Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How Do We Coach Negative Managers?

Many of our managers have a hard time driving down decisions that are made by the corporate office. We do include their opinion prior to making many decisions. However, it seems that any bad news given to an employee by their managers is blamed on corporate heads. Most managers don't take responsibility or back up the decision. Instead, they usually apologize and tell employees they had to discipline/change process because it was a corporate decision. How can I work with managers to eliminate the perception that corporate is "bad" and they are "good"?

- Nabobs of Negativism Not Needed, human resources manager, retailing, Englewood, Colorado

A: At face value, this might appear to be a remedial management issue to clarify the manager's role in the chain of command. However, an effort to get certain managers in line will probably be a difficult task because there is likely a larger, cultural issue underlying matters.

This warrants some study before formulating a course of action-otherwise, you will be addressing only symptoms and not creating the change you probably want. In essence, if you address how mangers think, then how they stand and what they say as part of the chain of command will fall in line. Some things to explore:

1. Group dynamics
There is some sort of group dynamic present here. Even with relatively inexperienced managers, this is learned behavior that blaming corporate is acceptable. There need not be a single "ringleader," but this is stemming from someplace and others are following suit. Even if you can mentally identify the group and you believe you know who is leading and those who are probably following, you need to dig a little deeper.

What are the common denominators of the managers who are showing dissent, and of the managers who are performing satisfactorily? What separates the two groups?

2. Be very conscious about communication As you try to address any issue, you should expect that interacting with any part of the group is going to flow to the rest. This is something to be incredibly conscious of. With that in mind, this informal network can be the most useful way to interact with the whole, but avoid the temptation to tap or manipulate the group's communication.

Your interaction with members is how you will influence this group. When speaking to one person, expect that what's being said probably will be relayed to others, so do this thoughtfully.

3. Be attentive to the feedback loop
It would appear that you are getting this feedback about the managers' behavior from somewhere outside this group. There is a cultural issue that overlaps the other, which is demonstrated by the fact that such specific negative information is common knowledge beyond this group of managers. Let's acknowledge that employees talk and someone being disciplined is difficult to keep under wraps, but knowledge of the specific discussion is different from common knowledge of the event.

Unless you are asking for this information and getting it from the original source (i.e., the employee who was disciplined), the fact that this specific negative information is flowing and how it is being broadcast need to be examined. However, this phenomenon is your primary gauge of progress at the moment and how you can track your efforts upstream. So be conscious of it, but don't tamper with it.

4. Stimulus/response
Is there any pattern to this besides "bad news"? Example: decisions that did or did not sync up with-or even request the feedback of-these managers?

What is driving this behavior? Do the managers feel they are not being heard or simply not empowered? This is the root problem that you will ultimately need to address. Although the negative culture, manager behavior and the free flow of information are things to be attentive to, the group dynamics that are present are something to accept. By taking the time to understand this cultural phenomenon better and what is driving it, you will be better prepared to manage it in the best way.

Cultural issues can be challenging, but with a little study and the right stimulus, you may find that you can tame and domesticate this beast rather than trying to fight it.

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