?
I believe most of these questions are moot. Instead, the goal is being instituted because the employee is being set up to fail. Even the most objective of grading criteria for this goal will be discounted, and the manager will say that the goal was not met, and the employee cannot perform the tasks associated with her job. The goal is being used as a weapon.
There are many ways which an employee can be set up to fail. Some of them have been addressed here, and others will be addressed in future blogs. To use a process that is supposed to uplift and enrich in this way demonstrates that a manager’s motives are less than pure and wanting to help the company. Instead, a manager has already made up their mind about whether they want their employee on the team and is using this process to gain legal ground for carrying out the sentence. This is, of course, unfair to the employee, dragging out penalizing treatment to which there is no reprieve.
Good managers wield tools, not weapons. Calling one the other means that something is fundamentally flawed within the manager, and that maybe their goals need to be reevaluated.
Whether it was the stress of the holidays, stress from end of year, or something else, I have had many conversations over the past month with employees regarding what their managers are doing. I wanted to share three that I thought had a common thread.
An employee came to me indicating that her manager had informed her that she would be getting a minimal rating this year. As the employee told it, she felt very isolated and alone doing the job she had to do. Not only didn’t she click with her colleagues, her manager never seemed to be around for guidance or assistance. Add to that a crushing load of work to do, some of which she never had to do before, and she had made mistakes in getting her work done. She was despondent and didn’t know what to do next, especially after this announcement that she would be getting a minimal rating.
We talked, and I identified some areas where she could improve her situation, including more aggressively reaching out for help and not thinking she had to do everything herself alone. I also gave her some strategies for making her manager more accountable for helping her, instead of the manager just not being there to answer questions. Still, she feels this is one foot out the door and the other on a banana peel.
An employee told me that she expected her year end evaluation to be terrible as well. I have written about this employee and her manager previously, but it seems the situation has steadily deteriorated. The manager of this employee is doing everything in her power to demoralize and disenfranchise this employee. The latest is that her office was taken away, though she had direct reports, and other managers with fewer direct reports are keeping their offices. She is expecting a terrible performance review, and has indicated that will be the proverbial straw, causing her to take action against this manager.
Why not just go to HR and demand this treatment be stopped? She has. HR has done nothing, forcing this employee to take extraordinary measures. The employee feels it will not be long before she needs to find another job.
What would be your greatest work nightmare? Well, one of them might be that you have deadlines to meet and the entire computer network goes down. You cannot access your files, cannot even ask IT to do it because of the severity of the problem. You do what you can, let people know, let your boss know, and even had the head of your office’s IT group write a note backing up this story.
When I mentioned this scenario, and the fact that the network was down three days, to several managers I know, asking them what they would do, their unanimous response was, “Give the employee three more days.” The response of this employee’s manager? “You missed your deadline”. When taken to Employee Relations, the response was, “You missed your deadline”. The employee was written up and subsequently fired, using this as one of the reasons.
Do you see the similarity in these three tales? In each, the manager seems to care more about pleasing themselves rather than working with the employee to get good results. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. While a manager is not supposed to be a complete altruist, they work with their employees so that both the company and the employee benefit. Please re-read that sentence. Nowhere does it say that the manager is supposed to benefit. Why? Because, if the employee excels, then so does the manager, for they must be doing something right.
When management becomes an exercise in personal gratification at the expense of your employees, then nobody wins. If you happen to be in a company where the bodies that should sanction such behavior, like Employee Relations, do nothing, then what is an employee to do? Check many legal dockets, and you may see what employees have been doing.
So, looking at these tales, do you want to be a good manager and add to the bottom line of your company, or do you want to be a self-absorbed manager, and drain profits away from the company in legal fees and judgements?