Archive for August, 2007

The Dysfunctional Company Culture Series Presents: Green Clown Hats, Red Bandanas and White Armbands

August 31, 2007

I am a true lover of history and have always enjoyed performing my own archaeological studies at the companies where I’ve worked. It’s amazing what is unearthed and sometimes one does not have to dig very far to find a treasure trove of information. The myths, legends, lore and the background stories about the company and its current and former employees are always enlightening. It’s rare that one will ever learn any of this real history during a job interview. Performing such research ahead of time could really give one the true context of the culture that one is considering joining. Unfortunately, by the time one discovers it, it’s often too late.

I’ve learned the hard way that I need more than just a mission statement and a short speech from some vice president to understand a company’s culture. Beneath the veneer of the pleasantries, there are always characters with agendas lurking around. I ‘d like to know who the real players are, who to trust and who not to, who the nobodies are that think they’re somebodies and vice-versa. I believe it’s a smart thing to do. After all, they’re sizing you up as well! Most importantly, I need to know just how goofy the place is going to be because the crazier the culture, the more difficult it is to get things done. It’s hard enough trying to get the normal activities accomplished when you enter a new company’s culture but when you’re up against a dysfunctional one, it’s pure hell.

Having changed jobs a few times over the last fifteen years, I’ve noticed a definite trend toward dysfunctional company cultures. It’s easy to understand why given all of the mergers and acquisitions, consolidations, reorganizations etc. You’ll never hear anything about any of this from those at the top. They are the power team. They only seem to know the other power team members and the “master plan.” They are fixated on some financial and operational metrics and could really care less about what’s going on beneath them unless it affects the bottom line. For some reason, they are wont to communicate with the lower echelons other than in one-way terms of requirements, stock prices, and other corporate gobbledygook. They are so far removed from the day-to-day operations that they may as well work somewhere else.

One of my favorite examples of such a bizarre culture was with a major corporation that had over 40 operating units. For the purpose of this rendering, I’ll use the name NewCorp. This outfit had been created through a series of business combinations. There were three companies that had been merged into the new conglomerate. I hired on with this mob as a mid-level manager. While being interviewed for the “newly created position”, I was fed the corporate line about NewCorp being a new and dynamic combination of these old firms. This was now a huge corporation with all new top management from outside the industry. NewCorp had been financially restructured and was now poised to stabilize and grow aggressively – and fast. The position was advertised as great opportunity with a growing concern. I was not told that the employees at the corporate headquarters were a hodgepodge of new hires and holdovers from the business combinations that had been slammed together during the previous eighteen months. Of course there had been gobs of downsizings, reorganizations, high turnover and you name it during that period. Each of these companies had their own systems, traditions and cultures to boot. There were at least one hundred employees left at corporate headquarters. They were all now instantly “gung ho” NewCorp. At least that’s what I was told by the recruiter and one of the corporate execs.

The story I’m about to relate is based on my own experience. Although abbreviated and slightly embellished, it is meant to give the reader a “taste” of what one can experience as an existing worker or, worse yet, as a new employee that is thrown into such a caldron. Mind you, I was hired in as a manager. The “green clown hats”, “red bandanas” and “white armbands” are merely devices that I have used to represent the myriad of confounding loyalties, traditions, procedures and practices that went on there. Other than the costumes, these incidents really occurred. Believe me, I could not make this up

I was completing my first confusing three days on the job. I had been overwhelmed by all of the new jargon, buzzwords, acronyms, etc. The office seemed frenetic. There was a high degree of activity but I sensed a lot of arguing and frustration. There was no organization chart and the phone directory seemed to change day by day. All I had been able to accomplish during the previous two days was to receive my new employee orientation, meet the two members of my team and get set up for voicemail, Email and the various computer systems. I only saw my new boss once. Friday rolled around and I hit the office early. It was obvious that I had a tremendous learning curve ahead of me.

As employees started to arrive, I noticed something strange. Several of them were wearing green clown hats. What the hell was this all about? I ignored the whole thing thinking that it might be some prank or a special event that I was not aware of. About an hour later, this little gnome from the accounting department was standing in my office doorway. She was in her mid-fifties and obviously a veteran employee. She was wearing a green clown hat.

