This week we’ll continue our discussion of how to be a good manager in tough times. Additional constructive manager behaviors are discussed below.
Accept blame when appropriate. President Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” sign was already mentioned. You may remember in 2008 deaths and illnesses were traced to meat products produced by Maple Leaf Foods. CEO Michael Cain announced the closure of the plant and promised to improve manufacturing practices and restore trust in the company. He came across as accepting responsibility and being decisive. Managers who blame outside forces for their problems are not leaders and come across as powerless. Managers who take responsibility for problems like layoffs, salary freezes and failed projects are seen as more powerful, competent, and likeable than those who deny responsibility according to studies by Fiona Lee, University of Michigan professor of management and organizations.
Like Michael McCain, effective managers must do more than just accept blame and apologize. They must take immediate control and institute remedial action to solve the problem.
Treat staff members as people
Managers need to recognize that their staff members are individuals with different strengths and needs. The best managers create an environment in which people can brainstorm and test ideas and make mistakes without fear of punishment. This psychological safety can be essential if staff members are to report mistakes and problems.
Treating staff members as people often involves shielding them from informed criticism from top level managers. I have been in meetings during which top level managers criticized individual’s performance and blamed them for problems. The managers to whom the individuals reported said nothing during the meeting. One could see the individual’s coworkers visibly wilt as no ne rose to defend the person. I was once in a position in which one of my lab technicians was blamed for a problem. The problem was indeed caused by something he did. However, I got up and said that, as supervisor, it was my responsibility. I suggested that the manager and I discuss the problem alone after the meeting. The manager agreed and moved on. I thought there were repercussions to my career but there weren’t. Our private meeting was brief as the manager just told me, “See that it doesn’t happen again.” The incident was never brought up two months later during my annual performance review. I wasn’t particularly popular among our department’s lab technicians before the incident. Afterwards this changed and technicians were always eager to work on my projects.
Recognize the power of small gestures
The best managers find ways to reduce the stress experienced by their staff members. Small steps can often do this. For example, for several years I worked for a manager who lacked many interpersonal skills. He moved my lab to another building but did not relocate my office. I had to walk many times daily between my lab and office, not a trivial matter given my knee problems. I asked several times to have my office moved to be closer to my lab. The response was always the same: this was the responsibility of the Space Allocation committee and the laboratory was too crowded to relocate my office.
Then one day we got a new manager. Deborah Johnson visited each of her staff scientists and engineers in the first week of her new assignment. She asked each the same question, “What is one thing I can do to make your job easier.” She wasn’t able to fix every problem bought to her attention but she tried. In my cane, she arranged an office swap that relocated both my office and that of a staff engineer closer to our labs. Her efforts on behalf of her staff members went a long way toward rebuilding the morale of a rather cynical and disenchanted department.
Whatever kind of managers you have, good ones or bad ones, observing their behavior and learning from it can improve your own performance as a manager.
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