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Passion, People and Principles

What Managers Do Least Well

post # 304 — February 7, 2007 — a Managing post

Kathy Sierra, on the fabulous Creating Passionate Users blog, argues convincingly that managers should be getting people excited about the kind of work they do, not trying to get them to “do it for the company.” She’s right, but there’s a very telling (joke) picture she uses at the top of her blogpost.

One person is saying to another: “Hey, isn’t that Jim pulling out of the parking lot? He only worked ten hours today?” The other person responds: “We have a client demo tomorrow and he’s only working a half day? I’d fire his ass.”

It’s meant as a joke, but there’s an incredibly important and serious lesson here.

For decades I have been involved in conducting upwards evaluations of managers by their subordinates. Consistently, over time, geography, profession or industry, and size of firm, the one aspect of managerial performance that is consistently rated as done most poorly is “tackling underperformance promptly.”

Subordinates, it seems, are rarely satisfied with how well their superiors do this. What’s fascinating is that the result is subject to interpretation. Is it that managers, everywhere, always, are relatively poor at this compared to other aspects of managerial performance?

Or is it that, no-matter how well they do it, this issue is particularly annoying to co-workers.

Naturally, I think the answer is a little of both.

Many of us, as managers, find confrontation emotionally difficult, so don’t want to tackle issues until we “have to.” If a subordinate is only “average” not yet “failing,” why bother making a fuss?

The reason is the effect that one person’s underperformance has on the motivation, morale and energy of those around them. If management can’t (or won’t) enforce the standards and help underperformers achieve competence, then why should the rest of us try for excellence? It’s hard to feel like part of an energizing, exciting team if there are passengers (or what are seen to be passengers.)

This is not about management being rapacious and trying to get the most out of everybody, but the simple recognition that a team cannot form if group norms are not clear and adhered to, and it’s a manager’s job to ensure that that happens.

Your views? How well would you rate your manager at “tackling and dealing with underperformance in your group?” Do you have any theories about why it’s often done so poorly?


Steve Roesler said:

Good post, David.

I can’t speak to “my boss” because I haven’t had one in 30 years. But from the consulting perspective, there’s probably a reason why books such as “Tough Conversations” sell well. These are difficult conversations.

There are a couple of things I’ve noticed over the years:

1. There were more quick, head-on performance conversations say, 20 years or so ago than now. No doubt there are multiple causes, but I think that there are two that I detect frequently:

The first is a misundertanding of what it means to “be nice.” Somehow, telling someone the truth about one’s performance isn’t seen as “nice.” And “nice” has become confused with doing things respectfully. It is not “nice”—or respectuful—or caring—to allow someone to think that performance is fine when it isn’t. They won’t think their manager was nice when they have their exit interview.

The second is something that I realized just recently. The bosses of some of the executives and managers that I work with are using the coaching/consulting process as their way of “sending” performance feedback. By virtue of that relationship, they believe they are “sending a message.” So if I’m working with someone on some aspect of strategy or leadership, the implicit message is “you have to get better at this.” As a result, I’ve been on the phone with the bosses and telling them that they haven’t had the conversation they said they’ve had—and I won’t continue unitl they do it. Risky but honest.

I am sure your commenters will come up with a lot more.

posted on February 7, 2007

peter vajda said:

You write: “Many of us, as managers, find confrontation emotionally difficult, so don’t want to tackle issues until we “have to. Do you have any theories about why it’s often done so poorly?”

One theory is that many folks are just conflict-averse. Why? Two thoughts:

One, often the resistance to having this type of conversation stems from growing up in a household where there was lots of screaming, shouting, yelling and verbal/emotional abuse. So, the adult manager has never learned how to have a “non-violent conversation” with another for fear that it will escalate into a shouting match, become verbally violent, be an emotionally threatening event. S/he just is not emotionally mature enough to know how to handle the emotions, and their reactivity, and so ignores the situation until it’s too late, etc.

Second, having grown up in the same type of home, the child was terrified by the intensity of the arguments, fighting, yelling, bullying, etc., and so needed to find a way to feel safe and secure so s/he wouldn’t be involved/hurt in that negative energy; often the child withdrew, and/or hid, phsyically and emotionally, and tried not to get involved. Experiencing such high-intensity situations as almost life-threatening, as traumatic, as a child, the adult now chooses to ignore or sugarcoat the issue, deny it exists (the elephant in the room), defer to others to solve it, procrastinate, wait until absolutely forced to act, let the “team” handle it, etc.

When I work with managers who are conflict-averse, we explore this issue head on, (Why am I so reluctant to get ivolved?) so the manager can deal with the difficult conversations as an adult, i.e., not feeling like a scared child (in an adult body and in adult clothes) and not seeing others as “members of his/her family.” From this place of emotional maturity, the manager can often have difficult conversations, be present, stay focused on the facts and details, without injecting his/her emotions or allowing the conversation to escalate into a “two-kids fighting in the playground” situation, or bullying or threatenbing. Much of the solution has to do with “knowing thyself” and working on emotional maturity (which by itself is threatening to many who say, “Hey, what do you mean?! I AM emotionally mature, I am! I am! I am!…Hmmm).

posted on February 7, 2007

Bob Brown said:

In my experience, each member of a team perceives they KNOW what the norms are — even if they have not been explicitly codified by management. Typically, these team members each come to this conclusion independently; based on their daily observations as filtered by their own experience.

The end result is that the team members themselves recognize underperformance which, from their perspective, is very easy to spot. Why? Underperformance is akin to pornography; “you know it when you see it.”

So while the manager may not have established group norms and may be hesitant — for whatever reason — to discuss an individual’s underperformance, no such restriction exists in the minds of the other team players who regard themselves as “performers.”

