Monday, May 30, 2022

Blog Announcement

This marks the last post of the better-boss blog. I enjoyed writing these articles. I hope you got something out of them. 

I will leave the blog up for those who want to continue referring back to past posts, at least for the foreseeable future.

If you would like to contact me, feel free to email ben (at) better-boss.com. Thanks for reading! 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Check-in vs Check-up

Actions to take: Avoid statements implying that you will never judge your employees' work. Be open about the fact that part of your job is about checking up on whether they are successfully meeting expectations. Also also be the type of manager who explicitly checks in with employees and coaches them to more effective performance. Accept that the role of manager is a complex one, and do both.


Do you check-in with your employees, or do you check-up on them? 

The former is non-judgmental. It is about making sure they have everything they need to get their work done. It is about convincing them to be candid with you about their shortcomings so that you can effectively help them improve. The latter is judgmental.  It is about telling your employees what you think of their work. It is about ensuring the job is getting done to satisfactory standards.

This is the point where your inspirational management blogs will describe the horrors of being a check-up boss. "Foster an environment where your employees never feel criticized. They'll never fear any kind of reprisal or judgment about their work, so they will be far more likely to come to you for advice or to show you where they are having trouble. Stop the check-UP and focus on the check-IN!" 

That is an over-simplification that will lead to disaster. 

Managers are judging our employees' work. That is explicitly part of the job. If a boss tries to convince employees that all conversations are just check-in conversations, they are setting themselves up to betray their employees. The fallout will be enormous. Imagine it. Over and over, your boss says things to convince you that they're just here to help. They have no ulterior motive—they absolutely won't judge you in any way.  

That boss has painted themselves into a corner. Eventually, they will have to do some kind of check-up. Maybe a deadline is past; maybe the employee is doing sub-par work in some area; or maybe it's just time for annual employee evaluations. The better they did at convincing employees that they're "just here to check in," the more two-faced they will seem when it comes to make some kind of judgment about the employee's work. 


Instead, be honest with yourself and with your team. "As your boss, I'm here to help, and I am here to keep you on the right path. I hope that you will come to me for help on any and all of your work issues. I would like to offer my perspective and give you advice whenever you are wondering how to proceed with something. I am also here to check in on your work. Part of my job is making sure we all get our work done, which means I'll need to probe at your progress occasionally. The times when I need to do that are usually times when things aren't going perfectly for you, so it might be a sensitive subject. I will do my best to handle those conversations with grace. But there is no point in pretending that I'm only a guidance counselor for your work."

This check-in vs check-up dichotomy relates to two fundamental and much more talked-about concepts: coaching vs feedback. If your employee is consistently underperforming, feedback conversations and coaching conversations serve different purposes, but they are both important. For instance, they might consistently fail to meet deadlines. They need to know your opinion on the issue. You need to check-up on their progress at fixing the issue and communicate your judgment of their work by giving feedback. A helpful boss will also coach their employees to better performance. They will have check-in conversations with a non-judgmental tone to collaborate on finding ways to improve. 

If you successfully communicate to your employees that your job is about checking-up and checking-in, you can often have both of these conversations in the very same meeting.


The average boss tends to default to one or the other. Either they're always checking-up, thereby creating an authoritarian environment where their employees see them as unhelpful, judgmental, and useless. Or they are always checking-in, thereby creating an environment where their employees see them as a fake friend who says one thing but does another (because the job ultimately requires it). Better bosses recognize that managing people is a complex process. It requires us to be judge and mentor at the same time. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Personnel Issues are Process Issues

Actions to take: Think about personnel issues the same way you think about any other imperfection in the workplace. If it is big enough, do anything necessary to fix it. For everything else, do the cost-benefit analysis of whether it is work fixing. Attempt to fix issues with a bit of feedback or conversation. However, stop yourself from overcommitting resources (your time and energy) to fixing problems that, ultimately, are not that important. When your organization disagrees with you about how big a problem is (by, for instance, preventing you from introducing disciplinary action), practice professional detachment by accepting this as just one more imperfect process.


