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October 07, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Criticize the Boss Publicly—Without Getting Fired

Gary Hamel, a professor, author, writer, and consultant on the topic of management innovation, has a proposition for you: imagine asking your employees to rate their bosses and then publish the results online. This, along with other strategies such as allowing employees to say "no" to any request, is what Hamel listed on an LCD screen over the stage at the World Business Forum this mid-morning in an attempt (hopefully not in vain) to get us to imagine another way of managing workforces.

With professional etiquette so much in the news, I wonder whether it would be OK, and even advisable, to have one of the rating points touch on that topic?  One of the most common "efficient" manager profiles is that of the corporate "superstar" who makes the company a lot of money (or at least is friends with the right people), but has few "people" skills, meaning he doesn't know how to act like the semblance of a human being.

What's funny is at a company I once spent time at there was an employee who had been there for a while, and wasn't liked by many people. No one knew why she continued there. And, actually, I shouldn't say "an" because there was more than one of these individuals at that corporation. That's funny enough. But what's even more funny is how she/they would act when someone new to the company passed her/them by in the hall. Their face would remain immobile, and sometimes they would even arch eyebrows or look right past you. Is there something funny about that kind of behavior? 

Is shyness these managers' defense?  Hardly. I'm a shy person, but know enough to say "hello."  That knowing about saying "hello" would be even more of a know, I would assume, if you were a manager charged with overseeing the work of other people. That's bad etiquette, isn't it?  How many management points should they lose for this infraction?  

How about the manager who doesn't answer e-mail?  The ones who ask for your ideas, and then don't bother to acknowledge when you've reached out with a few strategies of your own?  That's improper for a manager, don't you think?  I think that unresponsiveness also deserves a few points whacked off. 

Then, of course, you have the managers who take liberties they don't extend to even their most dependable workers. Let's say, for instance, there's a manager who comes in every day at 10 and leaves at 4.  But he doesn't mention to his top performers that it's OK if they want to pick one day a week, or even a month, to have a day like that. Is that hypocrisy or insensitivity?  How many boss points should be lost for that no-no?  It's also, rude, right?  

Yesterday, as I ate a hot dog from a street vendor outside Radio City Music Hall, where this conference is being held, I overheard a young woman describing to a friend the bitterness of a former employment situation. It was staggeringly wide-ranging. Her female boss pressured her to lose weight and cut her hair (she did; and lamented that it was just now growing back). At the same time, this boss was angry rather than supportive of the young worker's ingenuity. When this woman's manager found out she was working on a Website for her business unit, she flipped. The former employee speculated that she was angry because she couldn't do that kind of work herself, and that she couldn't think of any way to take credit for it. She was angry because she felt like the young worker was upstaging her. 

At a former company I experienced that, too, and share that young worker's pain. In addition to being managerially stupid, a boss who is more competitive than supportive also breaches etiquette best practices because such behavior is unprofessional. 

With managers like those, another of Hamel's ideas, to allow workers to say "no" to any order or request, would save your company a lot of money. I once worked with a person who came up with what seemed to her and all her co-workers like a great idea for improving the Website. There was no doubt, in fact, that the suggested changes would correct a flawed site. No doubt, that is, to all except the manager, who promptly told the young innovator that she didn't like the new look. This enterprising person was forced to follow orders to maintain a flawed site or risk getting fired. If she had the power to say "no," how many more users would that site have gotten?

Some companies remind me of the military in that saying "no" amounts to the most fatal of "errors."  If your employees can come up with a good reason for not doing something the boss asks them to do, would that make your executives angry?  If they have a compelling counter argument that saves or makes you a substantial amount of money, what are you so mad about?  

I think the anger comes from a control complex. I also think the unacknowledged presence of another person at the office, the unanswered e-mails, and the arrogance of not offering subordinates the same liberties a manager enjoys, also comes down to an urge to exert control on others. 

It would be really funny (even funnier than that other stuff) to see that ability to exert control taken away via public report card. It looks like someone needs some remedial tutoring...


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