The double whammy of this situation is that the performers loose respect for the underperformer(s) as well as the boss who they perceive is doing nothing to correct the situation.

The end result? Too many underperformers in an organization — especially if the dominant perception is that it is something that the manager or company will tolerate — and the performers start heading for the exits.

I’ve come to realize that an individual is known by the company he or she keeps and a company is known by the individuals it keeps.

So, what do managers do least well? I think that for many, it’s keeping the performers. To me, that’s the real problem.

posted on February 7, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Don’t worry, Kathleen, it’s not hijacking – you were on topic.

On arelated point, I think it just comes down to the simple point that managers need to offer positive and negative feedbacck, and it’s a lot easier to praise than to criticize.

he fact that’s it’s a syndrome easy to explain doesn’t make it any the less poisonous.

posted on February 8, 2007

Tim Khaner said:

I’m not so sure it’s really easier to praise than criticize, David. I think “constructive praise” which starts from the good points and leads to even better performance is more rare than simple criticism which tends to demoralize rather than encourage.

In fact, you provided a great example in your podcast about when you were a young professor – how you were “encouraged” to get on with your ideas about investigating managing professional service firms – and supported by the prompt provision of a list of contacts.

You could have instead been simply criticised for not being more proactive yourself, I think criticism is much more common, even among the frindly managers Kathleen talks about!

posted on February 8, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Good point, Tim. I guess, looking back, I was “praised” into good performance. Not a bad trick!

posted on February 8, 2007

Kathleen DeFilippo said:

Oooh, David; this is one of my biggest pet peeves, and Wally has really touched on one of the keys: businesses reward high performers by promoting them into management roles. The performers go along with this, of course – because often it’s the only way for them to gain greater responsibility and earn a higher salary. Of course, they may have neither the desire nor the skill to manage people, but how hard can it be, right?

I wrote a post about this last month, and it’s a subject I’m very passionate about. Poor managers beget more poor managers, and corporations (as a rule) look the other way.

Now that I’m off my soapbox, I’ll say this: I think that many managers avoid confronting poor performance for the same reason that some parents are overly lax in terms of discipline; they want to be friends. Certainly, it’s a good idea to be friendly with your direct reports; but they ultimately need to know that your job is to help them by pointing out the good and the bad so that they can move toward their goals.

Sorry for hijacking your blog. :-)

posted on February 8, 2007

Wally Bock said:

If you’re going to be a good boss, you’re going to have to master the art of “controlled confrotation.” The problem is that we don’t tell managers this before we promote them.

Once they do get promoted, most managers are trained in the basic “sink or swim” school of management. Have you ever seen a swimmer who learned on his/her own?

Selecting new managers based, in part, on whether they are willing to confront issues and individuals would help assure that we get more managers who can do the job. Providing training in, among others, skill related to controlled confrontation would help, too.

posted on February 8, 2007

Greg Anderson said:

I think the article misses a point, management is usually more about office politics then it is about improving performance. there is very little incentive to fire somebody who is average because then they might be replaced wit somebody who is worse. Also average emlployees are much easier to manipulate because of their status as being at risk to lose their job.

I have been in several jobs where because i ignored the politics and chose to just work hard and be honest instead got me fired , and or the other employees made the work situation so umbareable i had to quit.

posted on February 9, 2007

Wally Bock said:

The Hay Group, in their recent update to their top leadership development programs study says that 73 percent of their top companies have a separate, non-managerial, track for professionals and technicians, compared to 40 percent or so of the peer companies. As Kathleen pointed out, sometimes folks who don’t want to manage others take on a management job because it’s the only way to promotion and improved pay.

posted on February 12, 2007

Chuck said:

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate my boss a 2. I wouldn’t say issues are ignored until it’s too late, the issues are simply dealt with by constant criticism and belittling, albeit some of that belittling is good natured ribbing. I pride myself on being open and honest with my staff. If they do a great job, I praise them. If they under perform, I talk to them about in a rational way to try and improve their skills and give them a greater sense of satisfaction with their job. My superiors seem to think I’m un-necessarily putting my head in the noose by ‘babying’ my team and just don’t seem to understand that people aren’t motivated by constantly being told they are always wrong and doing a poor job.

posted on February 14, 2007

Roland Lichti said:

Well, I just want to add a German proverb from the personell department (my father was head of some of them): “a first-grade boss looks for first-grade employees. a second-grade boss looks for third-class employees”. I hope I translated the proverb the right way:

If the boss is good, he does not have to fear his employees and knows that he depends on the work they do. His job is to enable them to do their job.

If the bos is not good, he fears his employees. They may manage to get his position by showing that they are better than him. So he looks for employees that are no risk for his position.

Somewhere I read it about technical staff: normally the manager is tech based or comes from the business side of the company. Being tech based he often lacks the skills to manage a group. Not quite a good starting point for a manager.

Coming from the business side I made the experience that he fears the “techies” he has to manage. He don’t know the matters they are dealing with. He does not understand why “this little job” needs some weeks while “this huge change” only takes some hours. He is afraid to depend on the personal performance of people he does not understand when they are talking with each other.

So he looks not for employees that perform good, but for average performers. They are replaceable (so he thinks). Therefore his outcome depends on his decisions and not on the performance of his employees. That’s the way he want’s it to be. But now we are back at the proverb from the beginning of this comment …

Sorry for this long comment, but sometimes I think, manager (as most of you are as I got the impression from the comments) need a point of view from below. And since I’m not your employee you may value this view more than if it was said by one of your team (which is also an experience from below, but quite another sad story).

posted on March 15, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Roland.

posted on March 15, 2007