Required of all Managers: ‘Common Sense’ only it isn’t

Ugh. This is the kind of management horror story that keeps me up at night.

Tracy had enough.

She decided to turn in her resignation after nearly three months of frustrating conversations with her new boss, for despite her best efforts to adjust, compromise and empathize, she knew they’d never see eye to eye on how the company business objectives were best served.

Everything had become such a struggle. There was no more joy in the job for her, and it was time to move on. She’d once loved it there: Tracy was coming up on her 3rd anniversary with the company, and she’d easily passed the million dollar mark in her sales for them just past her 2nd year. Her boss was new to management, a transfer from another division, and it wasn’t that the rules were changing; they seemed to have disappeared altogether.

This wouldn’t be a surprise to him, for they’d already had the verbal conversation about her decision, yet when Tracy prepared her written notice she asked for a private meeting so she could deliver it personally. She was appalled when her boss responded, “You were serious? I’m not sure we’ll be in a position to accept this.” and then off-handedly picked up his Blackberry to begin texting someone on it.

Hadn’t he listened to her at all, in any of their previous conversations? Well, he obviously wasn’t going to start now.

Tracy waited for another moment, then turned and walked out the door, incensed, yet oddly reassured that she’d made the right decision. Her only regret was that she’d decided to give him three weeks notice instead of two, for these next three weeks would be hell. No job was worth working for a manager you had no respect for, or for a company you felt didn’t appreciate you.

Same old story

Tracy told me her story when we ran into each other in the market. “Rosa,” she asked, “of all the managers in the world, why does it seem that I end up with the newbie jerks?”

I’d love to tell Tracy that it seems that way, like some great mystery choosing her lap to fall into, but the truth is that her story is all too common. Research data (and the sampling of my own coaching practice) repeatedly illustrates that job requirements aren’t the problem in dysfunctional workplaces: Most of the people tendering resignations do so because they’re leaving bad bosses and/or companies they’ll describe with words like ‘faceless’ ‘unappreciative’ ‘clueless’ and ‘inhuman.’

Work culture, or the absence of it, has soured the quality of the work itself. While Tracy did take issue with the new direction the company was pushing in regard to aggressive, hard-push selling, she knew she’d easily continue making her quotas without having to change her customer service approach: She loved sales. Management wasn’t wearing her down as much as the absence of it: She missed their old working-together culture under a previous boss, and could not see that a new one would be created, none at all.

It seems no industry and no generation is immune: This is a very, very old problem which isn’t going away.

So what’s the problem?

Well, another word that comes up a lot is ‘untrained.’ Many employees feel their managers aren’t ready for the job at hand and are winging it, with no planned training, coaching, or mentorship in their future. Hence their ‘on the job training’ means that employees become guinea pigs, sometimes over and over again. Management is a revolving door, and people feel like they’re starting all over every time someone new walks in. It’s that deflating “Here we go again”” sigh of returning to square one, and not the growing, evolutionary start-ups of a strong culture that continually flexes its muscle inventively with new projects.

I believe the problem stems from management being underestimated, not as any specific person or higher echelon, but as a critically important job within the culture.

The biggest requirement we seem to make of new managers is that they have ‘common sense,’ when in fact, the sensibility for worthwhile and meaningful work isn’t common at all: It requires comprehensive training and development (remember that phrase?)

We’re still stuck in that subconscious belief that management is little more than babysitting, supervisory and mid-level managers in particular. Yet even if there consciously — let’s call a spade a spade: scores of organizations are constructed with babysitting — we’re nonchalant, unconcerned and clueless about at least getting a good sitter. Our ‘babies’ are fussy and grumpy, for they aren’t doing well in the sitter’s care.

They’re all adults, right? Can’t they do better in fending for themselves?

The sitter isn’t doing so well either

Okay, so we’ll admit that management matters…

Expected to learn on the job, and pay some dues while there, disillusionment is high among new managers. Basic mistakes occur often because scrambling runs rampant, and failure is virtually guaranteed. It hurts like it does because people are failing, and we take our failure very, very personally.

