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Boss’s Tip of the Week #10: Managing 101: How To Be the Boss Today’s Employees Need

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is smart and Xerox’s Ursula Burns is dynamic, but our management role model is Glinda, the Good Witch. Glinda? Yep. Think about it: Not only did Dorothy get home, but she found strength and resourcefulness in herself she had never seen, she learned from her mistakes and worked well with others. Yes, Glinda got results, but she was no micromanager. She simply pointed Dorothy in the right direction (“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”), gave her the resources she needed (the Ruby slippers), and removed a few obstacles (such as the Wicked Witch of the West’s sleeping spell) when it was judicious to do so.

Most employees would be thrilled to work for Glinda. You can learn from her example.

Take Action

Expect the best. Teachers, directors, coaches, and generals will all tell you the same thing: people do what’s expected of them. If you give an assignment and then stand back to wait for the screw-up, you won’t have to wait long. On the other hand, if you give an assignment that seems just beyond an employee’s reach, people usually rise to the occasion. If you really believe that your people aren’t capable, ask yourself two questions: Are they in the wrong job? Are you?

Put work in context. Help people understand how they contribute to the overall mission and goals of the company. Do hotel laundry workers just wash sheets, or do they play a vital role in the guests’ overall experience? Employees who don’t see that connection wonder why it’s important to do a good job. Once they know the overall mission, set goals to help them achieve that mission: How many guests do they need to please today?

Be clear. When making those assignments, be clear. If you write instructions, read them to yourself slowly. If you followed them literally, could you do what you’re asking the employee to do? If you aren’t sure, have someone else read them. If you give instructions verbally, ask employees to repeat them to you, and ask whether they have any questions.

Give employees the resources they need. You wouldn’t send a Boy Scout on a weekend camping trip without a sleeping bag, a canteen, and a compass. Don’t ask employees to do a job without the resources either. Consider

• Are enough people assigned to the task?

• Have you allowed enough time?

• Do people have the appropriate equipment?

• Do they have enough information?

• Do they know where they can go for help?

Let employees do the work. Once employees know the goal and have the resources they need, get out of their way. Resist any temptation you may have to micromanage. Nothing can be gained by standing over someone’s shoulder, and a lot can be lost. Yes, employees will do it differently than you would. That’s OK.

Remove obstacles. Twelve Parisian streets come together in a star formation at Place d’Etoile. In the center is the Arc de Triomphe, and if you stand on top of it for five minutes you’re guaranteed to see at least one traffic accident. From that vantage point, you can see the big picture and anticipate where the accidents will happen. If you could somehow communicate with the drivers below, you could prevent many fender benders.

As the boss, you can communicate with the drivers if you see an accident ahead. Do it! But as a boss you can do better than that. You have more clout in the organization. Use it! Picture yourself as a traffic cop in d’Etoile. You can stop lanes of traffic, block cars from entering, or make drivers slow down. Do what you can to help your people maneuver through the traffic to get where they’re going.

Don’t give employees all the answers. Employees will come to you for help, and if you’re busy or tired you’ll tell them what to do. Don’t. Every time you do it, you encourage them to come to you with the next problem. But no one learns anything by getting the answer. Instead, ask employees what they’ve tried. Explore why it didn’t work. Ask them what options they’ve considered. If they’re not seeing some things, ask questions to gently open their eyes.

Vary your style. Many managers continue to treat their people as if they are all the same; everyone receives the same instruction, the same way, every time. Manager Gilbert G. Bendix told Workplace911.com that it helps to think of employees as chefs. “One employee is like the chef who doesn’t need a cookbook,” he says. “Give him oral instructions once and know that the job will be done and done right. But another worker forgets simple instructions by the time he reaches his workstation. He needs different help: a detailed recipe with all the ingredients listed at the top.” Match your style to what employees need.

Let employees fail. If we all had to be perfect the first time, no one would ever have seen a circus trapeze act. Sometimes employees fall. The solution is not to keep them from trying to catch the trapeze. The solution is to be sure that they have a net beneath them and the confidence to climb the ladder and try again.

Help employees learn from their mistakes. When employees screw up, count to 10 and resist the urge to get mad. Instead, use these talking points to help employees learn:

• What went wrong?

• When did it go wrong? Could they have seen the problem earlier?

• Why did it go wrong? Was the mistake inevitable, or the result of a freak incident?

• When did they notice something was wrong? Did they take action then or hope it would get better? Did they ignore their gut or warnings from others?

• Were they lacking information? If so, where could they have found the information?

• Does the incident remind them of any other mistakes they’ve made?

• What will they do differently next time? Why?

Think “we.” Here are some words to strike from your vocabulary: I, me, my, mine. (Put a quarter in a jar every time you use them and give them to your employees at the end of the year.) Don’t refer to management as “us” and to employees as “you.” Remember, you’re all in this together. Don’t stay above the fray either. If there’s work to be done and you can do it, pitch in and help. Employees resent bosses who won’t get their hands dirty stuffing envelopes, answering phones, or making copies occasionally. Is the work important, or isn’t it?

Real Life Example

When Kelly was appointed acting director of an emergency medical services coordinating system, her first challenge was dealing with the department’s secretary, Rose. Rose was often seen painting her fingernails; she resisted deadlines and instructions; and she generally was seen as unwilling or unable. “No” was her favorite word.

Given her reputation, Kelly was surprised when Rose mentioned that she had figured out how to do mail merge on an outdated computer system with barely 64K of memory. Because Kelly was replacing the antiquated system, she asked Rose if she would like to have the new computers in her office. Rose’s face lit up. “I saw that I was on to something,” Kelly says.

They talked about rearranging the office to accommodate the new system. Kelly asked Rose where she thought everything should go and how it all should be arranged.

“I took her advice on everything,” Kelly says, “which apparently no one had ever done before. She became another person: willing, hardworking, dependable, totally ‘with it.’ She went from being an employee everyone barely tolerated to one who should have been employee of the year. It really taught me a lesson about managing people. The manager’s true job is to serve those that work for her, in the sense that you give them the power and the assets they need to do their job, and permission to do it pretty much their own way, and you get happy, hard-working people who exceed all expectations.”

Boss’s Tip of the Week #10: Managing 101: How To Be the Boss Today’s Employees Need
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