When Mark was told what to do by his older two brothers, he would often comply. Once this became a regular occurrence on Home Improvement, Mark got a little wiser and stopped listening. The older two brothers were a one-trick pony. Their usual tactic of “do this or I’m going to squash you” lost its power and no lasting effect. Actually, after a few seasons, Mark was actually taller and stronger than at least one of the brothers. Threats were not going to work any longer.
Most managers have learned technique in the same way. They haven’t really been taught how to manage. Instead, they’ve been allowed to respond in a way that mirrors their upbringing. If you are the older brothers who bullied the younger, then you’ll likely oversee your team in a similar manner. If you are the younger brother, you’ll either be a pushover or respond defiantly to any supposed pushback. It’s a cantankerous management style, and with managers being one of the largest reasons people leave employers, it’s not the recipe for success.
It's important to note that this is not just a male to male pattern. Statistically, we see similar components from female to female or cross-gender. It’s not an issue of nature but of nurture. The environment early on forms the patterns of wielding authority.
And understand that this is a systemic pattern; modeling at its best. We reap what we sow. Senior executives might polish up part of their forward-facing act, but behind closed doors, it’s adolescence amped. We are creatures of habit so without real behavioral modification and partnered accountability, it’s not likely to change. And while vulnerability is a difficult skill to put on, trust is a difficult reality to live without. Poor management corrupts cultures through playing favorites, over-reacting responsiveness and immature positioning.
Intention is the master of deception here, too. It’s like the crime of New Year’s resolutions – we mean well but we stink at keeping them. After a particularly tough interaction with a team member, a manager may lick his/her wounds and recognize the need for personal change. The intention is true; the unaccountable measures won’t last. We will slip back into patterns, habits and biases. We can’t wish our way to better management skills, and our training cannot be one and done curriculum.
Experience teaches us what works. If organizations are systemically based on bullying, rough interactions and dictatorial management, then fear, mistrust and demotivation rule the day. A manager, despite realizing the error of his/her ways, will need to climb a mountain of bad attitudes and corrupted interaction. Handing a manager a book and saying, “Read this, it will help” is ludicrous. And yet, we all have watched band aids being offered to managers who are cut deeply and who have cut deeply. It’s not a quick fix. Buckle up and do the work.
Categoric change will have to be done as a team of people (at least a pair of people). It will take more than one mouth to affirm what is changing and why it is changing. Trust takes time to build, especially if it’s being rebuilt. People will need to hear and to see change from more than one authority. Executives and managers will need to implement a course correction on communication – its boundaries, its intent and its style. Managers will slip into personal commentary (and sometimes, attack) and that is not the right pathway for all process and procedural enforcement. Someone doesn’t suck; someone may be poor at a particular skill or responsibility. There is an inherent difference. And for many organizations, this is step one. Address the skill, not the quality of the person.
Listen, my skin is relatively thick (there are sensitive spots, for sure) but I recognize a default of attack that bubbles within me when challenged. Early on, I was admonished for who I was, not what I was attempting to do. When I don’t know how to do something, I am not stupid. When I am unfamiliar with my environment, I am not a scaredy cat. When I make a mistake, I am not a failure. And yet, managers and supervisors specifically stated or heavily inferred these assessments in their daily management of me, and I am not alone in this experience. It’s time to undo this type of communication. It leads us nowhere but downward.
Create management training that is ongoing, accountable, connected to performance management and holistic in approach. Louder programs get attention, but that doesn’t mean lasting impact. Adding power doesn’t mean success. Just ask Tim the Toolman.