Rebooting as a manager, and answers to some FAQ

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

If you use a PC, you know well about the need to reboot from time to time. The big bank Wachovia now has erected giant billboards in some areas suggesting the need to “reboot your retirement plans.” This same idea is certainly applicable to one’s management philosophy and the manner in which that philosophy is implemented. Let’s focus on rebooting … as managers.

In the period I have been privileged to write this column, there have been many queries from readers who sought clarification and, at times answers, to particular application questions raised by the column. This month I want to share some of those questions and the answers I provided. Hopefully, this additional information will prove useful for you as a manager.

As the economy picks up, what should we as managers expect to be different from the prerecession day-to-day issues?

An answer naturally would vary according to the type of organization and past management practices during the downturn. However, I believe the biggest management problem may well be the unexpected mobility of current employees and managers. In the past two to three years, many employees and managers have felt lucky to have a job and might have endured challenging work conditions since they could see few options in the marketplace. Now, with the economy improving, it is likely that some of your folks will be “looking” and will be susceptible to alternative employment. Ridiculous, you say? Hardly.

Any manager who routinely “walks around” should pick up on employee job restlessness in routine chats. However, I sense that such chats have diminished in the last few years, and the mobility issue could be a surprise.

It is not too late to remedy this. One idea is a special appreciation letter to each employee (personal) for sticking with the organization in the low-water days, along with some material show of appreciation. When people know they are appreciated, they are less likely to be persuaded they should leave.

Our senior manager walks around a lot. The problem is that he always finds things that are wrong and complains. I do not remember him ever finding anything done right. He then criticizes the department head for not doing her job. We support our supervisor and fear she will be penalized for the “incorrect things” the senior manager identifies on his walk around the office. What can I do to help the supervisor (my boss)?

Regretfully, some non-operational managers come into the operations area and look for what appear to them to be errors. Some managers feel their responsibility is to identify what must be corrected, and they might not realize they always appear negative.

Speak privately with your supervisor about your perception and see what she thinks you might do to create an environment in which the senior manager can be influenced to make positive observations. If nothing else, your boss will appreciate your show of support.

My manager recently promoted me to supervisor but has not told me what I should be doing, and I feel awkward that my boss still makes all the decisions for the work unit. Anything that I try to do, he tells me to hold off and that I have plenty of time to learn. What can I do to get rolling in my position?

It is likely you will find one of the many business books on supervision helpful, because problems such as yours are fairly common. Managers usually turn over all or nothing to a new  supervisor. Sometimes an honest discussion with the manager will yield surprisingly good results.

You might also check with the HR department if your company is a large one. The HR folks will know if there is company-sponsored supervisory training. You could then discuss having your manager enroll you in the next session.

If this is not feasible, you will find that a local community college likely will offer some short courses in supervision. Be sure to tell your manager before you enroll, because some managers have real problems in letting go of their areas of responsibility. Because you are showing a desire to gain the necessary skills, your manager might be more comfortable in allowing you to exercise more supervisory authority.

I have recently been transferred to a different department as a manager. There are about 30 people in the department, and I have no problem with most of them. However, there are a few who seem to show no respect for authority. It seems every time I walk through their work area, they are not speaking English and laughing when they see me. I have done nothing to alienate them. What should I do, short of invoking discipline?

I may be off base, but your comment about some of the employees not speaking English suggests you may be misinterpreting some cultural differences. I have noted that Hispanics, especially, enjoy speaking in the native tongue even though they have acceptable English skills. If you happen to be walking by, you could easily misinterpret the laughter as aimed at you and that may be entirely wrong. Next time, go over and ask them to let you in on the joke. If this does not get a satisfactory result, I suggest you talk with a company HR professional. Discipline may be the last option.

I hear the term “diversity” often, and I am never quite sure what, or who, is being referred to. Is there any commonly accepted definition or interpretation?

Diversity can mean different things to different folks. It may have started as a term for the selling of a racially integrated workplace – white/black issues at first, then expanded to include other ethnicities and sexual orientation.

On a larger scale, the diversity being sought is in the way persons of different cultures think and make decisions. For example, Pacific Rim cultures tend to take great pains to discuss possible changes before any decision is made. North American cultures, on the other hand, are relatively quick in making decisions. Mixing the cultures creates a balance that often yields a better decision.

Diversity of thought processes and decision-making is the goal that offers a business basis for recruiting people of different cultural backgrounds, rather than for “feel good” or mandated reasons.

Want to reboot on the beach?

You may be planning a holiday trip or vacation to the beach or lake, which offers a great opportunity to get caught up on your reading.

To that end, you might remember the seminal 1982 management book, “In Search of Excellence.” One of the authors, Tom Peters, has now written “The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence” (HarperCollins). You can spot the book immediately by its bright orange cover.

Peters offers an excellent blog-type summary of 163 ways to pursue excellence in management. Most are situations he has been in himself or he has observed in his consulting work.

Another reading option is “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink (Riverhead Books), a new look at motivation and a deviation from current theories. For starters, the carrot-and-stick method of bonuses vs. punishment is out. Pink believes the real secret to high performance in the workplace (as in the home and at school) is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to see we are doing better by ourselves and our world. Read it and be on the front end of the latest ideas on motivation.

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 July 2010 issue.

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