We hide things. Tracy discovered that her boss didn’t turn her resignation letter into HR until her last week on the job, when he realized he had to do so before he could replace her.

The recent recession made our vicious cycles clear, and made things worse in that we lost ground in quarters which had seemed to be advancing. Training and development at all levels was an early casualty as budget belts were tightened. When executives were forced to reckon with labor dollars, management positions were easier lay-off targets than messing with unionized jobs initially, and as manager’s tasks were reassigned to the remaining survivors their importance was disparaged even more.

Unions were not good business partners: They remained silent, muttering “Well, at least our members still have jobs.” and went into a self-protective survival mode of their own, even as those members cried foul, readily admitting that, “Hey, we still need our managers! Things are falling apart here on the battle lines!”

And now?

We’re learning that recovery is difficult too

Returning business isn’t served well by burned out workplace survivors. There’s no one possessing that assumed “common sense” to pick up any slack, for there are no mid-level, go-to managers to turn to. Warm body placements begin, just as they did where Tracy works. New managers good at texting, but with workplace conversations? Not so much.

And who is expected to handle the training and development so sorely needed? In most cases, those same burned our workplace survivors — like Tracy was.

Only it isn’t necessarily a survival of the fittest: Tracy was a high performer, and one of their top sales people. That was her job; handling customers with her exquisite care, not training the “newbie jerk managers” who were supposed to be taking care of her. So she walked away.

Cycle, or root cause?

I know I paint a terrible picture here, but honestly, am I telling you anything you don’t already know?

Like the cruel stupidity of expecting young managers to “pay their dues” as a way to learn, we assume that what I’ve described is a business cycle that’s the nature of the beast. Wrong, wrong, WRONG! Root causes can be corrected. It’s the only way to fix the cycle.

We are all part of the problem in some way, and can’t say we aren’t.

The bigger question for me, is exactly what it will take for us to finally fix it once and for all. Our ‘common sense’ just ain’t cutting it. We need to do more. Common sense must come with commitment, character, and culture if it is ever to become common in our workplaces.

Comments

  1. says

    Rosa, there are WAY too many experiences like Tracy’s.

    It can be difficult, if not impossible to turn a boss (or a whole workplace) toward greater respect for the human spirit.

    When I hear a story like this one, I often suggest to the person that he or she simply move on, yet often the person also feels stuck — as if it were possible to change things — and the individual somehow feels to blame if unable to make it work or have an impact, to “get through” to the boss.

    So the first piece, it seems to me, is for those of us who can provide support, to help great people make the choice to take their talent elsewhere. Bad or absent management can actively damage a person’s view of him/herself, his/her boundaries, ultimate gifts, contributions and potentials.

    It’s a shame. It shouldn’t be this way, but when it is, it is, and we have no business doing further damage to ourselves by staying and pretending in some way we can be vindicated or finally have an impact. Yes, not everyone can afford to just quit, so it is more important than ever to notice the signs before the crisis point and start the transition process early rather than let things fester.

    Employers that make the mistake of inhumane, repressive or simply negligent treatment will face the consequence of their best, most gifted people leaving. Word spreads. We can use our feet to vote for the best companies to work for — or to create our own.

    • Rosa Say says

      I totally, wholeheartedly agree with you Dan, and I did tell Tracy I was happy to hear she made the decision to move on. It’s a courageous decision in this economic climate, yet I’m sure she will find something better easily, something far better.

      That said, count me in among those who will still work ‘to “get through” to the boss’ in my own circle of influence ~ as I know you diligently do my friend!

      • says

        Yes, I’m made a life and career of working to “get through,” sometimes to pretty challenging clients, but even for us in the business of helping create more trust-based and value-based workplaces, there is a limit. Someone once called it the “change agent flu” when our egos get hooked because we’ve just got to have an impact, and we keep trying harder and harder, becoming more strident and judgmental. Ultimately that way can lead to personal defeat and leaving the field (as some of my consulting friends have). Everyone has a limit, and I think that’s where I come down on the grave issues you’ve presented. Know where your own limit is and respect yourself enough to get out of the way in time. There’s no shame in that kind of emotional self-preservation. When we know our limits, then we can choose, I think, to be consciously very strong, centered, and directed, to make the necessary points driven by integrity — calling it, as you have done here, for what it is. We can afford to listen and be compassionate even in the most difficult workplaces, even as we attempt to “get through” — in part precisely because we know when it’s time to leave.

