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5 Ways Managers Fail Their Employees

2014 June 4
by Greg Satell

One of the first things you learn as a manager is that your own performance doesn’t really matter anymore.  You might have gotten promoted by being a hot shot, but once you are in a position of responsibility you have to get others to perform in order to succeed.

That’s an uncomfortable position to be put in.  We grow up learning to pursue accomplishments.  Getting good grades in school, making the all-star team in sports, getting into the “right” school and getting the a good job all depend on individual performance.

Yet management is different.  It’s about empowering others rather than glorifying ourselves and, the truth is, few of us are taught or encouraged to do that.  So not surprisingly, many managers never learn how to motivate employees.  Instead, they continue to act as if they were higher status versions of their former selves.  Here are five things to look out for.

1. The Open Door

In Creativity, Inc., Pixar’s President Ed Catmull describes how, while still basking in the afterglow glow of Toy Story—the studio’s enormously successful first film—he found out that all of his producers wanted to leave.  They felt that they’d been marginalized and disrespected throughout the entire production process.

Catmull was floored.  He’d always prided himself on being an “open door” manager, ready and willing to hear out employees’ complaints and take action to rectify whatever situation came up.  He realized then that having an open door isn’t enough, you actually have to walk through it and talk to people.

Going into a managers office is a tough thing to do.  You have to cross through the invisible barrier—not to mention an assistant or two—that separates him or her from the outside world, interrupt whatever they’re doing and then tell them something unpleasant.  Nobody wants to do that.

So simply saying, “I have an open door, come to me with any problems” is a cop out.  If you want to know what’s going on in your organization you have to go out and actively look for problems, not just wait for them to come to you.

2. Accountability

Many managers are fond of telling their employees that “I expect you to be accountable.”  It seems like a reasonable enough request.  After all, you hire employees to be responsible, not just to perform certain tasks.

Yet accountability is a funny thing.  When demanded, its purpose it to absolve the person demanding it.  It’s like saying that, “your problems are yours alone, don’t bother me with them.”  Employees are generally more than aware that they are accountable.  After all, people get fired all the time.

When employees are unwilling to take responsibility, the problem is rarely that they do not understand the concept of accountability, but that they don’t feel empowered to get things done and expect to be blamed when something goes wrong.  In other words, they are being very poorly managed.

So if you find yourself feeling the need to preach about accountability, you might want to try taking some yourself.  It’s probably your fault.

3. Reorganization

Whenever a business gets in trouble, the first thing managers want to do is reorganize.   If the enterprise is structured around customers, they think that more emphasis on products will make them more efficient.  If the structure is focused on products, then it seems that a more customer centric organization will improve service.

The truth is that reorganizations usually do more harm than good.  They rarely solve the problems they are intended to and cause such havoc that it often takes a business years to recover.  When it’s all over, the underlying problems still remain, but time, momentum and credibility have been lost.

As Aaron Dignan of Undercurrent points out in this excellent piece, the problem isn’t formal structure, but allowing informal structures to evolve and flourish.  If your business isn’t running right, chances are that it is due to poor management, not poor structure.

4. Busyness

Many people like to talk about how busy they are.  That’s a problem.  Mostly, it is an effort to signal importance.  If you constantly feel the need to show that you have a million better things to be paying attention to than what’s going on in front of you, then at the very least you are seriously confused about your priorities.

The truth is that there’s nothing worse than a manager that is constantly busy.  First, it tells people around you that they are not important.  Second, it limits your visibility and awareness.  If you’re busy all the time, how can you know what’s going on?

Often, busyness is the result of over-scheduling.   There’s something about a full calendar that makes people feel secure.  So it’s important to schedule some time to just walk around. It’s amazing what you can learn an accomplish by just talking to people on a regular basis.

The truth is that people who say they’re busy usually don’t get very much done.  They confuse activity for action, rudeness for importance and status for success.  It’s possible to be busy for a day or even a week, but if you’re always busy you’re either doing something very wrong or just fooling yourself.

5. The “Right” People

I used to work at a failing company where every week the top executives would get together at management board meetings and complain about the staff.  They would go on for hours about how important it was to get the “right” people on board.  The problem, everybody seemed to agree, was that we had the “wrong” people.

Of course, those “wrong” people were hired, trained and managed by the executives in that very room.   Not surprisingly, employee morale was incredibly low and turnover ran at about 40%. So we had a neverending stream of people passing through the company, but somehow none turned out to be the “right” ones.

What made the search for the “right” people even more frustrating is that many, if not most, of the people we hired were successful before they came to us and then did well again after they left us.  It was only in our company that they failed (and, of course, our executive team often complained about our employees lack of accountability).

The truth is that most people want to do a good job and are capable of good performance.  It’s a manager’s job to train, empower and motivate them.  If you can’t find the right people, then you’re the wrong manager.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Jessica Smith permalink
    June 5, 2014

    Thanks for giving emphasis on some important points. It truly matters a lot for managers to put in check some of the habits that can make them effective in performing their jobs. Lead by example and for sure, you won’t have a hard time in moving your people towards your goals.

  2. June 6, 2014

    Thanks Jessica. Leading by example is paramount, but moving people towards your goals is never easy.

    – Greg

  3. Christine permalink
    June 6, 2014


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