Moving along a piece of thread

I’ve used this analogy so often and for so many years that I almost forgot to write it down.

Imagine you are holding a long piece of thread outstretched before you. You, the leader, are on that thread and just a short way behind you are the followers. Now followers like to progress, which means they are moving along that thread towards you.

Now assuming you want to retain your position as a leader, how do you ensure that they don’t catch up. here are some wrong answers:

  • Try to stop those at the back from moving forwards. Best done by holding on to things and stop the followers from taking them on.
  • Try stretch yourself as wide along the piece of thread as possible. As well as holding on to things try to pick up new things as well.

But these actions inevitably lead to blockages and conflict.

If you want to move forwards then you simply have to let things go and let the followers take them up. That way you get the capacity to learn new things and so you move along the thread.

You can even be proactive about it and push things to the followers to speed up the movement. They might be reluctant to do this, but if they can see that this is progress along the thread, not some random act of management, then that nearly always works.

Bad news doesn’t flow up

Information doesn’t flow up in a hierarchy, something no manager can have failed to notice. There are a whole host of individual reasons why people don’t like to push it up and when added together they throttle the flow.

Bad news in particular doesn’t flow up, for the good reason that people think the manager will shoot the messenger and they don’t want to get shot.

  • There’s the example where the manager has pushed for a particular project or way of working, possibly against some resistance from the team. If the team discover some real problems, when they actually get to work on the project, then they know full well that if they push the problems up the line then this will be seen as a continuation of the resistance. It may or may not be, and the people may or not be the same as those previously resisting, but that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist.
  • A follow on from this is where there is only one person who pushes the bad news up and the rest of the team don’t. Many managers take this as the rest of the team denying the problems. In fact the fear of pushing bad news up is so strong that many people will go so far as to deny it exists when asked point blank about it. So the one person who does do it has their viewpoint dismissed. They can then be labelled as a misfit, a stirrer, who is out of step with the rest of the team and marked down for behavioural adjustment or elimination. Ironic when they may in fact be the one person with their eyes wide open and saying what they see.
  • When the bad news is about a person, particularly another manager, then too often loyalty outweights rationality. This can lead to some people being viewed as ‘protected’ and bad news about them is supressed.
  • Of course, sometimes the bad news is about a mistake and owning up to a mistake brings with it a whole set of difficulties. What some managers fail to realise is that it takes a huge effort for someone to come to them and admit a mistake. If it isn’t handled sensitively, very sensitively, then future mistakes are either hidden or downplayed.
  • There are plenty of people who would willingly tell their manager every bit of bad news but they don’t because they don’t think there is any point because nothing will be done about it. In an organisation with paralysed or ineffectual managers then this effect compounds the problems as it makes the managers isolated from below.

Despite these blockages, information still tries to flow up but with the path directly above blocked it has to find another route. There are a variety of these – the sympathetic manager of a different area or the colleagues in another team. Unfortunately a different path means the content is diluted and the message is often lost.

If you want to hear the bad news then you need to build up a reputation as to how you deal with it. Some simple tips:

  • Don’t shoot the messenger, even if you are certain they are a lying, conniving manipulator.
  • Don’t dismiss the bad news, always examine it rationally, investigate if needed and make a measured judgement.
  • Either do something about it, or explain to people why you are not going to.
  • If you are facing someone owning up to a mistake then just imagine how you feel when you have to do the same thing to your manager. Everyone makes mistakes.

This way you might hear some remarkable things.

Telling little lies to stay invisible

Lots of managers tell little lies.  Not because they want to deceive someone, but just to help them say something to a member of their team that they would find difficult otherwise.  After all, telling someone something awkward can be so much softer if you pretend to be a neutral route for the information.

So rather than saying “I have decided to restructure …”, a manager might say “I have been asked to review …”.  Or, rather than saying “Your attitude …”, a manager might say “I’ve had reports that your attitude …”.

For most managers this seems to make bad news so much easier to convey, especially for those that find any form of conflict or confrontation difficult to handle.  It also makes hearing the bad news so much easier if you think the person telling you is not responsible for it.

This can become a bit of a habit for a few managers.  Whenever they need to explain where a decision or viewpoint originates, they tell a little white lie to divert the focus away from themselves.  After all if it makes the process easier then why not?  It also means that so much more can be conveyed this way.

Gradually their influence grows, but the side-effect is that their influence also becomes invisible.  Some managers prefer it that way.

Layer upon layer of control

Not everyone gets into work on time every day. One minute early one day, five minutes late the next, people are so unpredictable really.

Now some managers, when faced with this normal variety of human behaviour find it quite difficult to deal with. After all, five minutes can become ten and then ten can become thirty and the next thing you know there is complete chaos with everyone coming in two hours late and spending their entire time talking.

To prevent this breakdown some order has to be imposed. Anyone coming in late is given an interview to discuss the reasons and a note is put on their file. Of course then the time has to be made up before they go home.

