Category Archives: Management Style

Work Group Culture: Be Intentional

Every organization has a culture. It may be hard to describe but everyone feels it. Culture is the organization’s character and personality. It is the sum of its values, traditions, beliefs, interactions, behaviors, and attitudes. It is affected by leadership roles and actions, organizational systems, management philosophies and practices, the physical environment of the workspace, and so on. It is pervasive.

Work groups also have a culture. These are created by the overall organizational culture, of course, but also by the group’s individual leader. While group leaders often won’t be able to totally control their group’s culture, they can have a significant influence.

Among the many decisions leaders make– intentionally or not – that affect culture are:

  • How will group members communicate with each other: by email, in person, a combination of both?
  • What kind of work hours will be required – and when?
  • How must employees manifest their “commitment” to the job – by doing good work, working long hours, something else?
  • Is input on management decisions discouraged or encouraged?
  • Can employees speak frankly to management about their concerns?
  • What kind of behaviors are allowed – frequent swearing, expressions of anger, gossip, cliquishness?
  • What is done to make everyone on the team feel included and appreciated?
  • Is there overt or subtle favoritism on the part of management?
  • Are employees accountable for their actions or is blaming others the norm?
  • Are different approaches and personalities respected?
  • Do people laugh enough — in a good way?

If you’re a leader, it is well worth your while to take some time to answer these questions and others that come to mind. If things are not going as well as you hope, the underlying culture of your group may be a part of the problem and once identified, you can work on it. Don’t hesitate to bring team members into the discussion — just involving them will be a start to improving the culture.

One caution. Sometimes, leaders and employees will refer favorably to their workgroup as a “family.” This is a nice idea, but has its definite perils. As an idealized concept, family brings to mind a friendly, casual, and supportive workplace. However, families also have a host of behaviors that are not helpful or appropriate in the workplace. Within their families, people can be emotional, behave badly, discuss very personal issues, retain grudges, and so on. Families have very different boundaries than those required in a workplace. More bluntly: a family is just not a very professional environment!

A different paradigm is needed: one that includes the positive aspects of “family,” without bringing in those aspects that are not appropriate in the workplace context.

What other questions should a leader ask when evaluating his or her work group’s culture?

~Amy Stephson

 

The Case of the Reluctant Manager

Henrietta was an ace software engineer: developer, problem solver, speaker at conferences. She was known throughout the industry for her brilliance. She was so brilliant, in fact, that the Company promoted her to manager because they thought so highly of her and were afraid of losing her!

At first, Henrietta was thrilled to be recognized and rewarded for great work in this big and visible way. She loved getting to take on the toughest, most interesting challenges. And now, as manager, she was able to assign work – so she got to assign the most interesting and challenging projects to herself. She also loved making sure that everyone on her staff did things the right way (her way). She was excited that she finally had the authority to make it so. And that’s when the trouble started.

Henrietta repeatedly told her staff members what to do and how to do it. Some of these people had been doing the work for a very long time and were also considered to be experts. She figured she got to tell them what to do since she was the boss. But for some reason, her staff members seemed to resent her direction and advice. She corrected them when they did things wrong (not her way) – and they really took offense. That wasn’t what she had expected. She had assumed they’s appreciate or at least accept her management. But, she figured that since they resisted learning from her, she’d just let them fail on their own. She withdrew from supervising or managing them at all, and just did what she considered her REAL work: tackling those tough challenges that she really loved. After all, wasn’t the whole point of getting promoted that you were able to do more of the things you loved and tackle the toughest tasks?

Well – no. That’s actually not the whole (or even the most important) point of being the manager. Unfortunately, too many times people get promoted just because they have outstanding technical skills and the employer doesn’t want to risk losing them. And too often, they don’t actually want to do the #1 job of a manager (or even supervisor): to manage and supervise people. When someone is promoted into a managerial position, they are paid more – because they are expected to take on that really tough job of people management.

So, how should an employer think about filling that all-important manager position? Consider these points – in this order:

  1. Clearly define the job requirements – placing people-management skills at the top.
  2. Use selection criteria that emphasize the ability to supervise and manage people. Technical skills should come second (even if it’s a strong second.)
  3. Once the person is hired, clearly state job expectations: people management should come first.
  4. Then, ensure that the manager’s performance is evaluated first on his/her ability to manage and supervise people.

