Saturday, August 19, 2006

Living, on the edge, of security. . .

Firehawk mentioned in a recent comment that he’s been feeling like employers enjoy keeping their employee’s, on edge, perpetually uncertain about what tomorrow will bring.

I find myself holding typically, for me, diametrically opposing views on this.

I’ve had the experience of working for employers who seemed almost fixated on getting employees to feel very safe and secure, others, who definitely liked everyone to be concerned about their job security, and yet others who seemed not to care either way.

Admittedly, the bulk of my career has been spent either as an independent contractor, or working for smaller, family owned operations, so my take on things is probably a little skewed as a result.

With that said, I think there are definitely three distinct employer types.

Those who:

- Use ‘fear’ to manage the person, and the job
- Attempt to only manage the work, not the person
- Build in a ‘secure’ feeling to manage the person, and the job

I would like to think that the second out numbers the 1st and 3rd combined, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I do know that those companies I’ve been involved with who limited their efforts to managing the work, were better run over all, than those who fell into category 1 or 3.

The folks I’m currently contracted to fall into that 2nd category. They waste little time attempting do much more than what I’d consider standard things with respect to managing the ‘fear’ factor. When they went through a fairly large directional change, they notified all employees by email of the change. They’ve continued to hold informational meetings every other week as the new directions for the company are mapped and decided upon.

I’ve had the misfortune to also be employed by companies in categories 1 and 3 as well though.

I think the worst of those was the company in category 3. One of the favorite sayings of the owner involved the phrase “job for life”. He would tell people as they were hired that there had never been, and most likely would never be, a ‘lay-off’, that once they were ‘on board’ the company would work to ensure they’d always have a job.

Today, that company is a part of history. Although I don’t doubt the sincerity of the words; they still served to build a false sense of security in everyone who worked there. I know from talking with those folks who’d been let go as various divisions closed, that they’d never expected to be told they were no longer needed, or that their jobs were being eliminated. I say worst, because there was no anticipation, no expectation that ‘they’ would ever be effected, it was only happening to other people.

Category 1, the ‘fear’ folks however, in my mind, are the real management disaster.

The fear they attempt to keep alive, tends to be tied to several other management idiosyncrasies as well. But, the real problem is that in perpetuating the fear, they also hamper the very productivity they really are trying to improve.

It’s my contention that people, in general want to be secure, and feeling like they’re doing a good job, and are a valuable resource to the organization, are key to that security. That a culture of uncertainty takes workers focus off the job at hand, and places it on staying out of ‘harms way’. Avoiding any behavior that might ‘rock the boat’ or bring them into the spotlight.

The ‘fear’ managers, actively work to disrupt that secure feeling, preferring instead to keep the employee feeling like they’re ‘not quite there’ yet. There’s always one more thing the person needs to do, one more effort to be made, one more something. I’ve actually had this done to me, at different levels, by the same company.

When I first went to work at the company, I was constantly being told how ‘important’ my contribution was… interestingly enough, I was also renting a home at the time. The fact that I was able to simply pick up, and move, with no tangible ‘roots’, unsettled the employer.

Once I’d purchased a home however, things changed, and rapidly. Within a week, I started what I called “my turn in the box”, the same work that had been great a month ago, was now not enough. Phone calls on weekends, demanding requests that always had to be done before Monday… impossible end of day demands… requiring me to stay (like a lot of others) after the end of the regular work day to achieve them.

I doubt that I would have ever put it together, had my 1st wife and I not separated.

When I was temporarily renting again… amazingly enough… all of that stopped. Suddenly I was the ‘Golden Boy’ again and the accolades returned. Initially, I thought I’d somehow just earned my way back into the ‘good graces’… However, over the course of the next year or so, I began to see a pattern in the bosses behavior, and began to think that as long as he thought I could just pick up and leave, I’d be ‘safe’.

Now I would have thought it was all in my head, if, it hadn’t happened, all over again when I once again purchased a home. I left shortly after that, as I realized that success there, was fleeting (at best) and my temperament did not lend itself to those conditions.

I respond much better to thanks than to threats, in fact a threat is very likely to be met with me calling out the person making the threat. In fact, one of my favorite memories is the expression on a boss’ face as he yelled “Tell me! Who should I fire over this!?”