Quite often though this isn’t enough. Before you know it the people who come in late are also working slower than the others, they just don’t seem as motivated as the others. So before this turns into an epidemic action has to be taken. Targets are set for how much work is done and anyone that doesn’t meet those targets is given an interview and a note put on their file.

Just when it looks like it is all under control, it takes a turn for the worse. We begin to discover that there are some people who not only get in late and work slower, but they also have the ‘wrong’ attitude to their management and company. Now we have the most awkward of HR issues – problem staff.

Of course this could happen so differently. We could decide to ignore the timekeeping variances of the good workers, and only deal with those that take the piss. In fact we could decide to deal with people as individuals on a personal level and be flexible in our approach. This might even run the risk of motivating those people to work a bit harder. But then that is so much more work than adding a new level of control.

Who’s in your team

Years ago I appointed a manager who was a complete disaster, but I didn’t get a clue of this during the appointment process. The problem only appeared when he started work and it turned out that he did not have a clue how to communicate or even get on with the people who worked for him. In contrast to this he was very good at dealing with his peers and me as his manager, which made it very difficult for me to understand just what his team were complaining about.

I’ve seen this again a few times since then and now I can characterise the symptoms. There are some people who think that the team they are part of only includes those who are their equal in the hierarchy and their manager. They simply don’t see themselves as part of a team with the people who work for them.

This affects all of their relationships with their team. Specifically:

  • They don’t share their ideas, concerns, hopes etc
  • They don’t really listen to their staff. In particular they don’t really appreciate the ideas that their staff have
  • They don’t acknowledge that their staff have a role to play in the difficult work the manager is responsible for, such as contributing to strategy or politics.
  • They only occasionally talk to their staff in terms of the wider picture (if at all). Normally they deal with individuals about individual details.

This is so demoralising for the team involved, since, more than anything, this is disrespectful. It also fragments the team, stops them seeing the bigger picture and thereby reduces their effectiveness. It even ends up significantly undermining the manager concerned since they are refusing all the support they could otherwise get from a loyal team.

A team of individuals or extensions of yourself?

Quite often someone gets appointed to be a manager for the first time because they are such a diligent worker.  They have their own routine and way of getting things done and all of a sudden they have the resources of other people to help them.  The natural temptation for these new managers is to use these people as though they were extensions of themselves.

That means expecting the team to do the things they want done and work the way they work.  If the team is sufficiently compliant then this is generally a successful strategy.  Quite often the team are not that compliant but after a great deal of brow beating they appear to be.  Occasionally some people make a stand to retain their individuality and it all turns nasty.

If that isn’t bad enough then it gets much worse as the manager rises up the chain of command and the person they are responsible for in turn become more senior.  The more senior the team, the more they expect to think for themselves and the more they can resist the push to homogenisation.  The result of this is a painful process to go through as they learn how to manage their team in a different way.

Unfortunately that is the path I followed and it took me some time to learn this the hard way.  My advice would be for new managers, or experienced managers who are now experiencing the pain to learn a different way now.

This better way is to recognise the team as a collection of individuals, each of whom works in a different way and each of whom needs to be treated as an individual.  Getting the best from people is no longer a matter of dominance, but one of discussion, negotiation, understanding and all the other best practices I talk about here.

The strength of a team that works as a team of individuals is far more than the team that works under a single authoritarian control.  It is hard work at first to curb the urge to be a control freak, but the rewards easily outweigh it.

Reading people

If there is one skill that is a critical requirement for being a senior manager then it is the ability to read people and and understand what they want, what they don’t want and what they feel about the things that are going on around them.  This is very similar to empathy, but in a conscious way.

So much of what we say is unsaid, if you see what I mean.  There are lots of reasons for this: some people (more than I can ever quite believe) are very cautious about what they say; sometimes the stakes are high and people don’t want to give things away; and some people are just not very good at saying what they want.

Now I’m not saying that the ability to read people is needed to gain a competitive edge, as though it were some form of mind reading.  Though that is definitely a skill that all good salespeople have.  What I mean is that many of us are only looking at the world with one eye open, if that, so having both eyes open allows you to spot the other people that have both eyes open – and they generally turn out to be the most senior people in the room.

Don’t make the mistake of equating good awareness with good communication skills.  Many people can be great at empathy but rubbish communicators.  The two are not related.

Reading people does not come naturally to many, it has to be learnt as a skill.  I only know one way of learning this skill:

When I’m in a meeting I try to take a step back and examine the other people.  I try to read their expressions and their body language; work out if they are comfortable with what is being said or uncomfortable; try to work out what they want; are they straining to say something; are they bored; and so on.  This means getting inside their heads and learning to think like them, understanding what drives them and therefore what their motives are in specific circumstances.  Over time this becomes second nature.