“Where’s you hat?” she asked in a somewhat shocked and irritated manner.
“What hat?” I responded.
“It’s Friday green hat day!” she shrieked. “Don’t you know?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Charlie Schultz wanted everyone to wear green clown hats on Fridays!”
“Who’s Charlie Schultz?”
I received a stunned look.
“He was the president of Monfort!”
“Monfort?” I asked. I had forgotten in the frenzy that Monfort was one of the three companies that were combined into NewCorp.
“What’s Monfort?” she replied with an incredulous look. “What company do you work for?”
“NewCorp, don’t you?”
“NewCorp is Monfort, Heirgizing and the old Shavepoint LLC!” she screeched. “Which one did you work for?”
“I’m a new hire from the outside.”
I received a stunned look. “And you’re a manager?” she asked. “How can you help us out? We need workers here that understand these systems. There are enough managers around here.”
I was slightly insulted and decided to change the subject.
“What’s that got to do with the green clown hats?”
“Charley insisted. It was his policy…”

At that point, I cut her off. I reiterated that I knew nothing about it. I also mentioned that I believed Charley Schultz had been gone for about two years. The gnome became visibly irritated with me and stormed away shaking her head.

I walked around the offices and noticed that about 25% of the employees were wearing the green clown hats, some very proudly too. Some of the hats were even decorated This was mostly in the accounting department. In purchasing and materials, only about 10% were wearing the hats, but a few folks had them on their desks. In engineering, I saw only or two hats on desks and only one silly looking fellow was wearing one.

I stopped by HR and sat down with the manager who had conducted my orientation to NewCorp two days earlier. “What’s with green clown hats? Did I miss something?” I asked. “Oh, those are the old Monfort people.” She replied, “They used to have this president that insisted on the green clown hats on Fridays.”
“But he’s gone.” I interjected.
“A lot of those folks just don’t get it. Charley Schultz was a schmuck! Look at how he made those people dress up like a bunch of idiots on Fridays!” As she spoke she unfurled a red bandana and tied it around her neck.
“What’s that?” I asked, fearful of the response.
“The Heirgizing Heroes program Red Bandana!” she smiled. I worked for Heirgizing for 18 years. Heirgizing was always the premier company of the bunch. Monfort! Phew! NewCorp just kept them because of the accounting systems. Those accountants can be real pests! Heirgizing had the best customer service and sales force. You’ll see. Heirgizing is the backbone of NewCorp.”

I went back to my office but did notice several red bandanas along the way. I began to wonder if this were some sort of “counter demonstration.” I found a neatly folded green clown hat on my desk with a note to call Gloria who was the accounting director. I became a bit concerned with all of this so I went to seek out Ralph, my superior who I had not seen since my first day on the job. I found him in his office. He was reading some reports but was wearing a white armband. I was afraid to ask about it but did.

“Oh, it’s just a holdover from Shavepoint LLC, “ Ralph lamented. “I worked for them in Los Angeles for ten years before the merger. Shavepoint always had the good product lines. There are still a few of us around who remember the good old days. We belonged to the ‘White Armband Club.’ Anyway, I’m glad you dropped by. I’ve been reviewing some the old Shavepoint product line reports. I really like this format. I’ll need your help putting together reports like this with the NewCorp data for Don our boss. He needs to make a presentation to the NewCorp guys.” Ralph handed me the reports and I agreed to look them over. “It shouldn’t be THAT difficult,” he added.

On my way back to the office, I passed Don, Ralph’s boss, who was grabbing a cup of coffee. He waved as if to beckon me but was otherwise occupied with a bevy of employees wearing green clown hats. They all seemed to complaining about something. I did notice the tip of a green clown hat sticking out of his pant’s pocket. I waved back but kept on going. He looked too busy for socializing.

When I returned to my department to prep the staff about the need for the reporting package, I ran into Shelly who was also a newly hired member of the team. She had preceded me with NewCorp by about two weeks. We had commiserated earlier about the seemingly confusing way that NewCorp did everything. Shelly was a bright individual. She was wearing a green clown hat. I just had to ask.
“Why are you wearing that hat?”
“It’s Friday green hat day. I know it looks silly but that’s the way they want it.”
“They? Who?”
“Them. You know. The powers that be.”
“Gloria in accounting. She really got after me the first week I was here. If you want anything from accounting, it’s Friday green hat day or else! By the way, Gloria has been looking for you. She said something about some 952 reports. She says you know about it.”

We then searched out Frank, the other team member and only veteran employee in my new group. You guessed it! He was wearing a red bandana. Frank looked at Shelly and shook his head in disgust. We sat down went and over the reports that my boss had provided. Frank had never seen these reports but mentioned that they must have been generated from Shavepoint’s old Crolox system. He also mentioned that any new product reports would have to come from Heirgizing’s Ajax system as all NewCorp sales information now resided there. Shelly noted that the information would somehow have to be merged with the accounting data in the Monfort TakeAim accounting system. Shelly was only there two weeks but already knew that this was going to be a major undertaking.

I went back to see Ralph and recounted my findings. “It shouldn’t be THAT difficult to do. We had these reports all the time with Shavepoint,” He remarked. “Get with Brian Jones and he’ll point you in the right direction.” “Who’s that?” I asked. “He’s head of customer service and an old Heirgizing guy. He knows that crazy Ajax system.”

