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Your Managers are Sinking Your Ship

Written by: Tim Houlihan
(View Author Bio)

How to Improve Manager Engagement

A friend with 20+ years in strategic communication and change management was asked by senior leadership at her $100 billion-plus organization to take an expatriate assignment in Asia. Her objective was to lead the regional execution of a global change initiative. The CIO asked her to go because she was amply qualified – a virtual superstar – and seasoned with experience. She was thrilled and so were her cohorts. However, shortly after she accepted the assignment, things began to sour. 

A week before she moved from the US to Singapore, her manager was promoted and replaced with someone new to the organization. Though not problematic in and of itself, there was little time to build a relationship before packing up. Her old boss was pre-occupied with getting settled in her new role and the new boss was really just beginning to get settled. 

During the six months she spent overseas, my friend’s manager failed to make over 70% of the one-on-one meetings that the manager had scheduled (usually at 9pm or 10pm Singapore time) and responded to less than 40% of all e-mails sent by her new Singapore-based team member. 

When the situation is framed that way, it is obvious the manager was not supporting her expat employee. Maybe because the new boss had tremendous confidence in her seasoned teammate; maybe because she wasn’t able to focus. In the midst of it, this friend’s tea leaves were indicating that trouble was brewing. 

However, the manager’s story that was communicated up the chain of command was different. The manager portrayed her expat employee as unresponsive, missing milestones, lacking commitment and indicated in one of the few calls she attended that my friend was “not in good favor” with leadership. 

Returning from overseas, my friend began to question her experience and abilities. She was beginning to believe her new manager’s comments that she wasn’t performing well, even though she had evidence to the contrary. 

Disengagement Happens

As strong as she was in her professional career – she had received a performance rating putting her in the top 5% of all employees at her $100 billion firm – and as virtuous as the company she works for is, she was completely disengaged. There is nearly no amount of professional integrity to overcome the experience of being berated in this way.  It’s interesting to note, too, that her supervisor was brought into the company because she had a stellar résumé and a solid track record. It’s very possible that her manager’s story is equally as tragic. 

In a report by Quantum Workplace, the authors note a very high correlation between engaged employees and effective managers. Their extensive research reveals, “…it does not make much sense to say that employees who feel valued think that their managers are effective. Effective managers help employees feel more valued and more engaged.” 

Acknowledgement of the Problem

In 1970, Bill Hewlett, co-founder of tech giant Hewlett-Packard, said this in a memo to his managers: “An increasing number of cases are coming to my attention in which employees are being terminated with little or no warning that their performance has been unsatisfactory…In some cases, evaluations have been glowing up to the time that an individual is released. There is no excuse for this. It is not humane. It is not HP‐like. It is not justified.” Clearly, he was laying responsibility at the feet of the managers who were doing the firing. 

Apparently, little has changed since 1970. At a recent public forum, an executive at Best Buy was asked how she’s addressing the quality of management. She began with, “It’s a big problem.” It was clear that this was not part of her stump speech; rather, it’s an ongoing issue that requires a hard look at management skills and measurements. It requires careful analytics and a plan for an enterprise-wide solution. 

Without thoughtful leadership, we are coasting down a road toward a destructive interruption. As leaders, we can do better by acknowledging the problem and getting behind the data and strategies that keep good people working on the most important problems our organizations face.

Final Thoughts

While the situation presented here could be considered a failure of one manager, it can easily be a failure of a system. It’s possible my friend’s manager was not given the tools, coaching and support she needed. It’s possible that her boss was unavailable to support her, as well. It is possible that the new boss simply didn’t hit it off with my friend in the short time they had together before the Singapore assignment and that laid a foundation for a lack of trust or even envy. Or it could be as simple as the new boss wanted to clear the decks to make way for her own team and the performance issues were a (not so subtle) disguise. Whatever the case, the outcome was tragic for this Fortune 50 firm. 

In the 30 days following her return from Singapore, her boss cancelled meetings and used terse and carefully legalized language in her e-mails to this friend. After only 30 days of being back in country, the boss informed the friend that she was on a 30-day performance plan that included squishy objectives such as “Enthusiastically attend all team meetings.” 

She was fired. 

After being rated in the top 5% of all company employees just four months before her firing, completing a challenging assignment overseas and having a stellar career with companies including 3M, HP, and Intel, my friend was sacked. Her manager was allowed to run roughshod over a top performer and the firm lost experience, intellectual capital, and leadership in a here-to-for engaged employee. 

Tim Houlihan at BI WORLDWIDE

Tim Houlihan

Vice President
Reward Systems Group

For more than 25 years, Tim Houlihan has indulged his curiosities of human behavior in the workplace. He passionately pursues answers to questions such as “Why do some people work harder than others?” and “Why do some people set and achieve goals?” and acknowledges that behavioral economics holds excellent explanations for some of these mysteries. As the Vice President of Reward Systems at BIW, Tim is responsible for leading the development of innovative reward systems. He partners with academic colleagues from leading universities around the world and he is actively engaged with leaders in Fortune 1000 companies to develop solutions for the human side of business problems.

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