Management Drastic measures may be necessary

Three Superpowers

Phil’s team is adrift.

Phil is smart and meeting-friendly, but he’s a crap people manager and that crappiness is slowly poisoning his team. You know how bad it is because the star of Phil’s team finds ways to schedule meetings with you where the story is always the same: “He’s smart, but he is genetically incapable of managing people. We’re three weeks away from full-on revolt unless something changes.”

In the field, Phil’s team waits… waits until whatever impending disaster has fully arrived before they grudgingly say, “Well, ok, huh, we should probably handle that… now?”

Frustratingly and confusingly, 1:1s with Phil feel like progress. He says all the right things. He accepts responsibilities for failures and articulates compelling next steps that he assures you will improve the situation. But there is a wide strategic gap between those meetings and Phil’s daily management judgement. The actions do not match the words, and each Monday morning arrives with the realization that Phil still isn’t getting things done, the stars on his team are about to quit, and I have no idea what to do.

You need a new superpower.

Three Superpowers

You have a natural management state. This is the default state that is the foundation of how you make your decisions, the tone with which you run your meetings, and the personality you wear as you talk in the hallway. The state has served you well; you’re comfortable with it because it is you.

Unfortunately, this natural state is the source of your Phil confusion. Your natural state is blinding you to the obvious course of action. Your instincts are wrong. You need to be someone you are not to radically change your perspective.

Here are three personalities, each with their own perspective, and, more importantly, their own superpower:

The Machine has the Debate

The Machine. Our classic mechanic. Her mantra is: “Without a plan, there is no hope.” She’s convinced that the whole world is measurable. She follows the process because only by the strict adherence to the process can we truly generate a meaningful measurement to clearly understand whether we are winning. The Machine’s understanding of the process and the necessity of it are unparalleled. The Machine loves to debate; she loves to consider all options, but when she’s decided — it’s over — there’s no changing her mind.

When the Machine wants something done, she uses The Debate.

The Debate starts with data. Each of you. Please explain to me in excruciating detail the last 10 incidents of Phil being an incapable people manager, and understand that I will ask follow-on questions until our understanding is complete.

The Debate continues with hypotheses. Synthesizing our cornucopia of data, I put forth the following hypothesis entitled “Three things we shall do to improve the Blight of Phil”. I expect everyone involved to challenge these hypotheses. But be warned, argument based on feeling rather than fact will be terminated.

If a hypothesis is successfully defended, it becomes the law and the debate is over. If it fails, the debate continues. A well-run debate results not only in the truth being vetted, but, more importantly, a consensus being built around this truth, which sounds delightful except for these caveats:

  • If the natives are looking for action, the Debate can look like stalling. If your Phil situation is dire, a four-week analysis of the Phil Blight may not be the response the folks who are about to quit are looking for.
  • If the issue is deeply emotional, the Debate is a nearly insurmountable task. People are messy, especially a group of emotional, angry people, and while they’ll be happy to vent about Phil’s failings, turning the vent into a constructive Debate can take an intolerable amount of time.
  • The Debate lacks art. While a good debate thoroughly vets the validity of a hypothesis, a Debate rarely leads you towards innovation or a leap of faith. The whole point of the Debate is to develop the best possible theory regarding how to proceed, and, in my experience, that process leads you to a credible, actionable plan that feels simply like common sense, not inspiration.

This is why…

The Jedi Master has the Nudge

The Jedi Master has magical people skills. His mantra: “Help me help you”. He’s all about the health of the people. He says, “People are our most valuable resource.” He’s conflict adverse because conflict is, like, a buzz kill… man. He wants to be your bud. His conflict avoidance has given him a healthy paranoia, but he buries that paranoia in a pleasant veneer of caring. He listens with intent and usually gets his way, but you’re never quite sure… how.

I’ll tell you how — the Jedi Master employs the Nudge.

You won’t even see the Nudge coming. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out when it actually occurred. The Jedi Master will say something innocuous, “Phil, what do you think of the design of Project X?” Rather than jumping on the question, Phil sits there staring blankly. He’s chewing on… something. If you could hear what Phil was thinking… The design? The design was signed off two months ago. It’s done. Why now? Is it because design was something we talked about in my annual review? I’m sure it is. Why do I feel like I’m missing something? I need to talk to the design team. Now.

