Bad managers product of bad circumstances

Mystiques about invulnerability, omniscience hurt operations

There are many exemplary managers in today’s organizations. But others are far from competent. Perhaps it’s a bad hair decade for managers, but here’s a collection of several real horror stories that show there’s some distance to go before managerial competence is as high as it should be.

Most creatures in this collection of management aberrations are here because of one shortcoming — their inability to forge civil, creative, mutually supportive relationships with those who work for them.

•A manager exhibits superior intellectual and analytical skills, but his capacity to feel kinship or sympathy with his employees approaches nil. To him, they are units of production, not real people. They do problematic things like cry, get sick and have deaths in the family.

•A manager is addicted to management fads. Before his newest fad is embedded in the organization, he loses interest and moves to the next fad. He wonders why employees greet his newest excitement with yawns or hostility.

•A manager turns issues into tests of personal loyalty. To disagree with her is treason. Not surprisingly, her employees form their own cabals based on complex webs of loyalties.

•A manager loves repetitive rites of organizational cheerleader-ism (group hugs at the end of meetings, for instance). To him, enthusiasm replaces capability.

•A self-congratulatory cadre of middle managers take long lunches to congratulate each other on their superiority, but will make no concessions to employees who need time to deal with urgent personal errands.

•A manager believes employees are not working unless he sees them working, although much of the work could be done at home or on flex hours with performance measured by outcome, not hours on the treadmill.

•A manager adopts performance management tools but uses them to distance herself from employees. She believes people must fit the tools, not the other way around.

•A manager does not comment on an employee’s performance unless there is a criticism to make, and is puzzled that one employee faces emotional exhaustion because she has never heard a word of praise for her work.

•A young HR manager designs the organization’s benefits package, loading it with benefits of use to younger employees, although most of the employees are older.

•A manager delegates nothing and micro-prescribes all work to be done by employees. They complain they are being treated like children. She says when they act like adults she will treat them like adults.

•A manager responds to an employee mistake not by working respectfully with the employee so work can improve, but by taking that kind of work away from the employee, who ends up untutored and underworked.

•A manager organizes the workplace into teams, then rewards people for individual achievement, not team achievement. Each “team” becomes a pool of competing sharks.

Are these evil managers? Hardly ever. These behaviours seem sensible — even enlightened — to the managers exhibiting them.

There are management-focused “mystiques” in many organizations that drive managers toward these behaviours.

Mystiques that create the beast

Invulnerability: According to this mystique, the manager must not make a mistake and can never be seen to make a mistake. Superiors sometimes feed this mystique by exploiting a manager’s vulnerability as a pretext to take authority away from the manager so the superior can exercise it. And a manager who is not allowed to be vulnerable can scarcely tolerate vulnerability in others.

Omniscience: According to this mystique, the manager should come to the job fully knowledgeable about all components of the work. This makes it hard for a manager to seek continuing education. She is supposed to know it all anyway to qualify for the job in the first place.

The mystique of the technical: According to this mystique, management is a technical activity that can be learned by reading checklists and applying rules. This produces anaemic leadership that denies emotional and spiritual dimensions of organizations. It produces over-reliance on performance tools, separating people, not bringing them together.

Loyalty: In pursuit of organizational cohesion, it’s assumed giving voice to dissatisfaction damages an organization, and that loyalty must be demonstrated by subordinates through unquestioning acceptance of the will of one’s manager.

Formal power: According to this mystique, formal power is all that matters. With enough power, one can make anyone do anything. This ignores the capacity of passive — and sometimes active — resistance to formal power, and the importance of informal influence.

Playing-it-by-ear: While too much formality in an organization is stifling, too little formality is chaotic. Yet “winging-it” is rewarded as “thinking outside the box.” Some things are important enough to be codified as rules. Failure to do so leaves the organization vulnerable to memory lapses, misunderstandings of intent, unfair biases based on unfettered personalities and emotions, and damaging inconsistencies. A sub-mystique is the charisma myth — the belief that personal magnetism defines a manager.

What to do about mystiques

These mystiques can be dealt with creatively so they do not harm organizations or people within it. But three things are needed to solve the problem.

Recognizing the mystiques in your organization: Mystiques are so pervasive that managers stop noticing them, just as we barely notice the air around us has slowly become noxious.

So the first step involves discussion within the organization about whether these mystiques are present. It is not enough for the board or the CEO to identify them as problems — it must be a discussion one-on-one with everyone. Talking about it just at a staff meeting will fail because employees often deny in front of others that any problem exists.

The discussion should not focus only on whether the mystiques exist. It should also ask what can be done to eliminate the mystiques.

Redefinition of performance management so it means performance support: This involves creating a system of mutual support between managers and employees to ensure that the mystiques are eliminated or, at least, not allowed to impede employee performance. This is not a process apart from normal performance reviews — it should replace those performance reviews.

There must be hard-nosed mutual support: the manager supports the employees, so the employees can support the organization. It allows for discipline when employees culpably fail, but discipline should be seen as the last option.

Time and resources: Cut-to-the-bone organizations often do not give time, motivation, rewards or money to managers to improve their leadership. But one out-of-control manager can damage an organization and incur costs far beyond the cost of a properly learned and implemented performance support system.

John Butler, a regular contributor to Canadian HR Reporter, is president of the Agora Group, a Markham, Ont.-based HR and health care management consulting firm. He can be reached at (905) 294-9762 or [email protected].

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