        I love the fact that your voice is so strong, Rosa, so clear about the nature of the workplace we could build together. That vision can be enormously powerful in waking us all up to the possibilities — for what we can and should create, or what we need to seek out if the current situation becomes untenable.

  2. says

    Wow.

    I’m big on conservation, recycling, reducing etc. But I’m printing this one out. I’ve already forwarded it to people I know who will read this and think to themselves, “She was in MY workplace! She’s talking about ME!”

    I’ve talked recently about a sort of malaise I’m stuck in as a manager due to personal issues going on and this is like a huge warning to me to not be one of THOSE people. It’s like a “to-don’t” list. The timing is amazing. I wanted to reply right away but I won’t lie. Some of it’s still to close to home with some things some friends have gone through that I’ll get more out of it as I read and re-read it over the next few days and week.

    Thank you Rosa. If I ever make it to Hawaii I will let you pick the restaurant. This alone is worth the cost of the meal. You don’t even know how much it means to hear someone else say it’s going on out there and it’s not the victim’s fault for not sticking it out… not feeling like, “You’re lucky to even HAVE a job in this economy now go crank widgets” or whatever… I know that’s being said out there, and there’s a lot of “blame the victim” going on out there. I’m positive. I don’t get emotional reading management stuff usually… who does? It’s “just management stuff” right? Wrong.

    Management isn’t just numbers. It’s people, and it’s people’s feelings of self-worth, happiness, and well-being. It impacts people’s health and how they interact with their friends and family. It’s so much more than making sure that payroll numbers are in line. When it’s done well people hum along like bees. When it’s done badly it crushes people, causes them to cry at work every day, and at home. It causes them to doubt themselves as employees and as people and it’s just awful.

    I’m going on too long, but thank you again, and I’ve forwarded this to a lot of people I know. I hope they like it as much as I do.

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you for sharing this Rich. I prefer to be more positive and offer concrete answers, yet I know we need a more pervasive grassroots effort with this; people must get braver about confronting individual wrongs to make them right — but early on, with the first warning signs, for once culture shifts toward hard, unfeeling edges being the norm, as Dan says, it’s best to get out and honor your own dignity and self-esteem. We all have just one life to live, and our value of Mahalo must intercede, so we live our life in full appreciation, gratitude and thankfulness for all the elements which make that life most precious to us — not those which damage it.

      Ho‘ohanohano (conducting ourselves with aloha, dignity and respect), or the lack of it, is a tough value to reconcile with. When it’s missing from a workplace we see all the alarming signs you mentioned in your comment, where basic feelings of well-being take damaging hits. We feel the work culture has no backbone, no character. Any ‘survivors’ aren’t really surviving well at all, and we can’t take care of others (peers, customers, our family) when our own oxygen supply has been cut off. As you say, it’s all about the people and everything else is just periphery. We feel lost because Ho‘ohanohano is also the value we need to fix all those things, and no other ‘tool’ will do. It’s like trying to bail water from a sinking boat with a strainer.

      As you know, I speak of choosing our values honestly, so we can live them with true alignment and authenticity, speaking to our personal truths. Ho‘ohanohano may be the exception; it has to be mandated in the culture with an expectation that everyone will learn it and embrace it, or work elsewhere. I also believe it has to be reflected in a reconstruction of management and leadership in the organizational construct, where the art and science of managing well is better understood, and never underestimated — it’s elevated. At least that has to be the case in a Managing with Aloha culture, with Alaka‘i managers the only ones who get to manage at all.

      And Rich, you feel this strongly precisely because you are an Alaka‘i manager. Thank you for fighting the good fight!

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