Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mis-Managers 3: Builder-Upper & Tearer-Downer

In a recent blog post I raised the issue of Mis-Managers and the damage they can cause to not only their direct reports, but to the organization as a whole (see Mis-Managers: How Bad Managers Can Poison the Well). I also discussed how such Mis-Managers typically got promoted into their positions and “reached their level of incompetence”. This blog post is the third in the Mis-Manager series (see also Mis-Managers 2: Janus & Old YellerMis-Managers 4: Micro-Managers - People, Design & Process, Mis-Managers 5: Power Tripper & Turf Builder, and Mis-Managers 6: Mentor, Tactician & Strategist, and Mis-Managers 7: Hands-Off, Wheeler-Dealer, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole) that describes some specific Mis-Manager personality types, the ways they create problems, and some suggestions as to how employees can attempt to survive, and hopefully prosper, with such Mis-Managers. The challenge of effectively dealing with Mis-Managers can be daunting, as they typically determine (or significantly influence) their Employees futures. As with my Herding Cats series of blog posts (see Herding Cats: The Art of "Managing" Knowledge WorkersHerding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist BastardHerding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social ButterflyHerding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima DonnaHerding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star, and Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Chesire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole), which discuss knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, I purposefully describe characteristics that are more extreme, and that concentrate on one specific attribute, than will normally be the case. Clearly every Manager (and Mis-Manager) is an individual with characteristics that are unique, and most have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is also unique and should be treated in a unique fashion.  The suggestions that I make for approaching a Mis-Manager are just one person’s view – mine. Given the position of power that a Mis-Manager may occupy, think carefully about your best approach.

The Builder-Upper:
The Challenge: The Builder-Upper provides positive reinforcement using verbal praise to help build up his/her employees. This can be an excellent type of boss to have. The employees learn what they are doing that is praiseworthy and can use this as encouragement to do more and better work. So far, so good. However, when the Builder-Upper goes overboard, praising everything that every employee does, and providing no feedback on what can be done to help the employee grow and improve, this can have a negative effect. Just as when everything is of the highest priority nothing is really of the highest priority (see When Everything Is High Priority, Nothing Is High Priority!), when every action every employee takes is praiseworthy no actions are really praiseworthy. Further, where such praise really counts is in the actions the Builder-Upper takes – what he/she does ultimately means much more than what he/she says. If he/she rewards praise with actions (e.g. public recognition, more challenging assignments, monetary or non-monetary awards, etc.), then he/she is putting his/her “money” where his/her mouth is. If this doesn’t happen, then the praise may show itself to be empty.  The boss who follows through in some way on praise given, however minor, will be rewarded with loyalty and strong performance. The boss who is all praiseworthy talk with no action actually undermines what he/she is trying to accomplish in giving praise – employees, particularly knowledge workers, will see right through it, and will not always give the job their best. The right kind of Builder-Upper can be a great boss!

The Employee Approach: First, be grateful for having a boss who recognizes praiseworthy performance. Not all do, as is described below. Thank your boss when you are praised, but, in private, go beyond simple thanks to ask your boss what in your actions most prompted the praise, and what you should continue doing to further improve. Further, ask your boss what meaningful areas for improvement he/she sees for you, and then act upon these. By asking about both the positive and the not-so-positive, you help yourself, by getting meaningful feedback on what to do and what not to do or what to change. Further, you help your boss, not only in helping to feel comfortable in continuing to praise employees for work well done, but also to feel comfortable giving critical, meaningful, and constructive feedback on what you can do to further improve yourself. You can help shape your boss from a good boss to a great boss, and both of you will be better for it.

The Tearer-Downer:
The Challenge: The Tearer-Downer (or should it be Terror-Downer?) is the opposite of the Builder-Upper. The Tearer-Downer provides negative reinforcement by heaping verbal abuse on his/her employees, and then wonders why the group isn’t performing well, or why morale is bad. Employees do everything wrong, and they will be publicly berated until they start doing things right. The Tearer-Downer seems to operate under the motto, “Floggings will continue until morale improves!” (see Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!). As an example, employees may work late into and through the night to get a project done, but when they come in late the next day, this mis-manager will angrily question why they’re late and demand that this never happen again; the fact that they worked a lot of extra time, on their own volition, is of no consequence or interest to him/her. As another example, an employee may devise a new and elegant way of implementing something that is a significant improvement, but this manager will tear it down saying it took too long, or it’s not the way it has always been done. Instead of getting credit for creative work, the employee is punished. Another motto of the Tearer-Downer is, “No good deed goes unpunished!” (see No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!). Working life under a Tearer-Downer can be a dismal existence.  

The Employee Approach: If the Tearer-Downer is approachable, he/she should be approached, in private, to let him/her know how destructive and demoralizing this negative style really is. An open boss will react positively to such a discussion and change his/her attitude. Unfortunately, few such managers really are approachable, and when you try, you may likely receive even harsher invective. In this case, first try to address the Tearer-Downer’s concerns and point out what you’re doing specifically to address them. If you get even grudging acknowledgement from this, continue doing it – there may yet be hope. If continued attempts to satisfy him/her continue to get you nowhere, then talk to peers of this mis-manager with whom you have a good relationship, and get their advice on how to best proceed. You may want to talk to this mis-manager’s boss to let him/her know what is going on, and the negative impact it’s having on you, your group, and the company; but recognize that there is always some danger in going around your own boss, and this could backfire. If nothing seems to work to improve the situation, then you have a choice to either seek a position under a different boss, or to seek a position in another company (see Know When to Fold 'Em). Living forever under a harsh mis-manager is no way to live in the long run (see When It's Time to 'Walk Away', Don't Turn Back!). Your health and happiness are too important to sacrifice for such an ungrateful boss.

These are just two of many Mis-Manager personality types that you will come across in knowledg worker-based (and other) organizations. I’ll get into more in subsequent blog posts. The negative impact of Mis-Managers on companies cannot be overstated. The key is to recognize the various personality types and to approach them in the most effective way to help both groups and their Mis-Managers. Employees must recognize that Mis-Managers hold positions of direct authority over them, and so must approach them carefully. They must walk a fine line and find what works best for them. Their work environment, and future, may depend upon it.

[Note: If you have a Mis-Manager personality type you would like to see spotlighted, please let me know. I will do my best to accommodate you.]

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