Are you an undermanager?
We’ve all been warned not to overmanage – become a hen-pecking, micro-manager, obsessing about details, instead of delegating wisely. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes the opposite, under-management, is epidemic. Indeed, he insists it’s hiding in plain sight, but we don’t notice.
“It is so often what’s going wrong in so many workplaces. It is rampant. It is costly. It’s very easy to treat, but it is very hard to cure. The medicine is strong, so when you feel better it’s tempting to water it down. But as soon as you stop taking the strong medicine, you start to get sick again,” he writes in The 27 Challenges Managers Face.
A test about how prominent it is in your workplace is to ask whether you or your colleagues are often in firefighting mode, responding to threatening events and getting everything running smoothly again before the next spontaneous eruption. Most of those fires can be prevented in advance, he contends, by properly practising the fundamentals of management, holding regular check-ins with staff to understand what’s happening and to keep them on track. That’s the stiff medicine you need to take.
“What’s amazing is that so few managers in the real world consistently practise the fundamentals very well. What’s even more amazing is that so many managers think they are doing it, when they are not,” he observes.
The 27 Challenges Managers Face
By Bruce Tulgan
Jossey-Bass, 242 pages, $34.00
Before we get to the fundamentals, let’s look at how he says you are likely spending your day: Caught up in four pernicious time drains. First, you attend too many mediocre group meetings. Second, you wade through a never-ending tidal wave of email. Third, you are interrupting others and being interrupted, making concentration and focus for you and your colleagues difficult. Finally, you touch base lightly with direct reports, checking in and shooting the breeze. “How are you?” “How’s everything going?” “Is everything on track?” “Are there any problems I should know about?” Those are open-ended questions, designed to keep you plugged in, but in fact, they prove to be gestures, because the responses are generally vague, limp or avoided. You end up shooting the breeze rather than tackling anything substantive.
Managers try to manage performance through annual performance reviews, but those invariably are unsuccessful as they aren’t immediate and we shy away from confrontation. In recent years, there has been a multitude of calls to manage performance on the run, in the heat of the action – every day, or week, as event crop up. But instead, we ask puffball questions. “How are you?” “How’s everything going?” “Is everything on track?” “Are there any problems I should know about?”
He prescribes highly structured and highly substantive check-ins – perhaps once a day or at least every few days, depending on the situation. You need to make expectations clear; track performance and provide ongoing, candid feedback; and recognize and reward when performance warrants. Through that rigorous approach – the strong medicine to counter undermanagement — accountability becomes a process rather than a slogan.
Let’s start with highly-structured. Set aside an hour a day for your one-on-ones, concentrating on three or four subordinates. In an ideal world, he says you would talk to every direct report every day but that’s probably impossible so you will have to make choices. Don’t reject his conversational approach because you lack the time – you’re trapped in those four pernicious time drains. This is something you must do, and if it results in fewer fires to beat back as he believes, that will grant you more time for this positive pursuit. “If you are not able to maintain an on-going one-on-one dialogue with an employee, you are not managing that person,” he declares.
Prepare in advance and make sure your subordinates do as well. Follow a regular format for each person, customized to that individual. Always start with top priorities, questions either of you have, and any work in progress. Consider holding the conversations standing up (you may want to hold a clipboard for note-taking) to keep the meetings quick and focused. Remember not to dominate by doing all the talking.
If you manage people who work other shifts, stay late or come in early. Deal with remote employees as rigorously and frequently as in-house staff, using telephone.
He says if you have a chain of command, use it. Focus first and foremost on the managers you manage. Talk with them about how they are managing. “Every day, coach them on the management fundamentals — make sure they are having regular one-on-ones with their direct reports. All the way down the chain of command. Managers need to be taught to practise the fundamentals at every level. If you don’t, your chain of command is not going to work,” he says.
High substance, the second element you are seeking in these conversations, means rich in immediately relevant content. It should be specific to the situation and the person. The focus should be on execution.
“Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average. What needs to be done? What are the next steps? And the next steps after that? Spell out expectations in clear and vivid terms, every step of the way,” he explains.
Regularly remind each person of broad performance standards and try to turn the best practices in your operation or comparable units into standard operating procedures. Develop plans and checklists when possible.
Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual. Then monitor, measuring and documenting the person’s performance in writing. “Follow up, follow up, and provide regular, candid coaching-style feedback,” he says.
Ask powerful questions, and listen carefully to the answers. “What do you need from me?” can be a critical probe. Get them to outline their planned progress: “What is your plan? What steps will you follow? How long will each step take?” Pay close attention to the gaps you sense in the approach.
It’s a long way from: “How are you?” “How’s everything going?” “Is everything on track?” “Are there any problems I should know about?”
Since each employee is different, you must customize your approach. He recommends keeping a “People List” of key colleagues like your boss, peers, and direct reports. On the spreadsheet, by each name note when you held your last conversation with that individual and what it was about. Now grade the conversations for structure and substance: A+, B, or C- perhaps? Then in the next column answer these questions for each individual: What should I be talking about with this person; when and where; and what is needed to prepare in advance?
“You should be asking and answering those questions for yourself every day until you get into the habit of the one-on-ones. Once you are really, really in the habit, your People List will change. How you change it will evolve to meet your needs,” he says.
But never stop keeping your People List. You never outgrow the fundamentals. No matter how rigorous and disciplined your routine, no matter how advanced your management skills may become, you can always benefit from asking and answering those questions for yourself every day.
There is no such thing as advanced management, he insists. It always involves these fundamentals. The book shows how they work in 27 challenging situations, broken down into seven categories: Being the new manager, teaching self-management, managing performance, managing attitudes, managing superstars, managing despite forces outside your control, and management renewal.
One-on-ones are the crux, but some of his suggestions surprise. He argues that attitudes can and should be managed, starting by separating them from what the employee is feeling and focusing on the outward manifestation of the attitude, observable behaviour. With superstars, he recommends asking them to design their dream job before they get an offer that takes them away from you. If the dream job is at all feasible, even if it might mean working only four days from a remote cabin, he suggests going along, since superstars will still offer supercharged performance – which may be true, but his advice harder to follow in government than corporate land.
It’s a provocative book that will force you to confront your own approach – do you undermanage – and then require you to take some stiff medicine for the rest of your managerial life.