The Accidental Manager: In some train wrecks you may be the train!

8 years ago

When talking about workplace “traumas” from senior management to the front desk, a common theme is ineffective managers and why they exist. Frequent complaints center on promotions stemming from seniority only, office politics or some other ‘What Duh?’ advancement that is more mysterious than the Bermuda Triangle.

When I hear managers refer to an employee as ‘bad,’ it bothers me because ‘bad’ is more about the manager than the employee. As a manager/leader, it’s your responsibility to correct the actions of employees in a reasonable period or terminate them. Allowing an unproductive, disengaged or disruptive employee to continue his or her employment is equivalent to slowly releasing toxins in your corporate environment. Over the years, colleagues have opposed my philosophy, but we have agreed to disagree because leadership accountability can be a sensitive subject.

At one point in my career I was nicknamed “the terminator” because I was given a department that was significantly underperforming with 100s of people on staff. My boss solicited me to take this challenge with “you have a direct but fair participatory leadership style with a knack for teambuilding, which is needed in this department.”  Life Lesson: Accepting “spin” can earn you 14 hour work days and an unflattering nickname, but I digressed.  After carefully assessing the issues, I implemented infrastructure that increased accountability, training, team engagement and clearer communications. The goal was to create an environment of accountability and appreciation without intimidation, by inspiring the chaos to become order, the lazy to become productive, and the productive to become appreciated.

I re-evaluated performances in the new infrastructure and started top-to-bottom terminations. Ironically, the biggest concern came from my boss and the biggest appreciation came from the employees who were successfully contributing, but lumped with people who were just showing up.

My boss wanted me to select a few known ‘bad’ employees and terminate them. I said, “No, we are going to give everyone an opportunity to step up. Because if they were ‘bad,’ it was my predecessor’s fault due to inconsistent feedback and follow through.”

The majority of the terminations went smoothly; the people were calm, understanding and, in some cases, relieved. Some asked for career advice and a few told me they couldn’t believe they lasted as long. Only 40% of the known ‘bad’ employees were terminated, while the rest stepped up.  The most indignation came from terminations in the leadership positions—some saying it wasn’t their fault they had ‘bad’ employees. In the end, the department was successful and I was unfortunately named the terminator. I realized that throughout the leadership rank, several managers including my boss could not or would not lead, thus creating a cycle of poor performance. There are too many managers who love the title, money or power, but reject the responsibility. They end up just getting by, while negatively impacting morale, attrition and revenue.

Many management promotions are one dimensional, prompted by seniority, non management performance or a recommendation. This is problematic, because great engineers don’t always make a great engineering manager; leading is a very different skill set.

A more effective approach would be comprehensive, focusing on the individual’s current performance coupled with personality assessments, 360 evaluations and situational management interviews. A comprehensive approach meets candidates where they are—to either identify their capabilities or select them out of the process while pairing the promoted people with good mentoring and leadership development programs.

When people are placed in management positions haphazardly, it can create a collision between reality and ego. The result is a wreck of denial, manifesting as toxic behaviors: micro-managing, controlling, passive aggressiveness, chaos, bullying, poor judgments and constantly deflecting issues to Human Resources to avoid responsibility.

Leading people is a continuous challenge that requires frequent visits to your “ugly truth” to ask: Can you do it? Or should you keep doing it, if you aren’t effective or don’t like it? If you can’t successfully deal with conflict, confrontations, inspiring unmotivated people or finding solutions to problems—big or small…then leadership is not for you. Having the title without owning the responsibility is about effective as a tire without air.

So if you are a manager who often complains about always getting the ‘bad’ employees, I encourage you to check your rearview mirror to see if you are the train in that train wreck.

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