Employee/Manager Relations: What Really Matters

It doesn’t matter what you know, unless you know what really matters.
— Dr. Tim Elmore

My 23 year old niece, Elizabeth, has now logged a blissful 6 months in her first real, fulltime, post-university position and has worked hard at doing all she could to accelerate her comfort with her new colleagues, and win their approval and acceptance as one of the team. With a desire to demonstrate enthusiasm and loyalty, she made a conscious decision to eagerly attend every staff function from last autumn to present. Additionally, she earnestly shows up for work 45 minutes early every day (beating even the biggest bosses to the door), usually skips her breaks, lunches at her desk (or takes abbreviated midday breaks, at best) and stays a good 45 to 60 minutes after “quitting time”, every night. Why? Not to show her employer what a dedicated employee she is, but rather, because she L-O-V-E-S her job. She’s still amazed that she found a position that so well suits her budding professional skills and talents, and applies wisdom gleaned from her degree. A dream come true, these days, for a B.A. graduate.

Well, after graduation, finding a good job…what comes next? “I want to move out. I want to start my full-fledged adult life. I want to get a place of my own.” Her parents understood and accepted. With an impressive nest egg saved, Elizabeth now spends much of her free time on-line cruising for condos. One day this past week, she actually took her 15 minute morning break to, what else?…surf for condos. Like many, once she has a bee in her bonnet, Elizabeth is keen to carry her vision from conception to manifestation. The one time she’s on the web “inappropriately”, her manager happens by and comments, “Don’t you have enough to do? If you’re so idle you can spare time on-line on private matters, I can find work for you…there’s always plenty that needs to be done!”

Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
— Goethe

Did this manager know what really mattered in this situation? This manager may know plenty about her organization, but one has to wonder–noting this sarcastic comment to a fine, diligent young worker–how much she really knows about sustaining staff motivation and inspiring employee productivity and loyalty. With one careless, off-the-cuff comment (where, obviously her brain was not functioning three seconds faster than her mouth), this manager spewed words and a sentiment that Elizabeth experienced as hurtful and disrespectful. She immediately felt underappreciated for all she does on a daily basis, and that her manager had sorely missed the mark on understanding her daily above-and-beyond output.

A 23 year old, typically, does not yet know what, for example, a 33, 43, 53 or 63 year old knows…that there’s a time and place to professionally assert and speak up for yourself, especially to the person to whom you report. And so Elizabeth said nothing, but seethed the rest of the day, and confessed she felt like crying. Thanks to my work, my niece knows that tears on-the-job, in most cases, are a manifestation of anger, not grief. She knew, then, that she was angry and she knew her anger got in the way of her balance-of-day productivity. She knew it, but her manager did not. What’s the definition of a lose-lose situation? This. Who “won” that afternoon? No one. Not Elizabeth; not her manager; not the clients whom their organization were supposed to serve that afternoon.

The following morning my sister told me she noticed Elizabeth was still home long passed her usually departure time. When asked why, Elizabeth replied (with a little attitude, not directed at her mum), “I know. I’ll still technically be on time, but I just don’t feel like being there early today.” They both knew why.

People aren’t loyal to organizations; they are loyal to individuals.
— Marcus Buckingham

When it came to this employee/manager confrontation, in my estimation, here’s what Elizabeth did right:

She…

  1. quietly responded with a metaphoric count to ten, rather than spewing verbal aggression at her manager in the very next moment; granted, she did this not necessarily as an enlightened communications strategy, but rather because she felt positionally powerless to stand up for herself. So, although one might conclude Elizabeth did the right thing for the “wrong” reason, it still counts.
  2. gave herself permission to be a little less productive than normal for a small wedge of time (knowing full well she wouldn’t keep this “work-to-rule” attitude and behaviour up long, for it would too strongly go against her personal principles and work ethic).
  3. shared it with “safe” people she knew would listen and empathize/she got it off her chest in a safe environment (with her family)
  4. asked for advice as to how to proceed in the days that followed
  5. within two days, reverted to a work ethic that demonstrated an internal locus of control, rather than external–her daily productivity and demeanor returned at a rate and style that made her personally proud of her workplace contribution and rewarded her clients (and herself), rather than punished her manager (and herself).
  6. two days later, was willing to give her manager a little benefit of doubt that this woman was having a bad day and that the sarcasm directed at her was merely a presenting issue of annoyance and not the real issue on her manager’s mind

In my estimation, here’s what Elizabeth’s manager did right:

Nothing.

Well, if I tried hard to say something positive, I would concede that the manager saw something she didn’t think was quite right about an employee’s on-the-job behaviour and addressed it. It’s just that she addressed her observation in a spontaneous, completely unenlightened leadership manner, which damaged–even if only temporarily–the employee/leader relationship and her employee’s productivity.

As a frontline employee, what could Elizabeth have done better?

