Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Management Delusions: My Employees Will Come to Me

Actions to take: Accept the fact that employees only come to their bosses when the matter is urgent or extremely important. Recognize that those few interactions are not enough to meaningfully manage a person. Create an environment where your employees have regular, frequent opportunities to share and discuss things that are not just urgent or important problems. By far, the easiest way to accomplish that goal is through weekly one-on-one meetings.

Many well-intentioned but wrong-thinking managers push back against weekly one-on-ones. They see the weekly meeting as overly invasive, something that inserts them too deeply into their employees' work. In short, weekly one-on-ones are micromanagement to them. Invariably, when a manager takes this line in a conversation with me, they will say, "I have a great relationship with my employees. They know my door is open. If they need anything, they'll come to me."

The hard thing about convincing these managers is that, in a way, they are right. They are imagining capital "P" Problems when they think about their employees coming to them. Yes, employees will alert you to urgent business when necessary. Even generally unapproachable bosses will be told about major issues that need their attention.

Their wrong-thinking has nothing to do with that scenario. Their wrong-thinking comes from what they perceive as the purpose of their role. "My employees will come to me" springs from the school of thought that managers are primarily there to put out fires. It is in the same vein as "hire good people and get out of the way." Employees work virtually without guidance until a problem big enough for the manager comes along. Then, and only then, the manager steps in.

Managers who think this way want to have their cake and eat it too. They will fully agree with the idea that managers should be involved with employees work: coaching them, helping them develop their skills, ensuring that the team is working together effectively, etc. They don't realize that the two ideas are incompatible. They are. It is not enough to "be there if you need me." Try pressing one of these managers on when and how they do the aforementioned coaching, development, and so on. If they have a team of 10, they will be able to give, at best, three examples from the past month. If they work in a different location from their employees, don't expect more than one example in the past month.

One-on-ones are not "micromanagement." One-on-ones are "management." 

Managers who believe that their employees will come to them end up missing out on the majority of their employees' thoughts and opinions. You do not want to hear from your employees only when the issue is big enough for a manager to step in. Employees emphatically do not want to bother you. They will save little issues until they are big. It goes without saying, little issues are a lot easier to solve than big issues. Create a communication process that encourages employees to share little problems, not just big ones. Same with ideas. You want to hear about employees' little ideas. Little improvements might be worth more than big ones, frankly. You may be able to quickly implement small stuff, whereas big ideas take a big lever and a lot of time to get started.

Again, it is not enough to wait for your employees to come to you. You must go to them. By that, I mean that you must create a time and place for them to share thoughts with you regularly and frequently. 

Over time, they will learn to feel comfortable with the idea of just chatting with the boss about work. Eventually, a good chunk of them will come to love it. There is safety in knowing what the boss thinks about your plans for work. With weekly one-on-ones, an employee can briefly check in on all the little things that never felt big enough to "bother" the boss with in the past, but are nevertheless worth discussing.

They will start telling you how much they appreciate your genuine willingness to listen and that they have never had a boss reward candor before. This is the real goal with one-on-ones. You are working to build the kind of relationship where communication is easy, where it is bi-directional, where your employees will say what they actually think about all sorts of things instead of only sharing the unavoidable, urgent issues. 

One-on-ones are by far the easiest, most efficient way I know of to accomplish these outcomes. If you have a way to do it without one-on-ones, fine by me. But don't delude yourself into thinking "they will come to me" is an answer. 

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