This post will give you a tool for mentally dealing with the fact that things often don't end up the way you would like when it comes to personnel issues.

Before we talk about personnel issues, let's talk bout process issues for a moment. All work process are imperfect. Take something as simple as shelving books at a library. On the micro level, each shelver is getting better all the time. They catch onto little nuances about the shelving system and make their everyday work more efficient. Shelving also improves on the macro level. Libraries are constantly tweaking their cataloging system to make book location more intuitive and accessible. Organizations at every level of success in every industry continuously work toward improvement. Even excellent processes can be improved upon.

The reverse is true as well. Some subpar processes stay the same for years and years. I am positive that you can think of several processes that have obvious fixes or improvements that never got implemented. For me, it will always be the morning newspapers at one of the first libraries I worked for. Every morning, we prepped the newspapers before setting them out for the day. Included in that process, we stamped them with the library's name and logo to identify it as the property of the library. We stamped every section of every newspaper with this property mark. 

In my eyes, this was a totally useless step. Theft had never been a problem, and we threw out old newspapers after a few months anyway. One stamp on the front, fine. But who is stealing the Arts and Fashion section of the local paper? I saw it as purely wasted time. 

I wasn't considering transition costs back then. Yes, maybe it was wasted time, but it was a small amount of wasted time. Everyone was used to doing it this way. The effort it would take to convince everyone that theft was not going to be an issue would have been a huge hassle after years and years of saying theft is the reason we do this stamping. There's also the opportunity cost to think about. We're all busy all the time. If we spend time fixing this issue, what else might have we been doing with that time? Probably something more meaningful than eliminating a few minutes of stamping each morning. 


As a boss, you need to recognize that personnel issues function in exactly the same way. Major problems need to be corrected, and it is your job to see those issues through to completion. But some issues are simply not worth the time and energy it would take. Your employee says discriminatory things to coworkers? You must do anything necessary to fix that problem. Your employee tends to chit-chat a little too long about weekend plans on Friday? Put a little energy into correcting it, but let it go eventually if it is an isolated issue.

This post is something of a spiritual successor to the previous two posts about the role of Human Resources. Sometimes, you will be convinced that a personnel issue is major. Major enough to consider termination. HR or the powers that be above you keep pulling you back. Every time things feel as though they are coming to a head, actions stall out. You're left with a problem employee that you believe needs to be let go. These are the times when it is the most important to think of personnel issues as process issues. 

Think again of transition costs and opportunity costs. The transition cost of solving a personnel issue comes in the form of your time, energy, and frustration while trying to have productive feedback conversations with the employee (and, potentially, a bunch of side conversations with HR and your boss if the issue). Transition costs also come in the form of the employee's reaction, their resistance, their frustration, their being distracted from other work. The opportunity costs are all the other things you could be doing with that time. In terms of achieving outcomes, there is fair evidence that focusing your time and energy on high performers (i.e. accelerating "processes" that are already working) is more beneficial than focusing on poor performers (i.e. fixing "imperfect processes").


Do not get emotionally caught up in feeling the need to fix personnel issues. It is easy to do. Personnel issues are, well, personal. How often do we have major emotional reactions when the organization has some dumb, subpar process though? Yea, unnecessary paperwork is a waste of time, but are you having heated arguments or losing sleep over it? Probably not. 

Managing people is important. But it is still just a job. Practice a little professional detachment, and convince yourself that a certain amount of imperfection in your workplace is acceptable.

If you push yourself to think about personnel issues as just another part of the process, you will have far more success coping with the frustration of unchecked problems. Yes, we want to always be improving. Yes, we must address any significant issues. Yes, we should see if most issues can be solved quickly with a little casual feedback. No, we are not capable of making absolutely every issue vanish. And that's okay.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Role of HR - Part 2

As promised in The Role of HR - Part 1, this post will help you understand how to operate most effectively given that HR exists to minimize legal risk to the company.


The first step is to truly understand what that means for you. The fact that HR's underlying motivation is about legal risk has genuine pros and cons for every manager and every employee in the organization. 

