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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Can Managing People Be Fun in the 21st Century?

Source Manager's Journal: Can Managing People Be Fun in the 21st Century?

Can Managing People Be Fun in the 21st Century?

Sally is the top manager of a large organization. I hadnt seen her in a few years, and when we reconnected, I asked her how things were going. Her response was, "They get crazier and dumber every year." In case you were in doubt, the "they" in this case were the people working in her organization, an organization that was and remains superior in almost every respect.
Bob, another senior manager with responsibility for a large creative and technical staff said, "For the first 30 years of their lives, everyone has told them that they are the smartest, the best, and that everything they did was a good job and perfect. They give me this stuff, and I tell them This is crap, and they are shattered, and I am the mean insensitive person who is ruining their self-esteem because I dont see how perfect they really are. I am not happy."
A V.I. manager said "I have eight people doing the work of two, and they still cant get it done. And they dont seem to care. I dont know what to do. I was in a management seminar, and the presenter kept talking about empowering people. Give me a break."
Managing people has never been easy if one took it seriously. It was obviously simpler back in the days when workers had no rights and were treated as disposable property. Whether the managers who were directing these mostly manual workers were happy or enjoying their jobs is another matter. In 1960, Douglas McGregor published "The Human Side of Enterprise," a book that changed the way in which much of the world looked at managing people. McGregor divided managers into two groups, those who operated on the basis of "theory x" and those who employed "theory y." Theory x assumes that people are lazy, stupid and dont want to work. They need to be driven and monitored because they will not take responsibility for themselves. Theory y assumes that people want to work, that they want responsibility and that they have a need to achieve.
For several decades, America and much of the industrial world moved in the direction of "theory y" management. There was an implicit belief that "happy" workers were more productive, and that the same could be said for managers, especially when "happy" meant feeling good about your work. But this was never a simple matter. There are people who dont want to work, and who have a "job ethic" as opposed to a "work ethic." There are those who either cant or wont assume responsibility. Others are self-centered and cannot see beyond themselves. For them, its all about "me" and what this job and the boss can do to "fulfill" me.
Then there are the political and cultural dimensions. In retrospect, it seems clear that the arrival of the Reagan Administration represented a turning point in American work life, and that the firing of the striking air traffic controllers sent a signal that has been amplified for a quarter of a century. Management once again had the upper hand, and it could adopt more theory x-type practices, even if these were to prove counterproductive over the long term. Bonds of trust and cooperation between management and workers frayed, and in some industries, airlines for example, totally broke down, with the result that nobody was happy. Organizational cultures, large and small, began to reflect top-level "theory x" and "winner-take-all" thinking, again resulting in making the work of managers, especially managers of line workers, less fulfilling and more unpleasant.
So what can a manager do to achieve the goal of being happier at work? How can managers feel good about what they are doing?
Lets start with some basic assumptions. First, except for the week when people get a raise, money will not make either managers or workers happier. It can be a tool — it is not a solution. Second, life is not always happy. It is frequently painful, and managing people is a part of life. Organizations are inherently dysfunctional because they consist of people, some of whom bring their "issues" to the workplace. Third, in most cases if workers are unhappy, their manager will be unhappy because they will find ways to convey their discontent. If they dont convey it, the manager and the organization have a different set of problems, and these may, in the end, be even more severe. Finally, the job of the manager is not to make workers happy. It is to be productive and to achieve a set of goals. But we assume that this is easier to do if workers are more satisfied.
If we accept these assumptions, here is a set of guidelines for happier days and more restful nights for managers:
1) Hire slow and fire fast. Invest the time in making sure you have the right person, and, if you make a mistake, correct it fast, minimize the error and cut your losses. In a place like the Virgin Islands, where job protections are so strong, hire even more carefully, with a goal of 100% success in picking the right people.
2) Accept the fact that people have weaknesses, but dont let them use these weaknesses as an excuse for not performing. Help them correct the problem or find someone else to do the job. Clarify your expectations, make sure that these expectations are reasonable and hold people accountable for achieving them.
3) Openly challenge negative behaviors and norms. Dont let the things that are making you unhappy slide. Remember the basic rule: hard today, harder tomorrow. Confronting does not have to be confrontational. Focus on the problem and not the person, and use "I" rather than "you" language so that the person doesnt automatically become defensive.
4) Spend some time thinking about what is really bothering you. Visualize the scenario in which you would be happier and more satisfied in your work. What is really important to me in this job? Once you have visualized it, start thinking about the actions that are needed to get to this better future. In some cases, when it is not possible to visualize a better future, start thinking about another job. We spend too much time at work to be miserable there.
5) Think about the most effective tools for making workers who report to you more effective and more satisfied in their work. These should include incentives (mostly non-monetary), investment in training and development, formal and consistent recognition of good work, and active listening to worker ideas, suggestions and problems. Do little things that let people know that you respect them. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that it is your job to find happiness in life for these workers. This is the path to never-ending self-serving demands, whining and a loss of focus on the organizations real goals.
Can managing people in an increasingly narcissistic culture of over-praised people with declining skills and diminishing expectations be enjoyable? The jury is probably going to be out for a long time.
But in a case several years ago, a new manager came into a demoralized hospital. His predecessor had been remote and beleaguered. The place was dirty. In his first week, the new manager got to know the names of everyone on the housekeeping and maintenance staffs. He would walk around and ask them how things were going and what they needed. Two months later, the place was sparkling, including shiny brass fixtures that had not been polished in decades. Was the staff happier? Yes, even though they were clearly working more. Was the manager happy? You bet.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.

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