Archive for Topics and Issues — People

424 — Managing Your Boss

darthvader faceIs that your Boss? Your Dad? Your Mom? Darth Vader? Or a person like you?

Morphing your boss from giant — or mom, or dad — back to person, boss-human being, can be a liberating experience. Doing it can build a valuable skill to carry into future jobs. And doing it doesn’t require cooperation.

Our feelings about our boss come largely from childhood, when we experienced our first bosses, our parents as all-powerful giants. Burdened with this old baggage, it’s sometimes hard to see some authority figures, maybe our boss, as a person like us — with hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, problems at home, and self-doubts. But presidents, media celebrities and bosses are not giants — they also put on their shoes one foot at a time. Fortunately there are some actions you can take to build a more casual rapport with “your boss.”

Open Up…Start Talking

Lets start with one fact. Managers often feel isolated, left out of the loop on what’s happening below them. This is an acute problem for CEOs at the top of the authority pyramid. This isolation happens when employees don’t feel comfortable initiating casual conversations — they leave it up to the boss to make the first move. This limits upwards communication and the flow of information.

Senior managers are hungry for improved relationships and information, but often don’t know how to change things. Some were taught not to have personal relationships with subordinates because it might make inhibit giving honest negative feedback or might be seen as favoritism.

If you are an employees, improving the relationship with your boss does not have to be a big event. You might just smile and say, “Hello” in the morning, mention your son’s baseball game, or ask how his or her weekend was. One small comment might open the way to a conversation, and lead to a more responsive boss. Here is an even more proactive way.

I taught management courses at the UC Irvine campus to budding supervisors and managers. In the week between each all-day Saturday class, the student assignment was to apply class work to their job. One assignment was to practice “The Cultural Interview”. Each student had to “Interview” a person they worked with but did not know well personally. The results were always striking. Here’s one.

Mike was a mid-20s first-level engineer in a 12 person consulting company. He felt distanced from the firm’s owner, who Mike said, “Spent too much time in his office.” Mike decided to invite the owner to lunch and “Interview” him. He was apprehensive but the class was encouraging. The following Saturday Mike said that the interview went well and that the day after the lunch the owner walked around the office talking with other employees. “It was the first time I had seen him do that.” Two years later, at a professional conference, Mike sought me out to excitedly report that he had been promoted to office manager. He said his promotion began with that Interview. It changed their relationship.

Do Something Together

A more ordinary, and a very effective way to build a relationship, is to do something together. This might be working together on a business project or it might be something informal, like playing together on the unit’s softball team, or working on a United Way drive.

What if Your Attempts at Bridge-Building Fail?

Some managers use their role to isolate themselves and avoid intimacy. These managers find relationships too difficult, preferring to keep employees (and others) at a distance. In that case your attempt to improve relationships upwards may fail.

If your repeated attempts to establish better communications with your boss are getting nowhere, you may just have come up against one of these well-defended (fearful) managers. In that case there is little you can do. If the lack of a strong relationship is actually a problem your best solution is probably to find another position, hopefully with a more open person. Surveys show that poor relationships with an immediate supervisor is the number one reason people resign.

cc 424 – © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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416 — Managing “Resistance” to Change

Resistance is a symptom of something else. Unless you get to the cause you will spend endless time trying to manage the “resistance” symptom.

Change is Natural

Change is natural in this world. Evolution itself is a response to change. We naturally respond to a changed situation — if it is cold you put on a sweater, if you are short of cash you don’t eat at a fancy restaurant. Sometimes managers, stockholders, suppliers, or customers look at a company or at a person and think, “They are so stuck in their ways, so rigid.” Sometimes managers think, “Why don’t employees show more enthusiasm for the changes?”

But none of us experience ourselves as rigid, as resisting change. We always experience ourselves as responding appropriately to our situation. Others may not understand just what our experience is, but we do. We are each intimately connected to our world in our own unique way. If people or organizations do not respond to change you can assume they do not experience the need to change, i.e. their environment has not changed — from their point of view — from their experience.

Resistance is a Straw Man

The idea that people resist change is a straw man, a red-herring. Resisting change is not an issue, because nobody resists. Talking about people, departments, or companies as if they resist change is a way to avoid understanding the true situation — that the person or group is not properly connected to the (changing) company environment, so does not experience the need to change.


For over two years the management of a 300 employee chemical plant had been trying to get operators to pay more attention to costs, maintenance, overtime, wasteful processes, etc. But employees seemed to not care. Early in Meridian Group’s work with this company we had pointed out to the managers that while they prepared detailed statements of costs, profit margins, etc. that these were shared only within management ranks, not with operators. Managers said that sharing this with (union) employees was “Just not done.”

A new operations manager was brought in from outside and we mentioned the obvious contradiction to him. He immediately asked the accounting department to begin sharing numbers with the operators on a weekly basis at the regular morning meetings. The operators were thrilled to have this financial area of the company opened to them. The day when the numbers were discussed was the most well attended of the morning meetings.

