Published: Friday, May 17, 2013

Food for Thought

Surviving Managers

“Management” is a word that most of us are familiar with – whether in the context of aspiration, admiration or exasperation. And yet, although there are reams and reams of literature on how to be a good manager – and the word almost always connotes some degree of professional seniority – there are a remarkable number of bad ones out there in the ‘real world’. In my professional life, I have often found that the difference between a good, indifferent or dreadful manager essentially boils down to their ownership, or lack, of two key skills: understanding what makes people tick (including when any ‘ticking’ might connote an impending explosion), and the adoption of a problem-solving approach to work-related challenges.

food01The two issues are not, of course, discrete. For example, when a plan or project hits a snag, a common human response is to seek out someone to blame for the situation. You see this tendency at work in homes as often as you see it in workplaces! The truth is, a good manager, whether in a home or in an office, cannot afford to indulge such knee-jerk responses – however natural they might feel. The most effective approach to handling a problem (I think) is firstly, to figure out the quickest way to address the situation i.e. how to solve the problem; and secondly – and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough – to leave any blame-laying for later.

There is undoubtedly something satisfying about being able to say “I told you so” or “this is all your fault!” But it’s also worth considering whether that momentary satisfaction is: (a) worth the cost of treating the actual problem as secondary, because that means it takes even longer to solve and (b) generating the inevitable resentment that flares when you tell someone that something is their fault. I decided a few years ago to switch to problem-solving mode myself, and while I am sadly far from infallible on this one, I have been struck by how much of a difference it makes. So I highly recommend this approach – whether or not you happen to be holding a management position at the time!

Anyway, while this strategy of “solve the problem first and determine the responsibility afterwards” (and I should add that in non-work situations, it is sometimes worth letting go of the “who was responsible” aspect altogether, or at the very least not dwelling on it) can be very useful, I’m frequently amazed by how often so-called managers fail to understand the basic logic of such a response. Taking responsibility is one thing, blame-laying is something else altogether.

In fact, anecdotal evidence – and the success of comic strips such as “Dilbert” – indicates that the majority of people who hold management positions, particularly those in middle management, are woefully ill-equipped to handle most work crises. Some even excel in creating or contributing to such crises. It makes you wonder how they ever got to the position that they hold.

But look closely, there is usually a good explanation for that. For example, they may be, by a strange coincidence, the Big Boss’ son or daughter. Or perhaps someone senior was so desperate to move a troublesome individual somewhere else that they actually promoted them in order to facilitate the move, or wrote them a glowing recommendation for a job in a different organisation. One of my most people-savvy supervisors once confessed to me that he had done the latter with an employee he just couldn’t stand.

There are also situations where the organisation concerned received some kind of funding or endowment that specified the hiring of a certain category of people – such as financial planners for an NGO undergoing restructuring at the behest of one of its donor agencies. Or the positions created for middle managers in a number of international organisations some years ago, funded by an East Asian government. The catch, of course, was that all the middle managers had to be from that country. I actually thought that the practice of funding a post and specifying who you had to hire for it was called bribery or nepotism, but I must have misunderstood.

This latter policy led – predictably enough – to some unfortunate outcomes. Having suffered directly from it, I decided to do some research and find out if I was the only one coming into contact with under-qualified middle managers as a result of this policy. It turned out that I was not. I received testimonies from fellow sufferers as far afield as Kosovo and Indonesia. Not that it provided much consolation, because the human condition is such that we tend to focus on our own frustrations. But frankly, I would dare anyone not to have been frustrated by this particular manager of mine.

She did so many strange things that we had a “weird comment of the week” competition for her, whereby her colleagues monitored their encounters with her on an ongoing basis and submitted the best examples for consideration by the others. You probably think I’m exaggerating, so let me give you some examples.

One time, we were having an international expert visit our office to explain a very complicated economic model. Senior management had instructed several of us to come up with intelligent questions in response to the presentation. Since I actually hate economics, despite having completed an undergraduate degree in the subject, I wasn’t looking forward to the presentation. But in the end, it was surprisingly entertaining.

After using a very complex diagram to illustrate how his theory worked, the expert invited questions from the audience. Taking a deep breath, I prepared to ask something resembling an intelligent question. Before any of us could volunteer a query however, my East Asian colleague’s hand shot up. The presenter smiled happily and invited her to ask her question. The rest of us took a sharp breath and waited, with some trepidation, to hear what she would say.

She didn’t disappoint us. “Professor, let me thank you for a very interesting presentation,” she began, promisingly enough. “I see that you have prepared a very detailed diagram to illustrate your theory, and you have made a great effort to mark out aspects of your model using different colours.” At this point, a small crease appeared between the Professor’s eyebrows. It deepened, as she continued “Can you please tell me why you decided to use pink and yellow?”

The Professor’s face turned an alarming shade between the aforementioned pink and yellow, a kind of pea green colour, and the situation was narrowly salvaged by our senior manager who swiftly selected another audience member to ask a more, ahem, relevant question. Now I realise that you probably don’t believe this story, and I don’t blame you. But honestly, this did happen – and presumably it was the most intelligent question our manager could manage on that occasion.

Nor was this a one-off. Once she told me that she’d found a solution to the problem faced by many foreign organisations working in North Korea, that struggled because international staff members were reluctant to be posted there. “They should just send people who have managed to survive a posting in Bangladesh. If they can work here, they will cope anywhere – it is so terrible here!” Please note, she was saying this to me, a Bangladeshi. Oh, and if anyone thinks, based on my two earlier criteria, that her “solution” to North Korea’s staffing problems was creative (yes, I’ll admit it – I am being sarcastic), I would point out that not even with the most generous assessment could anyone claim that she had good people skills…