I went to see Brian who was proudly sporting his red bandana. I listened to a twenty minute speech about how his old customer service unit had been gutted by downsizings and how he was now stuck with a bunch of new hires and Shavepoint employees who didn’t know the Ajax system and were just getting by. He looked at the Shavepoint reports from the Crolox system and shook his head. “They could never do anything right. I don’t even know if we have any of this information. It figures that Ralph would come up with something like this. He’s still trying to prove himself after the downfall. You know Don used to work for Ralph at Shavepoint. Don left and joined Monfort. Ralph really badmouthed him for that. Now Ralph reports to Don. Time for a little payback, eh? Anyway, I can’t figure this out. Go see Sue Williams in IT. Maybe she can help.”

I then went to see Sue Williams. Thank God she was not donned in any of the aforementioned accouterments. Sue was also a new hire and looked pretty frazzled. “Listen, I’d like to help but I’m new too. I’ve got three different computer systems to maintain and we’re just getting by. You’ll need to fill out a priority one request. It will have to go the IT overreach committee and be approved by the new Sr. VP. That will take awhile. We have tons of backlogged requests.” I asked where to get the request form. “From the NewCorp all employee website!” she scowled. It was as if somehow I should have already known this. “That’s another problem we have to address. Those NewCorp guys keep piling this stuff on. We’re just keeping our heads above water.”

On my way back to figure out how log into the NewCorp system, Ralph grabbed me and told me that we were commanded to appear before some NewCorp corporate executives. It was now early afternoon as we entered a large conference room over in the “executive suite”. One wall was covered in the NewCorp logo and there were many NewCorp labeled glossies, catalogues and materials displayed everywhere. I felt much more comfortable now. This was NewCorp. NewCorp had hired me. I could finally identify with something. Unfortunately, my comfort level would soon evaporate.

Two NewCorp executives entered the room with Don, Ralph’s superior. They were laughing and carrying on about some sports event that had occurred the night before. I noticed that Ralph’s white armband was gone and I could no longer see the tip of the green clown hat in Don’s pocket. There were some quick introductions and then one of the NewCorp Exec’s took over.

“As you all know, we have a NewCorp investors’ meeting on Monday morning and we want to show them some product line reports.” he began, “Don here says that Ralph has some good report formats.”

Don and Ralph smiled at each other. Ralph handed Don the old Shavepoint reports and then dropped an atomic bomb by adding, “And here’s the guy who’ll put it all together for us!” There was a deafening silence as everyone stared at me.

It seemed like an eternity but I finally composed myself after the shock and spoke. “I’m afraid you me have at a disadvantage. I’ve just seen these reports this morning. The staff tells me that getting all of this information together will be a major undertaking. There seems to be a lot of different systems involved here and…” I was cutoff by Ralph. “Didn’t you get with Brian Jones?” he asked in a seemingly incredulous manner.

“Yes, he told me that the information might not even be in the Ajax system. He sent me to Sue Williams in IT. She mentioned that she was swamped and…” I was now cutoff by one of the NewCorp Execs. “IT issues? Hold on, I’ll call John Fisk our Sr. VP of Corporate IT. He’s an old friend of mine from my former company. We brought John on last month. He works out of his ranch in New Mexico. Pretty cool, eh?” The exec pulled out a cell phone and dialed a speed number and then stepped away. A few moments later, he was back and slightly irritated. “John says there aren’t any IT issues. He said to get with Sally Wilson.” “Do you mean Sue Williams?” asked Don. “Isn’t that what I said?” was the reply from the exec. “There you have it,” snapped the other NewCorp exec, “Problem solved.”.

I managed to blurt out a few more words on the subject, “There are also interfaces with the accounting system that….” Don now cut me off. “Get with Gloria in accounting; she knows how the Monfort Take Aim system works. It should be piece a cake for her. She’s been around forever.” Meeting adjourned.

Don and the NewCorp Execs continued their conversation about the sports event. As we left the room, one of the NewCorp Execs looked over at us and mumbled, “Go team.”

Ralph and I walked back together but we were both silent and for distinctly different reasons. As he slipped his white armband back on, Ralph broke the silence. “Couldn’t you get Brian to help you? He ought to know how to do this.” I related my discussion with Brian Jones leaving out all of the tidbits about Ralph’s relationship with Don. “Why don’t you get back with Brian? The two of you should be able to come up a solution. I shouldn’t be THAT difficult. We need these reports.” By now, my frustration level had reached eruption. “Ralph, I’ve already talked to him. Brian and I are at the same organization level. I can’t force him to do anything. Besides, I wouldn’t even know what to ask him to do. He’s the expert here. Does he have a superior we can talk to?” Ralph was silent for a moment. “Brian reports to Ed Maxim. He’s an old Shavepoint guy. Ed works out of the Connecticut office. Here, I’ll give you his phone number. Get with him and work something out.” I could see that this was going nowhere. I could also see that Ralph was in a hurry to go home.