Soon supervisors and managers reported that operators were becoming more conscious of costs, sometimes going overboard. E.g. one now-cost-sensitive supervisor canceled installing a concrete slab in a highly trafficked area under an elevated production unit because he felt it was too much money. As he explained, “I wouldn’t do that at home.” It took the Plant Manager to convince him that in the plant’s budget this was a tiny item and the benefit was worth it.

This plant now reported constantly dropping monthly costs as employees felt a new level of understanding, responsibility and control. Engaging employees around cost control was just one piece of a broad culture change effort that eventually made this plant a model for the other plants in the company.

cc 416 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.

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412 — Employeee Engagement Example

Every politician knows that the way to quell opposition is to put the agitators on the payroll. Engagement is like that. It handles “attitudes.”

Every company has “problem people”. Their behavior ranges from poor performance, to poor attitudes, to departmental morale busters. Whatever shape and size the problem is, your solution should demonstrate the qualities you want more of in the company. Old-style top-down autocracies traditionally point the finger at the employee and say, “You’re a problem and we’re going to do something about YOU.” The solution was usually “coaching”, “training”, reassignment or firing, none of which demonstrates the kind of qualities you want in your workplace.

There’s a Better Way

The company was a unionized, major Southern California distribution center. The seven person cleaning (sanitation) crew had two problem employees. They combined poor performance with bad attitudes. Their traditional, autocratic supervisor tried everything he knew. He shouted, got angry, lectured them on their bad performance and threatened they’d better straighten up or . . . . . .  Yes, you’ve seen his kind a dozen times. The other five members of the crew performed at an adequate level, but were hardly inspired. They didn’t like the supervisor’s behavior either. No one likes being threatened. This supervisor didn’t know any other way. Fortunately the distribution center manager did.

Using an Opportunity to Change

An increase in the workload gave the DC manager an opportunity to transfer the supervisor to the overworked area. Before doing that the DC manager asked the cleaning crew if they would be prepared to manage the cleaning themselves. They were thrilled and over four weeks, mostly on their own time, they prepared detailed spreadsheets describing how they would organize the cleaning process. These detailed plans, which the crew pinned on bulletin boards for feedback, were impressive. Even more impressive was what happened behind the scenes. The five-members told the two problem employees that they had to shape up and get on board or the proposed changes wouldn’t work. Failure was not an option. This was peer pressure at its strongest.

Within two months the distribution center was spotless, achieving the highest possible rating from an independent assessment group. As if by magic, the two “problem employees” were problems no longer. There were now seven highly motivated, enthusiastic and productive employees — fully engaged.

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421 — Aligning Your People

magnet and iron filingsCulture is like a magnetic field aligning everything in it. If people are not aligned all you need do is change the magnetic field, i.e. the company’s culture, and they’ll all be aligned. That may sound overly simple, but it’s true. It’s the doing that’s difficult.

Culture and Leadership

Keep in mind that managing culture is a leadership issue. It cannot be delegated. If people are not aligned it means that when they look up and see the leadership team, or when they receive communications or information from the leadership team, they hear and see different things. Another way of saying that is, if employees all saw and heard the same thing, they would be aligned. That is the very nature of culture.

It is futile to delegate this problem of alignment to a “training” team or to an outside expert. Looking at the problem as, “WE need to align THEM” is looking in the wrong direction. Sadly many leadership teams deny that they are misaligned. They project misalignment onto the broader organization — though deep inside, each person on the leadership team probably knows that this is an issue in their own team.

It’s accurate and honest to look at misalignment as information about the culture, i.e. information to the leadership team that it should work on better communicating alignment. How can it do that?

Start with the Leadership Team

Assume that the leadership team is not aligned. If it were, so would everyone else. This doesn’t mean the leadership team needs to beat itself over the head. But it does mean that the team members need to have some heart-to-heart discussions about their own relationships and communications, where they are going, what values they believe in, and how they will show alignment by example to the organization. Discussions like this are difficult. They may need a third-party facilitator; or else one or two people could dominate the conversation; or the discussion might stay at a superficial level and not get to people’s true feelings and thoughts.

Take Your Time

This lack of alignment problem didn’t develop overnight and it won’t be corrected in one session. Even with outside help, it takes time for the leadership team to get comfortable discussing such sensitive areas. People need time to think over the discussions, get in touch with their feelings, look in the mirror, prepare to be more open — and hence more vulnerable — in a room possibly packed with alpha males. I know from experience that the first of these meetings may bring snarling, fangs bared, and hair raised on the back of neck’s. It helps when the facilitator knows what to do when attacked. Why is the facilitator attacked? Because the members cannot directly tackle the chief, the top dog. They deflect their aggression (and fears) to the newcomer. After this happens a few times you learn to look around the group and quietly ask, “Any other comments?”

Leadership, power, authority, competition and control are some of the most contentious and difficult areas for anyone or any leadership team to discuss — but they are often the most important. Don’t imagine that this means some kind of group psychotherapy or bare-the-soul discussions. It might mean simply asking, “How can we show greater alignment? What could we do to show we are all on the same page?” Often doing more things together, showing cooperation, will begin moving along the path to success.