Technical expertise is great – but that’s not the primary responsibility of managers. If you have a Henrietta on your staff, this employee with great technical skills, and you want to reward her or keep her from going elsewhere, what can you do other than promote her to manager? You can

  • Create a Senior position, or an Expert position, or an in-house Consultant position where that person’s special skills can be used to their maximum advantage without putting them in a position where they are required to supervise and manage people – something they don’t want to do and that is not their strength. (Yes, every once in a while there are technical experts who love and excel at people supervision and management as well. If you find one of those, do what you need to do to keep them!)
  • Give the technical expert lead technical work – where she can be the lead on those complex projects without being saddled with people supervision or management.

Why is it so important to ensure that those whose strength is technical work (and not people management) not be placed in people management positions where they will fail? Here are just a few reasons:

  • When Henrietta becomes a manager, she becomes a toxic employee: she makes herself miserable, and likely makes her staff members miserable.
  • As a result, her work is very likely to suffer (even her technical work), and certainly her employees’ work will suffer: they’ll be thinking and talking about how awful she is – rather than spending all that energy on the work.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, and isn’t good at it, she’ll likely spend more time (emotional time and real time, and work and outside of work) fretting about that, and so be prevented from doing the job at which she excels.
  • Because she’s uncomfortable supervising and managing people, staff members who need a manager’s support, guidance, and supervision – or correction – won’t get it, and the employer will suffer.

Finally, if you do find that you have promoted a Henrietta who can’t supervise or manage people – all is not lost!

  • First, have an honest conversation as soon as you realize the problem exists. Admit your part of the fault in her hiring/promotion (if you were involved.)
  • Encourage her to learn a new set of skills – people supervision and management. Offer classes, coaching, and support.
  • Establish a clear set of expectations and a reasonable timeline to meet them.
  • Document. Document. Document.
  • If it doesn’t work out, figure out how Henrietta will leave her position with dignity,  perhaps to return to a purely technical position where she can save face, go back to loving her work, and to making positive contributions to the Company.

Check out this great recent blog by Vu Le, “Nonprofit with Balls”, on the subject of dealing with employees who aren’t making it. Even if you don’t work in a not-for-profit organization, it’s a great blog!

We’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve ever worked with a Reluctant Manager. Let us hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Just Say Hello – and Goodbye

Six years ago I wrote a post about the importance of employees saying hello to each other, particularly of supervisors and managers saying hello to subordinates. And you know what? In both my coaching and investigation practices, the issue still comes up.

Recently, for example, it arose when I was coaching two co-workers, trying to help them resolve their many conflicts. One complained that the other didn’t talk to her for days and didn’t greet her in the morning. The other said: “Well, I come in a back door and don’t pass her desk.” Oy.

The issue also comes up with goodbyes – though the offense is somewhat different: “He just leaves and doesn’t tell anyone.” She never tells us where she is going.” “She sneaks out so we don’t know when she leaves.”

So what is this about? As I stated in my previous post, “All human beings need to feel acknowledged. When a supervisor, manager, or co-worker greets an employee, the message being communicated is that the employee has value and importance. When there is no greeting, the opposite message is communicated.”  I think the same principle applies to good-byes, though to a lesser extent. There, practical problems are also involved: you think someone is around but they’re not, or you think they’re cheating on their time in some way (even if they’re an exempt employee).

I also think it’s an issue of power – particularly positional power. In another post, I discussed research indicating that, “If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. … Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy.” In the hello and goodbye context, the power differential increases the “offense” felt by subordinates. They feel that by ignoring them and not exhibiting basic courtesies, the boss is holding him or herself above the others.

The main way to solve this problem, of course, is to make it clear to employees, particularly leaders, how important these seemingly small touches are. But what about the manager who is not a “Hi, how are you?” kind of person in general – particularly in the morning? I’ve coached managers like this and the challenge is for them to figure out how to acknowledge others in a way that feels authentic and not phony. Maybe they can’t give a “big” hello, but anyone can say, “Mornin’” as they walk by their subordinates.

And if the subordinates are not normally in the manager’s path (“I come in the back door”)? Change the path. Or at least send an email, “Good Morning All!”

Any other thoughts on this topic? ~Amy Stephson

Power in the Workplace

I recently read a fascinating blog post by Seattle area consultant and coach Neil Baker, MD, entitled “Hard-wired for troubles with power.” According to the post, research shows that all human beings are “hard-wired” to be “acutely sensitive” to those with power. In the employment setting, this means people with positional power, i.e., those with the ability to hire, fire, manage resources, and assess performance.

I have long discussed the impact of power in my harassment training and management coaching. It is frequently a very eye-opening concept. As described by Baker, however, the consequences for management that flow from employees’ acute sensitivity to power goes far deeper than we may realize.  He writes:

If you have positional power, “the sense-making of people who work for you will be determined less by the facts and more by their internal story. If you do anything that tells them it is not OK to be real around you, your authority will amplify the impact of your action. The slightest voice inflection, the most innocent remark, can land hard on those you have authority over, causing them to make up stories that support increased caution and distort further interaction.”

