Sunday, March 07, 2010

How Managers View Workers

(News-Herald, October 2003) I’m always interested in the fine art of management. First, teaching involves a sort of management, so I have a professional interest in understanding how it can be best done. Second, I think bad management is one of our top five biggest, baddest plagues. Others may lay the blame for the Imminent Collapse of Civilization on all manner of socio-psycho syndromes, but I think the biggest threat we may face is Management By The Incompetent.
One way to classify managers is by their view of the people who work for them. We’ll start at the bottom of the heap.
Workers are a problem. Somewhere under life’s black banana peels, we find those managers who feel that their subordinates are a problem to be fixed.
We can be talking about a wide range of problems. There are business and office managers who think that workers create problems by using stuff. Those darn workers—they want to use up supplies, they insist on having working equipment, and on top of all that, they keep taking the organization’s money for their salaries.
Or workers might be trouble because they insist on mentioning problems that the organization has. They might be rude enough to point out that the company’s fine new software doesn’t do what it was bought to do. They might insist on calling attention to some policy or procedure that keeps them from doing their jobs.
You can spot a manager who views his workers as problems because his managerial focus is on getting them to shut up and leave him alone. When the ship is going down, he’s the one up in the pilot house hollering, “Stop screaming—you’re making the boat all wet.”
The irony is that of all managerial types, this guy is least able to solve problems when they arise (and, yes, real worker-related problems exist) because he has no interest in finding, understanding or fixing the problem. In his mind, the employee is the problem, and said employee just needs to be straightened out, put in his place, set right, etc etc etc.
Workers are resources. Somewhere in the middle of the continuum lies this style. This manager sees his workers as resources to be used.
There are advantages to this. The resource manager would no more needlessly abuse an employee than he would drive a fine Porsche without oil in the engine. He takes care of his staff as he cares for all his belongings.
It’s vaguely unsettling to work for a resource manager. You can feel as if you’re in a Popeye cartoon where Wimpy is looking at you, but seeing a big hamburger instead. The prize turkey is well cared for, too, but eventually he’s just used and consumed. Not everyone’s dream for their work life.
Resource managers also have an unfortunate tendency to view workers as interchangeable cogs, building blocks to be discarded if they are defective (“defective” being defined as “different in any noticeable way”). And in the crunch time, resource managers are likely to view workers as far less valuable than the manager himself. Workers will often work well for a resource manager, but they’ll never trust him.
Workers as foot soldiers. These are the guys everyone wants to work for, because they get a few things that the other two do not.
For one, they understand who does the real lifting and carrying. A general may plan and inspire and lead and deploy, but in the end, it’s the soldiers who shoot and are shot at, who fight and create the victory for their army.
So the foot soldier manager knows that the ultimate success of the enterprise depends on his subordinates. He knows that they need to be supplied and supported and valued and given the material they need to do the job.
He doesn’t tell them that they can’t have guns because the budget was slashed and air conditioning for his tent is more important. He doesn’t court martial them for repeatedly asking for bullets, and he doesn’t put them in the stockade for pointing out that the enemy has broken through the lines.
He doesn’t let them run amuck, and he remembers that he’s the one in a position to see the big picture and set strategy. But he doesn’t throw them needlessly into a fruitless battle or treat them as if they’re expendable as Kleenex, because he knows that they’ll be most effective if he can fire up not only their blood and muscle but also their hearts and minds.
Treat workers like problems, and they learn to be sneaky and helpless and hopeless. Treat them like resources, and they learn to be cautiously cooperative. Treat them like valued soldiers on the front lines, and they will give more to the organization than you, or they, ever thought possible.

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