An Observation

As a new year commences, and I start to gently reduce my paid work I am taking the opportunity to make an observation about a topic that is not normally covered on my blog: namely management.

The following article is from The Economist of 4 January 2020 written by the columnist Bartleby. It happens to coincide with my own thoughts when I look back at the organisations with which I have worked over the years.

There seems to be to be a lot of sound thinking in the article. With few exceptions it appears to me that larger organisations are less likely than smaller to already followed Bartleby’s precepts.

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A Manager’s Manifesto for 2020

Eight resolutions to adopt in the new year

The start of the year is traditionally the time to make resolutions to change your behaviour. Hardly anyone keeps them, of course, but in the spirit of optimism, here are Bartleby’s eight suggestions for what managers ought to resolve to do in 2020.

  1. Give out some praise. People don’t come to work just for the money. They like to feel they are making a valuable contribution. Praise doesn’t have to happen every day and it cannot be generic. Pick something specific that a worker has done which shows extra skill or effort and single them out; ideally so that others can hear the compliment. This is particularly important for the most junior employees, who will feel anxious about their status.
  2. Remember that you set the tone. If a manager is angry and swears a lot, that will be seen as acceptable behaviour. If bosses barely communicate, they are unlikely to receive useful feedback. If they fail to keep their promises, workers will be less likely to co-operate. And if a manager frequently belittles a particular employee, that person is unlikely to get the respect of their colleagues. In contrast, a more relaxed, open boss is likely to lead to a relaxed, open workplace.
  3. The buck also stops with you. If a team member makes a mistake, it needs to be fixed. And the manager is responsible for making that happen. It may well be that the mistake stems from inadequate instructions or giving the task to the wrong person. So the manager, as well as the staff member, needs to learn a lesson from the failure.
  4. Make your priorities for the next year clear, and communicate them well. Is the company (or division) trying to launch a new product? Or to boost sales of existing products? Or to control costs? If you are not sure, then those who work for you will have no idea. That can lead to a lot of wasted effort.
  5. To that end, cut out the jargon. The use of pretentious phrases and complex acronyms is generally designed to obfuscate rather than elucidate. In Bartleby’s experience, the reason people use unclear language is that they have nothing clear to say. If you are sending a general memo to all the staff, look carefully through it and ask whether you would have understood it on your first day of work. If not, make it simpler. Remember George Orwell’s maxim: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” It applies to other tongues, too.
  6. Listen to your staff. They are the people who are dealing with customers and suppliers, and grappling with the bureaucracy of the organisation. Their feedback is essential, beyond annual engagement surveys. You hired them for their skill and expertise: learn to rely on it. If you don’t trust their judgment, you have hired the wrong people. If you don’t like listening to employees, go and set up as a sole trader.
  7. Keep meetings short. Ideally, a meeting should be the length of a sitcom episode not a film by Martin Scorsese. Bartleby’s law is that 80% of the time of 80% of the people at meetings is wasted. If you doubt the numbers, have a think about the last big meeting you attended. Did everyone speak or was the discussion dominated by a small subset? How many people were gazing at their phones? A lot of people attend meetings out of a sense of duty or fomo(fear of missing out). And what is the purpose of the meeting? If it is just to update people on progress, that can be done in an email or in a one-to-one conversation (which has the added benefit of allowing you to talk to your staff). Big meetings involving all the staff should be reserved for big news like acquisitions or lay-offs.
  8. Drop the team-building exercises. Paintballing in the woods, tackling an army assault-course, constructing a model of the Empire State Building from matchsticks—no one wants to do this stuff. They don’t want to go to an awayday weekend, either; they would much rather be at home with their families. Why not build a team by introducing its members and explaining what you want each of them to do? It is a lot cheaper. It also wastes a lot less of everybody’s valuable time.

 

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