My last blog seemed to get quite a bit of traffic, and some people were kind enough to get in touch and tell me how much they enjoyed it, and how true to life it was.
The blog was a spoof look forward at the year to come, with various misadventures caused to various teams around the office. Clearly people did find the situations familiar and so, but way of flogging a dead horse one more time I’d take a look at a couple of the things I raised and share a bit more about them, and have a think about the possible cultural causes of such ostensibly ineffective behaviour.
In my experience, such behaviours tend to be symptoms of deeper lying cultural issues, and these will need addressing if the behaviours are going to be changed.
First up – and this seems most topical as the snow falls outside my window as I typo this – the manager who demanded everyone came in to the office in heavy snow under pain of disciplinary action. This really happened to me many, many years ago when I worked in local newspapers in Lancashire – I was the editor of a local newspaper website having come from a journalistic background. (You didn’t think this seamless and breathless prose just happens did you? This is a learned and ancient craft, I’ll have you know).
Any road up, one winter the weather was particularly bad, making the roads especially in the hills of Lancashire treacherous at best and impassable in many cases. I was getting ready for work and checking the radio for the latest update on the weather, and learned that my usual route to work was closed due to the snow. There were other routes, but this would have entailed much longer drive on congested roads, and being late in for work. I glanced to my laptop back where my steam-powered, three-tonne, four-inch screen Mac Powerbook sat, it’s dial-up modem just asking to be fired up. I duly did so, typing an email to my line manager as the whirring, boinging and cracking noises went on for about 10 minutes. Once online I was about to send the email when one popped into my inbox, forwarded by my aforementioned manager, from the MD saying that everyone MUST (and yes, capitals were indeed used) come into the office. Working from home, it said, was ABSOLUTELY not an option.
Now, as you can tell from the picture I have just painted with words, technology was very much in its infancy in the industry in those days, but I could, just about, work from home using my dial-up connection to log in and edit stories and FTP them onto the web server. I could also log off and ring people up using my landline if need be (I didn’t, at that time, have a mobile phone. In my last role I had three). Similarly the other journalists could operate by phone – most spent most of their working day on the phone in the office anyway, as could the ad reps. But no, we had to come in, come hell, high water or heavy snow.
I negotiated a compromise whereby I walked to a nearer office and logged in there, but most others struggled in and got in late. They lost an edition, and goodness knows how mush was lost in ad revenue on the day by everyone spending most of their day attempting to struggle in rather than actually working.
The cause? This was good old fashioned management by fear – not (just) frightening the employees by the management, but more management by those who are frightened. Frightened that they don’t really know what they are doing, and scared to be found out and sacked by their own managers (who are in a similar state of fear). There is an institutional lack of confidence and this shuts down effective communication and leads to bad decisions being made – because the last time a bad decision was made no-one challenged it, no-one looked into the impact it had on people, profits, productivity or any of those other good things that organisational effective can be measured by. No-one challenges because everyone is frightened – the underling is scared of the consequences of challenge (they will be shouted at, their career will suffer) and the overlord is scared of being uncovered as being incompetent and unfit for the lofty role they now occupy.
I’ve known quite a few managers of this ilk in my time, and worked for a few as well. None of them I would, for a moment, describe as a leader, they were managers by title only. Underlying this was the belief that this was the only way to manage – there was no development, no-one learned anything (other than “this is how we have always done it around here”), and change was incredibly difficult to enact. To this day, some two and a half decades later, I still see managers like this (and may share some more stories in coming blogs, as cautionary tales), despite all the advances that have been made in leadership development since those benighted times. Hey ho.
The other thing touched upon in the last blog was the project plan lovingly crafted by the Project Management Office for weeks and weeks only for it to be sent back by a colour blind CIO. This not only exemplifies the cultural problem of perfectionism – when people refuse to let something go until it is absolutely right, thereby extending deadlines, frustrating colleagues and customers and running the risk of instant obsolescence – but also the lack of some very basic stakeholder management.
I fell could of this very thing once – I spent weeks carrying out a series of cultural diagnostic exercises in two organisations that were about to merge. I produced a detailed report and a set if slides outlying the key issues as I saw them – similarities, differences and (most interesting) the things that looked like similarities but were in fact differences. This I presented to the newly-installed leadership team of the newly merged organisation at their first ever away day. It went down really well, until the CIO took me quietly to one side and said “Just a minor thing, but you’ve done the pictures in red and blue, and I can’t see red or blue, they’re all just grey”.
I apologised and he was very classy about it – didn’t make a fuss or try and undermine what was otherwise a very successful session. But, since then, whenever I’m asked to produce a slide deck or some such for anyone I do ask if there is any such requirements I need to be aware of beforehand. It’s basic stuff, but very easy to forget in the heat of the battle.
So, have a think. When you lead are you driven by fear? An, if you are, how do you think that impacts others? And think too of people’s needs, think what your stakeholders need from you. You may have thought of a great way to present something, that will resonate and excite and scintillate but think, for a moment, what if one of the group you are presenting too can’t see your fancy graphs or hear the sound effects you’ve added.