In my last post, I opened the question of business models that help us transcend a mindset of “disposable workers.” It’s a tough question because it calls for discernment — the ability to judge well. And judgment, you know, is a notorious source of projection, misinterpretation, bias, and many other follies. I prefer to think that the discernment that is required is really based on a deeply felt and deeply understood vision of what an enterprise and enterprise community can be.
One step toward a better business model must be a better evaluation of the skills of management against that vision. Gary Hamel’s recent, widely linked and tweeted article, Management’s Dirty Little Secret, summarizes the situation: employee engagement, essential for financial success, is far from what it needs to be and this is directly tied to “the legacy management practices found in most companies.”
One of those legacy practices has to do with the protection of managers. I do not mean to say they often feel protected. But in many organizations the truth is that it is pretty difficult to get fired once a certain level has been reached or time period has passed. The fact is that when layoffs come it is not the managers who are nearly as carefully reviewed as front-line, non-supervisory staff. There is an unspoken privilege given, and this is especially true if the manager has been in the system for a long time. Yet, it is also the case in such organizations that people at all levels know and talk about specific managers whose performance is deemed a problem. Within conversations among senior managers these names get passed around — as long as they are in someone else’s department. The folks within a senior manager’s domain may be recognized as a problem, but no crucial interventions seem to be necessary.
For example, a few years ago, I worked with a senior manager who himself absolutely knew that one of his immediate reports had ineffective people management skills — the report talked constantly and in patronizing ways, as if he understood situations and people without asking a single question of anybody. His own reports saw him as totally ineffectual, a joke. But this manager also had been around for twenty years, was a “good lieutenant” to the senior manager and believed one day he’d actually take the senior manager’s place. My client did not have the plain courage needed to tell him the truth — that he would never succeed into the senior role. He allowed the report to believe in a fantasy future and maintained his very high rate of pay by virtue of his supervisory responsibilities. His appraisals were glowing, with only the slightest hint that there might be an issue here or there. But, as I’m sure you can see, it wasn’t only the report who was living in denial — it was the senior manager, as well. And together they formed an organizational block that was hard to break. The senior manager accepted mediocrity in return for not having to deal with a messy emotional responsibility. He lacked (or had given up) the essential discernment and vision that might have led him into the right kind of action. He was not thinking of what is in the best interest of the organization or his employees. Heck, he wasn’t even thinking of what might be in the best interests of his report. This is such a standard story.
It seems to me, in its simplest form, the evaluation of a manager ought to proceed along two essential paths: 1) the manager’s business results, including ongoing, strategic and creative work; and 2) how the manager achieves these results. And I hope you see that when I use the word, “evaluation” here I am not referring to the formal annual appraisal process. I am referring to the process of performance judgment and communication that is happening constantly between people. I believe it is the responsibility of an organization’s top leaders to make sure this evaluation is real and complete for both criteria, and that action is taken — person by person — to intervene when one or both of these elements is failing. To do otherwise is to grant immunity and privilege to people because of their positions and tenure. Intervene means offer feedback, coaching, support, mentoring, guidance and facilitation of personal change; and if no change occurs to either move the person into a job he/she really can do or to humanely separate the individual. This is where an enormous breakthrough could occur.
As the example above shows, evaluation and the action that follows really means a breakthrough in the fabric of illusion in an organization, the fabric that leaders hold on to and want to believe in. One of these illusions is that leadership involves being a spectator to what others are doing, seeing how they work things out over time, “holding the space for” outcomes that never actually materialize, no matter how long one waits. Another is that we are all too busy to see and act on what is really happening. Another is the top leader knowing that if the process of discernment were also applied personally it might mean a significant revision to his or her own self-image. Please do not hear disrespect. These are traps, and it is easy to fall into them.
And it is not that we don’t try to get at this evaluative data and with some objectivity. We do have “360 degree” procedures. We have training programs, often big expensive, generic ones. We have organization development consultants, internal and external. We have descriptions of leadership “competencies” galore. We have the so-called annual or bi-annual appraisal process. But really, none of this is effective without the fundamental discernment I mentioned earlier. These tools just become forms within processes and systems, sometimes becoming more artificial and ineffective the more objective and impersonal they attempt to sound. The real evaluation stuff I am talking about is more at the level of the “secrets that everyone knows,” the performance issues of specific managers that are not being addressed because of the conflicts and interpersonal stresses that it would cause. It’s a matter of addressing the default system of the company, the stuff that is simply accepted, that has given some managers apparent immunity for their performance failures. This often results from factors that have nothing to do with the ultimate success of the enterprise. Among these factors are having to face someone with a strong personality, placing technical over interpersonal skills (despite the organization’s stated values), negative views and dismissals of employees who complain, over-estimates of the knowledge drain involved in losing someone, high level friendships and unspoken pacts, fear of lawsuits, bad advice, the desire to avoid grief, guilt or criticism, and the simple longevity of incumbents who seem to know the company way. Any of these things can be used to rationalize and therefore excuse the leader from leading.
The responsibility I am describing is nothing new. But it may be the hardest one of all to master in a demanding economy because it is so personal. There’s no “instrumentality” here to protect the leader. There are no layers to go through, no program or counsel from a consultant to protect the leader from ownership. Discernment and responsibility do not come from others inside or outside the organization. They are based on a deeply private judgment, with all the attendant exposures and risks, a judgment that must cut through so many layers of fog in order to genuinely see the situation. They are based on the recognition that unless action is taken, person by person, the enterprise will never realize its capabilities and potentials, not just for technical performance and customer relations, but for the creation of an internal community, as well.
You see, if we are to have integrity about this search for a better workplace, a more humane and inclusive business model that is also a high performance one, we have to look in a more profound way into ourselves and ask the telling question, “How am I colluding in the problem I say I want to solve?” The failure to address obvious and well-known issues, including the protection of managers (and executives, too) is one of the ways in which this collusion most easily happens. But the trick is really in the discernment that comes from that underlying, guiding vision. For me this vision would never be about short-term returns and disposable workers, disposable people of any kind. I can think of it only as an inspiring beacon. It must offer the hope and the responsibility of co-creation. It must offer a chance to contribute to something much larger than oneself. It must offer opportunities for people to release their full potentials. It must be something we believe in, founded in truth and care, something as equals we are genuinely willing to act on together.