“Every action and utterance can be scrutinized for meaning”–those with power are suspect until proven trustworthy. On top of this, research suggests that, regardless of underlying personality or values, just being in a position of power will cause a person to listen less, talk more, and have difficulty getting into another person’s shoes to understand and empathize.

On the other side of things, because of this magnifying effect of power, those with positional power can have a large, positive impact on the psychological safety of a work environment.” [footnotes omitted]

Baker goes on to give a wide range of suggestions on how those with positional power can reduce its negative effects, e.g., maintain two way feedback and be careful with language. They are well worth reading.

Reading this post, I had some additional thoughts. This power dynamic creates a difficult situation: most managers and supervisors don’t really have as much power as their subordinates think and actually are just fellow human beings, yet the subordinates are basically hard-wired to get upset and angry with them. To some extent, this just comes with the territory and management must acknowledge and accept this reality.

However, it is important for employers to not allow employees to demonize or dehumanize their managers and supervisors because of some real or perceived wrongdoing on the latter’s part. Anyone who does employment investigations or litigation has seen this demonization. Employers who allow it are undermining their management team and demoralizing the workplace.

So what should employers do when faced with this situation? Employees who name call or badmouth managers and supervisors should be told to express their concerns in appropriate and respectful ways. Those who make unreasonable demands  (e.g., put that abuser on leave immediately or that harasser needs to be fired now), should be told that this is not how the employer treats any of its employees as a matter of basic fairness and due process.

Might the demonizer then go after the person who did not give in? Possibly. But in my experience, almost everyone hears and understands concepts of respect and fairness … so long as the message itself is communicated in a fair and respectful manner….

What are your thoughts about positional power in the workplace? ~Amy Stephson

Involve Others in Making Decisions…or Not!

Congratulations! You’re a modern, progressive manager. You respect your employees, and listen to their ideas. You treat them fairly, compensate them well, believe in them and appreciate their contributions. It follows, then, that you should involve them when you make important decisions, right?

Well, sort of. Let me share a story. Years ago I was in graduate school, writing my thesis. I was absolutely convinced of the worth of participative decision-making. That is, involving those affected by decisions in making the decisions. Thus, if employees were to be affected by the yearly objectives that were being set, they needed to be involved in setting them. If citizens were to be affected by the placement of the new LightRail route, they needed to be involved in deciding where that route should go. You get the idea. I was convinced that, by involving those affected by a decision in making that decision, you got a better, fairer and more equitable decision.

So, off I went to do research. Here’s what I discovered: to coin a phrase first made famous by George Gershwin, it ain’t necessarily so. The research shows that the extent to which it’s a good idea to involve folks in a decision depends on many things. If you’re facing a significant decision that will affect those who work for you, use the following questions to decisde whether and how to involve them in making the decision.
1. Do you have to have some technical knowledge to understand the issue? For instance, deciding whether to have a “casual Friday” in an office probably does not require technical knowledge – it’s more about opinions and understanding your customers (if you see customers). On the other hand, deciding the best laptop to buy for each of your 100 employees requires at least some technical knowledge, though you also need to know how each employee will use the computer to make the best choice.
2.If technical knowledge is required, do those you’re considering involving have it, or is it something they can learn quickly? If not, it’s probably unwise to expect them to be worthwhile contributors to the process. Ensure that those you involve in decision-making, whether in a group or by requesting individual input, actually have the technical skills and knowledge in the subject to provide meaningful input. Public input processes are notorious examples of uninformed folks being asked their opinions on complex issues about which they have opinions by not real knowledge. I’ve been to way too many such meetings – and they tend to be really frustrating for both decision-makers and meeting attendees.
3.Do those you’re considering involving have a significant emotional interest in the outcome of the decision? For instance, if you are considering outsourcing some work, those whose jobs might be changed or even eliminated have a significant interest in the outcome of the decision. It is unlikely that they would be able to objectively assess the pros and cons, taking themselves out of the equation for the greater good of the company or organization. As one management book author put it, it is unreasonable to expect people to enthusiastically participate in making plans for their own demise.
4.Will those you’re considering involving be working with others in this process? If so, do they have the skills to participate in a collaborative decision-making process? If this is a large or complex decision, it is best to begin the process by developing the team that will be involved. This entails setting expectations, establishing ground rules, defining parameters for the decision, defining the group’s authority (advisory? decision-making? other?) and actually providing some training in the collaborative process.

