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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why managers worry – suggestions for handling them

We all worry, at times. Some times more than other times. I’m guessing in these uncertain times with an economy that is not functioning as we’re used to (and as we’d like to see it), there are endless things to worry about. Personal worries such as employment security, financial health, and overall health and happiness, and more fundamental worries about the canyon-like gap between poor and rich, about the way we treat our planet, about nuclear tensions and so much more.

In this post I’m zooming in on worries that I see managers suffer from, literally. But before I go into some of their specific worries I’d like to remind you of a lesson learned from cognitive psychologists, in particular Albert Ellis, founder of the Rational Emotive Therapy or Training. Ellis’s theory and practice is based on the belief that you can change people’s behavior by confronting them with their irrational beliefs and by persuading them to adopt rational ones. Ellis discovered that beliefs of people often take the form of absolute statements. Instead of acknowledging a preference or desire, we make unqualified demands on others (A boss really should not behave like this, it’s an outrage), or we convince ourselves that we have overwhelming needs (I really need for my whole team to like and approve of me if I am to be successful). There are a number of typical “thinking errors” that people generally engage in, such as:
1.   Ignoring the positive
2.   Exaggerating the negative
3.   Overgeneralizing

Recognize any of these? Or how about the main irrational beliefs that Ellis formulated:
n  I must be outstandingly competent, otherwise I am worthless.
n  Others must treat me considerately, or they are absolutely rotten.
n  The world should always give me happiness, if not I will suffer.

Resisting the temptation to dive deeper into Ellis’s thoughts and work, I merely ask you to reflect on these thinking errors and irrational beliefs and decide where you see room for improvement, moving to more rational beliefs that support you in a realistic view of yourself, of others, and of the world, thereby helping you relate to people and problems constructively.
Now over to the worries that I regularly encounter in managers.

1.   Managers worry about staying on top of developments in technology and staying on top of the impact of political and economic developments.
These worries are real, no question about it. Things are changing, growing, connecting, and disconnecting at the speed of twitter. However, less and less will one manager be able to see, understand, and influence it all. My advice: create an open environment and open communication in which feedback and soliciting others’ skills, insights, and perspectives is the one and only way to go. Surround yourself with a strong team (no, that does not reflect badly on your weaknesses), i.e. with people with different insights, capabilities, and potential. Resist the “think-alike” trap. Dare to be challenged, dare not to know. Didn’t we learn at school, or at least some of us, that you don’t have to know all the answers as long as you know where to find them?

2.   Managers worry about being disconnected.
Climbing up the ladder, many managers become concerned that they’ll lose touch with the work floor, with the actual work of the company. This is not surprising, since direct contact with the shop floor or with customers will decrease as you work your way through the ranks. For too many managers this results in feelings of insecurity and isolation which often leads managers to seek information in as many ways as possible thereby micromanaging and duplicating work. They overload themselves with reports, meetings, and personal conversations with too much overlap or that simply take more time than when left to the person whose job it really is, which of course, requires the right person at the right place as well as trust. So a manager’s attempt to stay connected, which is really a case of over-connecting, results in too many people doing the same thing over and over, looking at the same data and challenges in not so different ways. My remedy: re-evaluate your structures, processes and meetings, eliminate redundancy, delegate where possible, trust (and where necessary redirect or relocate your people), and hold them accountable while helping them be successful. This is the only way not to get swamped in time-consuming efforts to remain connected the wrong way and not to succumb to micromanagement.

3.   Managers, like so many other people, prefer to stay in familiar operational territory.
As we progress in life and in our career, we often struggle to let go of the old, the familiar, the safe-and-comfort “known”. No one enjoys falling on their face, failing in front of others, or being in a situation where we don’t know yet, sometimes not for long, whether we’ll be succeeding or to what extent. This, however, is the reality in many situations. A reality we’ll have to learn to deal with and to actually enjoy and master. But often we seem unable to let go of our old job and our old ways of doing things. However, the old saying still goes: If you keep doing what you always did, you keep getting what you always got.  As you climb the corporate ladder chances are high that you have to grow from setting and achieving operational goals, controlling numbers, and solving problems to thinking and acting more strategic and letting others do the direct controlling of operations. This requires, again, trusting others to do their jobs right, but also trusting yourself in choosing the right people for the right job. It also requires standing behind your people. Once you’ve given them tasks, goals, and responsibilities you will have to support them and stand behind them. As Jack Welch writes in Jack. Straight from the Gut: “The last thing that people need when they made a mistake is disciplinary measures. What they need is encouragement and strengthening of their self-confidence. A leader has to know when to embrace someone (after a mistake) and when to kick his butt... Leadership is also growing self-confidence in others. It’s the result of providing people with opportunities and challenges to do the things they never thought they could do and honoring them every possible way when succeeding.”

When you read the title of this post, you might have thought it wasn’t really clear: Who or what does “Suggestions for handling them” refer to? This is intentional ambiguity. Because when looking at managers and their worries, you don’t just look at how to handle the worries. You simultaneously have to look at how to handle these managers. Here is my suggestion in your encounters with a manager with worries like the ones described in this post: Make sure to increase their awareness - provide them with honest, applicable, respectful feedback on what you perceive to be their worries (and the possible irrationality of it all) and invite them to see things from other than just their own perspective.
Be a team. Be a strong team. Supplement, compliment, and encourage each other. Do what needs to be done to help others succeed.

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