Tao of the Zentropist

October 30, 2011

Adventures in (Mis) Management

After a longer than intended absence from this blog, I find myself addressing a subject which has long been of personal interest, and which I believe is both fundamental to and essential for any meaningful semblance of government and commercial enterprise to exist, which is that of management and its practice. Now it is important to note that my own view on whether management and leadership are synonymous is clear-cut; I do not believe this to be the case. It is my own contention, albeit one shared by a number of acknowledged management and leadership gurus, that good (and consequently, excellent) leaders will invariably possess sound understanding and command of management skills and principles, yet it is possible to be a good manager (particularly within a bureaucratic and/or rigidly hierarchical structure), yet be a middling and ineffectual leader.

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Perhaps due to this bias, I personally place great stock in the need for those in leadership positions to be aware of how they are perceived as managers, and how they operate in this regard. And because we often tend to learn more from failures and negative examples, I will call attention to what I perceive as shortcomings or outright failings that I’ve observed thus far in my career. The first step towards resolution or addressing of a weakness is to recognize it for what it is, so perhaps this will prove beneficial. And for those wondering in advance, I have seen many of the behaviors recounted in what follows manifest in a single individual, and consequently, that individual (along with others demonstrating less than desirable management traits) were held in low regard by peers and subordinates, contrary to their own perceptions.

Self deception, it deserves stressing, is nearly always present in poor managers.

IS IT BETTER TO BE FEARED OR LOVED?

When one is placed in a position of authority and responsibility, whether by choice or not, the two default modes by which most people will operate is respect and fear. Those who choose the former path of respect will entrust that subordinates and those accountable to them will perform to the best of their ability because they do not wish to disappoint someone whose work, reputation, personality and/or some other attribute resonates with them. Those who follow out of respect seem to “rise to the occasion” or “bring their A-game” in order to match (or exceed) performance expectations in a very positive way.

On the other hand, those who rely on management through the negative emotion of fear, which may consist of overt or implied intimidation (i.e. “I have the power to fire you”), reliance on strict hierarchical chains of command, public dress-downs or humiliation of under-performers, etc. must understand that they are eliciting desired behaviors through forced compliance rather than voluntary compliance. In other words, they employ the “stick” rather than the “carrot” approach. While I certainly have a strong viewpoint on which approach I personally favor and default to, I will not deny that fear can be a powerful motivator and there are managers that achieve results largely based on fear. The greatest danger, in my opinion, is managers who confuse these two opposing motivational factors and do not clearly understand that which they are practicing. If you choose to employ a “management by fear” agenda, know that you are vulnerable the instant your power is perceived as waning or the fear among subordinates dissipates. Conversely, those who rely on respect to manage must understand that should that respect for some reason be shaken, unless it is restored one’s authority may very well diminish.

Another key component to management (which in turn promotes good leadership) is remaining authentic. Authenticity is a quality which can be at once elusive as well as self-evident; many people can instinctively sense when others are putting up a false front or are acting contrary to their actual nature. Thus, the admonition to “Know thyself” is critical to being able to find one’s true self, and to let this guide one’s decisions and behavior. Working both in and around an industry (Entertainment) notorious for attracting people predisposed towards creating illusions, fabrications and false projections in order to get what they want, it is still interesting to note that some of the most dysfunctional and toxic personalities drawn to show business do remain authentic in their own perverse way. These individuals see little value in conforming to what are otherwise more widely considered acceptable standards of behavior and conduct, as often enforced in other industries, and consequently pay no heed in doing so. Whether they are admired or reviled for such attitudes and behavior (which in turn is largely dependent upon their perceived success and whether they can benefit those expressing the opinion), they are authentic to their natures. Of course, dealing with those who display sociopathic or psychopathic behaviors can be difficult for others, particularly when these tendencies are readily concealed.

All other things being equal, good managers will align their own core values and the values of the organization that they serve (which ideally are not too far apart) so that the appearance of, or actual existence of, hypocrisy is minimized. It is important as a manager to communicate what is expected of an employee and how that employee will be measured and judged, failure to do so leads to confusion as well as expectations which having never been vocalized or expressed, will seldom be met.

