Five strategies for managing group dynamics, in meetings


Sept. 25, 2014

Joan Lloyd

I think my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Sadist, taught me what not to do as a group leader. When freckle-faced Pat Shanhan threw a spitball, the whole class had to stay in for recess. Rather than exert peer pressure on Pat, it just made us focus our resentment on her. And when Billy Larenson was caught napping, the teacher called on him, just to embarrass him in front of the class.

Unfortunately, some leaders took their lessons in leadership from people like Mrs. Sadist. They run lousy meetings and don’t have a clue about how to manage group dynamics. “Our department meetings are a nightmare!” a friend confided over coffee last week. “The department head doesn’t have a clue about how to handle the group, so it’s pretty much a free-for-all. She’s losing respect, too, because everyone wants her to regain control.”

A large group can be intimidating even for a seasoned manager. Here are some tips I’ve used to lasso unruly group members without alienating the group.


The dominator

This person uses a meeting for his or her personal forum on every agenda item. You need to cut him off but if you do it too harshly and wound his self-esteem, he will have hurt feelings and the group will side with him.

Strategy: Look for a place to interrupt him, quickly summarize his point of view and turn to the group and say, “Does anyone else have an opinion about this?” or “Joe, I’d be interested in your opinion about this.”


The wallflower

You know she has good ideas but she’s just too shy to share them in a group setting.

Strategy: Set her up with a little encouragement. “Susan, you’ve had experience with this in your last position. What can you tell us?”  “Susan, you were telling me about an idea you had last week. Why don’t you share it with all of us?”


Side conversations

In a big group, two people will often huddle together and start buzzing about something. If you embarrass them, you’ll look like Mrs. Sadist. Besides, they may be discussing a great idea about the topic.

Strategy: Pause a little longer than normal before you make your next point. Sometimes that will cause them to stop talking (however, avoid giving them an evil glare). Call on someone who is sitting next to one of them. That will startle them enough to stop, without embarrassing them. If all else fails, “Hey, you two. You must have a good idea over there. How about filling the rest of us in?”



This one is tricky, since he or she may have a legitimate point and you don’t want to shut down honest dialogue.

Strategy: Summarize the basic concern the person is griping about. Use neutral words such as “She thinks the policy isn’t fair.” Turn to the rest of the group and say, “What about this concern? Let’s examine it. Does anyone else feel this way?” If no one else joins in, the group can often diffuse the griper and you won’t have to do a thing. If the person is a chronic griper, it’s time for a private one-on-one conversation about what is at the bottom of his or her discontent.


The quiet group

Groups can be reticent for many reasons. For instance, the topic may be an emotionally charged issue that could divide the group, or the leader may dominate the conversation, or the group may be resistant to a new change.

Strategy: If your group is usually quiet, chances are you are the problem. Perhaps you talk too much or have intimidated people in the past when they had an idea that disagreed with your own. Your best strategy is to let others lead the discussion and reduce the frequency of your comments. Ask more questions and make fewer judgements.

If the topic is political, don’t force a discussion in a group. You will have more luck talking with people individually. Then bring forth the range of opinions in a group session, without attributing comments to specific individuals. This will allow people to discuss pros and cons of a solution without being politically vulnerable.

If you don’t know why your group is quiet, it’s time to ask them. The next time you meet, tell them that the only agenda item will be an evaluation of the group meeting format. The goal of the meeting will be to redesign your meetings to make them more effective.

To resolve conflict, managers must separate facts from emotions  
Sept. 16, 2014

Confronting and resolving conflict can be an unpleasant affair. So unpleasant that some managers will either avoid a problem or intervene without careful preparation, just to get it over with.

Conflict is an inevitable part of any work environment. Some conflicts between employees will resolve themselves and some may even produce useful competition or change. But most conflict shreds the cooperative fabric of the workplace and diminishes productivity.

Dear Joan:

Two employees of mine have been in a fight for two weeks. They are barely speaking to each other, and now one to them appears to be trying to get some of the others on her side.

Their fight is about some comment one appears to have made about the other. The accused employee denies such a comment.

I have spoken to each of them and then brought them together for a talk, but it didn’t do too much good. It is beginning to affect everyone, and others are complaining. I would hate to lose either person because they are normally good workers.

I thank you in advance for any advice you can give me.



Your goal is not to make them like one another but to be able to work together. You will need to reduce the emotions and get to the facts.

Do Your Homework

Prepare yourself with as much factual knowledge about the problem as you can. Look at how productivity has been affected.

Your approach has been correct so far. You’ve spoken to each employee separately and then together to attempt to settle his or her differences. You didn’t mention the quality of their relationship before this conflict arose, but I am assuming it was reasonably amiable and professional.


Get Emotionally Prepared

You will need to be impartial, even-tempered and fair.

Both parties probably will be attempting to win you over to their side by building their case and by blaming the other. They will look to you for subtle signals, like the amount of time you allow each person to speak or any expressions of empathy on your part, either verbal or non-verbal.

The day you choose to meet with them is the day they should be notified of the meeting. This will limit the amount of time they have to arm themselves with more accusations or build defenses.

Open the conversation by stating your concern about the problem. Tell them it is affecting their performances.

Never attempt to humiliate them into a resolution. Comments like, “You’re both behaving like children” or “You both have really disappointed me” sounds parental and condescending and only create further resentment.

Two consultants with McGraw Hill,Inc. David Engler, General Education Media, and Lester R. Bittle, author of “What Every Supervisor Should Know,” suggest that you:

1. Ask each person to explain his or her account of the problem. Each version is likely to be laced with emotional interpretations and assumptions. Do not let either party interrupt while the other is talking or you will have an “I did not!” “You did too” free-for-all. Instead, say something like, “Jane, you will get a chance to talk in a moment.”

2. Ask each employee to state the other’s views of the problem. This may be difficult for them to do because they have been too busy mentally arguing and defending themselves while the other person spoke. Asking each of them to put into words what the other’s views are can have a calming effect.

3. Ask each to confirm the accuracy of the other’s restatement. Simply say, “Charley, is that what you said?” Each person needs to feel heard before you can move on.

4. Ask each in turn to focus on the facts of the problem. If either one begins to stray into hearsay or interpretation, calmly but firmly restate that it’s important to stick to the facts. This will create a more problem-solving climate and keep the mud in the buckets.

Here you will need to listen very carefully to make sure you are getting a clear, detailed description of the problem. Allow no generalities.

5. Ask each to suggest solutions. By this time, you may have mentally settled on your own solution. Resist the urge to steer them in that direction or impose your own ideas. Listen open-mindedly to their suggestions since they will be more committed to solutions they come up with on their own.

If their solutions are impractical, unacceptable or not forthcoming, you must offer your own opinion and solution. Offer any support you can to make the solutions work.

