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The team you get is the team you deserve

The very best thing any manager can have is a great team – a group of talented people who are self-motivated, dedicated, loyal, enthusiastic and keen to work together in achieving great things. I’ve been lucky enough over time to work with and help to develop some of these managers and teams, and it’s a genuine privilege. But there are some (a few? many?) organisations that, irrespective of what might be written in a mission statement somewhere or even what is said from time to time,  don’t value their people, and this is a story about one of those.

After years of incompetence in the role, three years ago “Campers” employed a new administration manager, Alice. Since then, Alice has not only excelled at all administrative functions, she has, entirely off her own initiative, implemented process change and created efficiencies which have saved the value of her annual salary. Alice has also taken a leading role in creating and converting sales, helping Campers to remain at full capacity for the last two years. With regular personal appreciation from the finance director and nice words from successive managers, Alice has been proud of the volume and quality of her contribution, as well as the great work done by the team overall. With a great little business and some pretty happy and loyal customers they’ve done some pretty fantastic things. Well, mostly…

Following a change of management eighteen months ago, Alice has been gradually pushed aside, with, bit by bit, work taken off her by the new manager, Jess. This has included having work Alice had nearly completed, which Jess, without a word, took off her, completed and took full credit for, as well as regularly interfering and micromanaging in areas outside of her skillset. Jess also left Alice out of staff memos and emails, even to the extent of Alice being the only one not to have a performance appraisal at any time this year. In face to face conversations, Jess has even inadvertently referred to Alice as not being one of the team.

So you’d think maybe Jess didn’t see Alice as quite as valuable as others in the team, including the finance director, might. But no – because Jess has poor writing skills, Alice often, when confidentially requested to do so by Jess, unknown to anyone else writes or edits letters, memos and e-mails on her behalf. In private Jess also often tells Alice how it is important that she never leaves, as she fits in so well and could not easily be replaced.

How does Jess show her appreciation for Alice’s work? With a thank you card, a bottle of something, flowers, a day off, a movie voucher, a promotion, bonus or pay rise – maybe inclusion in management-level discussions? (Alice expects none of that – she has often said that simply being valued and appreciated is enough.) No, nothing so mundane as that! Instead, this week Jess chose to reward Alice by accusing her of leaving 5 minutes early on two occasions in the last month (she didn’t – on checking the dates it turns out Alice worked back on one of those days in her own time to get extra work done), and sternly reminded Alice that she should be taking her full breaks through the day to stay back later. Yes – this really happened.

For a while there I wondered if maybe Alice was the problem. We’ve all had experiences with the high performer who is too demanding, disruptive and plain hard work – the hero who leaves a trial of devastation behind them, a culture cancer who should be removed as quickly as possible. But in this case, co-workers convinced me that Alice has the sincere respect of the rest of the team and customers, all appreciative of her support and professionalism. However, with an environment that is becoming more clock-focused and not at all outcome-focused, they don’t all speak as highly of Jess…

In Jess’s defence she was appointed to a role where she has no experience and no training, and receives very little ongoing support from above. It seems likely that Jess believes, in her heart, that she doesn’t deserve her role, so worries that if it looks like she isn’t doing enough she will lose her job. As a result she is trying to prove that she is important by stealing credit, micromanaging, staying busy and taking power away from others, worried that one day she will get a tap on the shoulder when her superiors decide her concerns are justified.

But, with my prosecutor’s robe back on, I note that Jess inherited a pretty good team that was functioning pretty well – she didn’t have to do a lot because she didn’t have a lot to do. It was a chance to work with people who were really good at their work and would help her to grow into her role with peer support and without pressure from above. It was a perfect chance for a new manager to ease into responsibility.

Jess also had the chance, sponsored by her employer, to participate in management training but refused on the grounds that others attending the course would be from different industries. But the real reason might have been that in accepting management training she would have been admitting she needed it – and was therefore not competent in her role. In making that choice, her low self-belief and lack of courage let her down badly, and she has no one to blame for that but herself. The prosecution closes its case, your honour. Nearly.

Unlike Jess, you and I can see this is a needless, wasteful and self-compounding disaster that will result in Alice (and a couple of other high performers) leaving, so that Jess will be left with the weakest of the team, a group of clock-watchers who do enough to get by and can’t get better work elsewhere. We can also predict that Jess will find herself under more pressure as things deteriorate, ending up leaving or being forced out. With high stress already, her physical and mental health probably won’t fair too well either.

But here’s the other half of the matter: Managers like Jess don’t deserve to have a good team – that part is obvious. But organisations that don’t recruit properly or train their people deserve to have managers like Jess and the terrible culture and performances they create. Just as Alice’s upcoming resignation, and those of other high performers in the group, will be due to Jess’s mismanagement of self and others, Jess’s eventual failure will be due to the errors of her superiors – the people who appointed her without due consideration, then abandoned her without feedback or the feeling of support, feeding her own insecurities and making this outcome, if not inevitable, certainly predictable.

So while Jess is definitely a part of the problem, the directors are the ones who created it and have the power to fix it – but because the figures look OK for the time being, and they are much more comfortable pointing fingers than looking in mirrors, they see little else. Due to their mismanagement, not Jess’s, in the end the team they get will truly be the team they deserve.

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