Just remember I’m not talking about any kind of intuitive feelings.  This is detached observation.  When I forget this and try to rely on intuition alone (if there is such a thing) then I generally mess up.

How many people can a manager out-vote?

This is a trap I often fall into and I’m always embarrassed when I do.

Sometimes someone presents a point of view to me and I listen but disagree.  Then later someone else says the same thing and I listen a bit more.  Finally a third person says it and I change my mind.  Terrible to admit it but what I’ve done in this situation is decide that I carry two votes and so it takes three people to out-vote me.  When really my decision making should have nothing to do with the number of people who tell me.

One important attribute that sets apart real leaders is their willingness to switch track when presented with the ‘right’ idea, no matter how much they have invested in the current track.  This is what makes an agile leader and in turn an agile organisation.

But for some managers, quite unknowingly, their ego is simply too big to change after a suggestion from just one person.  Or maybe they are just worried that they will be seen as flighty if they change quickly.  Whatever the reason, these are the people who need to validate the change by ensuring there is sufficient weight behind it.  There are even some managers who assign varying levels of votes to different people.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest that we should drop everything we are doing the moment someone shows us a better way.  Some things are like oil tankers and take a long time to turn around.  But what we should do is clearly acknowledge that our view has changed and, most critically, start to plan from the new viewpoint.

Hopefully I’ll learn to get better at spotting when I’m counting votes instead of listening to the arguments.

Management amplification

A brief observation, but one that took me a long time to spot.

There is an effect that I call “management amplification” that takes place when a manager talks to a member of staff about their work. This is irrespective of whether the manager is just explaining their concerns with their work or just asking questions. That effect is to amplify the words of the manager to make them sound much stronger than they intend.

There is nothing I can do to stop this amplification, but if I’m not aware of it then this can cause all sorts of problems. To give you some examples, if I say:

I’m a little disappointed by that

then management amplification makes it sound like:

That’s very poor and really could have been done so much better

and if I say:

That’s very poor and really could have been done so much better

then management amplification makes it sound like:

That’s absolutely terrible, I can’t believe you’ve messed it up so badly

and so on.

So what can I do about this – obvious really, I just always have to say things at one stop lower than I would have done otherwise. The one oddity is what to do when I want to say “I’m a little bit disappointed” but I don’t want the amplification. In that case I discuss it without showing my concerns and ask questions like “If you had to do it again would you do it the same way?”.

Now to be fair management amplification doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes people get to know their managers well enough that they either take them at face value or know how to translate what they say.  In some cases, especially where a manager is over the top in shouting criticism then some people just learn to switch off an ignore them.  However, even when ignored or understood this management amplification is still there, but not that many managers explicitly recognise it.

Job drift

Whenever I take over a new team I try to find out exactly what the people in it want, how they want their job to work, what issues they have and then the fundamental issue of whether they really want to be doing something else. I nearly always find a few people who want to be doing a different job, though in the same team and are just waiting for the opportunity.

Of these, very few are people who want to be managers, which is what managers tend to assume that everyone else wants. Mostly it is someone who has tried a particular role, decided it is not for them and can see others doing a different role that they think they would be suited to.

Now, when I first came across this desire to do a different job, I have to admit it annoyed me. There were several reasons for this:

  • I interpreted it as meaning that I had someone who was not going to be fully productive because their mind was elsewhere
  • I didn’t want to be pressured to move someone into a role that they might not be the best person for, or even very good at
  • Even if I could overcome that worry, I could rarely see the opportunity they wanted arising and so the situation seemed intractable

I’ve worked with plenty of managers who, when in the same situation, make unrealistic commitments to their staff about how their role can drift towards the one they want. Unfortunately, whilst well intentioned, this is generally a complete disaster. The manager will normally have tried to introduce it in a gentle way, limiting the introduction to prevent the current work being undermined. But all too often the person affected thinks they’ve been given license to just stop doing what they currently do and start doing something else.

This is one of the endemic snafus in the public sector, people doing a job they don’t want to do ending up doing something else and the work they should be doing not getting done.

Not only can job drift end up being a problem, but making a vague promise about things changing in the future can cause just as much chaos:

  • For a start, as far as jobs are concerned, they are just too important for vague promises. People either hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, they very rarely hear ‘maybe’.
  • Making people promises about jobs may well not be in a manager’s power to do. They may need finance approval or their boss to sign it off.
  • The manager may not get a chance to fulfil the promise in any reasonable timetable, or even at all, in which case the person concerned ends up feeling frustrated and possibly betrayed.
  • Finally, and most importantly, the process of advertising a job and interviewing candidates is normaly too important to skip.

So, in contrast to either letting a job drift or making vague promises I used to try to sell those people the role they were already doing in the hope of persuading them to sit it out, whilst doing what I could to prevent job drift. Not a very popular decision.

I’ve since discovered a much better way to resolve this, where everyone wins, but more on that later.