6. Ask each of them to restate what they have agreed to do. This eliminates any misunderstandings. It’s also a way to create a more binding agreement.

7. Set up a followup meeting before they leave. This progress check creates a sense of urgency and lets them know you’re serious about ending their conflict once and for all.


Empowering employees is a matter of survival 
Sept. 11, 2014

Status, power and control. These three brass rings are what American employees have been after for decades; and they have grabbed the prize when they were promoted to management.

The language of control is liberally sprinkled throughout the corporate vocabulary. For example, “span of control” describes the number of “subordinates” who “report” to a “supervisor” or “manager.” Even the word “supervisor” implies that employees can’t be trusted and must be controlled.

It’s no surprise then, that some managers are silently digging in their heels and muttering under their breath, “Participative management isn’t for me. I’ve earned my perks the hard way, thanks. Give me one good reason why I should suddenly share these hard-earned goodies with my employees?”

I can give them a reason: survival.

These managers have seen management fads come and go and they figure if they go through the motions and mouth words such as “involvement,” this too shall pass. Not this time, buckaroos.

The only way to harness the waning work ethic is to create the kind of environment that gives status, power and the ability to self-control to the employees. Some companies are way ahead of their counterparts and have established a new set of definitions. Their productivity and profitability are up and their employees don’t leave. Let’s take a look at these new definitions that are reshaping the competitors who are out in front:



There will be fewer corporate status symbols 10 years from now. The walls executives erect between themselves and their employees will need to come down. Why? Because the employees who work directly with the customer, solving their problems and making sales, will be the focus of corporate attention, not who gets the corner office.

Smart executives will do everything in their power to break down the barriers between themselves and the front line. They will need to find out what their employees know about the customer and they won’t get a “worker bee” from the bowls of the organization to open up to them if they are sitting at the opposite end of a 6-foot mahogany desk. Executives will shed their suit coats and go visit their employees where it counts - on the factory and showroom floor.

Instead of status-loaded titles such as “supervisor” and “subordinate” we will see more “associates” and “members.” Perks will go to everyone or to no one at all. The goal will be “one for all” instead of “the guy with the biggest title wins.”

Companies who understand how to compete will know that in order to keep the best and brightest where they need them - on the front line, working with the customer - they will have to make it more attractive than moving into management. Middle management ranks will continue to thin out and steep hierarchies will be a thing of the past.

Many companies have typically paid their field salespeople more than they could make in management. Companies will have to extend this concept to employees at the corporate headquarters, if they are to attract and keep talented, young employees from the ever-shrinking labor pool.


Power and Control:

In the past, power belonged to the decision-maker, the performance evaluator and the money distributor. This will still be true, however, the people who perform large portions of those tasks will be the employees.

Some service-minded companies, who have moved toward the concept of self-managed employees, first experimented with letting teams make some of their own decisions about how they do the work. When these teams were given real power and authority to make the changes they felt were important, these employees exceeded the performance goals that were set for them. 

When management realized that the employees were enthusiastic and the quality and speed of their work improved, they trained them in more self-management tasks such as peer performance reviews and hiring and firing and even salary distribution. The team, rather than the individual, became the unit to reward. Their managers became facilitators and coaches and the focus of the organization shifted from how to please the boss, to how to provide the resources the employees need to serve the customer.

Contrary to popular management belief, anarchy does not prevail when power and control shifts to the employees. But this doesn’t happen without hundreds of hours of training and a management team that is fully committed to the vision. Employees will watch what their bosses do, not what they say. A few control-minded executives can undo, in one knee-jerk decision, the employee commitment that took months to build.

These are exciting times for management and employees alike. The companies who make it will learn the power and excitement of joining hands and beating the competition instead of each other.


Sometimes it’s better to leave than try to fight perceptions 
Sept. 6, 2014

Dear Joan:

After working with my present employer, a large financial institution, for more than two years, I decided to take advantage of the firm’s policy of allowing a review of the results of pre-employment tests with a Human Resources Department representative. I learned that although I ranked in the upper 95th percentile in psychological and social attributes, I rated in the lowest 5th percentile in intelligence and, therefore, could never, according to company policy, be considered for a promotion or higher position.

While in school, I was placed in the Superior Ability Program of the Milwaukee Public Schools when I was in the fourth grade (a minimum IQ of 125 was required); I was admitted to the National Honor Society and graduated with honors from high school; graduated summa cum laude from a large university; received an MBA degree; and now teach senior-level courses in college in the evening.

Obviously, the pre-employment tests are erroneous, but the Human Resources Department insists that an error is impossible and changing the records could not be considered.

The test score explains why I have not been promoted and why I am always given the department’s more secretarial, routine assignments.

My supervisor is an extremely uncommunicative person. How do I proceed from here?


If you decide to stay in this company, after uncovering this information, your intelligence would indeed be in question!

Unfortunately, pushing your Human Resources Department will only tie another can to your tail. The more noise you make, the worse it’s likely to get. Since they insist an error is impossible, they aren’t likely to be tolerant of your protests to the contrary. (Incidentally, why did they hire you in the first place if they thought you scored so low in intelligence?)

Even if you write a letter detailing the facts, the damage has probably been done. As you know, changing people’s perceptions can be difficult. Because you don’t know who has seen it, you wouldn’t know where to begin.

Start looking for another job. Two years is a respectable amount of time to spend at one company. You can tell potential employers that you are looking for a job with more growth and responsibility.

Consider it lucky that you discovered the error when you did. You could have spent many frustrating years questioning your ability.

If you feel you must pursue this issue, it’s not unreasonable to ask to speak to someone from the Human Resources Department who is more knowledgeable about interpreting test results. (They may be willing to let you talk with someone from the testing firm.)

Ask for the name of the test. Find out if it’s valid. Any test used to enhance or determine promotional opportunities needs to meet Equal Employment Opportunity employee-selection guidelines.

Obviously, a mistake was made, but erasing it may create a bigger smudge. You were smart to check your file. Now, be shrewd and leave.

Just a footnote about testing:

Psychological tests are typically used to reinforce a decision the employer has already made. Valid tests are heavily researched and can be used to show a correlation between certain test scores and people who tend to be successful in a particular area. Of course, these predictions are never foolproof.

If the test is reliable and valid, it can increase the likelihood of a good job match. Common sense must prevail, however. There is no substitute for careful interviewing, reference checking and a record of past accomplishments.

What four things separate good bosses from bad bosses? 
Aug. 11, 2014

Is it just me, or is there more selfish, insensitive and downright mean behavior at work these days? When did we cross the line from honesty to cruelty? When did we evolve from “I’m okay, you’re okay,” to “I’m okay and who cares about you?”

