Don’t oil the squeaky wheel and other unconventional management wisdom

Counter-intuitive strategies for overcoming common work issues

Look at what’s happening in business today, from corporate greed to downsizing to employee mistrust. Unless managers challenge the norm and change the ineffective practices they have become comfortable with, these issues will continue to plague the workplace.

Here are some unorthodox, even counter-intuitive strategies for overcoming some common work issues, and leading the organization to peak performance.

One of the most common issues is that managers are overworked and overstressed.

The unorthodox way to deal with this is: don’t oil the squeaky wheel. Managers who are spending more than five per cent of their time with troublemakers are messing up.

Here’s a true story. Janice, CEO of a mortgage company, was having problems. Sales were down in a vigorous market. Employee morale was shot; her VPs were outright depressed. To turn things around, she started spending more time with her people, visiting branches, establishing an open-door policy and making herself available to listen to people. She even set up a weekly “breakfast with the boss” program. Janice told me that all she heard from that point on was whining, blaming and complaining. When I asked her what she did with the information, she said she let people vent, listened very actively and tried to be empathetic. Sometimes she would talk to the other parties involved in an attempt to get the facts. And that was pretty much it.

Janice was rewarding people (with her time and interest) for behaviour she didn’t want: whining, blaming and complaining. Meanwhile, she was spending very little time with her high-performing VPs and salespeople. In fact, since she’d started listening to the whiners complain about how overworked they were, she’d been shifting more and more work to her top performers.

Janice’s open-door plan backfired. Not only did she fail to hold the troublemakers accountable but they used her to unload their worries, complain about their co-workers and get further rewards by having work taken away from them. And what did she do with her top performers? She not only ignored them, she punished them by shifting more responsibility and work onto their shoulders.

To ensure team members are positive, trusting and motivated, it’s important to spend the majority of time with the people who behave that way.

Another common issue these days is the pervasive unethical conduct of corporate executives.

Here’s the unorthodox strategy: Don’t play to win. Not only that, but create a culture in which playing to win at any price is unacceptable because it’s bad for business in the long-term.

Many companies claim to espouse ethics, but actually create an unethical culture through their implicit policies. In a 2003 study of 1,500 employees conducted by Ethics Resource Center, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C., 44 per cent of non-management employees who observed ethical misconduct at work — abusive or intimidating behaviour or lying to customers — said they did not report it because they didn’t think any corrective action would be taken. They said they feared any report they made would not have been kept confidential. Less than 60 per cent of employees who did report misconduct said they were satisfied with the organization’s response to it. The workers surveyed said they felt increased pressure to compromise their ethics during times of major corporate change such as mergers, acquisitions and restructuring.

Clearly, companies are creating unethical cultures in which no one wants to point the finger. A “we’re not playing to win” strategy is the first step in the right direction.

Another important work issue, for which there is an excellent unorthodox solution, involves toxic workplaces. A toxic workplace has high levels of fear combined with low levels of employee satisfaction.

The solution: treat all employees as if they are volunteers. This will eliminate fear in the workplace and achieve dramatic improvements in employee satisfaction.

What would a manager say to team members if indeed they were volunteers? How about: “Please and thank you. Can I count on you? I need your help. I really appreciate what you’ve done. Thanks for being on my team.” And the big one, “Could you do me a favour?” That one, especially, doesn’t sit well with many managers. A typical response is: What are you talking about? They’re not doing me any favours, it’s their job. Fair enough, but if a manager is trying to achieve peak performance, the fastest route is to treat all employees as if they were volunteers.

Imagine what can be done by approaching all of the organization’s leadership practices with an unorthodox eye. The result would be that team members would be motivated to achieve extraordinary results. Fear, stress and conflict would be eliminated; and there would be dramatic improvements in employee satisfaction, performance and productivity.

Wolf Rinke is president and founder of Wolf Rinke Associates, Inc., a human resources and management consulting company. He is the author of Don’t Oil the Squeaky Wheel … and 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness. He can be reached at (410) 531-9280, [email protected] or

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