I went back to my office and tried to call Ed Maxim. I got voicemail indicating that he was out of town. I left a message and then tried to reach someone else in the Connecticut office. It was Friday afternoon EST and everyone was gone. It was some kind of old Shavepoint tradition to close the office early on Fridays.

I returned to Brian Jones’ department. Brian was holding a staff meeting. I interrupted the meeting and received a very sharp rebuke from Brian. “Listen, I told you to get with Sue Williams. I’m trying to straighten out a major issue with some customer related problems here.” I could see that this was going nowhere either

By now, it was 3:30 and I was getting frantic. It was back to IT. I was informed that Sue Williams had left for the day due to a family emergency. I asked someone for her cell phone number. It was grudgingly handed over by an IT analyst who also gave me one of those “You’ll be sorry!” looks. Voicemail, voicemail, voicemail. I left three messages.

I got Frank and Shelly back together to try and figure a way to prepare the reports on our own and from scratch. It was now 4:00 on Friday and they were both nearly as irritated as I was. Frank had mentioned that he might be able to get the raw data from other reports but it would take hours to sort through it all. Shelly said that she might be able to mock up some formats in Excel but that we’d need the accounting data from the TakeAim accounting system and she did not know how to access it. They both looked at me for direction. I apologized and set them to work. It was now off to the accounting department and Gloria.

It was now 5PM and Gloria was tidying up her office. Gloria was a zealot in more ways than one. A neat crisp green clown hat adorned her head. “It’s about time. I left you a note this morning. Did you find your hat?” she chirped. “Your department is behind in providing us with the 952 reports. I’ll need them on Monday.” I was taken aback by this request. “What are 952 reports?” I asked.

“The 952’s!” she blurted in an extremely irritated manner. “Didn’t Don tell you about the 952’s? Your department owes me 18 month’s worth! I need them on Monday. I told Shelly to tell you.”

“Wait a minute,” I countered, “Don never talked to me about any 952 reports. Besides I report to Ralph. He never mentioned them either. How can we be 18 months behind?”

“Oh, you report to Ralph. I wouldn’t expect him to know. Ralph’s a Shavepoint guy. These are Monfort reporting requirements. Don knows. He’s Monfort. Your predecessor .did these reports and we need them.”
“My predecessor?”
“You know. Rex Cohn.”
“I never heard of him. I was told that I was hired for a new position with NewCorp,”
“Rex Cohn headed up a group that did something similar to yours. He was cut from Monfort when NewCorp took over. His group always did the 952’s. I talked to Don about these months ago and he promised that once your group was in place, you’d provide those 952’s.”
“I don’t understand. How did you get by for the last 18 months?”
“We estimated them and it’s caused a lot of extra work here. I’ve lost half my people and we’re barely getting by as it is. It’s enough just keeping with the merger and that Heirgizing and Shavepoint bunch.”
“I’m sorry but I….”
“Didn’t you read the policies and procedures manual?” Gloria pointed to a four-inch thick bound document on her desk. “It’s in section 14A sub B. Here take my copy and read it over the weekend.”

After all of that, I had to broach the subject of the accounting information that Shelly said we would need to prepare the product line reports. This really set Gloria off on a tangent. The upshot of it all resulted in her pointing to a huge set of report binders in a bookcase. She insisted that they be returned in pristine condition after use and reminding me again about the 952 reports.

We worked all weekend on the project. Late Sunday afternoon, my office phone rang. It was Sue Williams. She chewed me out for getting her in trouble with her boss. Come Monday morning, I turned in what we had to Ralph. He wasn’t happy with the results. “I just can’t believe that it could be THAT difficult to whip up a few reports,” was his only response. Don got involved and made a variety of snide comments to Ralph about the performance of his group (meaning my team). He also mentioned that Gloria had complained to him that very morning about the 952 reports. I found out later that Don had told Ralph about the 952’s but that Ralph had forgotten to tell me. Ed Maxim from the Connecticut office left me a message later that day. He asked just who in the hell I was and told me to get with Brian Jones if I needed anything.

This confusing and counterproductive activity seemed never ending. Now there was a new twist. Word spread like wild fire that I was on the property. I was somehow viewed by other managers as if I were a veteran Monfort, Shavepoint and Heirgizing employee who intimately understood the inner workings of each of the three companies despite the fact that I was only recently hired by NewCorp. I was seen as an expert who could solve everyone’s problems and was bombarded with pent up requests from other departments for information and detailed reports. I was the new hand in a short-handed organization and it was becoming evident that my so-called “newly created position” had actually replaced several others that had been eliminated during the many reorganizations.

