By Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP
Companies that are growing very fast necessarily place high demands on their employees. On the one hand, it is very exciting; an employee has an opportunity to learn to advance, to try new things, to have real responsibilities and to feel needed. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming: the owners or managers of a growing company can seem picky, difficult to please, demanding, and the skills to be developed seem like an endless list. Some very capable employees can shut down or freeze under the pressure. Support personnel are asked to redo or rewrite their assignments more often in a growing company because things change at a faster pace. This leaves the managers looking like they are indecisive, moody or can’t make up their minds.
There are a number of responses available to managers in this situation. One very typical response is to become increasingly annoyed with lower level staff and the line-versus-staff gap begins to widen. The managers begin to be very specific about what time they want people to arrive in the morning and leave at night. Managers express their disgust that employees don’t care – as the managers must pick up the slack and work harder and harder to meet the tighter and tighter deadlines. They begin to resent the fact that the staff does not seem to have a sense of urgency about their work and don’t want to help during key times.
What to do when staff doesn’t seem to care when your company needs them the most.
When a company faces this dilemma, it is important for the front line managers to break the spiraling cycle that is beginning. A manager wanting to take initiative to break this spiraling cycle can follow these steps:
1. People are different.
The mangers need to recognize that the staff below them is not a homogeneous group. The individuals that service an employee role are not all the same; each has they own unique strengths and weaknesses. Now, at first, this sounds obvious but when the spiraling behavior (described here) starts to happen the staff does not seem to act as a large unit. Individual strengths and weaknesses do seem to blur together into group behavior.
Select three people from among the staff who show promise and who would be worth the manager’s time to develop.
3. List assets
List each person’s assets or strengths.
4. Recognize individual strengths
Review the list of strengths to make sure that they are not identical lists. Some managers have to work at recognizing individual strengths that are different from everyone else.
5. List of weaknesses
List the areas of vulnerability, weakness, and poor performance for each of the three individuals.
6. Review areas of further development
Review each list of “areas of further development” to make sure that the three lists are different and that individual uniqueness has been recognized.
7. Reflect on behavior
The manager needs to reflect on his/her own behavior in response to the employees and ask himself if there are any of the employees’ strengths that he has not been affirming lately. Could I help the employees be more productive simply by becoming more complimentary of successes on a day-to-day basis? The pace of the work in a growing company is such that it’s difficult to see cues for compliments at times. So, this intentional reminder helps compliments to be said to the employee who needs to hear them.
8. Reflect on employee strengths
The manger then needs to look at the list of employee strengths and reflect on the nature of the work being done by that employee. Is there some portion of the work that could be emphasized, discussed or modified in a way that could bring out the employee’s strengths more distinctly? For example, some employee’s ability to write can be markedly improved through the provision of more information about the purpose of the writing assignment or how their part contributes to the whole.
9. Select skills/areas of improvement
Managers need weaknesses/areas of further development. Select which one skill area, if improved, could make the biggest difference in that employee’s contribution to the business and to that employee’s future career. This often feels like a guess to a manager, thinking about an employee, but it’s worth trying to reduce the long list to one key area.
10. Encourage employee development
The manager can then reflect on what he/she needs to do to encourage the employee development in that one area.
11. Employee list of attributes
The manager and the employees need to meet, so that the employee can generate a list of their greatest attributes and areas for further development. Quite often an employee does not want to offer a list of their weaknesses. It is important for the manager to explain to the employee that while the company is growing fast, new skills are being acquired by everyone. It is important for managers and employees alike to select the most important skills that they themselves want to develop for the mutual benefit of the company and the first individual involved.
Managers are often surprised by the fact that employees will select skills to be developed that would be helpful to the firm but are not the same skills that the manager had identified as being the most important at this time.
A manager client of ours recently went through these steps. He initiated a discussion with an employee and was temporarily concerned about the fact that the employee wanted to develop more positive communication. This manager was smart enough to accept the employee’s selection of computer literacy. He also asked if there was another skill that the employee would have to work on to gain upper management’s confidence and willingness to invest in the employee’s increased computer literacy. The conversation very easily shifted to a discussion of how the employee is perceived and how his style of communication may be getting in the way of his own career development.
Use of this sequence is helpful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the manager breaks the negative thinking cycle for himself. He demonstrates to the employee that he is thinking about the other person, can see the positive strengths, is willing to look at himself as well as the employee and wants to contribute to the employee’s future development. It’s also excellent in that there are benefits to the employee, the company and the results that are achieved at the end of the sequence. If the employee (in the example given) could improve his communications patterns, the company would be getting less distractions, more productivity, more profitable, and the employee would be one step further in their career advancement. This type of discussion is much more constructive than a discussion about company policies, procedures and deadlines.
The manager can look at his communication with employees like a salesperson would look at a prospective customer. An employee needs to buy into what a company is doing and just like a customer, there needs to be some benefits to them, some reason to bother and some comfort with the salesperson to make that decision to commit oneself. Good salespeople know not to ticket a client about missed appointments or lack of follow-through. They need to see these problems as symptoms but the sale has not been closed, and the prospect has not been convinced.
Once a manager and staff person have discussed the strengths that need to be acknowledged, the strengths that need to be an opportunity for further expression and practice and the weaknesses that need further attention, they need to identify the things they need to do together to accomplish success. An employee who skips steps, procrastinates, doesn’t seem to listen, isn’t organized and seem irresponsible may need some help understanding the purpose of their work, the future application of their work, the logic behind the design of their work, and the sequence of the steps needed to accomplish their work. Many people were never taught sequential thinking and it may need day-to-day reinforcement. That’s something a manager can help with on a periodic basis and enjoy an employee success.
Another staff person, who seems to lack enthusiasm, doesn’t seem to recognize the urgency of assignments and won’t take initiative may be having a difficult time visualizing/imagining success. This person can get lost in individual problems and have a difficult time spotting alternative approaches. A manager can help this individual by reinforcing the goal and helping the employee generate alternatives when problems occur. This technique of selecting one area of development for an employee’s focus for a short period of time is very helpful to both the manager and the employee. They can each see progress; the gap between management and staff shrinks when they run into problems. They have a point of reference to go back to, to get re-centered and become constructive again. It stops the feeling of the to-do list being a bottomless pit; it doesn’t feel as hopeless. If the manager and employee are able to identify key words that capture the essence of the skills to be developed, those key words can be used in a variety of ways, to reinforce the employee’s learning.
One example of a very positive skill development word that a client used recently is “slalom.” The manager and employee were trying to help the employee see problems by imagining himself as a skier. Problems came up as the project progressed were seen as moguls. A skier can choose to hit a “mogul”’ head on, do it the hard way, or learn flexibility and response and find an alternative route. It’s more fun! The skier will reach the same end with a lot less pain and no problem. The employee had a poster in his office of an Olympic slalom skier; it reinforced day-to-day what he was trying to do. Some days, he had to attack problems (mogul); on other days, he had to go around them to keep moving and keep making progress.
The greatest gift a manager can give a staff person during periods of accelerated growth and high demands is recognition of their individuality and some sign that they company is a success and will be shared with all who have contributed to it.