Can you see problems through another’s eyes?

Posted on Written by Jerald F. Robinson
Jerald F. Robinson

You must be “the change” that you desire in your organization. That’s a slight modification of a famous statement that Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi made, and it was a theme at a recent “change” workshop for a group of 30 mid- to upper-level business leaders across several industries in the Mid-Atlantic region.

People from different organizational levels and in different industries were put together in heterogeneous teams of three. A collection of quotes from philosophers and noteworthy business and government leaders was given to each team, which then selected one. So what does it say to you about managing and about life in your work setting? Are there lessons to be learned and shared?

It was not easy for a team to mutually agree on a message from its selected quotes. However, the exercise provided a chance for interaction across positions and across industry settings. Upper-level managers often were shocked at the perspective of mid-level managers, which is not surprising because managers at that level rarely give their boss bad news. And no one was surprised about men and women having divergent views. Consider the selections below; mark those that apply to your work setting. Don’t be afraid to mark more than one.

• Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes — Freedom was initially defined as “national” or “citizen”-related, but for the purposes of the workshop it became freedom for an employee or manager. Why would senior managers be surprised that subordinate managers were afraid to allow as much freedom to their staffs as the seniors believed they did? Is it OK to make a mistake? Seniors said yes; subordinates questioned whether they have that freedom. Mid-level managers also believed that front-line managers would allow even less freedom to make a mistake.

Conclusion? Managers appear unwilling openly to allow subordinates to make mistakes. Is this not too much micromanagement? Surely it is insufficient delegation in action. Remember, we all learn by doing and by making mistakes.

Final conclusion: No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow your progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying.

• You cannot change what you refuse to confront — One mid-level manager, who had recently been at a different seminar, referred to a question raised there: If you are walking down the hall and see a person you have a disagreement with coming toward you, what would you do? (Choices: Go down the stairwell ahead, duck in the restroom, pass in the hall with a usual grunt or confront the disagreement.)

The male senior manager and the male mid-level manager took an easy way out. The female senior manager opted to confront. After much constructive discussion the consensus was to confront, though likely not in the hallway.

Private confrontations are preferable. Change for the betterment of the company is likely; greater satisfaction for both parties is likely to occur, rather than anger and resentment being allowed to fester. The more senior person has a responsibility to bring about the confrontation.

Often, however, this group believed that a younger subordinate manager could be the change agent — a sign of the times. Wonder why the woman in this team was the confronter? Would that be true in your company?

Team members agreed that when a manager sees any issue that stands in the way of efficiency or effectiveness at a company, it must be confronted and all managers must feel empowered to confront such an issue — definitely a task to work on back at the company.

What about your company? Does each manager — even most workers — feel a sense of empowerment and even responsibility to confront problems? How do you make that happen?

• Sometimes you need to distance yourself to see things clearly — Agreement was easily achieved. Creating that distance, however, was different across organizational levels. Senior executives often would ask a secretary or administrative assistant for an observation. An entrepreneur suggested that a spousal discussion often added clarity.

Mid-level managers had experienced their subordinate managers coming to them for counsel and liked that approach. Yet the mid-level managers often were reluctant to seek counsel from senior managers. Why might that be the case? Is that true for you?

• Making one person smile can change the world — maybe not the whole world, but their world — Assumption: Unhappy workers are less likely to be productive than happy ones. Happy ones are more likely to smile than unhappy ones. This was identified by a newly minted MBA, who cited the Hawthorne Works experiment at Western Electric. (The other two team members weren’t familiar with Hawthorne.) People who felt noticed were found to be more productive than those who weren’t noticed.

Prescription suggested: Combine a “management by walking around” practice with regular face-to-face meetings of managers with all people who report directly, and then expand to indirect reports. People should always know the rationale behind their assignments and get an assessment of their performance in a timely manner.

MBWA efforts should show an interest by senior management in the activities of employees at all levels. The senior manager in this team insisted that this was not needed in his smaller operation. He knew everyone. Ultimately the other team members convinced him that periodic informal chats, on a regular basis, are called for.

• Don’t say you don’t have enough time — The team members observed that every person has exactly the same number of hours a day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and each team member. The team pinpointed poor time management, especially of mid-level managers generally.

They observed that many mid-level managers had been promoted from the rank and file to a supervisory job and then to their current job. They still seemed to “think” like workers, with an emphasis on technical efforts. The responsibility lay at the feet of senior managers, who did not provide sufficient training for new supervisors and maintain adequate assessment of the time-management skills of mid-level and front-line managers.

Generally the team was critical of the time-management training they received from vendors. One goal suggested was to emphasize goal accomplishment dates, with performance checks as the time progressed toward the deadline.

• Being trusted invites people to be their best — The team agreed with the quote. However, whether being trusted would cause a manager or worker also to feel a sense of empowerment was debated. Risk taking by upper-level managers with their mid-level managers was the focus; the single mid-level manager in this group thought that senior managers often would not empower their subordinates and wanted to micromanage most of the time.

The absence of any real empowerment created a sense of no trust. How can senior managers be helped to realize this and to change? No consensus was reached. What would you say should be done?

• Consider the seven taxes of a low-trust organization: redundancy, bureaucracy, politics, disengagement, turnover, churn and fraud — Each of the seven was generally agreed upon. One or more of the group had experienced all of the concerns. The three most likely results were disengagement, turnover and bureaucratic slowdown. At least one of the seven “taxes” was in all three companies represented in this team. They were strongly committed to discussing this back at home.

• Consider the seven dividends of a high-trust organization: increased value, accelerated growth, enhanced innovation, improved collaboration, stronger partnering, better execution and heightened loyalty — This team wished to receive all seven dividends, but did not have experience in achieving all seven — yet. The ones the team found in common were improved collaboration, heightened loyalty and better execution. The team planned to discuss this with colleagues to identify how the other dividends might be achieved.

You have reviewed eight scenarios. Which ones will stimulate you to look further at your own company and your management approach? Hopefully you have some food for thought when you meet with other managers to chew the fat. I would love to hear which ones intrigue you the most. Will it be the taxes, the dividends or another one?

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.

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