I attempted to become a psychic in order read everyone’s mind and considered seeking out a witchdoctor or shaman who might help me divine all of the duties, systems and people that I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. The NewCorp execs seemed to think that I was an expert in each of the old companies’ systems, knew exactly what they were looking for and could deliver at the drop of a hat. There was virtually no IT support. Shelly tried to help but was also new. It was like the blind leading the blind. Frank went on extended medical leave and I was somehow expected to perform all of his tasks while he was away. After all, Frank reported to me and no one else was left in the company that knew how to perform his function. Ralph was absolutely no help. He had never been involved with any of the systems or the actual work. Regardless of his lack of hands-on experience, Ralph maintained that nothing could be THAT difficult. His answer to every question was to “get with” this or that person. Even when I could do so, those other managers were too busy with their own issues to help out. Gloria kept pestering me for more and more reports that Rex Cohn had once prepared. Don was always disappointed. His penchant for snide comments was amazing. For the next twelve or so Friday’s, I kept a green clown hat, red bandana and white armband in my desk drawer, donning and doffing each depending on to whom I was speaking or from whom I needed something. Just like the other workgroups in the corporate office, mine was just getting by. It was a nightmare.

Three month’s later during a rather heated conversation with Ralph about another cross-departmental debacle, I blurted out the following, “If I only knew three months ago what I know now….” Ralph cut me off and finished my sentence. “…You never would have accepted the job offer!” He then shocked me with his follow up statement. “I wouldn’t have blamed you.” Lesson learned. Exit stage left.


The Five-Minute Manager

August 24, 2007

Become one yet? It should be easy. Just ask all the people that have absolutely no idea what you do or what it takes to get it done. To them, it should only take YOU five minutes to do anything.

So what if you right in the middle of doing something tedious or that requires deep concentration. They barge right in to ask a question or request information that takes you completely off guard. The answer requires research or the information isn’t handy. Your concentration is broken and you have to shift gears. You politely ask them if it can wait. “Oh come on! It should only take you five minutes.” Sound familiar?

You want to be helpful and a good team player. You drop what you’re doing and begin the research. Twenty minutes later, you’ve gotten their answer. During the entire time you worked on it, they just sat there and watched in nervous anticipation. Worse yet, as you begin to plow through your files for the requested information, they become impatient, leave and ask you to E-mail the data to them. It sure must have been an important and time sensitive request!

How about the incessant phone calls and E-mails needing immediate attention? You never believed that you were that popular. Just don’t ignore them or decide to deal with them later when you have time. If you do, you’ll find out just how unpopular you become.

The result of all of this is that THEY get their information and YOU get behind in what you’re doing. I have noticed a distinct increase in this irritating rude behavior and presumptive attitude. I asked around about this phenomenon. Other managers have noticed it a well

Just how do these characters seem to know the amount of time that it will take YOU to do anything? Did they perform a secret time study? Is there a new operations manual for managers that breaks every task down into five-minute increments? The answers to these satirical questions are obvious: they don’t, they didn’t and there isn’t one.

Why has everything become such an emergency? It seems that a lot of these requests are of the “last minute” nature. Are they perhaps just some immediate whim? What ever happened to planning and prioritizing?

A Human Resources type mentioned that the real trick to becoming a good Five-Minute Manager is exercising “Flexibility.” “Flexibility” seems to be the new code word for increasing one’s working hours to accommodate all of these requests as well as fulfill one’s regular responsibilities. But not to worry, those Ad-Hoc requests only take five minutes each. You have lots of time.

I believe that this attitude is trickling down from higher echelons that are so far removed (both organizationally and in many cases geographically) from the day-to-day operations that they really have no idea what it takes to accomplish anything. Instant gratification seems to be trumping professional courtesy and an acknowledgement of managers’ schedules, priorities and other organizational requirements.

I remember a mantra that my children used to sing when they were small: “I want it and I want it now!” Rather than encouraging managers to exercise “Flexibility”, perhaps some others should be encouraged to exercise “Maturity.” It’s just a thought

By the way, it did take me more than five minutes to write this.

The “Expectations Theory” of Management

August 17, 2007

Having mentioned this theory in my last post about micromanagers, I thought I’d expand upon it here for your reading enjoyment and comment.

There’s an old saying that goes, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” In the corporate world, that is not exactly true. It’s the first impression that gets one in the door and hired all right but after that there are a myriad of impressions that will ultimately determine the expectations that will persist throughout the employment relationship.

The theory is quite simple in concept but can be quite destructive in practice. It goes like this:

When employees or managers are hired or promoted, there are certain expectations that the hiring authority has in the candidate they have selected. The “probationary” period, whether explicitly disclosed or just tacitly understood is a key timeframe during which the new hire makes a more lasting impression on the hiring authority and sets the stage for the long term expectations of performance that will be experienced down the road. It is also a key timeframe for the employee to determine the hiring authority’s reaction to their performance.