In some workplaces today, employees don their emotional bulletproof vests to prepare themselves for the psychological battle they will endure that day. Managers can be the worst offenders, since their employees are at a political disadvantage if they want to stand up for themselves. Heavy workloads and more stress are probably the culprit but certainly no excuse.

Here’s the irony: this is emerging at the same time employers are launching all-out recruiting and retention campaigns to keep their best employees happy and content. In some cases, these minefields of caustic behavior are causing people to walk out the back door faster than they can get them through the lobby.

Here are some of the nasty things I’m seeing from managers and co-workers, and what to do about them:


Sarcastic comments.

Sarcasm can be a hoot at work but when it turns into a veiled barb, it’s crossed the line. The attacker can hide behind his words with a thin smile, “I was only kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” Meanwhile everyone in the room is squirming. The victim of the sarcasm has been publicly skewered and can only lose: he looks defensive if he’s offended and he looks weak if he’s the regular punching bag.

Approach: Public counterattacks can backfire and are tricky to pull off. Instead, pull the peer aside after the meeting and say, “Jack, from your comment in the meeting, you seem to have an issue with the way I’ve handled the Anderson account. I’d like to hear what your concerns are.” After his feedback, say, “I appreciate your honesty. In the future, I’d prefer a similar discussion between the two of us, rather than a comment in a meeting.”


The stealth bomber.

Sometimes everyone in the department knows about Jeff’s problem except Jeff. Co-workers gossip about him on their breaks. The manager has had a stream of complaints and ends up commiserating with other employees about Jeff’s problems.

Approach: Develop a conflict protocol in your department. The expectation is that anyone who has an issue with someone else is expected to go directly to that person first. When the supervisor receives complaints, he or she should coach the complainer to go and talk with the person first before the manager gets involved. The goal is to encourage everyone to take responsibility for the situation instead of playing high school games.


Condescending comments.

I’ve heard about comments that could curdle fresh milk. “Do I have to do your job for you?” “Last time I checked, I was the department manager and you were just a secretary.”

Approach: Stand up for yourself if you are the victim of blatant disrespect. “If you have a concern I’ll be happy to discuss it but not if you use that tone.”


Screaming and temper tantrums.

Managers and co-workers who yell and throw things often dismiss the ripple effect it has. Their way of dealing with a frustration is to get it out of their system, never mind the fact that they have now passed their stress to everyone around them. Sister symptoms are door slamming, sulking and huffing around the office. And if the rage is directed at you, it can be demoralizing and devastating.

Approach: In the middle of the storm, either walk away or tell the person you’ll talk with them when they’ve calmed down. In a calmer moment give some advice. Use this model: 1. Describe what they are doing. 2. Say how it is affecting them/you. 3. State what you would prefer. (“When you yell and start blaming me, it makes me just shut down and get angry with you, instead of directing my attention to solving the problem. And because I’m worried about your reaction on things, I don’t always tell you when a problem is brewing, which makes it worse. I’d prefer it if you would state the problem and wait to hear what I have to say and then let me figure out how to fix it.”)


My life is more important than your life.

You see it everywhere. “I’m going to call in sick. So what if someone else has to cover for me?” “I have to leave early [again] to do something at my son’s school. Sally can finish this project, she’s single and doesn’t have any family obligations.”

Approach: Self-centered people fail to see themselves from other angles. Explain it by putting them in other peoples’ shoes. “If you were Sally, how would you feel if you had to stay late without warning each week to cover for a co-worker? Whether it’s for a child, elderly parent or just an aerobics class, it’s not fair to assume your life is more important than hers.”

If everyone practices a little more civility at work, it can reduce the stress for all of us.

If you ask someone what he or she loves or hates about work, you’re likely to hear about a great working relationship with a subordinate or about some sneaky little weasel in the next office. You’re also likely to hear about his or her relationship with the boss.

It’s no surprise that bosses are often the primary cause of people either loving or leaving their jobs. In your own career, you’ve probably been deeply influenced by certain bosses.

Learning to be a good boss isn’t as clear cut as learning technical skills. There is no degree to earn or tests to pass. Most of us learn how by watching our own managers and by making our own mistakes.

The other day someone asked me if I’ve seen any patterns emerge from the letters I receive about good and bad bosses. Over the years, I have begun to see that there are four main themes that seem to separate the good bosses from the bad.

They are: setting expectations, coaching, feedback, and recognition. These big four can make all the difference.


Setting clear expectations:

Every time I interview a new employee I ask him or her, “What kind of manager do you like to work for?” I’ll bet you know what they say: “Someone who tells me what they expect and how I’m doing.”

Managers need to sit down with new employees and point out priorities. It’s a good idea to pull out the performance review form and discuss how you define “excellent performance.” Paint a picture. Don’t assume.

For experienced employees it’s critical to discuss your expectations at least once a year when you’re forming plans for the coming year. It’s even better to discuss the results you expect when you are delegating each assignment. Too often, we simply tell our employees what we want done - not the results we expect. We deserve to be disappointed.



Too many managers lead through mental telepathy. They assume their employees know what to do and how to do it.

Managers must learn how to be good sideline coaches. Too often a well-meaning boss will run in and play the game for the subordinate rather than calling in the plays from the sidelines. The boss may be having fun but her subordinate isn’t learning a thing.

Overcontrolling bosses make their employees feel inadequate and undermined. Because they don’t force them to take the responsibility for solving their own problems, their employees either give up and become passive or the good ones quit.

Undercontrolling bosses cause different problems. Their hands-off style contributes to confusion about priorities. They don’t like to make unpopular decisions because they want everyone to be happy. Their team ends up running around the field in circles bumping into each other. Fights break out. They usually end up being ignored or despised.



Why wait until the formal performance review to surprise your employee? Then it’s too late to do anything about it. Managers get into trouble by not confronting employees early enough.

They often tell me they don’t want to hurt employees’ feelings or are afraid the employee will lose his or her motivation.

The next time you struggle with whether or not to share negative feedback with your employee, ask yourself:  “If I had this problem, would I want my boss to tell me?”

A good way to give negative feedback in a constructive way is to use the employee’s personal goal as a lead-in. For example: “I know you’re trying to bring in bigger retail clients, so I’m sure you’d want to know if there was something getting in the way of that ...”  It helps them hear what you have to say because you have their best interests at heart.

Feedback given along the way sounds more like coaching - not like punishment.



Employees demand recognition for their efforts. They are actively managing their own careers and won’t tolerate neglect.

We can’t afford what happens when good employees begin to wither from lack of positive reinforcement. In spite of themselves, some of them begin to say: “Why should I kill myself? He or she doesn’t appreciate it anyway!”

There has been a lot of research on motivational theory. One of the things inherent in all of the findings is that humans thrive on recognition. Nothing improves our hearing like praise. We never get too old for it.

