By Mike Cook
For the Bellingham Business Journal
This year, the year before this, next year and the year following next year there will be innumerable gatherings of professionals in conference after conference addressing practices to elevate employee engagement. HR pros will talk to each other. Engagement pros will talk to each other. Labor and OD the same — and while they are all away they’ll get a report that some manager back home pulled off a spectacular demonstration of dumb behavior that will set back everything they have been working hard to achieve.
I can hear us all now as we gather:
“Can you believe it?”
“What was she thinking?”
“And he was supposed to be one of our best!”
“Wait until you hear this; you are not going to believe it!”
“Well, at least we’ve got job security, cleaning up these messes!”
When I first joined “corporate America” in early 1973 I was a pretty naïve guy with a master’s in labor relations fresh from Michigan State. Arriving in New Jersey, employed as an HR generalist in a mid-sized refinery where our plant employees were represented by the teamsters, I was finally ready to join that big “team” I knew was waiting for me out there. Let’s just say that the awakening I experienced was rude.
Turns out it wasn’t one big team and we didn’t play together all that well.
If that wasn’t a sufficient disappointment, I was regularly treated to displays of dumb behavior on the part of managers, and unfortunately some of the worst offenders were the very senior people.
Now, 43 years later I continue to hear reports of the same behaviors I encountered back then.
The examples I refer to are not exotic, they are ones we all know: rating all employees in a merit pool as above average so everyone is eligible for an increase, changing a performance review written by a subordinate manager because you don’t agree with their appraisal, producing satisfactory or better performance reviews for employees who everyone knows are subpar, transferring subpar employees without dealing with performance issues, etc.
The truth is, when it comes to managing people there really isn’t that much new under the sun. There are just repeat offenses and often by repeat offenders. It is this habitual pattern of our tolerance for repeat offenses and the offenders which I want us to consider.
Bill Catlette regularly publishes a very down-to-earth blog called Fresh Milk on his website ContentedCows.com. Recently he posted a piece on managers being mindful of the difference between authority they have and the wisdom of using it just because they have it. In the midst of his counsel he offered this bit of wisdom, “…we have yet to see, for example, a bullying or self-absorbed boss get more discretionary effort from a worker than a caring, authentic leader.” Later in the piece Bill reminds us, “With things like institutional loyalty and job security off the table, today’s workers make frequent, rapid fire ‘worth-its’ decisions in which they decide whether or not to give their manager or the organization the benefit of the doubt, and a morsel of their discretionary effort.”
The full post itself is concerned with responding to a question from a reader on whether it is legal for a manager to arbitrarily change a work schedule. Bill responds in his usual thoughtful manner, not just to the reader’s question but to the larger issue and lesson available in the background.
All too often as managers ourselves we witness behavior that at first glance smacks of the dumb and we allow it to pass unchallenged for whatever dumb reason we have. We even aid and abet the dumb behavior before it happens by allowing people we know to be mighty capable of dumb behavior to be selected as managers in the first place.
There is no technique or practice in any book or at any conference that will rid us of the damages done by behavior that is thoughtless on a manager’s part. And such behavior will continue as long as we tolerate: 1) the elevation of inappropriate people to positions of authority, 2) failure to properly orient and support new managers and 3) standing by and watching as our peers or even superiors “act out” patterns of personal behavior that are obviously misaligned with best interests of either company or employees simply to serve personal gratification.