Here’s a slightly oversimplified example of how this works:

John was hired because he made a good impression on his new superior. During his probationary period, John performed at the minimum acceptable level. His work was disappointing but tolerable. He had also quickly developed a reputation a being a class clown and a kook. But the job was getting done and John provided some entertainment value. That impression created an expectation in his superior’s mind.

Betty was hired for the same reason. She turned in some solid performances during her probationary period. She quickly gained a reputation as a good, steady, reliable performer. That impression also created an expectation in her superior’s mind.

Every six months or so, particularly around the annual performance appraisal period, John would pick up the pace and perhaps hit one or two home runs. Since this was not expected from John, his achievements received high visibility and acclaim from his superior. After the hoopla subsided, he would revert to his old ways. John became a known commodity. He had it made in the shade.

Betty proved to be more than reliable and even gained the nickname “steady” Betty. But because her performance consistently met that initial expectation, there was no acclaim, no parade and no hoopla. Betty’s reward was having more and more tasks and duties pushed at her by her superior. She quietly accepted the work and accomplished it with aplomb. Then something happened. Betty’s workload reached the tipping point and her performance began to falter a little here and there. “What happened to ‘steady’ Betty?” came the hue and cry from her superior, “We had such high expectations from her.” Instead of getting to the root cause of Betty’s issues, her superior recommended counseling on how to “work smarter.” After that episode, Betty had to constantly prove that she was up to the task.

Please note that it matters not at what organizational level (except the “executive” of course) or functional area John or Betty were hired into. The “Expectations Theory” holds true for line workers as well as middle level managers. It seems that the long term expected performance levels differ according to the results of the probationary period. More will always be expected from a high achiever while less will be expected from a low achiever.

This all seems logical enough but it is the superior’s reaction when the expectations are not met that is at issue here. The degree of the reaction seems totally disproportionate. It’s as if a little “good news” emanating from consistently mediocre performance is treated much differently than a little “bad news” from consistently excellent performance. In the example mentioned above, both John and Betty experienced a reaction due to their deviance from expectations. John’s was very positive and reinforced his expectations that he could get by with his performance. Betty certainly seemed to receive more of a negative reaction even though she had consistently turned in excellent performance up until the tipping point. What kind of reinforcement did Betty receive? It’s all about the unintended consequences of the expectations.

Have superiors been conditioned to treat any “good news” as heroics and any “bad news” as indictments? Does an over reliance on good expectations create such a disproportionate reaction to disappointment? Is it intellectual laziness on the part of the superior? Is it just human nature? Whatever it is, it needs to be recognized. The John’s of the world will always be with us. The Betty’s are hard to find.

I have personally seen this time and time again during my thirty years in management.

Does all of this sound too cynical? If it does, remember where you read it!

Why Companies Love Micromanagers

August 10, 2007

Back in the day when I was first promoted into management, the term itself was commonly defined as ”Getting things done through people.” Over last ten years or so, I’ve noticed a definite shift, particularly in the expectations that top executives demand from mid-level managers. I now believe that the commonly held definition of management, at least for that middle level, is more akin to either simply, ”Getting things done”, “Getting things done yourself” or worse, “Getting things done in spite of people.” Enter the micromanager. While micromanagers may be the bane of their co-workers and direct reports, the top echelons of corporations can’t seem to get enough of them.

I do not claim to be an industrial psychologist (or any other kind for that matter) but will simply offer my observations and opinions as to what makes micromanagers tick and why they have become so highly prized and in demand. Micromanagement is a broad term encompassing a wide range and degree of such behaviors. I will only focus on one type of micromanager here, as I am more familiar with this particular incarnation.

These micromanagers are usually intelligent individuals with what we used to call type “A” personalities. In some circles they might even be described as being obsessive/compulsive. Such traits result in these individuals often being rigid, anxiety-filled, single minded, overly demanding and fixated on the most miniscule of details. They are very good at performing the tasks to which they are assigned, particularly when left alone to their own resources. That is why many individuals exhibiting these characteristics are culled out of the workforce and promoted into positions that oversee the work of others. Their excellent work habits and capacity to take on more and more tasks are viewed as the perfect role models for companies to use in order to whip workgroups into shape.

Tethered to the company with latest electronic devices (named after a variety of fruits and animals), micromanagers will work endless hours checking up on things. Because they have already performed much of the work assigned to their group, they can fill-in for absent staff members and oftentimes even retain many of their old tasks. These individuals are a great “fit” in today’s cost conscious and bottom line driven companies.