Giving positive reinforcement is the most powerful coaching tool you have as a manager. Mention the thing you like and you’ll get more of it.

Remember to be specific, don’t mix negative and positive. Give feedback and compliments as soon after the event as possible. If you wait until their performance review, the effect is lost.

Your job has a tremendous impact on the people you manage. Your success or failure to pay attention to the “big four” will not only affect your employees but your future as well.

Good managers know that employee satisfaction is essential to healthy teamwork, initiative and productivity.  Based on an in-depth study of the most innovative ideas in creating a culture where employees thrive, our recruiting & retention tools have all the secrets you will need to find and keep the best employees.


Learn how to give criticism effectively
August 5, 2014

Receiving criticism is like swallowing bad-tasting medicine. We wish we didn't have to take it, but we know, if it’s valid, it will make us better.

Criticism is often as difficult to give as it is to receive. We don’t like to criticize because we don’t want to hurt feelings. Because of this, many managers rank giving negative feedback high on the list of techniques they want to improve. Even the best employees occasionally need to hear how they can improve their work. In fact, as a good coach, you owe it to your employees to recognize excellent work, as well as to give criticism, so they have a clear picture of the performance you desire.

If employees only hear about their work when they do it wrong, they may feel unappreciated and withhold extra effort because “the boss never notices anyway.” You risk getting an average performance out of a star performer.

Conversely, if employees hear only positive remarks or silence, they are being cheated out of important feedback that could help their careers. For example, studies have pointed out that some male bosses are hesitant to criticize female employees because they aren’t sure how they’ll handle it.

Here are some basic guidelines to help you deliver corrective criticism:

■ Don’t sugar-coat the criticism with compliments.

Even though you may think it will make the criticism easier to take, you may send mixed signals to your employees. They may either doubt the sincerity of your compliment or not take the advice as seriously as they should. For example: “John, I really think this report is well done, but there are quite a few little things missing.”

Instead, focus immediately on the task or behavior you wish to change. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the need to preserve your employee's self-esteem, however. Example: “John, these fact sheets are incomplete. You’re usually very thorough in your reports. Can you tell me anything about this?” This preserves the employee’s selfesteem and reduces defensiveness, while staying focused on the specific problem.

■ Give negative feedback on only one thing at a time.

Overloading an employee with several criticisms at once can diffuse the importance of each item. For example: “Sharon, there are too many typos in this letter. You have to be more careful. It’s just like your filing ... I couldn’t find the Evans report this morning ... and another thing ...”

Overloading criticism is also unproductive because it tends to make your employees feel ineffective, frustrated and resentful.

It is better to concentrate on one issue at a time and to deal with the most important area first.

■ Be specific about the change or result you want.

The change you want is probably so obvious to you that you assume it is understood by the employee. Constantly communicating your standards and expectations helps everyone stay on track. Consider the time, energy and anxiety caused by this vague criticism: “Brenda, you must work on writing better memos. Work on improving your style next time. It needs to be tightened up, OK?”

A better approach might be: “Brenda, you made some interesting points in this memo, but they were hard to find because of the memo’s structure. Next time, try limiting it to a half page and underline each key point.”

■ Offer criticism in the form of advice and give it right before the employee has a chance to try again.

This technique makes the feedback sound supportive rather than punitive. It can be difficult to discipline yourself to do this because our tendency is to routinely offer criticism immediately after a mistake is make.

Here’s how it could be done: “Pete, you have some difficult formats to put together for this report. I’d like you to be consistent with the other technicians in the way you lay out the data. When you get to that part, let me know. I’ll show you how I’d like it done.”

This timing technique of describing the change you want, right before they can practice it, isn’t always practical, but when used correctly, it is an effective coaching tool. Athletic coaches use it all the time to make performance adjustments.

■ Involve the employee in thinking through solutions.

This helps to eliminate blaming.

Listen to this exchange: Employee: “If Accounting had gotten the information to me on time, I could have prepared a complete report.”

Manager: “Do you have any ideas about how to get those figures from Accounting on time, next time?”

Pointing the finger at Accounting isn’t going to solve the problem, so the manager put the responsibility where it belonged – with the employee. Only if the employee’s facts clearly indicate that the fault lies elsewhere, and is beyond his or her authority to handle, would the manager intervene.

Involving the employee in thinking through solutions to mistakes encourages a healthy discussion of the problem and forces the employee to take responsibility for solving it.

Giving criticism is usually not easy but knowing how to do it well increases the likelihood that it will be heard and acted upon. It will make you a boss everyone will want to work for.

Reserve competition for your competitors

July 25, 2014

Dear Joan:

For the past 10 years I have worked in sales and have been successful because I’ve developed good relationships with my customers and the sales team.

For the past four years, I have been working for a manufacturing company in sales but I’m having a difficult time dealing with the philosophy of our sales manager. He believes that the best way to motivate the staff is to sow seeds of dissension between us. When we confronted him in a meeting he said that he believes that healthy competition keeps us motivated and working hard. We think this is counterproductive. Isn’t the “enemy” our competition - not each other? It’s tough enough dealing with the outside environment; we don’t want to be fighting inside too. What do you think?


I’m with you. The individuals on the team would probably do much better if their focus was on beating the competition instead of each other. Internal competition between individuals and between departments does all the wrong things: competition for resources, withholding help and information, opposing goals ... all the things that will hurt the customer and can kill a company.

Many managers still think that setting up some "healthy competition” between peers will spark the drive to do better than the other guy. Unfortunately, not many people are motivated this way.

Most people do better when they’re in a supportive team. The pressures of the workplace are relentless, and in sales they increase when making your mortgage payment depends on a commission. Sales people spend a lot of time alone in the field, and dealing with rejection is tough enough, so when they come back to the office they need to feel supported. It’s important to be able to congratulate each other’s successes and support teammates when they need it.

Another powerful component of motivation is having a shared goal. Imagine the dynamics of two differently structured sales contests. In group one, the sales manager would pit each sales person against the other for a prize. In the second group, the manager would have them work together.

It’s likely group one would steal leads from each other, withhold valuable market information, and hide how well they were doing. There would be winners and losers. Even the sales person who came in second place would be a loser. And because they wouldn’t share information about successful tactics, the team members wouldn’t learn much from the experience.

In the second team, things would be much different. The sales manager would work with the team to come up with a team goal that would be challenging yet possible if everyone did their part. Progress toward the goal would be prominently posted and the team would meet regularly to discuss how they could help each other to do even better. They would have a vested interest in making sure each of the team members had all the help and information they needed. They would have a compelling reason to share customer information and marketing ideas. They would all be winners and so would the customers.

