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Managers: The High Cost of Making Exceptions

Two issues prior we looked at manager motivation, especially in larger organizations, which tells us why Need for Power and Need for Achievement result in different management styles that perform best within different job contexts. Both are leadership personalities, and despite the relative differences, have the ability to channel the energies and motivation of other people.

“Nice Guys Make Bum Bosses”

This phrase was the title of an article that appeared in “Psychology Today” sometime ago. The article described a third management style, which as common as it seems to be, too often sews its own seeds of destruction. We call the style Management by Exception and describe the motivation as “affiliative”, meaning that being liked by others is the strongest drive the person possesses. The symptoms are generally quite visible – can’t fire, can’t deal with unpleasant situations, can’t be the bearer of bad news, blames head office and the nameless “they” for every jolt of discomfort.

None of us are particularly enamored with consistency for its own sake, especially when it seems to conflict with common sense. But we also realize that in larger, more centrally controlled organizations rules need to be applied consistently and exceptions, even with the best of intent, create a string of messes, some of which can be very expensive, for management to clean up.

The manager who has a strong need to be liked wants to stay on good terms with everyone, keep everyone happy, and draw no criticism. He or she tries to accomplish this by being considerate of individual needs and making exceptions to accommodate those needs. There is also some unstated hope that, by being so nice to people, they will work harder for the manager.

Theory and research both point out the folly of this management strategy. The actual result is 180 degrees the other way – low morale! Employees interpret exceptions as being unfair and beneficial to others but not to themselves. In this environment they perceive little incentive to perform to their maximum potential. None of us would doubt that the largely unmeasurable costs of “disengagement” are very high.

A Leadership Vacuum…

What about smaller, less centralized organizations – is the problem as prevalent or as obvious? Yes and no in that order. If anything, with less sophisticated means for measuring the various dimensions of performance, with fewer financial resources to make problems disappear, and a kinder, gentler view of the employment contract, these companies are more likely to employ affiliative managers in upper levels and keep them there. Adjustments are made, activities are re-allocated, and the problem remains.

However – large or small doesn’t matter with respect to one particular consequence – an affiliative manager in a senior operations role responsible for a sizeable staff creates a leadership vacuum. From various studies we know that a) employees feel a lessened sense of responsibility (not as committed), b) employees perceive less clarity about the organization’s purpose and goals, and c) there is a diminished “team spirit” that results from the lack of single-minded focus and direction.

In our decisions about affiliative managers, as with all placement decisions, it is important that we realize that “right” or “wrong” is not at issue. Only occasionally do people turn sour and trigger their own failure. Far more prevalent is the bad decision made with good intentions about a good person.

With OMS, and through the JAX  job analysis methodology, your organization can identify the management style necessary for each situation and clearly understand the implications associated with filling a management role with a personality whose motivation is not aligned with the purpose and objectives of that role.

You Have to Want to Be a Coach to Be a Good One

The manager as a coach is an intoxicating idea – instead of carrying out tasks and managing numbers the manager focuses on developing people and patiently works with them to help them apply new skills and stretch their abilities. Imagine how effective our organizations would be if all managers could do this?

The idea is a good one. In fact, it’s very good. But there is a problem… some people selling training and some promoting coaching within our organizations want to treat it like a universal cure-all, and even the most obviously unlikely candidates for coaching would be expected to adopt the skills and re-orient their management styles.

As all of know, every few years an essentially sound management idea comes along only to get twisted and contorted into something it was never intended to be, and thereafter to be ridiculed as a fad or flavor of the month. Coaching is potentially much too valuable a management tool to suffer this fate.

Certain personalities are naturals for coaching. They have the right attributes and the right motivation (in OMS terms a Higher S and S/A relationship) – in fact, many have already been coaching for years, perhaps without calling it that. They are relationship personalities – tuned in to people, keen to help others develop, and they don’t begrudge the time and effort it takes. They are motivated to help others and derive real satisfaction from moving people to a higher level of performance.

Other personalities will express appreciation for the idea, and will acknowledge the well-understood benefits, but will have little personal interest in participating in a coaching process that requires commitment to a formalized set of procedures. These are personalities who measure themselves in terms of personal and visible accomplishments, and who are most motivated to solve problems and manage tasks (A & D/Lower S). They equate to people on an instructional level and perceive frequent developmental interactions as time-draining distractions.

Teaching the former personality to coach effectively builds upon their talents – it’s what they do best because they are motivated to do it. Teaching the latter to coach would be ignoring their talents and expecting them to commit to an interactive process they would find both frustrating and demotivating.

Before we train we have to take into account the personalities and motivational sets of the training population. On a sustained basis none of us do well what we don’t find satisfaction with, and with training it’s particularly important to approach it with a realistic understanding of what it can and cannot accomplish with different personalities.

Is It Power or Achievement That Motivates Your Best Managers?

When speaking about filling management posts, it seems that more often than not managers are treated as a homologous group instead of individuals who need to be precisely fitted to the variables governing a work situation. This has lead to stereotyping the role of management – expecting every manager to be team leader as well as a team player – what we refer to as a “people person”.

Is that stereotype a correct one? Can we apply it across the board to our management hiring? On both counts the answer is “No,” and I will explain why with some of the research we have built into our Maximizing Human Performance workshop.

More than twenty-five years ago David McClelland, a professor of psychology at Harvard, researched and wrote about power as a management motivator, distinguishing the need to influence others from the need to achieve. McClelland found that managers who are driven primarily by a need to achieve (OMS Factors: High A combined with Low S) want to do too much themselves, place too much focus on their personal improvement, and require too much concrete short-term feedback on how they are doing to be successful in more complex organizational management roles. Instead, in these roles managers who are driven to influence others, to organize their efforts, and to make them feel a sense of spirit in working as part of a team performed measurably better (OMS Factors: High A combined with High S).

It was also McClelland who discovered that there are actually different types of power motivation, and this produced an even more precise way of differentiating management styles. Specifically, he found that controlled actions – inhibition (OMS Factors: High Emotional Containment combined with slightly Low D) – produce a more altruistic and socialized power motivation in contrast to individuals with less inhibition (OMS Factor: Low E – Emotional Containment) and less self discipline (OMS Factor: Low D), whose behavior is more personally motivated and more self-centered. During the past several years, with Enron, World Com, and a host of other examples of managers behaving badly, we have seen ample evidence of the very high price that organizations and their shareholders pay for this latter type of unrestrained behavior.

So, what does this mean to you? In 98% of business organizations, smaller and private companies primarily, but possibly in any organization…

  • where managers need to be more personally involved with tasks and more tangible matters,
  • where personal accomplishment and ability may be more effective than delegation,
  • where there is more to do personally and less need to influence others to do,
  • where relationships are more simple and less politicized, and
  • where there is less divergence to be brought together and less conflict to be managed,

the Achievement-motivated manager is likely a better fit with the job and the culture who will perform better over time and stay longer.

As the English so aptly say, “There are horses for courses.” When we fill management posts we need to be keenly aware of the realities of the day-to-day activities, and really focus on what the person is expected to do and how he or she is to do it successfully within the organization’s culture. JAX, which most of our clients are using to identify job behavioral requirements, can be an excellent tool for introducing more clarity into this job analysis process. Equally importantly, assessment techniques and interviewing questions must be constructed to measure the desired behaviors rather than some stereotyped set of expectations that may have little relationship with the real job.

OMS is a Registered Trademark of The Assessment and Development Group International Inc.
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