The downside to these personality types is that they generally lack good or even any people skills. Outside of the workplace (the few times you’ll see them out of it anyway) they’ll appear as normal folks but I would venture to say that many of these types of micromanagers exhibit nearly anti-social behaviors in workplace situations. It matters not that they drive their staff’s crazy by acting as overbearing task masters with an incessant drive for perfection and having things done “their way.” They become extremely and openly frustrated with their staffs when things are not done in the precise manner that they have dictated. They will doggedly pursue any nonconformance and churn through employees seeking only those that will think and work like they do. These attributes are perfect for today’s corporate cultures that are driven by precise metrics and tight deadlines.

People skills are no longer important. Only getting the job done is. Since the socio-corporate status of non-management employees has reverted back to being nothing more than fodder for the corporate gristmills, human relations skills in these managers have taken a back seat to delivering results. Workers, even highly educated technical types such as engineers and accountants, are considered to be a dime a dozen. It’s just too bad if they can’t get along with or emulate their micromanaging boss. In fact, many executives would love an entire workforce of micromanagers. It’s extremely shortsighted thinking on the part of those that decide to promote or hire these individuals. But then what top management team is in it for the long haul anyway?

Many of these micromanagers have a very difficult time working with peers in cross-functional situations. Their single mindedness obscures larger issues. The very traits and characteristics that make them micromanagers cause discord with peers. They seem to have a great deal of difficulty understanding why everyone else does not think like they do. It’s a bad situation that often requires a lot of time wasting refereeing. It’s quite interesting to watch two micromanagers go at it over an issue. But not to worry; the benefits to company far outweigh the costs.

The real shame of it all is that the negative traits, characteristics and behaviors of these micromanagers have been validated and even rewarded through promotions into positions of power over others who might not share the fanatical zeal of their new masters and might have different if not better ideas on how to get the job done.

Excuses and apologies abound for the behaviors of these types:

Their single (or even closed) minded obsessions have been redefined as “passion.”

Their incessant attention to even the goofiest of details is excused as “driving for excellence.”

Of course we all know that the anxieties causing them to work tremendous hours without rest are heralded as “selfless dedication.”

Because of this reinforcement, these micromanagers soon develop a “Be like me” attitude with their subordinates. They become “My way or the Highway” types that cannot tolerate even the slightest deviation from their notion of how things should be done.

But even these micromanagers are not mechanical robots with an unlimited capacity. Life changing events may occur that cause them to refocus their energies away from work even temporarily. They may simply wear out both physically and mentally. When that occurs, the view of top management is often that they have lost their edge and now need replacement. It’s all part of what I call the “Expectations Theory” of management. I’ll write more about that in another post. Once these micromanagers become burnt out or no longer useful, they are simply discarded and others are selected to lead the charge. The aftermath can be devastating to this type of individual. They feel betrayed and become cynical and jaded. They are usually not allowed to go back to what they did best all along. An excellent worker has been lost and another bad manager has been created

One validation of this trend is apparent in recent help wanted Ads that I’ve seen for supervisors and managers as well as my own debriefings of individuals who have recently interviewed for such positions. It would appear that prospective candidates are now only being asked in passing if they have experience in supervising groups. Rather than manage, it is now seems more important that they personally know how to perform the function or tasks at hand. “Hands-on” is the new code word for “Do it yourself and/or micromanage others.”

The search for micromanagers goes on.

Summertime Reading from the “Double Secret” Handbook for bad Executives

August 3, 2007

The security guard found a stack of travel brochures in the executive parking lot. He was shocked when he found this chapter of the handbook in the pile. He immediately turned it over to me for review. I swore him to secrecy.

Chapter 2 Ration that Pesky Vacation

Just when you thought that there were no more ways to squeeze that last of drop blood out of your staff, we’ve contrived a fiendishly clever method to achieve just that. The best part of it all is that you can point to company policies as being the villain here. It’s the best of all worlds.

What policies could be so useful to an executive who needs to impress their superiors with cost controls, instantaneous responses to their insatiable need for information, adherence to ever-changing deadlines and a high level of uninterrupted productivity? Why the vacation policies! It’s the Human Resources department’s fault that you’re strapped with having to deal with the cost and nuisance of staff being away from work on “vacation.” Employees are paid to work and not to be absent for such a non-value added activity. HR is the group that determined your staff members were due this silliness as a company benefit. They also came up with a variety of rules and policies regarding vacations. So whatever you have to do to manipulate those policies to get the results you want is really HR’s problem and not yours.

It’s an expensive proposition to keep additional staff to cover for those who are away on these boondoggles. You need to trim your budget to score points with the top brass. What about all those emergency requests, revised deadlines and meetings that arise constantly and out of the blue? You can’t disappoint your superiors by telling them that John or Betty is on vacation and the report or meeting will have to be delayed or postponed. You certainly can’t be expected to cover those contingencies yourself. You’re an executive after all and you wouldn’t even know how to get the actual work done to do it anyway. So let’s get down to the business of administering those vacation policies – the way you decide to interpret them anyway.