These dynamics don’t just occur in sales teams. Most companies are inadvertently set up in a way that creates destructive competition. If they are structured functionally - each with their own goals - it’s inevitable. People fight each other for limited promotions, departments fight each other for resources ... and the customer is the loser.

That’s why progressive companies are moving toward a new way to structure and reward work groups. Rather than the traditional departmental configuration, they are now grouping people around a whole front-to-back process or product. The idea is to start with the customer and structure the organization to serve them, rather than organizing to suit the selfish efficiency needs of the organization.

Your manager doesn’t realize that these two things - structure and rewards - need to be in alignment before everyone wins.


Progressive discipline minimizes liability, maximizes productivity
July 18, 2014

Dear Joan,

I am a new manager, having recently been promoted after five years at this company. I am concerned about how to discipline employees. Some of my questions are:

1. How are U.S. firms dealing with employee discipline?

2. How do managers discipline their employees without offending anyone or getting sued?

3. How can a manager earn respect from their employees and still have them make sure the job is completed with satisfaction?

Our company doesn’t have a human resources function. We are a small service company of 35 employees. I am struggling with an employee who only seems to work when he feels like it and when I talk to him about his work he will improve for awhile but go right back to long breaks and missed deadlines.

What is the right approach? My boss is always worried about getting sued, so he wants me to tiptoe around this employee but I want to get him to perform his job. What do you advise?



An employee who is performing below the minimum standard - and getting away with it - is, in fact, lowering the standard for everyone. After all, if he can get away with lousy performance, doesn’t it mean everyone else can, too?

I’m on your side. If your manager ties your hands and prevents you from holding this employee responsible, he is taking away your authority to do your job. I suspect your manager is uninformed about what constitutes appropriate progressive discipline.

It’s called “progressive” because it evolves over a period of time, with no surprises for the employee and clear expectations and consequences. When done correctly, an employee can either take steps to turn around the situation or “fire himself.” In other words, he knows what the consequences will be if he doesn’t change his behavior but he continues down the path to termination anyway.

Experience shows us that surprised people sue. This process eliminates the surprise and gives the employee clear choices about the outcome. He or she may sue anyway but chances are you’d win the case, if you have been clear, consistent and reasonable about expectations and what the consequences could be if he or she fails to meet minimum expectations.


Here are some general guidelines to follow:

1. Meet with your manager and show him this process. Ask for his support as you move through the steps. If it would make him feel more comfortable, speak to a lawyer who specializes in labor and human resources issues before you begin.


2. First meeting: Have a discussion with the employee to spell out exactly what is expected and give him examples of the pattern of behavior that is unacceptable. “Jack, over the last few months you’ve missed a number of deadlines. Your weekly reports are consistently late, three of your main projects have missed major targets and you haven’t begun the new assignment that is due next week. This pattern isn’t acceptable and we need to talk about what you are going to do to turn this around.”

During this conversation, it’s important to do three things:

* Keep the focus on his responsibilities. Don’t accept excuses or blame. “Let’s stay focused on you. What are you going to do differently that is going to ensure that you meet your deadlines?”

* Determine if there is some legitimate barrier preventing him from meeting the expectation.

* Give him fair warning. This isn’t going to be documented but if you need to talk to him again, you will be forced to document the incident and put it in his personnel file.


3. Second - Third - Fourth Meetings: Observe his behavior, being quick to notice if he is making improvements but talk to him again if he fails to meet expectations. At this point, you will probably ask him to meet with you weekly and report on his progress. Restate the expectations, ask him for actions he’s going to take, or impose some actions if necessary.

* Summarize your conversation, including action items he’s agreed to do, in an email and give him a copy. Put a copy in his file.

* Spell out the potential consequences. “I feel that it’s only fair to tell you what could happen if you don’t turn this around. It has already had an impact on your results, which will affect your salary review. If it continues, it could cause you to lose your job. I hope you will take the necessary steps to prevent this.”


4. Final Meeting: He hasn’t improved consistently enough and you are going to give him one final warning. He is one step away from termination and he needs to know it.

* Give him specific, measurable actions you want from him, within a clear time frame. “Over the next six months, you need to hand in your weekly report by 3 p.m. on Friday. You also need to meet every deadline, unless we’ve agreed otherwise. Failure to do this could result in losing your job. It is unfortunate that it’s come to this but you’ve left me no other options.” (Notice the words “could result.” This gives you some wiggle room in case there actually is a legitimate reason. But at this point, it would need to be something out of the person’s control.)

Taking disciplinary action is never easy. But done correctly, it will put the employee’s fate in his own hands.


Boosting quality means thinking about service
July 8, 2014

Do your employees know who their customers are? If you’re thinking, “But they don’t have customers, only our sales people have customers,” you are missing out on an important concept. If each employee served internal customers as well as they serve outside customers, the level of quality in your organization would rise substantially.

Everyone has a customer. It’s easy to identify them. Just ask yourself. “Who receives the output my work group produces?” “Who complains when our work isn’t done right?” Tomorrow, call your employees together and discuss the concept of internal customers. But before you do, think about how you manage for “customer service.” Quality gurus, such as W. Edwards Deming, point to faulty management practices as the undermining influence that destroys good quality.

Here are some things to consider when you want to reinforce what you preach: Do I give my employees enough autonomy to solve problems with their customers or do I force them to follow inflexible policies? Have you ever heard one of your employees say to a customer, “I’m sorry, but that’s the rule.”

Is my organization structured so that employees who do different parts of the work can talk to one another daily and consider themselves as part of one team? Do your groups blame and complain about each other?

Does your performance review process and form weigh quality and teamwork as much as it does quantity of production? Are there complaints about service or do your “customers” have to revise some of your employees’ work?

In times of crisis, do you overlook poor customer service in order to get the work done? Action in times of a crunch are what employees remember when searching for your real expectations: “If he demands good customer service during rush periods, he must really mean it!”

Do you use the terms “customers” or “clients” when referring to the people who are next in line to receive work from your employees? In order to change thinking, you will probably need to use these terms on a regular basis.

When you receive complaints about services or products, do you give them back to your people to solve or do you try to solve it for them? Do you encourage them to discover what caused the problem in the first place, so that future problems will be avoided? Or do you ignore the opportunity and encourage everyone to get back to work as usual after the complaint is resolved or the complainer pacified?

When quality slips, do you demand that everyone work harder and try to concentrate? Or do you ask your employees if there is a problem in the work flow or changes in the system that could also be causing the problem? Quality experts have found that poor quality is usually the result of faulty systems, not faulty people.

When crunch hits, will you provide the resources necessary to get the job done at a level of quality that you expect?

Do you demand quality customer service or is cost control or production your real focus? Will you hire more help or delay a project deadline if the quality isn’t up to your customers’ standards?

