The art of managing

FOR 13 years, Bruce Tulgan has done research on the workplace, conducting more than 13,000 interviews with employees and writing reports for Rainmaker Thinking Inc, a management-training firm he founded in New Haven, Conn.

The most common line he receives: It's getting harder to manage people.

“The workplace is just much more intense than it was,” said Tulgan, one of the nation's foremost experts on leadership and performance management and co-author of 15 books, in his presentation, “The Undermanagement Epidemic,” at the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association Convention.

“Competition is fierce. We're operating in a highly interactive, rapidly changing global marketplace. More, better, faster. That leaves anybody in a leadership role going, ‘Ugghh, OK, boss. I'll try.’ There's so much less room for downtime, waste, and inefficiency.

“Most managers, leaders, and supervisors tell us, ‘I'm managing too many people. By the way, I'm managing people who sometimes are in a different location. I'm managing people doing work that I don't fully understand and don't have experience with.’”

Tulgan says he believes there is more to it than that. He thinks both the workforce and the workplace are changing.

“Leaders and managers are finding themselves in a difficult position where employees push back,” he says.

He said managers are telling him, “I'm supposed to be the boss, and I get bossed anyway. My boss tells me, ‘More, better, faster,’ and I say, ‘OK, boss,’ and turn to my people and say, ‘Hey, I need you to do more, better, faster.’ And they don't salute. They push back. I'm stuck in the middle. My boss is squeezing and my employees are squeezing. I'm busy. I have too much to do. I'm not just a manager. I have my own tasks and responsibilities. I don't have time for this.”

Fires out of control

Tulgan said that as the workplace becomes increasingly pressure-packed and the workforce becomes increasingly high-maintenance, people in supervisory roles are sticking with their hands-off approach to management.

“Everywhere I go, I find that leaders, managers, and supervisors are not leading, managing, and supervising — not enough,” he said. “As a result, there are so many problems in the workplace. Fires are out of control. People go in the wrong direction for days and weeks on end. Low performers hide out and nobody notices. Mediocre performers mistake themselves for high performers. High performers get frustrated and start thinking about leaving.

“People in leadership roles who think they don't have time to manage still spend tons of time managing people. It's just that they spend all of their time in crisis mode. All of their time is spent putting out fires. That's the cycle of hands-off management. If you don't spend the time upfront preventing fires, the fires get started and are out of control.”

He said the Myth of Empowerment — “People do their best work when they're left alone to manage themselves” — is the top myth in the workplace.

“The truth is, people do their best work when they have somebody who's more experienced, has a greater sense of urgency and importance, and is giving them guidance and support every step of the way,” he said. “If you want to empower people, you have to manage people.

“If you're the boss, you're the solution. The Undermanagement Epidemic is causing so many companies to leave so much money on the table. We've found that if managers would roll up their sleeves and get in there and start managing, they'd pick up so much money off the table. Things would stop going wrong.

“A lot of people move into leadership roles because they're great at something — but not necessarily at managing people. If you're managing people, you're in a tough spot, because your job is to get more and better work out of everybody and try to take care of them at the same time.”

He gave the example of Mary, an employee who doesn't want to work on Thursdays. You can't afford to lose Mary. You tell her, “All right, you don't have to work on Thursdays, but don't tell anyone.” After a few Thursdays, other employees start realizing that Mary hasn't been around. One of them comes into your office and says, “I understand Mary doesn't have to work on Thursdays. That's not fair.” You tell that person, “Mary doesn't work on Thursdays because she doesn't work with you. I ask her to do something and she does.”

“Can you do everything for everybody?” Tulgan asked. “No. Why would you? One of the things we tell them is, ‘Do more for some people and less for others based on what they've earned.’ The only way you can be generous and flexible is if you and your managers are creating an environment of total accountability.

“To me, it's not a slogan. It's a process. How do you get to the position where you can do more for some and less for others? You have to break out of the Number 1 myth: The Myth of Empowerment. You have to start getting your managers and leaders to untie their hands, roll up their sleeves, and start managing.”

Not a new sheriff

He said he tells people, “It's OK to be the boss,” because somewhere along the way, they started to believe that it's not OK to be the boss. He has heard some of them describe what they say to employees: “We don't want to boss you around. After all, we're friends.” He said that bosses have to be in charge — but not for the reason a lot of managers think.

“A lot of them think, ‘I have all these little problems brewing,’ and finally decide that they're going in there and taking charge, that there's a new sheriff in town,” he said. “But that's not what it looks like to take charge. This is what I call ‘management by special occasion.’ That's how most managers manage. When do most managers manage? When something goes very wrong. When something goes very, very right. When an employee has some special demand. When something has changed.

“But every time they try to come in and manage, it's like trying to do a 10-mile run when you're out of shape. You're not going to make yourself stronger; you're going to make yourself weaker. The reason it takes guts to take charge is because it's mundane. Taking charge is all about having conversations with people every day. Instead of taking a 10-mile run, you've got to take a walk every day.”

He said that when he says that, he's not advocating becoming a “jerk.”

“You have to take on that responsibility of being a boss: ‘I'm going to make things better for you. I'm going to help you succeed. I'm going to give you guidance, direction, and the support you need.’ That means the first person you have to manage every day is yourself. The second person you have to manage every day is everybody else. You tell them what to do and how to do it.

“Some managers will say, ‘Wait a minute. Tell people what to do and how to do it? Solve the small problems before they get out of control? I don't have time for that. It sounds like you're talking about micromanagement.’ But that's not micromanagement. That's just plain management. It shows you how far the pendulum has swung away from strong leadership. When did managers start being afraid of being the boss? I'm talking about taking charge and setting people up for success every step of the way. I'm talking about making accountability real and not a slogan.

“What if your boss came in and said, ‘Today, I'm holding you accountable. If you do a great job, I'll give you $1000 at the end of the day. If you do a bad job, you're fired. If you do an average job, you won't get paid but you will get to keep working.’ What would be the first thing you'd want to know? Expectations. ‘You'd better tell me step by step exactly what you expect. Not only that, you'd better keep a close eye on me because I don't want to see you looking away when I'm doing a great job.’ Think what that accountability looks like.”

Upward spiral

He said some people need a manager to turn big holes into smaller holes. Others need a manager to turn smaller holes into a list of concrete actions. Others need a checklist for every concrete action. And still others need a manager to tattoo it on their forearm.

“You don't want to be too hands-on,” he said. “It's annoying. If you're too hands-off, you won't know until it's too late. But if you're too hands-on, people will tell you. Then you take a step back. If you start being more hands-on, you get into an upward spiral instead of a downward spiral.

“I can't tell you how many managers tell us, ‘My employees aren't meeting expectations.’ I say, ‘Well, that's interesting, have you spelled out the expectations?’ If you're doing your part and they still aren't improving, what do you do? Get them off the team.”

He said performance problems come down to one of three things:

  • Ability

    If the natural abilities of the employee do not fit the task, change the task.

  • Skill

    If the person needs training, arrange for him to get it.

  • Will

    Sometime employees are capable of doing the job, but they don't want to.

Tulgan offered four reasons to terminate employees:

  • They get paid.

  • High performers hate to work with low performers.

  • Low performers cause problems that high performers have to fix.

  • Low performers send a message — that low performance is an option.

“What happens?” he asked. “Do you think that everybody is going to say, ‘Oh, gee, that's terrible. They cut that person loose’? No, a lot of people will be saying, ‘I've been carrying that guy for days, weeks, and months. What took you so long?’”

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