Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blame is a Weakness

Somebody said, "when you point a finger at someone, you have several pointed back at you." I don't remember who said that, but it isn't really important. Blame is bad. It is a weakness. The role of a manager is to empower employees to solve problems, preferable their own. Helping our staff solve day to day issues is the reason we exist. Of course, sitting back and figuring out who caused the turmoil that interrupted your game of solitaire can be fun, but it is just not functional for solving problems.

Blame is competent in creating animosity, however. Whether directly or passive-aggressively, we are able to pick up when someone thinks we caused them unhappiness. That, in turn, creates resentment. We don't like to feel like we are not good at what we do. Resentment, unfortunately, is not a strong motivator. A strong manager is one who recognizes that a problem exists and leads his or her team to fix it. In a perfect world, this is the secret ingredient to successful management. If the manager is successful in leading his or her team in solving a problem, everyone walks away feeling like something signifant was accomplished. It is, in fact, a warm fuzzy.

However, the world is not perfect. Even the strongest managers are human and will naturally lean toward subconscious finger-pointing from time to time. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves and mistakes must be acceptable, if not encouraged. The key is to hold ourselves accountable when we error. If we catch ourselves in the middle of a "behind the doors blame game", we need to apologize. We need to apologize even if the person we are blaming is not in the room. Let me re-phrase that. We need to apologize especially if the person we are blaming is not in the room. If we are involved in blaming, we need to make sure that everyone within ear shot is aware that we find our own behavior unacceptable...that we do not accept blame as a legitimate strategy, even when we do it. This is called integrity and it is critical to being a successful manager.

Expressing in public that we do not tolerate blame as a strategy for solving problems does two things. First, it tells everyone around you that you are capable of accepting responsibility for your own mistakes and that is admirable. People appreciate those who can laugh at themselves. But more importantly, people respect those who recognize their own faults publicly. That is a strength. Second, it reinforces to everyone around you what they already feel...that blame never solves the problem.

This is not to say that those who create major problems should not be held accountable. No matter how massive the error may have been, people deserve to be treated with dignity. Treating people with dignity means confronting them in private. Interestingly, private often evolves to public because the "confrontee" will talk. However, that person's chatter will include that the talk was held privately and that the person was held accountable (although probably not in those words). The audience will appreciate the tact and will likely respect the manager more for handling the situation privately, even though it ultimately was not so private.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What makes bosses good or bad?

Ever wonder what it is that makes some bosses genuine leaders and others awful? I have had the opportunity to work for a number of bosses with qualities that ranged from Ghandi to...well, someone without qualities. As a social worker and a manager, I could not help but try and determine what it was that made each of those individuals so different. I often wondered whether formal training, personal experience or professional experience determined whether a person in a leadership position actually led or failed to lead.

So in college, I decided I could start by taking some management courses to see what it was all about. After completing these courses, I was left baffled that the practices I was taught such as participative decision-making, employee empowerment, encouraging creativity, etc. seemed to be as far from many bosses' way of thinking as being humble is to Gov. Rod Blagojovich. So, I deduced, formal training must be the answer. Aside from MBAs and MPAs, how many professions actually teach their students to be managers. Not many.

Then, as I began my career as a manager I realized that many crappy mangers did have formal training. They even talked a great game by quoting Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, displaying a sense of humor and pretending to have the employees interests at heart. Then, sure enough, they revealed themselves. They didn't actually practice what they preached. They gossiped about employees, they berated people in public and laughed off ideas that challenged their own beliefs. This can't be right, I thought to myself.

So, I offer a very subjective theory to you. There are a plethora of reasons that some managers use effective leadership tools while others seem to simply admire their self-perceived power and control. Training is certainly a factor. Also, the need for control is a very dangerous cause of mismanagement. Some people just have no business being responsible for other people, yet they tend to find jobs in management. I use the word perceived a moment ago because there is no such thing as controlling people. The last of people control ended with the civil war. It simply doesn't exist in civilized nations. If it is attempted, people will retaliate either actively or passively. But they will retaliate.

The fact is, you can't be a leader without followers. People in leadership positions must think creatively about getting the most out of their employees.