Management: How to deal with people

When I was studying Business Administration at university, I had the requirement to follow a class for a couple of semesters on management. This class covered the basics of dealing with people; something I found at the time a tad juvenile.

One of the training methods was to present various situations in which the student would have to figure out how to achieve the desired outcome. Students would be set up in pairs in order to role play or act out the situation. While one student would play the manager; the other student would play the employee. The scenarios were to provide people with an opportunity to understand the possible situations which could arrive between people and how to manage them.

One such scenario was to teach the adage, "Praise in public, criticize in private." I went through this exercise with my partner thinking to myself that this particular lesson seemed a bit dumb, a bit unnecessary. After all, who did not know such an idea? I’m chuckling about this right now as I write this but at the time I thought it was dumb, teaching a class such a rule. Who didn’t possibly know that?

Guess what? After I started getting some real world experience under my belt, I started discovering that there were a lot of people who did not seem to know how to handle people, never mind managing them in a business context. Nasty? Mean? Unable to inspire people to work hard? Criticize in public, praise in private? You name it; I saw it. Ha! Obviously, there were people who had managed to work their way up the ladder into some sort of management role but were no more equipped to manage than I could… well, paint the Mona Lisa!

Now, in looking back on my university experience, I realize that being a manager, which can be taught to a certain extent, seems to be many times more a factor of some innate ability on the part of the individual. Some people have it; some people don’t and there are many in between on the spectrum. I was certainly deriding the management class but have come to understand and appreciate that a good manager is worth his or her weight in gold. Being able to inspire people, to control a situation where the individual workers are allowed to shine is a very valuable commodity. Not everybody can do it.

If I can paraphrase the Peter Principal, "We rise to our level of incompetence."

True Story: Trial By Fire

A manager told me how he started his career in the financial world by working at a bank. His first task was to review some financial documentation and write a report. He completed this task and handed his report to his immediate supervisor. This supervisor proceeded to throw out all of his work and re-write the entire report. Apparently this scenario was repeated over and over again until finally, the manager arrived at a point where his reports were not thrown out but required less and less editing until finally they were accepted as is by his superior.

On the one hand, I was sure the manager was telling me his personal story of "trial by fire" but on the other hand did the manager realize and appreciate how dumb this was? He was given no real training in his job, no training about how to review financial statements and write a report and his immediate superior had taken, so it seemed, no time to discuss with the manager how to improve his performance. The manager pretty much guessed by doing his task over and over what was supposedly acceptable.

The real point in this story is that the manager in question ran his own shop in a similar manner. He learned by this "trial by fire" method and consequently, used this "trial by fire" method in managing his own department. Yes, over the years this manager had been to the usual managerial workshops but nevertheless retained a militaristic, no questions asked type of leadership style. I’m quite sure he would take offense at my assessment but just how blind are any of us at our faults?

True Story: Constructive Conflict

I worked at a company for 15 years. During that time, the president of the company has espoused "constructive conflict" as his management tool. There are many who deal with this topic much better than me and I’m sure there are cases where this can be a good thing, but here are my observations of what I have personally experienced.

I think of this as an example from the army. The general sets out the goal for a war game where company A and company B must fight each other to get to the top of the hill to retrieve a flag. In this scenario, both sides, companies A and B hone their fighting skills by working against each other. Fine, I go along with that.

In the scenario of my own company, I am sitting here watching the president supposedly playing one division against the other. Unfortunately, this company is so small, the divisions are divisions more in the sense of a management unit within the greater whole. Unlike the army’s company A and company B which are distinct and separate and self-contained, the divisions of this company are interdependent and complimentary and must work together to achieve the overall goal. This is more akin to all of us being in a rowboat together. The president, as our leader, must get us to all pull at the same time in the same direction.

Instead, I have watched the divisions literally set up conflicting goals. It’s as if the people on the port side of the rowboat decide to row north while the people on the starboard side decide to row south. Instead of the rowboat moving forward, we’re actually turning around in circles; the work of one division cancelling out the work of the other division.

True Story: I don’t know

It is difficult speaking in generalities. It is difficult to talk about any one particular incident when we weren’t there or we weren’t the one in the driver’s seat. In the cold light of day, who hasn’t said something akin to macho bravado in describing how they would have reacted when looking down the barrel of the gun? Yes, it’s Mr. Monday Morning Quarterback, Mr. Armchair General.

Nevertheless, I have witnessed over and over again a style of leadership where the person in question never says, "I don’t know". Somehow, uttering these words is tantamount to not being a leader. Nobody can know everything and yet, I have seen supposed leaders plough ahead with a course of action when the correct response would have been to ask questions and seek more knowledge. I have been flabbergasted to watch leaders make a decision when they think they must make a decision as opposed to seeking out the assistance of his underlings in gathering what may be necessary. At that precise moment, while all eyes are turned upon them, the very act of making a decision has become a question of personal ego, of wanting to show everybody else that we’re in charge, that we’re made of the right stuff, that we are truly a leader.

This has resulted in people thinking through problems in a bubble. Instead of seeking out assistance, asking for information, they remain sort of locked up by themselves while attempting to work out a right answer in their head. It’s as if one can determine a priori what the correct course of action is. Personally, I can only think of René Descartes arriving at, "I think therefore I am" as a real example of a correct priori conclusion. It seems to me that everything else requires of collection of "other information"; that is, all other conclusions should and must be a posteriori.

Click HERE to read more columns by William Belle.

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