Fortunately, as the leadership team becomes more comfortable discussing and showing its own alignment the managers at the next level see that a new wind is blowing, that the management team is becoming a true team, more cohesive, open, and less internally competitive. It is in the nature of people and of culture that this next level of managers will themselves start to think, feel, and act with greater alignment. And so it will flow down and across the organization.

Problem Solved

If the management team perseveres in exploring and experimenting with how it can show greater alignment to the organization, the problem, first defined as “People are not aligned!” will evaporate. Guaranteed!

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422 — Managing The Problem Employee

Nick, the managing partner in a professional services firm, was irritated. “We have a 15 year employee who at first communicated very well and was promoted to Office Manager. In the last few years he has begun to hold information too close to his chest. Now people see him as a roadblock. I am very uncomfortable with the situation I haven’t talked with him about it. What should I do?”

This office manager may be responding to something that happened outside of the office, but most likely he is responding to something that has changed in the office. It’s often difficult to see what has changed, because changes are typically slow and seem natural, almost invisible. Here are steps you can take to understand and change situations that lead to difficult behavior.

What Should I Do?

What people do depends largely on their situation. Most people respond reasonably to situations, from their point of view. If you want to understand why people do what they do, stand back and look at their situation — perhaps ask the person about it. If Nick can understand that his Office Manager is behaving appropriately, from that manager’s view, he will be well on the way to solving the problem.

The first step in problem solving is identifying who has the problem. Here the employee, the “problem manager”, doesn’t have a problem. Nick and other people who see this manager as a roadblock have the problem. Nick’s problem won’t go away until he finds a way to have the employee own it. One guide to a good culture is, “People like to be involved in decisions that affect them.” People who are affected by a problem should be involved in the solution to that problem. In this case the employee should be involved in developing the solution for at least three reasons:

1. So he will take ownership of the problem.
2. When he takes ownership, he will be motivated to correct it.
3. He probably knows already how to correct it but he hasn’t acted because he doesn’t see it as a problem.

Finally, all company situations, including “problems”, are opportunities to develop the work culture — to improve relationships, communication, trust, involvement, and teamwork. Nick can use this “problem” as an opportunity for positive cultural change.

What Causes Changed Behavior?

The Office Manager’s change over 15 years didn’t happen in a vacuum. Nick needs to know if something outside of work has affected the employee; a divorce, ill family member, or something else that might have caused withdrawal or depression. Assuming there is nothing at home, look to the office.

Begin With the Leadership

Perhaps Nick and the other partners in the company have inadvertently done something that set the stage for the manager’s new behavior. As you do this keep in mind that systems, such as companies, are highly coherent. A behavior pattern in one part is usually found in other parts. When there is an issue at a low level in an organization, you’ll almost certainly find it at the highest level as well. Nick should meet with his partners and ask, “What could we do as a group to make clear, by what we do every day, that we do not want to hold information close to our chest?”

These are difficult and usually uncomfortable questions for any group to discuss. Leadership groups often use a third-party to help facilitate such discussions. See 421.

Don’t Get Bogged Down With Analysis

Looking backward and trying to analyze the many and complex causes of human behavior can be a quagmire. Managers are sometimes tempted to treat people problems as they would treat a faulty engine. But people are not machines that you can disassemble to find the busted part. With people, rather than trying to do a “root cause analysis”, it is usually better and less painful to look at where to go and opportunities to get there.

A First Action Step

Nick might also arrange a small meeting including himself, the Office Manager, a few other people who have expressed a concern, and one or two other partners — their presence signals the importance of the issue. At that meeting, Nick can discuss the company’s need for improved communication. He can describe a few examples of problems and of successes, and also share what the partners are doing to improve their own communications.

Don’t Point Fingers and Blame

It is essential not to blame a person or point a finger. Employees should understand that managers see problems as a system issue and not a personal issue. Pointing fingers is like saying, “The hole is in your end of the boat, so I’m OK”. Blaming causes defensiveness, not a quality you want in your organization. Have the members discuss the issue, but don’t jump too quickly to action at this first meeting. Stay with step one of the 4-step decision process. Ask the members of the group to reflect during the next two weeks on how they experience communications in the firm and what they might like to do personally, or suggest that the partners might do, to improve things. Schedule another meeting in two weeks to discuss and understand the situation further, to hear people’s ideas for changes, and to agree on who will do what.

Follow Through Is Essential

Broad cultural or system issues, such as communications or relationship problems, are among the toughest issues managers face. Solving these deep seated problems requires steady attention from the leadership group. This means regular, visible and open meetings focused on moving forward, one small exploratory step at a time. Only when the leadership group shows serious commitment will everyone change from the way things are. As I’ve said often elsewhere, if a cultural problem is delegated to a low level for action, nothing will change.

All Paths Lead to Rome

Once top management is clear to itself and to others that a particular problem needs attention, there are many approaches. Here I’ve mentioned two. Because cultural problems are all closely related it may be just as effective to initiate a change in some other related area. If you can’t decide where to begin, just ask any employee for a suggestion and start there. Culture change is an evolutionary process, the next step depending on what happened when you took your last. Once you choose your destination, i.e. what qualities you want or what you want to change, if you remain open and responsive to what happens at each step, it hardly matters where you begin, or which path you take — you will arrive safely.

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