Pros:

  • HR will prevent the boss from doing something stupid. There are a lot of stupid bosses out there. Even if you are a smart boss, extremely frustrating situations can make you do stupid things. HR is there to prevent you from diving off a cliff.
  • HR law is complicated. It is imperative to have someone more expert than you as a guide to legal-friendly processes. This is true whether you are working on disciplinary action, hiring decisions, or any other managerial process.
  • A good HR department will indeed create a better workforce in some contexts. For instance, hiring processes that improve DEI initiatives also happen to be the processes most likely to hire the best candidate for the job (as both are grounded in removing biases from the decision).
Cons:
  • Extra layers of complication. A termination decision might not be judged on face value ("Is the employee failing to meet expectations?"). The bigger factor for HR may be how argumentative or litigious the employees seems to be. Ironically, more argumentative people (and therefore people less open to feedback, teamwork, etc.) may be given a longer leash.
  • Slower processes. There are times when you know an employee needs to go. In order to do it in a way that minimizes risk, however, you need to draw it out with months of performance improvement plans or disciplinary hearings. (This is the other side of the coin to stopping stupid bosses from doing stupid, rash things)
  • A bad HR department will be so focused on minimizing risk that it ends up leading to unethical practices. For instance, your organization might use a points-based system for grading interview candidates. If managers have no faith in the system, but HR demands that they hire whoever gets the most points, then hiring managers might "game the system" by waiting to score all candidates after they have made their choice. That would be both unethical and ineffective, but it would be not at all surprising.

I encourage you to think through more pros and cons. The more you actively think about the fact that HR exists to minimize risk, the more your will accept it. The more you accept it, the less frustrated you will be about it. 


Here are a few more tips to add to your body of knowledge on this topic:

  1. Recognize that HR is your consultant, not your boss. Or, to keep the metaphor in legal terms, HR is your lawyer, not your judge. They give you advice based on their expertise and point of view. But they do not decide for you. Termination decisions, hiring decisions, the degree to which you are allowed to delegate, and all other managerial decisions are the management team's decisions. Your lawyer can strongly encourage you to take a plea deal, but it is your call. Your HR department can strongly encourage you to hold off on letting go of that poor performer, but it is your call.
  2. Recognize that you may be wrong: HR has gone though ten times or one hundred times more of these battles than you have (regardless of what we mean by "battle" here). It is not only a good political decision to slow down and listen to what they say. It is also the wise decision. Recognize the limitations of your own perspective and take time to reassess. Make absolutely sure that you have taken HR's advice into account before proceeding with any contrary decision.
  3. Recognize the power dynamics in your particular work environment: All of the advice here is true, in theory. However, you need to be smart enough to understand the nuances of your work environment. If you are the only person who understands that HR isn't in charge of deciding who to fire, then you're the one who is wrong. Every workplace has its own house rules about how things work. You must moderate your actions based on the context of your situation.

I want to take a moment to drive home the point that it is not HR's decision whether or not someone should be let go.

That decision rests somewhere in the chain of managerial command. This is something that many, many people misunderstand. I would venture to guess that even the majority of high-level managers/executives don't fully comprehend who is ultimately responsible for the termination decision. 

It simply cannot be HR's decision. First, theirs is a support department. Team composition is an operational decision that is integral to the core process of the business. Support departments do not make operational decisions. Second, we mentioned the HR mantra "let's find a way to make sure this doesn't escalate further" in Part 1. If the termination decision is in the hands of HR, no one will ever get fired. There will always be something else to try before taking that step. Termination is the ultimate escalation of the issue, which is contrary to their mantra, contrary to their entire way of thinking about problem-solving. 

If you find yourself in a situation where no one understands this fact, then I encourage you to remove termination from your managerial toolbox. Stop thinking about it as an option. If termination is truly in the hands of HR, then it will take an act of arson for anyone to get fired. You have other tools to encourage effective performance. Yes, you'll be less effective without access to this particular tool. But it will be worse if you try to reach for it and it isn't there.