I replied simply, “If you think that firing someone, will solve anything, just go ahead and fire *me*.” In the end, he didn’t fire anyone; he was just looking to create fear that he would.

I liken what’s happening out there in the workplace today; to times most folks think are long past… what I like to call the “Ebenezer Scrooge” style of management. There was so much progress in ‘management theory’ in the 70’s and 80’s it looked like there would be only stories to remind us of how things once were.

Unfortunately, once folks stopped looking closely at management styles again, all the old ways began to creep back in. The difference is, this time; they’re being applied by folks with a lot of psychological behavior exposure.

My advice? Pay attention, know what you will, and will not accept. Always be prepared to walk away, have a cushion, a set aside, for those times you do walk away. The one thing I’ve discovered is that, for me, there’s no amount of money that will compensate me for bad working conditions.

Tell me what you see… what kind of boss do you have? What kind of boss are you? What’s the corporate culture where you are?


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4 comments:

Firehawk said...

Bill,

I think that most endeavors, like test taking, are best accomplished with a moderate level of non-volatile stress. By that, I mean that you're concerned about the outcome and motivated to do your best effort, but not terrorized on the one extreme or apathetic on the other.

All of your criteria for good management qualities make sense, but they rarely all come together in one individual. Managers, like us, are simply people, and few are without their failings.

As an employee, the idea that's put forth, sometimes in an almost subliminal way, is this: "There's a hundred guys like you just waiting for this job. Mess up, and we won't remember your name next week."

I'm not implying that it's the norm, but I think that sentiment is out there, and is being fostered in some companies. Of course, none of us are so grand that we can't be replaced. That's clear. On the other hand, it's good to feel that your contributions are appreciated, and that you're a valued employee.

Perfect security, I would think, would be a subtle narcotic to a worker, however. Without the occasional nudge, people tend to settle into a pattern and withold their best efforts.

Managing the work, I suppose, is best. Employees still need management, though. They need someone who can put their skills to the best use and keep them "pulling the oars" with the rest of the group.

It's a tight wire to walk, that's for sure. As a manager, trying to keep a grasp on the workers and the job, the big picture and the details, the time and the cost--these are always under a lot of scrutiny. With efficiency being so important anymore, neither managers nor employees can afford a lot of "off days".

Good article.

Bill said...

Firehawk - I agree, that's the balance... I call it 'concerned enthusiasm'.

You want everyone enthused about the project, motivated to do it well, and concerned enough about the outcome to check and double check everything.

In my opinion, neither apathy, nor 'terrorism' succeed in producing great results.

Also, a manager isn't perfect everyday... it's more about a general approach, and in fact "managing" both the people, and the process.

No one is irreplacable... some folks however, are tougher than others to be replaced.

I've always wanted to be 'missed' after I was gone, especially from contract gigs!

WooleyBugger said...

Good reading article.
I was a boss for several years once upon a time in Georgia.
The thing I found worked best was what I had always wanted when I was just an employee, respect.
It is a long story of how I became the boss and what it took to get there.
What I did though was actually talk to the employees each day. You know, a simple good morning can go a long way in letting them know they are recognized and count.
If someone needed a calling down or had made a mistake, I took them in my office and closed the door to have our discussion. Shouting at an employee does nothing to solve matters. Doing it within ear shot of others is demeaning and creates hostility that does nothing to help anything.

I asked employees their thoughts on what could be done to make things better in the workplace.
When my year end bonus came in I shared it with the people under me. Upper management thought I was strange in doing so but my thought was that the effort of the employees needed rewarding too because after all, if not for their hard work there would not have been a bonus in the first place.

I'm a firm believer that the employees can make or break a company. Happy employees are productive employees.
People should not be dreading going to the work place. They should be looking forward to it.

Bill said...

WooleyBugger - Wow.. long time no see bro... hope summer has been good to you!

It sounds to me like you were a good manager... communication, respect, encouragement... all mission critical stuff in my mind.

The extra step in sharing the year end $$ was not only a nice touch... it definitely made you the guy to work for I'm sure!

Managing is coaching.. I'll bet you had a winning team!

Great to see ya!