Some Well-Intentioned Managers Kill Employee Morale

Guest Posting by Charlie V.

We all know where a road paved with good intentions leads to. Often, as managers – and as human beings in general – we believe our virtuous intentions equate to virtuous outcomes. It is only natural: we know that we mean well, so shouldn’t the results of our actions follow suit?

Anybody who is married or who has been in a long-term relationship can tell you that sometimes we don’t come off how we intend. And virtually without fail, our internal dialogue and perceptions of actions do not provide for the consequences – our actions do. Now, I believe that virtually all managers show up to work with the best of intentions: to get things done; to motivate and reward their people; to create efficient and happy teams of employees; to create value.

But how many of us actually do this? How many of us, instead, hear ourselves saying things like, “Why do I have to babysit? Why don’t people just do their jobs? Why won’t my employees be honest with me? Why don’t my employees just get along?”

There is much research around the topic of why people leave jobs, and the clear, almost indisputable top reason is: their bosses. But given that virtually all managers are well-intentioned, this disparity creates an interesting question: What is going wrong? Clearly there is a disconnect between intention and outcome. With that in mind, here are a few things I believe managers do (or don’t do), phrased in a common rationalization. And regardless of intention, these kill employee morale.

“Talking about matters not work-related is a waste of time. Besides, my employees don’t want me to pry into their personal lives anyway.”

I was attending a leadership training recently of managers at my company. On the topic of getting to know your employees, one self-assured gentlemen spoke up and said basically this.

First, if your goal is to build trust and transparency between you and your team, then talking about non work-related matters is not a waste of time at all, in moderation. In fact, it helps build rapport between you and your people. Think about it: you likely spend 40 hours per week with your team; it is unnatural to spend this much time with a human being without engaging in something casual that helps you understand eachother better as individuals. And, to create true rapport, there is no substitute.

Second, can you spot the clever “straw-man” argument this manager made in defense of himself? A straw-man is an argument you choose to engage and destroy that is much easier to destroy than the one that’s actually being made. The straw-man he invented is the idea that someone is arguing that managers shouldn’t pry into the personal lives of their employees… but nobody is making that absurd argument. It’s purposefully exaggerated so it can be dismissed. Yes, of course nobody wants their manager zeroing in on them like a laser beam and drilling them with deeply personal questions. The real argument is as follows: if managers, every once in a while at least, stop by, sit down, and just ask their people things like, “hey, how are things with you? How is your family?” we convey the message that we do, in fact, care.

Sounds cheesy, but how strong of a rapport do you have with someone when you feel like they don’t really care about you? Managers want their people to have trust and transparency, yet we often deny our subordinates the very thing they need to build such things.

“I am loyal to a fault.” And “I just don’t want to deal with it.”

I live in Colorado and, as is typical of a Colorado Rockies fan, must endure the embarrassment of a transcendentally terrible baseball team. I don’t expect you to have a stake in the Rockies, but here are some interesting facts about their dysfunction. They have all the pieces (virtually) that a successful baseball franchise should have: they have money, an excellent farm system, an enthusiastic fan base, great attendance, a terrific ball park, and one of the best offenses.

What do they also have? Arguably the worst front-office staff in the MLB – specifically the GM. But to blame the GM and front office would be folly, because they’re just people working a job and getting paid while they do it. The question is: who put them there and refuses to fire them?

Dick Monfort, the Rockies owner, has admitted himself that he is loyal to a fault: he cannot bring himself to fire the GM. This isn’t stated with shame, it’s stated with pride. He’s giving himself credit for being loyal. The problem? It’s killing the rest of the organization.

How many times do we, as managers, not deal with a bad employee because we feel too much loyalty towards them? Or, how often do we avoid dealing with a very bad employee because it’s unpleasant and we just don’t want to deal with conflict? When we do this, our other employees will notice without fail. In addition to the myriad pernicious effects of the bad employee’s under-performance, we will also be labeled by our other employees as the manager who can’t make tough decisions… and this is one of the worst labels we could possibly earn for ourselves.

“I have an open-door policy!”

Let me clarify: there is nothing wrong with an open-door policy itself. It’s a good thing to create an environment where your employees can come and talk to you. The problem is when this policy is used as a substitute for deliberate, scheduled one-on-ones initiated by the manager. If we do not schedule regular time to meet with our people, give feedback, talk about goals and concerns, etc, then an open-door policy does not matter in the least.

Yes, some employees are very self-starting and assertive and will grab you for a follow-up, assessment, etc. But many, many do not. A colleague of mine worked in a department where the well-intended manager almost always mentioned, proudly, that he had an open-door policy. Little did he know (or chose not to notice) that over half the department was too intimidated, or too shy to go talk to him themselves. How likely is it that this manager viewed himself as an intimidating person that someone wouldn’t go talk to? The disparity between intentions and outcomes strikes again.

As managers, the health and operation of our teams revolves mostly around us. It can be easy to rationalize behavior and poor outcomes, but remember that the leader (manager) is, by far, the single biggest determiner of the success of a group. Great managers – not just good – spot the disparity between their intentions and the outcomes, and attempt to close it.