Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Are You This Manager? Don't Shoot the Messenger

Friday evening an elementary school buddy of mine called me.  He runs a branch of a company in the service industry.  He has been named manager of the year several times and he runs one of the most profitable branches. While he never brags about his accomplishments, he lets you know he has worked hard to achieve them and is appreciative for the opportunity to be where he is.

The conversation with my friend went something like this:

Friend:  Ted, I need to ask you a question. In the past, I know I have resisted many things you have said to me. However, I need you to know that I do hear you and have tried some of your ideas.

I have a situation at work. It is not that I think something is wrong with me as a manager. I need to understand what happens with employees. I need to know when does an employee become an adversary?

Ted: Why do you think your employees are adversaries?

Friend:  Well, it’s only 2 people. I hired a sales guy and he poorly performed in his territory. I put another person in his territory and the other person did well. The first guy has been with the company for 15 years. I have had a great relationship with him in the past.

He is now trying to collect unemployment and is saying very bad things about me.

Ted:  Tell me how you manage the behaviors of sales people to ensure they perform well. Tell me how they are compensated.

After a difficult conversation to get the information about expected behaviors and compensation, my questions were answered.

Friend:  I had a conversation with him about his performance as well as an unfavorable incident with a client. He became very defensive. I told him to cool off. He left and did not return so I fired him.

My buddy then told me a story about another employee that he feels has also become an adversary.

In turn, I asked about what the organization stands for as well as what his branch stands for. I suggested that if everyone knows what the company and branch stands for, it is easier to reward the behaviors that are aligned to it and correct behaviors misaligned with it.

He became assertive by letting me know what the company stands for. And I asked how he ensures his behaviors are aligned with the stand. Naturally, he assured me the problem was not with him.

Friend:  I have 20 people in my branch. If I have a problem with 2 people, the problem is not me. When people do what I say and the way I say there is no problem. My track record is great and I only have a problem with 2 employees. I just want to understand how they become adversaries. With that understanding, I can stop it in the future.

Ted:  My first thoughts are that it seems easy to say your employees should change. At the same time, as the leader of the branch your behavior creates the culture. I say if you have adversaries, there is something in the culture that promotes it. Therefore, it is not the employees who have to change. It is you, as the leader, who has to change. When you change, the culture will change and there is a very good chance the culture of becoming the boss’ adversary will disappear. 

Friend:  You must be crazy! Everything you just said is nonsensical! I am not changing for 2 people! I will just fire them!  And that is what I did!

Furthermore, you never answered my question! Your response is too sophomoric for me. We need to move the conversation to the next level. I asked about employees becoming adversaries and you tell me how I need to change myself. One has nothing to do with the other.  Your response is below me. I already know this stuff you are saying.   

When I asked you the question, you should have answered this way. You should have asked me what is happening with my sales team. Then you should have asked me… Then you should have asked me…

He went on with what I should have asked after cutting me off in the middle of most of my conversations. When I asked him if he speaks to his employees the way he speaks to me, he justified it by saying you are a friend. I have known you since we were children. I can speak to you any way I want. I am different with employees.

Ted:  I have answered your question. Do you always tell people how they should answer you?

Friend:  You have yet to answer my first question! You keep giving me this theoretical crap! And you damn right! I know what the answer should be when I ask the question. If they say something else, I know they are just full of crap. And I let them know it.

The entire conversation lasted 2 ½ hours. It ended by me suggesting he interview people he knows. He said he would only interview the people who get along with him at work. I suggested he interview his wife.

On Sunday, two days later, he called to apologize.

Friend:  Ted, I summarized our conversation to my wife. She disagreed with a couple of things you said about me. However, she said that you were right in what you said about how I invalidate people. In fact, she said I crush people. She even said that I do it to her.

This is a very painful reality to face. I can only say thank you. I now see how you answered my question. I just did not want to hear the answer you gave me. The funny thing is I am always telling my people how important it is to be responsible for your actions. Clearly, I was not being responsible for how I was affecting people. You made me think differently and forced me to take a much longer path to find the answer that I did not want to face.

I need to confess something else. At first, I did not want to call to let you know you were right. But, I love you, man. And I wanted to let you know what kind of friend you are to me. To be honest, it was hard to make this call, especially since I have been thinking very hard since Friday evening. I was trying to make you wrong about everything you said. In the process of making you wrong, I felt I was struggling to be right. That felt wrong. Part of what made me call is because you said I am more interested in being right than being a great leader. I can see that now. So I had to let go of being right and call you. I just want to be a better man for my employees, friends, family and my wife. Thank you.

Too often, this is the mindset and behavior of management. Unfortunately, too many never make that Sunday call to apologize. If my buddy stayed in denial, I might have lost a friend. Except, he is a really big person. He was able to take constructive feedback and let it empower him.

How many of you have found yourself in a similar conversation with yourself or another person? How many of you were able to make the Sunday call to apologize? 


  1. Excellent article my friend...as a social service manager I too use to be this kind of manager until I had to deal with a bad manager...it was eye opening enough for me to change my ways!! Great job Ted and to your friend who apologized!! That's was real growth!!

  2. Thank you. Great job on your part. I am willing to bet that that experience has made you a great manager. Thanks for reading. Your comments are always appreciated.