Do you survey your customers on a regular basis? Do you have a regular system of feedback so your employees know how they’re doing? If you asked your employees what your customers’ standards are for quality work, would they know?

Do you provide appropriate training that reinforces quality customer service? Do you actually monitor what your new employees learn during their initial training? Do your employees have frequent educational meetings at which information is shared?

Do you have regular meetings at which problems are discussed openly and solved through teamwork? Or, do employees come to you individually with their problems or complaints about one another?

Do you ask your employees to give you input on policies, procedures and work decisions that affect them? Do you let them solve problems that are closest to them?

Do you reward the employees who strive to provide a responsible level of service and quality to their customers?


Manager who plays favorites is playing with fire
June 27, 2014

Dear Joan:

I have a situation in my office for which I would like your advice. I work for a very large telecommunications company on the East Coast. Although I have been working in my position as an account manager for four years now, I started working for a new boss a year ago due to a merger.

I recently discovered that this boss takes certain employees in our department to baseball games and other events during business hours over the summer and throughout the year. Certain employees have gone to sporting events several times, while others have never been asked to go, including myself. I should mention that there is an employee, newer than myself to the department, and he has been invited twice now. I should also mention that it appears to be only men who go to these games and I understand that there are really no business discussions going on at these events. The outings require no use of vacation hours; they are simply a perk.

I wouldn’t mind it so much that these employees get to take time off during business hours to go and enjoy the afternoon, if it weren’t for the fact that there are others of us who can’t take so much as an hour off without having to use vacation hours. There are certain employees (myself included) who are not allowed to work through lunch to make up an hour, while other people in the department are allowed to do this.

I would say something to my boss directly, but I suspect he really doesn’t like me and I would just be labeled a complainer if I said anything.

I should mention that our boss does give some nice perks to all employees, which I really appreciate. I get to work flexible hours along with about half of the office and everyone gets Friday afternoons off in the summer months without having to take vacation hours. We also are allowed to dress casually (when we don’t call on customers).

Am I not appreciating the benefits I do have (even though everyone gets them)? Or, is there some discrimination going on? Is there a way to address this with my boss without appearing to be a complainer?


I’d be annoyed, too. In the best of circumstances, your manager is lacking some basic understanding about fair play and how to build a team. A worse case scenario, your manager is displaying favoritism. His selective invitations to certain employees have created an uneven playing field, whether he realizes it or not.

It appears that there is even a disparity about the way “everyone’s” benefits are administered. If some people can make up time and others can’t, I have to wonder what the criteria are for these decisions. Is it based upon the job duties? For instance, in some customer service jobs, work hours must be adhered to for coverage purposes. But if this isn’t the case, it certainly looks like favoritism to me.

Employees who aren’t his cronies must be feeling like you do. Who wouldn’t? They must feel as if the boss doesn’t like them, either. They must wonder if their careers will be ignored, while his buddies’ careers will flourish. And if the “haves” are all men and the “have nots” are all women, the career opportunity imbalance will appear to be tipped in favor of men. And that’s where the risk lies for the appearance of discrimination. Although these outings may be done in ignorance and innocence, others may view the chosen ones as having an unfair advantage when raises and promotions are handed out. This manager is playing with fire.

Ironically, this situation isn’t fair for the manager’s pals, either. Even if they are good performers, any raise or promotion will be tainted with whispers about favoritism.

If your manager is blind to the obvious predicament he is creating, I doubt that he will be open to your opinion. If you do bring this up and he reacts with more hostility, you have several choices - go to Human Resources, or to your next level of management with your concerns, or you may decide to leave.

Your situation is not unlike many stories I hear about the subtle, and not so subtle, discrimination in many workplaces. It’s where the term “glass ceiling” got its name. Many women feel that situations such as this aren’t bad enough, or overt enough, to fight against. They chose their battles carefully and try to outperform their peers. In the end, if they feel that their good work will lose out to cronyism, many of them take their talent and go where they have a fighting chance.

Address feedback – perception is often reality  
June 17, 2014

Dear Joan:

At my company we have an extensive succession planning process. As a part of that process we hear feedback from those above us regarding our upward potential. I am a mid-level manager and I would like to move up some day but for right now, I’m happy in my job. I was promoted a few years ago and I still feel I have a lot to learn. The question I have for you is about something I have heard from my boss in the succession feedback. Apparently there is a perception among some senior executives that I am “too close to my people.” When I pressed for what that meant, I was told that sometimes I don’t see my people’s flaws. I view them only through “rose-colored glasses.” In other words, I think they are better than others think they are.

In my own defense, I like to build a strong team and my team is in a role that is under heavy pressure and stress. So, I believe that my job is to protect them a little from the business politics and administration that only bogs them down and interferes with our results. And our division is getting great results (we’re in sales and service).

He mentioned a few people who have had some performance slumps and one person who has been with the organization a short while but who has ruffled some feathers. I have defended these individuals because they have great potential.

My boss said it wasn’t anything career-threatening but he wanted to make me aware of it now, so I can work on it before it becomes a more serious issue (especially if I want to move up). What do you think?


I think you should thank your boss for his candid feedback. Whether you agree with it or not, if that is the perception of some of those above you, it must be addressed. In other words, if you disagree with their perceptions, you must prove them wrong with objective data. If their comments have a grain of truth, you would be wise to take a hard look at what you need to do differently.

If you believe that you are being judged incorrectly, then your strategy is to clear up their misperceptions. Talk to your manager and find out more details about what he and the senior managers think are your employees’ shortcomings. Ask yourself, “What aren’t they seeing that I see?” “What extenuating circumstances are they unaware of ?” “What behavior is causing ‘ruffled feathers’ and what can you do to help your employee change that outcome?”

As you work with those above you, find opportunities to educate them with objective data that they may not be aware of. Their perceptions will only change after they see the whole picture for themselves. Nothing you say will make that happen. In fact, it will only make you look more protective, if you try to defend these employees in the face of those perceptions.

On the other hand, if the issue is pronounced enough to come up during a succession planning process, it is probably grounded in some real evidence. If more than one person sees it this way, you should do some soul searching.

Good people managers sometimes have this blind spot. They are such devoted employee developers and teachers – especially for those employees they hire themselves – these managers aren’t always objective about the amount of progress that is being made. They don’t want to give up on a person.

Because these managers are such people-builders, they see potential everywhere. “I’m working with him on that,” is a typical refrain when senior managers question the person’s abilities. They see their employee’s failure as their own personal failure.

