Reprinted form December, 2016
A six-year old picks up rocks and begins throwing them in the backyard water feature. “Grandma doesn’t want you to throw rocks in the water,” Grandpa warned.
“Don’t tell Grandma,” replied the six-year old.
We can marvel at the quick-thinking six-year old’s recommendation, but it was Grandpa who committed the faux pas. Not wanting to take responsibility for enforcing a policy of “no throwing rocks in the pond,” Grandpa passed the buck to Grandma.
A more adult correction from Grandpa might have sounded like, “I think it best that you stop throwing rocks in the pond. The rocks could clog the drainage or damage the pump.” That is, Grandpa could take ownership of the correction and explain why.
I observe many parallel, buck-passing actions of less effective leaders. A newly-appointed manager explained to an employee, “Because of your excessive absenteeism, Human Relations requires that I reprimand you.”
In response to requests from front-line managers to provide more vacation time to employees, the Regional Manager said, “The CEO believes that our current policy is very competitive.” An employee denies a customer’s request with, “It’s against company policy.”
Effective leaders understand their organizations’ policies and accept responsibility for executing them; that is, they ‘own’ the policies. For example, “Because of your unexcused absences, consistent with our policy, I’ve decided to write you a reprimand. If you continue to miss work, there could be additional consequences. I don’t want that to happen.”
Janice’s manager said to her, “I appreciate your reporting the customer’s failure to comply with all safety rules. But you should have insisted that he wear safety glasses and hearing protectors at all times. If the customer failed to obey, you should have canceled the tour. Consider this to be a verbal reprimand. A copy goes in your file.”
Janice had been responsible for guiding a new customer through on a plant tour. Although Janice had carefully explained all safety requirements prior to the tour, the customer consistently ignored some rules. Janice did not think the customer was ever at risk. Still, she repeatedly and politely nagged him to comply.
At one point, the customer became irritated and said, “This is silly. I’m forty feet away from any moving parts. These things are uncomfortable.”
Janice later commented to a friend that she feared she might offend the customer to the point of jeopardizing a potential high-dollar sale.
Managers described this incident in numerous meetings and promised consequences for all future failures.
Employees heard the message loud and clear. However, over the next year employees reported in confidential interviews that customer violations continued and perhaps even increased. Tour guides simply quit reporting what they thought were incidental violations.
I like Jack Welch’s (the very successful, former CEO of General Electric) approach to performance appraisals.
Manager presents to the employee a handwritten sheet of paper. The left column lists the manager’s view of employee’s achievements. The right column contains items the employee could do better. Both lists focus on performance metrics and team behaviors.
Manager and employee engage in a meaningful conversation. Manager gives examples, “Your error rate is less than .03 percent, almost a ten percent improvement over last period.” “I like that you went out of your way to help our new engineer learn our software tool.”
Sum up by reporting, “Shelly, you are in the top twenty percent of our employees, and I’ll recommend a good pay increase.” Or, “Jackson, your overall performance puts you in the solid seventy percent of our team and your raise will reflect that. I would like to see improvement in meeting deadlines and reducing errors. I’ll help you with those.
Or, “Alford, I’m disappointed that, after considerable training, your response time is still the slowest in our group. Let me help you find another position that is a better fit.”
Conduct these interviews at least twice a year and allow about thirty minutes for each session.
Prior to an all-hands meeting, an employee commented sarcastically to a peer, “What’s it going to be this time?”
“Whatever it is,” the peer responded, “the vice president will assure us that it will improve sales, cut costs and cure cancer.”
Rumors of a new program launch had been racing through departments like a grass fire in a wind storm.
Perhaps the employees should not have been so skeptical. But they clearly remembered several previous aborted improvement efforts.
“Higher-ups” often are not fully aware of the extra work burden created by the latest catholicon. And when managers are prone to latch on to the new “whatever,” employees quickly engage in what Professor Robert Sutton calls “fad surfing.” That is, employees make minimum commitments to show cooperation but do not engage enough to ensure eye-popping success.
Program failures prompt managers to search for the next lever; starting a cycle of: (1) roll out a new program with great fanfare, (2) experience disappointing results, (3) regroup and center on another, even better, remedy.
When a new program flounders, management should not be so quick to search for lightening in another bottle. A refocus on the fundamentals—hiring, training, supervision, recognition—might be the better cure.
Which is more accurate?
- My boss is more dependent on me.
- I am more dependent on my boss.
About seventy percent of participants in my workshops say, “My boss depends more on me than I do on him (her).” This view, I think, may over state the role of the subordinate in the relationship.
Of course, higher-level managers depend on subordinates to fulfill their responsibilities. And bosses, in some cases, may not even be able to perform their subordinates’ tasks. Still, the boss has a lot of influence—much more than most of us would like to think.
Recall a time when you worked for a bad boss. No doubt, you experienced a lot of frustration. Compare that to an experience with a good boss. Job satisfaction and career success are much more likely when working for good bosses. Face it, you are very dependent upon your boss for a good work life.
Good bosses mentor and help staff members grow. Bad bosses stress and frustrate all. When considering a position, be sure to evaluate the boss carefully. If you are frustrated at work, the boss still gets a pay check; you may get an ulcer.
(Reprinted from November, 2015)
“I was becoming frustrated,” explained a manager, “with my communications with staff at distant sites. Several times I thought we had agreed on a way forward only to discover they misinterpreted my intentions.”
The manager began backing up his electronic messages with phone calls and while that helped, misunderstandings continued. Later, the manager added video conferencing which helped but did not eliminate missteps.
“Eventually,” the manager said, “I started visiting the sites on a regular basis to talk personally with staff. I was amazed at how much better we got at resolving and preventing customer-related issues. Even though the site visits required considerable time and energy, they were well worth the effort.”
To communicate effectively, visit staff members at their work stations when there is no reason to be there. Travel to your customer’s locations; invite your customers to your facilities. If you perceive conflicts with colleagues, drag your physical self to their offices and talk with them.
Consider town-hall meeting with large groups of employees. Encourage them to ask questions and respond to all. Deliver the bad news as well as the good.
I recall asking a group of employees if their managers ever visited their work areas. “Yes,” said one. “But when work is going smoothly, we never see them. We make one mistake and they come out of the wood work.”
Do not wait until problems arise. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Engage others, preferably at their work stations, on a regular basis. Face-to-face communication does not guarantee perfect understanding but it vastly improves your odds.
“As I was walking into the office,” commented a manager, “out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Cade (a long-time team member) entering through another door. I’m sure Cade saw me, but I pretended that I didn’t see him and hurried off.”
The manager feared that Cade was frustrated and communication would likely be unpleasant.
At the end of the previous day, a customer and Cade got into a snit about a delivery issue. After the encounter, Cade criticized his manager to several peers. “I should never have had to deal with this. The boss misled the customer and I’m expected to clean it up.”
The manager admitted, “I was concerned about the customer but I had other commitments and just did not want to deal with Cade at that moment.”
Awkward encounters are challenges for most us. We know we need to have a candid conversation. We rationalize our decision to postpone as in, “I had other things to deal with.” “That’s not how I wanted to start my day.” “I thought I should let things cool down a bit.”
So when the voice in your head shouts, “retreat,” it is likely a signal that you should charge into the fray.