The Problem with Managers:
Management is never easy, whether you’re a journeyman electrician, a first line supervisor, in industry, a platoon leader in the Army, or anywhere else. But we’ve made it almost impossible sometimes.
Michael O. Church has been posting some outstanding articles lately on personnel management in the technology industry. I don’t always agree with his analysis but, am willing to admit that his is better than mine in his industry, and maybe better overall. First, one place where I completely agree with him is on so-called Performance Improvement Plans, which I classify as three lies for the price of one. They have nothing to do with performance, they are useless for improvement, and they indicate the lack of a plan for personnel development.
Two years ago, one of my friends was served with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) issued to him from a large company. If there is a TPS Report Museum, there must be an entire wing dedicated to PIPs. I’ll say one thing about these: they should never be used, and they don’t work. The first way in which PIPs fail is that they don’t work at improving performance. A manager who genuinely wishes to improve an employee’s performance will address the matter, one-on-one, with the employee in a verbal meeting (or series of meetings) where the intention is discovering the cause (“blocker”) of low performance, and decide either (a) to resolve this problem, if it can be done, (b) to accept transient low performance if the cause is a temporary one such as a health problem, or (c) to determine that the problem is irresolvable and terminate the employee (preferably in a decent way). On the other hand, written negative communication about performance (formalized most finally in a PIP) is universally interpreted as an aggressive move and will lead to distrust of the manager, if not outright contempt toward him. As soon as a manager is “documenting” negative performance, the relationship between him and his report has failed and he should progress immediately to a decent termination. Never PIP. Fire, but do it right.1
We all know that there are people who will never fit into any particular setting. It’s a kindness to them and to the company to find a way to amicably separate. If you ever been that person, you know what I mean.
Speaking of this, a lot of extremely unethical things happen in American workplaces, and that is a result not of “bad people”, but the bulk of this behavior comes from morally-average people who are scared. One of the things people fear most at work is a sudden, unjust, badly-structured termination that leads to a long-term career problem. This fear motivates a lot of the bad activities that occur in workplaces that lead to unsafe products and defrauded customers. The best thing a company can do for its culture, and for its macroscopically visible good citizenship, is to establish a policy of managing terminations in a proper way– to say that, yes, we’ll fire people whose poor performance constitutes an unacceptable cost to us, but we’ll always do so in a way that ensures that good-faith low performers (i.e. decent people who are a bad fit for their role) move on to more appropriate jobs.
How does a PIP actually affect performance? First, it destroys the relationship between the manager and the employee, who now feels “sold out”. If claims in the PIP suggest that others contributed to it, it may destroy the working relationship between the employee and his colleagues, causing isolation. PIPs usually carry a biased or even inaccurate summary of the employee’s work as the motivation for the Plan. Second, PIPs often generate a lot of additional work for the employee, making it harder to perform. A PIP usually contains deadlines equivalent to a 40-hour per week work schedule. This seems reasonable, except for the fact that many work demands are unplanned. An employee who faces responsibility for an emergent production crisis during a PIP will be forced to choose between the PIP work or the emergent crisis. A PIP’d employee ends up actually ends up with four conflicting jobs. The first is the work outlined in the PIP, which is already a 40-hour obligation. The second is any emergent work that occurs during the PIP period (which is usually unspecified in the PIP, but claimed to be covered by a vague “catch-all” clause). The third is the legalistic fighting of the PIP– the employee must contest false claims about his performance or the company will represent him as having agreed with them, which damages his position if he ends up in severance negotiation. The fourth is the job search process, which must be commenced right away because the PIP usually ends in termination without severance.2
I couldn’t agree with him more.
Another thing that Michael talks about is the flatness of the organization, and I have often seen this come into play. As a first line supervisor, I can control about 5 people maximum, in my field, if I have good journeymen, which are my field’s equivalents to NCO s it might expand to 7 or 8. If they are exceptional maybe 10 but that’s the limit. And I can’t really delegate this, because from my chair, I can’t tell brown-nosing from objective reporting. If I get out into the field, remembering that I’m an expert myself, I can tell but, then I introduce a lot of lost time into my day, lengthening it beyond all reason. So, my span of control is effectively 7-8 front lines supervisors and 5 is better. With 5, I can work on developing them to the next level, teaching them and their people how to excel, maybe motivating them a bit and so forth. This is how you grow a business while maintaining quality. But this more leadership than it is management. 3