If you are seen as tolerating mediocre performance, or viewed as a manager who can’t fire someone, you will be a liability to the organization. In spite of your ability to build loyalty and commitment, you won’t be seen as strong management material. The ideal manager develops his or her staff but doesn’t identify so personally with their employees that their vision becomes clouded

President killing his own firm with authoritarian ways 
May 26, 2014

Dear Joan:

I am writing to you because the employees of the company I work for are very concerned about our president and manager. I’ve been with this company since its inception. We have almost 50 sales people working here. We really enjoy our jobs and have an excellent compensation package, but we have a problem with the “hands on” approach our president uses to manage our company.

We care very much about our president. He has an outstanding analytical mind and knows how to construct a company. However, he violates a basic rule of management by constantly belittling people in front of others. He talks down to people and threatens with total disrespect, including upper management. In fact, just recently, two managers and the director of sales stepped down from their positions due to his conduct towards them in public.

When we’ve addressed him regarding his management style, he has defended his position by stating that he believes in reprimanding and insulting people in front of others because he learned that this is an effective management style when he was employed by a major manufacturing firm and he told us he does not mean any harm. Unfortunately, we are now starting to lose employees and everyone here is too embarrassed to bring other people in to work here until the president learns to treat people as competent adults. The disrespect is so blatant that he even insults the secretarial and support staff.

This is the only problem we have with this man. We have tried to individually speak with him and to address him as a group, but our attempts are only met with anger and a closed mind. We want our company to grow and succeed. Can you help us?


Your president is killing his own company. His management style seems to be, “The public humiliation will continue until your respect for me improves.” Unfortunately, he learned this destructive behavior back when authoritarian rule got some results. Forty years ago, barking orders, yelling at employees and treating them like peons was what bosses thought they were supposed to do. These managers believed that if you weren’t tough (like military officers in World War II) people wouldn’t do what you wanted them to do. They thought the only way to command respect was to act powerful and use fear as a “motivational” weapon.

This military style continued well into the 70s. Many managers thought that employees were “subordinates” (in the true sense of the word) who couldn’t be trusted. They believed only managers were wise enough to make decisions ... employees should just follow orders.

Things have changed. He hasn’t. He needs to analyze the outcome of his behavior. He says his intentions are good (and I believe him) but let’s apply his philosophy to other areas of life to see if the same good intentions cause the desired result.

For example, how would he feel if his child’s teacher screamed at his son or daughter, “Class, look at how stupid and lazy this child is!” Would his child respect that teacher? Would he or she be enthusiastic and motivated to do his or her best? What would he think of an athletic coach who said to the press after a close game, “My guys are a bunch of morons. They can never do anything right.”

Let’s bring it closer to home. How might he react if his wife humiliated him by talking about his most embarrassing faults and weaknesses in front of his best friends or family? (His weight or sexual performance might be areas needing improvement.) Would he be grateful that she used public humiliation? Would he be motivated to change? Perhaps. But chances are he would feel bitter resentment and he’d rather leave ... just like his employees are doing.

Your manager may not mean any harm but that doesn’t mean he isn’t causing harm. If he’s smart, he’ll change his behavior. If he can’t change, he’d be wise to step out of the day-to-day management and give the reins to someone who is more skilled at managing people. He has a good analytical mind. Why not do a job where he can contribute this talent? Maybe finding this column on his desk is the best favor you can do for the future of your company.

Problems with top executives eventually
spread to all levels
May 16, 2014

Patrick runs an influential staff department and has been with his company for 28 years. He is “tight” with the CEO, who sees him as a loyal, dedicated employee. Unfortunately, Patrick is seen as a poorly performing obstructionist by most of the other mangers in the organization. All attempts to get the CEO to confront Patrick have failed. Meanwhile, important projects die from lack of Patrick’s support and employees are becoming cynical from the growing reality that Patrick is “untouchable” and able to block any new idea that happens to threaten him or make him work harder than he wants to.

Lisa works for the new senior vice president in a large computer software company. She’s been a project manager and systems analyst for over 10 years and now runs a large, successful division. The sr. VP used to run a smaller company, which was acquired by his current employer. Lisa has recently accepted a job with another company. She says that the senior vice president has mistreated her and the rest of his employees. He curses, shouts, pounds on the table and last month she almost became insubordinate in a meeting while he was bullying her. Attempts to get the president to confront this situation have failed. Complainers have been told to deal with it and get a more positive attitude.

The president and CEO in these two organizations have chosen not to confront their own employees’ performance problems. Unfortunately, when a high level manager is dysfunctional, it usually has a ripple-down effect that hurts many people beneath them in the organization. This inertia can come from any one of the following reasons.

* They have discounted the seriousness of the damage that is occurring. This is especially true if the problem person is in a staff department. The owner or president is more likely to deal swiftly with performance problems if the person directly affects the customer or hurts sales or production in some way.

* They are preoccupied with large, company-wide problems and have classified this issue as less important.

When a senior executive is preoccupied with things such as strategizing new company initiatives and dealing with stockholders and key customers, it’s understandable how a nagging personnel issue can seem like a persistent gnat that is annoying but can be brushed away. With other performance issues the president can delegate to the manager in charge or get the Human Resources department involved. But when the person reports to the president herself, there is no one else to delegate to.

* They lack the skills to confront the person, especially if the person has been a long-time associate.

Confrontation is never easy and it can be particularly difficult if the relationship has been a long and collegial one. As with any confrontation of this type, it’s awkward and painful to discuss performance with a long-time friend.

* The problem grows gradually, without a big event drawing attention to the performance problem.


Sometimes the problem performer slips into mediocrity so slowly the senior executive doesn’t notice. The person cashes in on past accomplishments and lives on the dividends. In other cases the Peter Principle takes effect and the person is promoted to a level of incompetence. The senior executive is usually the one who promoted him beyond his skill level and then doesn’t know quite how to right the wrong without offending his long-time colleague and admitting his own mistake.

* Once a person rises to a high level in a company there are few places to move laterally if the job isn’t a good fit.

If a person fails at the top, there is usually little else to do but force them to leave. This harsh choice prevents some senior executives from taking action. If the organization is experiencing other problems, the executive is reluctant to rock the boat.

* Often senior executives and owners aren’t good coaches. Frequently, these folks are action-oriented entrepreneurs or fast thinking strategists who readily admit that they don’t have the patience or the interest in coaching a senior manager. Some feel that any manager who makes it to the top of a company should have all the necessary skills and shouldn’t need hand holding. However, new assignments at any level often require personal development and coaching.

* Sometimes a senior executive is out of touch and the problem performer works hard to keep it that way. Although most employees believe that the person at the top knows everything that is going on, they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Some executives are so isolated from the day-to-day goings-on that they are shocked when they learn the truth that everyone around them knew for months or even years.

 The skillful executive faces up to the responsibility of confronting performance issues, particularly at the top, because he or she knows the damage it will cause if it is left alone. He or she doesn’t try to reorganize around the problem, because they know it only delays it and makes it worse.  They know that creating artificial infrastructure to prop up a bad executive only distorts and corrupts the system and destroys the spirit and productivity of the good employees.