We all know that that the more tenured the employee, the more vacation time they are entitled to. It makes sense to rid your staff of all of the old-timers that have amassed a high level of vacation eligibility and replace them with new hires. Who cares about experience and knowledge. The veterans don’t need to impress anyone. You do.

So what if employees are told in offer letters, new hire orientations, or handbooks that they are eligible for paid vacations. We’ll bet that there’s a policy indicating that paid time off must be scheduled around the company and/or department’s requirements. Find that policy and keep it handy.

Since you’re in charge of your department, you’ll decide those requirements. They are quite simple actually: When you’re in the office, the staff needs to be there to support you. When you’re not in the office, they need to be there to cover for you.

Start with the managers and staff employees that report directly to you. These folks are always malleable enough to be convinced that scheduling their own vacations is a big no-no. They must be both openly and tacitly discouraged from doing so. These employees always feel a certain loyalty and responsibility to the company. They enjoy feeling needed and indispensable. They’d like to identify themselves with the executive team and many believe that by constantly giving their all, they’ll reap some reward down the road. They also fear for their positions. They have families to feed and mortgages to pay. This loyalty and fear needs to be exploited. They must be made to feel as though the company can’t do without them for even a week here or a week there – and certainly not for two weeks in a row. Use your powers of persuasion to discourage any thoughts of even trying to string two or three vacation days together. They must be subtly pressured and cajoled into believing that the company’s needs outweigh their own. Remember, if there is a “use it or lose it” vacation policy, once the magic anniversary date rolls around, they’ll lose any of that time they had coming. There will be no massive vacation accrual to deal with next year. If anyone gripes, feign some concern and then simply forget about it.

If they must be out for a day, be sure to jot it down so that your response to their next request might go something like, “Another vacation day? It seems like you were just off. How many vacation days have you taken already? I’ll have to think about that. Are you sure you really need to take off? We have blah, blah, coming up. Will you be ready? We really depend on you. OK (sigh), if you must.” It’s a guilt trip/ego boost/power play combo that puts the onus on them to consider all of those feelings about themselves, their responsibilities and their paychecks. They’re probably good, honest and caring people. We’ll bet you get the results you’re looking for out of 99% of them.

We all know what your thinking. What if your company is in one of those states that mandates employees be allowed to carryover or even (gulp!) be paid for accrued and unused vacation days? What if your company has such a policy even though not mandated by law? No Problem. Just fall back on the policy that allows you to schedule their vacations around the department’s requirements.

Start forcing you direct reports to take individual vacation days (or even “vacation hours”) when it suits your needs. If you know that tomorrow will be a day without any pressing requests, command them to take the day off as a vacation day. In fact, right after the next scheduled morning meeting might be a great time to order some staff out for the rest of the day as a half-day of vacation. Always make it sound like it’s a reward and your doing them a big favor. So what if it’s a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon. Work it right and you can eat up all of their vacation time without even a hiccup in productivity. If anyone carps about it, point to the policies and remind them that they work in a “fast paced environment” with “ever changing priorities.” No one will be able to say that they weren’t given the opportunity to use all of their vacation time. These are company policies. Your hands are tied.

Most importantly – always ensure that any task or work not performed while the lollygaggers are away is made up after hours or on weekends. Your direct reports are exempt from overtime. It won’t be a ding to your budget and they’ll learn the lesson of being away from work during the week.

In time, you’ll see a trickle down effect as managers who report to you begin to believe that what you’ve instigated is what the company wants. They will follow your lead. If not out of loyalty, they’ll do it to make everyone else suffer. Morale Schmorale! You won’t be around for more than another year or two anyway. Let someone else pick up the pieces after you’ve moved on.

Keep in mind that you’ve done everyone a favor here. You’ve kept costs down and productivity up. If your company has a policy of holding over or paying employees for lost vacation time, you’ve saved even more cost and administrative time and effort. The employees will have no vacation time to “lose” because of your efforts to ensure that all of it has been “used.” You’ve saved your staff the expense of hotels, gas, theme park tickets, airfares etc. They should actually thank you. But that’s OK. You can deal with their ingratitude.

That was a lot of work but well worth it. We see that you must attend the annual budget meeting in Orlando, FL this August. Hmmm, your kids will still be out of school and you need a well deserved rest after all of this executive decision-making. The stress and pressure of having to deal with all of these policies and rules is taking a toll on your psyche. Why not tack on some extra time in Orlando? Maybe a week or even two. Grab the frau and the kiddies and head on down. Hell, the company is picking up part of the tab anyway. Your department will be covered. You need a break.