REPUTATION TRUMPS SPIN AND WHY INTEGRITY MATTERS

Image courtesy Dreamstime

Another issue for managers to be conscious of is that reputation always trumps spin. While it is certainly possible to fool some people for an indefinite period of time, fooling everyone indefinitely is highly unlikely. Managers with poor inter-personal skills or who are clearly out of their depth may convince themselves that their “secret” is safe, and may actively work to tell others of their greatness and alleged accomplishments, but this illusion cannot be maintained in the long term. I have met people who have proudly proclaimed their own greatness and confidently boasted of how well regarded they are by their subordinates (who interestingly enough, they refer to as “minions” which even when said tongue-in-cheek, reveals a lot about the manager’s character), only to find out with minimal probing that they are tone deaf to how others really see them.

While there are times, as a manager, where you may have to take actions that are not particularly liked by subordinates, if undertaken fairly and with good cause, the dislike of the action will generally not carry over to personal dislike of the individual. Those who fail to understand and appreciate this distinction are the one whose reputations, invariably, are nowhere near as “rosy” as they may perceive.

While one would normally hope that the following would not need to be said, both publicly discussed cases and my own anecdotal experiences have identified the moral and legal imperative of maintaining integrity. Furthermore, the cautionary note that must be sounded is that those who preach most vociferously about integrity, yet conduct themselves in a manner contrary to what they preach, are most assuredly devoid of integrity and ought to be duly censored for this. A more recent example that I’ve personally witnessed in recent years is observing an individual publicly stress the importance of integrity and ethical behavior, yet then proceed to misrepresent material facts, allow “errors of omission” to creep into documentation utilized for evaluation of a company’s suitability to perform certain work, and otherwise twist, distort or recast events and behavioral patterns to rationalize actions which were of personal self-interest and benefit, but far removed from objective truth or even the interests of the organization.

Having integrity requires one to possess some framework for evaluating choices in a context of “right” versus “wrong” (in which there are some absolutes) and not engaging in ethical and mental gymnastics to justify one’s favored decision or position when it does not confirm to the criteria established via that framework.

THE CARDINAL SIN OF MICRO-MANAGEMENT

Another pitfall which good managers must avoid is either the desire and/or tendency to micro-manage others. This is perhaps one of the most soul and morale killing activities that can be done, particularly when those subordinates are competent and experienced. It has been said that people less frequently quit companies than they do bosses, and micromanagement of tasks is often high on the list for why employees can no longer tolerate their direct managers. As a manager, if you feel the need to micromanage, this brings into question the competency of the person you are actively overseeing, and if this is indeed the issue, more appropriate remedies may exist. Perhaps the tasks or expectations are not clear, and further investigation and definition will solve the problem. Or, maybe the skills of the person are simply not up to the challenge, in which case the hiring process and decision-making broke down, or the job responsibilities have changed and the person’s skills have not kept pace with that change.

If as a manager, you are hiring people primarily because you do not feel threatened by them, and are loath to hire those who might one day rise to your own title and responsibilities, I would posit that the problem lies with you. The best leaders, and indeed managers, will hire people smarter and who potentially may be more accomplished than themselves precisely because they are not fearful of being replaced or overshadowed. What comes to mind for those who cannot bring themselves to embrace this approach is a timid, lazy and mindless bureaucrat more intent on job security than performing meaningful work.

NORTH VERSUS SOUTH KOREA IN A NUTSHELL

I will conclude with an incident that has stuck in my mind for years, which was a meeting that I attended with a notoriously bombastic and difficult literary manager/film producer and Jeff Berg, the chairman of the talent agency International Creative Management (ICM). During the course of the meeting, Berg posed the question, “What is the difference between North and South Korea?” His one word answer to his own question was, “Management.”

If you think about it, obvious oversimplifications aside, there still remains a lot of truth in that succinct response. Good management can lead to productivity fueled by heightened morale, collective belief in an organization’s mission and vision, and a desire on the part of individual workers to not be the weak link in the chain and to perform accordingly. Poor management kills employee morale and productivity, leads to unfocused decision-making, muddles or obscures any sense of mission/vision (if these existed to begin with), and creates a culture where employees may perform at some bare minimum level, but will not be self-motivated to push boundaries or to take unsolicited steps which might benefit the employer.

Most of us have no question as to which type of organization we’d like to belong or what kind of manager we’d like to either be or report to (or think we are), yet there is still sufficient evidence to suggest that mismanagement, rather than good management, is the order of the day within far too many businesses…

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