When managers don’t manage, employees suffer
May 13, 2014

What you see:

Case 1:

Two technicians, who have similar jobs, have been in conflict for the past six months. One feels that the other isn’t doing her share. The other feels that her co-worker is a demanding know-it-all. The manager has heard the angry accusations of each of them. He’s talked to each person individually but it just seems to get worse. The owner throws up his hands and complains about how women are “so catty.”

Case 2:

A manager of a business unit made a presentation to the corporate executives. When he was finished, the CEO and all the executives sitting around the table complimented him with big smiles and assured him that he was doing a fine job. A month later he was fired.

Case 3:

A do-nothing manager has felt  threatened ever since a new manager joined the company. The new manager has been trying to get her peer to take action on some important new initiatives that will help the company to be more competitive. She is frustrated and so are her employees. It seems as if every one of their requests for changes goes into a black hole.


What you don’t see

What’s going on here? What you don’t see is often at the heart of the problem. If you were a fly on the wall in the corner office, this is what you would learn.

In case #1, it turns out that the manager in charge has brought on most of the problem himself. He hasn’t had the courage to confront one of the women and tell her that she needs to improve. Instead, he has overloaded the better employee with the work of two people. Then to make it worse, when they complain about each other, he agrees and commiserates about how terrible the other person is.

In case #2, the CEO waited until the manager left the room and then turned to the rest of the executives and said, “Get rid of him.” The manager never knew what hit him a month later when he was “reorganized” right out of his position. No one had ever told him about issues he should be working on or expectations that hadn’t been met.

In case #3, the do-nothing manager is an “untouchable.” Everyone knows from past experience that he is protected because the president feels some special alliance to him. It turns out that this manager was one of the first people to join the company when it was a start-up enterprise. Because the president believes in rewarding that kind of loyalty, he has never confronted his employee, even though he knows first hand how ineffective he has become.


The real truth

These leaders don’t have the courage or the conviction to do the right thing and speak the truth face-to-face to the person who needs to hear it. Tremendous workplace angst and anger has been created because of this single weakness. The tendency to agree when you secretly disagree and go around someone rather than deal directly with them is one of the most damaging and dangerous mistakes leaders make.

In case #1, an honest discussion with the weaker employee and a clear action plan to improve her skills would let her know exactly what was expected of her and what she had to do to keep her job. Training and coaching would be provided. The excellent employee wouldn’t be “punished” with the extra work because the weak employee would have to do her fair share or face a career move.

In case #2, the manager would know what his business unit was accountable for and would know the consequences if the goals weren’t met. He wouldn’t waste precious productivity spending half of his time covering his backside and guessing at what the expectations were.

In case #3, the owner would do everyone a favor, including the do-nothing manager. He would constantly challenge his loyal employee and set him up for success instead of universal resentment among his peers and employees. If the manager didn’t perform up to expectations and change with the times, in spite of ample assistance, the owner would do the right thing and help his employee find another position where he could be successful - even if that meant an outside opportunity. In the end, his company would be stronger and so would both managers.

How about you? Are you honest with your employees? Are you stepping up to deal with nagging issues that demand a decision? Do you make balanced decisions that keep in mind all three components: the individual, the rest of the employees, and the organization?


Managers, how open are you to feedback?
May 1, 2014

Dear Joan:

Recently, I read your article in the paper about swearing in the workplace. Not being an avid swearer myself, I do occasionally find myself letting out one now and again when something isn’t working properly and I’m under the gun. This is not very often, however. I felt your article was noteworthy and I will try to mutter other terms, under those situations, in the future.

Others in my company, managers included, tend to color their language more often with expletives, and some verbiage that I personally find embarrassing. I have come to terms that being a female in a male dominated field, I’ll have to live with some of that.

I thought that your article had a lot of good points, especially about losing customers, so I decided to cut it out and post it outside of my cubicle. I anticipated either no comments or at best, maybe even a tiny bit of improvement. I did not anticipate that the situation would get worse!

When my boss walked by and read the article, he was furious, and asked if I had put that up because he got mad last week. I said, no, that I thought the article was interesting. He continued on, and I said I thought he was taking it too personally. (There are many other managers and coworkers who swear as much or more than he does.)

Now I am being singled out every time they want to say something. My boss is even going so far as to say, “Good morning Susan. Oh, may I call you that?” This is getting ridiculous.

Any suggestions? I don’t think approaching him about it is going to help either. How about next week’s article, “I never thought posting an article would make things even worse?”



You’re not alone. Another person wrote in some time ago and said ...

Dear Joan:

I greatly enjoyed your column, “When Managers Don’t Manage, Employees Suffer.” I work for a small business that has management problems. I thought it was worth sharing with my coworkers. The majority of them thought the same as I did, but management thought it was “childish” of me to share your column.

I posted a copy next to the punch-clock at my place of employment. It was removed and burned in front of all the employees. Yes, burned! Of course, this was done after I was gone for the day. Who do you feel was being childish?



These are sad letters. Not because someone disagrees with my viewpoint, but because some managers are so threatened and defensive about their behavior that they lash out when employees dare to question it. Such strong reactions suggest a much deeper leadership problem.

Obviously, these managers were embarrassed and felt criticized in front of their peers and other employees. These managers felt as if they were being attacked publicly. I suspect these managers already knew that their actions needed improvement or they wouldn’t feel singled out.

In the case of the manager who burned the column, perhaps the employee would have gotten further if he had approached his manager privately on specific issues that were troubling him. However, if this incident is any indication, I suspect that the employee has probably approached his boss and been “burned” in the past, which is why he tried a more anonymous approach.

If you were one of these managers, wouldn’t your first thought be “Why did my employee feel this message needed to be sent?” Wouldn’t your second thought be, “What should I do to change things?” In both cases, I suspect every employee has gotten the message loud and clear: “Never, ever, speak out on anything. Tiptoe around the boss’s ego and just tell him what he wants to hear, or you, too, will be singled out and punished.”

In the second case, a manager who would burn an article shows such a profound lack of understanding about why the article was posted in the first place, it’s hard to imagine anyone working there for long under such oppressive conditions. With competition for employees heating up, it’s going to be tough for these businesses to hang on to their employees. Would you stick around when you could be treated so much better right down the street?

The good news is that these situations are overshadowed by hundreds of letters I receive from people who bring these articles (and others) to their staff meetings and talk about them as tools to improve their workplaces. They may not always agree, but that’s the whole idea - to spark a good, open discussion.

The message to all managers is this: if you are open to feedback, ideas and even criticism, you are leading by example and creating a healthy, productive environment where people will want to do their best.










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