She could have:

  1. donned a thicker skin and just let it go/got on with the business at hand or…
  2. after a sufficient calming down period, requested an opportunity to speak with her manager, to information share that she was investigating a personal matter on her own break time, and, most importantly, remind that she comes in early, works through breaks, usually short changes her lunch and stays late most every day
  3. pep-talked herself into responding rather than reacting, to seamlessly protect her own professional integrity and sense of fair productivity/remembered that she only truly has control over herself
  4. learned and applied appropriate assertive communications techniques (e.g. shared in Dr. Manuel J. Smith’s classic bestseller, When I Say No I Feel Guilty); in this case, Smith’s classic technique of Fogging, alongside Negative Assertion, Self-Disclosure and Free Information would have helped to clear the air before it became so laden. Fogging consists of finding some grain of truth in the criticizer’s perceived observation and then articulating understanding, either in part or principle with those observations. The trick with Fogging is to respond with earnestness, keeping a level tone of voice and personally empowered sense of self; words spoken while Fogging are not an apology, nor do they necessarily express agreement with the criticizer’s observation, e.g. “I can see how finding me on-line, viewing personal information, gives the impression I don’t have enough work; I do. I’ll get back to it now.” When Fogging, the asserter affirmatively responds without actually apologizing or agreeing, before the criticizer can go on any further. Negative Assertion is very similar to Fogging, but more clearly and completely expresses agreement with the criticizer’s observation, e.g., “You’re absolutely right, _____ , I have taken a moment just now to look on the web for something that I should really be investigating on my personal time. I do have plenty to do and I’ll get back to it right now.” Depending on Elizabeth’s comfort and sense of appropriateness to do so, she could also have folded-in the assertiveness techniques of Self-Disclosure and Free Information, e.g. ” _______ , I come in significantly early each day–I’m often first here. I don’t take breaks most of the time and I usually stay quite late. I’m moving shortly and so have taken a few moments of break time today to see what’s on the market.” While I can hear many saying it’s none of an employer’s business if Elizabeth is moving, each person’s sense of what is or isn’t acceptable to share with their employer is different and, in many cases, Self-Disclosure and Free Information with one’s manager can potentially lead to better bonding, better employee/manager relations, and who knows, even some welcomed advice or help.

As a Manager, what could Elizabeth’s boss have done better?

She could have…

  1. made it her business to know the daily comings and goings of her staff…the classic LBWA leadership style/Lead-By-Wandering-Around, thereby knowing that some of her good people come in early, forego breaks, stay late, etc. and, as a result, cut Elizabeth a bit of slack
  2. applied the premise: once is an incident, twice is a trend and three times is a pattern…and addressed this “lack of work to do” observation with Elizabeth only after the third time it presented.
  3. embraced the philosophy that, as a leader, it’s always a good idea to ensure the brain is engaged before the mouth is in gear/the brain is three seconds ahead of the mouth, so not shoot oneself in the managerial foot, thereby damaging employee morale, motivation and productivity (after all, it is by way of the manager’s staff that the job gets done and it is by way of the staff that the manager’s reputation rises or falls).
  4. applied Dr. Manuel J. Smith’s assertive communications technique of Negative Inquiry whereby, with all sincerity she asked Elizabeth why she was working on personal business right now (in a voice tone completely devoid of judgment or sarcasm–authentically asking for the sake of better understanding–along the same line as Stephen Covey’s now classic Habit 5: Seek first to understand, then be understood (from, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
  5. consciously chosen to demonstrate a positive leadership approach, rather than the accusatory, negative alternative
  6. committed to ongoing learning (in the form of professional management development workshops and readings on the subject of effective leadership, staff relations and inter-personal/team communications), particularly in the areas of sustaining frontline employee motivation and morale.

People sometimes resign over seemingly “little” things like this/little misunderstandings and miscommunications, especially if such a confrontation is the straw breaking the camel’s back. The bottom line is this: the more “engaged” frontline (and all staff) are at work, the lower the turnover, the higher the productivity, the progressively greater the employee’s positional expertise, the higher the client satisfaction and, in the for-profit sector, the higher the profitability. As unemployment rates are currently relatively low, compared to days of old, engaging and satisfying frontline staff should matter a great deal to managers, for if frontline staff feel too underappreciated and under-acknowledged these good workers may simply jump ship. And loosing trained staff, even at the frontline, is very costly. Repeated studies show employees resign, more than any other reason, because of bad relations with the manager to whom they directly report. It’s the manager, therefore, more than any other in the organization, that can inspire a satisfactory employee workplace experience and greater degrees of employee retention. It’s amazing how a few enlightened, sincerely delivered comments of managerial support, praise and positivity, every now and then–extending benefit of doubt to these employees once in awhile, too–can make all the difference.

So once again, whether you relate more to Elizabeth or her manager, it all comes down to this…

It doesn’t matter what you know, unless you know what really matters.
— Dr. Tim Elmore

And what really matters, as one of my fine colleagues reminds is…

Relationships are everything.

Across the continent and around much of the world, this week is acknowledged as Administrative (as well as Frontline and Support Staff) Professionals’ Week…an especially good time to appreciate, applaud and admire these hard working, often-unsung contributors within our companies and organizations. If you are in a position of leadership or individual contribution in the workplace/if you are an employee who consumes the services of administrative professionals, take the time to express your appreciation. If you are a member of the support staff ranks, yourself, take the time to:

  1. Willingly receive and accept praise and/or
  2. Remember to pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.

P. S. If this edition of Working Wisdom inspires you to rethink your own perspective on day-in and day-out relations between admin staff and management, you may also wish to (re)view April, 2009’s Working Wisdom, entitled: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet (as I’ve received multiple requests for permission to reprint this WW offering for many April, 2010 trade journals and company/organizations’ in-house staff newsletters and publications).

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