So, although I’m still a great proponent of involving those affected by decisions in making those decisions, our very complex world sometimes makes that a poor idea. In principle it’s great – but make sure involvement is really meaningful and that those who are involved have the knowledge and skills to help you reach a better decision than you would have reached without their input.

Have you been involved in a collaborative decision-making process? How did it work? Was it successful? We’d love to hear from you! ~Daphne Schneider

Creating Ownership

Ownership is an interesting concept.  We have some understanding of what it means when we’re talking about stuff – we own the house (well, except the part the bank owns…), the car (ditto), the cat (really? does anyone ever really own a cat???), the shirt – ah, that we really do own.  We bought it, paid cash for it, wear it and wash it.  We went through a process…and now we own it.

But what does ownership mean when we’re talking about ideas or directions or outcomes, particularly for teams and organizations?  I’ve recently facilitated several teams in developing plans for the future.  Initially I met with the leaders who talked with me about what the issues were and about what they wanted to achieve with their teams.  From one perspective, the outcomes were almost forgone conclusions: when I asked these people what they wanted to accomplish, they were pretty specific.  And, as it turned out, they pretty much predicted the outcomes of my work with their teams.

Between these initial conversations and the end results, I worked with the teams and their leaders for many hours.  We talked about what was important to them individually, about what was important to their teams and organizatioins.  We talked about the present and the future, and about creating the future they were dreaming of for their organizations.  We took time to hear every member of the team, and to listen deeply to what each person brought to the table.

So why go to all the trouble to bring people together for hours or days just to get to the end you knew they would likely reach anyway?  One thing that decades of study has repeatedly shown: even though it might appear more efficient in the short run, in the long run you have to have time and individual involvement to build commitment.  So, it’s about talking and processing to build ownership.

Now, I’m someone who is quite capable of being bottom-line oriented.  Just get to the point and be done with it.  That said, I also know that much of the time that simply does not work.  You cannot order a sense of ownership and commitment to an outcome.  You can get compliance that way: that is, I’ll work toward your goal while you’re watching, but if you turn your back, you don’t know what you’ll get. You can only get ownership and commitment the long, slow way.  If you want and need that for a path-forward, you need to have participation in developing that path from those whose commitment you want.

I can just hear some of you saying – but isn’t that manipulative?   The answer is that it is no more manipulative to involve people in working toward a goal you have in mind than it is to learn a foreign language in order to communicate with someone who speaks that language.  If you want people to be part of what you’re building, you need to involve them in the plans and speak to them in a language you both understand.  Having said that, you also need to be prepared that they might not go along with everything you had in mind, and it might not look, in the end, exactly as you had imagined it would.

By taking the time to build ownership, you will have a relationship that has been strengthened, a bond that has been developed and a commitment to an outcome from those who were involved – which are things that you simply cannot have without that time and participation.

Have you had experience building a sense of ownership?  Tell us about it! ~Daphne Schneider

Acting 101 for Managers

A little-recognized but oft-experienced reality is that to manage employees effectively, managers need to have fairly well developed acting skills.  Stated another way, managers need to always be aware of how they present themselves and the impact of their behaviors on their subordinates. 

So what does this mean in practical terms?  Think of these common scenarios:

  • An employee has repeatedly performed or behaved badly despite repeated discussions of the problem.  You’re frustrated and angry, but you don’t want to show it.  Your role: calm, firm and clear setter of expectations and consequences.
  • You’re having a really bad day.  It’s OK to hide somewhere if you can, but you don’t want to be cranky and angry or icy and formal with your employees.  Can’t you be real once in a while?  Unfortunately, no: employees get confused by a boss they see as unpredictable and up and down.  They also have long memories for slip-ups.  Your role: the consistent grown up. 
  • You really click with some of your employees and not with others.  Your tendency would be to hang out with and favor in subtle ways the ones who are pleasant, easy to get along with, and have a good sense of humor, while steering a little clear of the others.  Not good.  Your role: the parent who cares about all of his or her children equally. 

This is not easy.  But it may help to recognize that it’s your job and not the place to self-actualize and express your emotional self.  Also, if you remember that you’re playing a role – manager –that in itself can give you some distance from the emotional travails of managing people. 

One caution, however, about playing this role: you also need maintain a level of authenticity and interact with others on a human level. These are not necessarily inconsistent demands. You can play a role but still retain your fundamental personality and come from a genuine place of caring.  Those qualities will shine through even as you always present yourself as the proper manager.

What are your thoughts about manager as actor?  ~Amy Stephson