Think of HR as the neurotically cautious parent. They are constantly telling you “I don’t know about that” when you want to stretch out and do something new. That is an important and valuable role. Imagine a camping trip comprised of individuals who all love to take risks and just go for it. Those people have a lot of fun, do a lot of interesting things, and have a pretty big risk of somebody breaking their arm before the trip is over. It would be valuable to have someone who is cautious holding you back from the most dangerous activities. 

At the same time, if that person has too much power or influence, nothing ever happens. In our camping metaphor, you might not even be able to make s’mores because the cautious person is worried that fire might burn someone. 

If you don’t delude yourself into thinking that HR is your friend, you will have a much friendlier relationship with them. You won’t feel betrayed when they do something that is in line with their interests and against yours. HR serves a purpose. It exists for a reason. Understand that reason, accept that reason, and work with that reason. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Role of HR - Part 1

The real role of Human Resources is an open secret. Until you gain some political acumen, you are probably thinking about your HR department in the wrong light. 


Early in a person's career, they will think of Human Resources as having two functions. The first is basically as a bureaucrat, someone to make sure all the paperwork gets completed and filed in the right place. The second function is as a complaint department. If your boss is doing something you don't like, or if somebody else is doing something you don't like and the boss won't fix it, you go to HR. Then, when HR listens politely but ultimately nothing changes, you get embittered. "HR isn't doing their jobs," you will think. This perspective is wrong, and the source of your bitterness is your own misunderstanding of HR, but we will get to that later.

New managers have similar misconceptions about Human Resources. They are on the other side of problems now. Just like employees, new managers assume that the purpose of HR is to help them with employee problems. The manager is trying to manage an employee with chronic issues, repeatedly going to HR for advice, trying their best to follow that advice. But, somehow, the problems are never quite bad enough for HR to let the manager fire the employee. This new boss's perspective is wrong in even more ways than the employee's above, but again, that's getting ahead of ourselves.

(Look at the irony, by the way. Both sides of an issue, the employee and the boss, think that HR is there to "deal with" the other party. Bosses, as employees themselves, really ought to recognize this logical impossibility and have the revelation that HR must not be there to serve them. But nobody seems to have that breakthough.)


Trying to learn about Human Resources through traditional means will only reinforce your misinformed viewpoint. Internet searches about the role of HR will give you webpages with titles like “The 7 Functions of HR” or “The 5 main areas of HR.” Those pages will all include some combination of the following: facilitate hiring, onboarding, and training; administer the performance appraisal process; ensure workforce engagement; payroll management; ensure compliance with laws and regulations; conduct disciplinary actions; maintain employee records; etc. 

HR textbooks are the same. You'll get chapters on all of the above and on various legalities. However, the text only hints at the real purpose of HR, and only if you read between the lines. That is a list of activities HR does. That list is not HR's purpose


Human Resources exists to minimize legal risk to the organization. 

Whatever else they are doing, the underlying motivation will be to reduce the risk of a lawsuit. The main purpose of HR is not about helping the manager. The main purpose is not about helping the employee. It is not about developing the best, most effective workforce.

Many HR professionals would feel that this is reductive, that they care about a lot more than avoiding lawsuits. I am sure that is true for them on a personal level. Human Resource departments do indeed complete all the tasks listed above. However, it doesn't change the fact that their purpose is about legal risk.

Here is an analogy to management. The role of the manager is to make their employees more effective at their work. It is not about making employees happy. Every good manager wants to make employees happy, but they are delusional if they think employee happiness is the purpose of their job. Same with HR.


The institution of Human Resources, the conceptual underpinnings, will drive all HR actions toward whatever is most likely to avoid a lawsuit or other high-profile dispute resolution processes. Their number one priority is to make problems go away in the lowest-stakes way possible (notice I did not say "solve"). The mantra of a properly functioning HR department is, "Let's find a way to make sure this doesn't escalate further." While they are ensuring the paperwork gets filed, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk. While they are listening to employee complaints, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk. While they are helping a manager with disciplinary issues, they are thinking about minimizing legal risk. 

That is their role. In Part 2 next week, we will explore the question, "What does the real role of HR imply about how I should operate as a manager?" In the meantime, I encourage you to think on that question yourself. Hint: the answer is not "get bitter and untrusting of every HR professional." 

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