Safety Culture / Psychology / Columns / Positive Cultures

POSITIVE CULTURES: When your boss doesn't get it

March 21, 2011
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Something interesting happens to folks when they make it to the top in business. They become remarkably prone to lose touch with the people down the ladder – the people who do the work and make or break the company. This is often the case even when the boss came up through the ranks, and climbed that very ladder.

There are good reasons that so many folks find the comic strip “Dilbert” so entertaining. Some may get a kick out of the engineers that are lampooned for their hyper-analytical approach and lack of social skills, or the “evil HR Director”, or the consultant (who dispenses advice along the lines of, “to increase efficiency, do more work in less time”). But virtually all of us with organizational experience enjoy the central character of “The Boss” who doesn’t know his employees by name, doesn’t understand what they do, and so on. The Dilbert Boss is apparently an archetype that many of us have experienced.

In fairness, working at the very top of the organization requires a different skill set and a different focus than working “out there”, where the core work of the company gets done. And a CEO who spent time on moment-by-moment tactical issues (“have we ordered those printer cartridges?”) would not hold the position for long. Nonetheless, the extent of organizational disconnect demonstrated by top-level executives is often quite stark indeed.
 

They take pride in doing a good job!

I have been intrigued by the recent TV series called “The Undercover Boss”. In case you have not caught that particular fever, as I have, here’s the pattern. The boss (usually the CEO, but occasionally another senior corporate executive) masks his identify with dyed hair, a new beard, glasses, etc., and thus disguised, goes out into the field, with the cover story that he is a potential new-hire with the company. I use the masculine pronoun partly for ease of communication, and partly since in each episode I have seen, the boss happens to be male.

At any rate, the boss masquerading as a prospective employee works at an entry-level or near-entry-level job, being trained and evaluated by a skilled employee, one who is way down the ladder, and so one who actually does the work that the company sells.

The boss is, of course, all thumbs, and unable to do the core work of the company very well, if indeed at all. Again, this should not come as a major surprise. Disappointed as he is by his predictable ineptitude, the boss is yet heartened by the skill and the commitment of the employees that he encounters. My lord, they are real people who have worked hard to get a job and keep it, and furthermore, they are actually pretty darned skilled! Look at that! They take pride in doing a good job! They are loyal to the company, even when they have not always been well treated by the big shots in corporate! These little people are salt of the earth! Who knew!?

Invariably, the now humbled but enlightened undercover boss makes a solemn vow to ensure that employees are treated with respect, are shown appreciation, and have the opportunity to grow within the company. All the employees who are featured in the show are called to the corporate office and the ruse is then revealed. The boss then gives them some gift (that honeymoon the employee and spouse could never afford, a college savings program for the kids, etc.) Their initial nervousness gives way to excitement, gratitude, and often, tears of joy. All good theater! I am positively riveted to the TV, even as my wife, bored by the predictable replaying of the same story again and again, asks, “Wouldn’t watching it once really be enough?” For me, apparently not.

Now, the good folk who “shower after work” are not all candidates for sainthood. Every now and then a clinker employee, a proverbial square peg, turns up. The rare misfit employee will likely be “pursuing opportunities outside the company”, as the good guys get their dream vacation.

There are but few clinkers, and the vast majority of the scenarios I have seen show hard -working people using their skills, doing their best pretty much every day, and trying hard to help the hapless “new guy”.
 

So Dilbert

Here’s the rub. How is it possible that the CEO didn’t know all that stuff already? What did the boss think was going on down there where the work gets done? How did the big guy not know that the old chestnut that “the people make the business” is actually pretty darned true? How could he be so… well, so “Dilbert”!?

I don’t think such “boss blindness”, widespread as it may be at the top, is the unique province of the CEO. While especially vivid on my new favorite TV show, I suspect that the disconnect between the leader and the led is seen at other levels as well.

Many years ago the concept of “management by walking around” (MBWA) was popularized. While the notion of spending time with the folks who do the work hardly seemed like some grand revelation even at the time, it got traction mainly because so many folks in organizational leadership roles don’t do it. I have found in my own work as an executive/leadership coach that MBWA is often a glaringly missing piece. Folks in leadership positions at all levels may focus so much on their business at the strategic level, or otherwise become so isolated, that they lose sight of the importance of the personal contact, both themselves and for their employees. When in the course of a coaching relationship I remind the leader I am working with of the importance of spending time in the field, engaging with the folks at a personal level, seeing the work through their eyes, and basically committing to an MBWA strategy as a critical element of their role and responsibility, a common reaction is “of course… you’re right… I really should do that… once I am clear of this round of meetings, etc., I definitely need to do that….” I have often followed up such conversation with the specific suggestion that the leader block out time on the calendar for just such contact with the work and the workers. In subsequent coaching sessions I good-naturedly audit how the executive is doing with that MBWA commitment. Answer: sometimes yes, often no. There is just so much work on the leader’s plate!

There is a tendency for leadership folks in any department or function of the organization to draw boundaries around their department, and become isolated and disconnected from other functions, or even from the people down the ladder in their own function. As much as we might (quietly and in safe locations) lament the big boss’s lack of connection with “who we are and what we do”, do we fall into the same trap?

MBWA is something that the very, best leaders, at all levels, have always done. It is a critical best-practice strategy that all can implement with a “just do it” commitment. It helps us really know our organization and its people.

It helps us avoid becoming “that guy”!

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