The Nudge is the smallest, most viral piece of constructive feedback you can give. It is small enough to appear unthreatening, but it has enough intent, enough implications, that it plants itself in the receiver’s mind and can’t help but evolve.

The processing of a Nudge takes time — that’s the point. The receiver of a successful Nudge suspects they have a hint of a something, but they have no specifics. They have potential and there’s no telling when they’re going to turn that potential into action, but when they do, the action is all their own because they’ve done all the work. And that’s the point.

A well-constructed Nudge is a clever combination of everything you learned about people, leadership, politics and the person you intend to Nudge. It’s the delicate selection of a simple idea intended to slowly reveal a larger intent to someone who, in this case, will not hear the truth from anyone except themselves.

A well-placed Nudge is a goddamned managerial work of art. A poorly placed Nudge is a terrific way to get in trouble with your team:

  • The Nudge is, by far, the slowest way to effect change. If time is of the essence, the Debate will move faster than the Nudge. But if you’re looking to effect permanent change, go with the Nudge.
  • The Nudge is not a game. The goal is to not build a small, mysterious phrase with the intent to obscure. The Nudge is a seed you plant with the hope that it will grow in a productive direction. You monitor it and when it seems lost, you Nudge again.
  • Jedi Masters who rely entirely on the Nudge, who choose to speak in clever phrases, are intensely annoying. There are folks who are going to be pissed and ask you to tell it to them straight. Remember, a lesson is learned, not told. (Zing!)

Drastic measures may be necessary, so…

The Dictator has the Mandate

There’s the Dictator. His mantra is: “I’m the one who’s telling you how it is.” It’s his way or the highway. No one contradicts. No one argues, and while his imperatives are subtly molded and messaged as they are passed through the organization, he is oblivious to these small changes because from where he sits he believes directives are followed — word for word. The Dictator is allowed to exist because no one argues the fact that he gets results.

The Dictator’s superpower is the Mandate and it sounds like this: We all are climbing that hill right now and we’re not going to stop climbing that hill until everyone is at the top of the hill. Start climbing.

And everyone does. There’s no Debate. There’s no Nudge. Even the avid non-hill-climbers drop everything they’re doing to start merrily climbing as they sing, “We, the climbers of the hill, what a thrill.”

The power of the Mandate is alluring. It requires none of the laborious cat herding involved in managing the Debate. It eschews the subtle inner dialog required in constructing just the right Nudge. The Mandate is immediate, undisputed action, and when misused the Mandate can get you killed.

When you employ the Mandate, you leverage a large part of your credibility. You’re effectively saying, “Shut up and go,” and if where they end up isn’t where anyone expects, you’re less of a leader than when you started. This is an important fact that actual Dictators have forgotten. They believe that pure charisma — absolute, unwavering confidence — is all you need to fuel a Mandate, and while there are those who are just happy someone made a decision, there is an equal number of folks ready to kill you.

Dictators are killed. The consequence comes with the title. It’s not a messy death, it’s a professional one — it’s your employees ceasing to listen to you and eventually leaving when you’ve completely eroded your credibility or it’s the Board of Directors simply taking care of business when you’ve brazenly demonstrated you can’t.

My Favorite Superpower

These are stark examples of leadership stereotypes, and while you might see aspects of you or your management in these colorful descriptions, it’s more likely that each is already a part of you. You have a tendency to be a Jedi Master, but when cornered, you’re the Machine. The Dictator can serve you well, but it leaves your Jedi Master feeling… cruel.

The solution to your Phil problem is likely not a single power move, but all of them — at the appropriate time. While the Dictator mandates a comfortably clear, “Fire Phil”, the Jedi Master suggests, “Who does Phil communicate best with on his team? What can they tell you about him? How can they inform a Nudge?” which leads you to my favorite superpower — the Debate. While it’s not immediate, and the final Phil call is yours, it supports my core belief that an idea only gets better with more eyeballs.

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10 Responses

  1. Michael,

    Your writing style has become somewhat hard to read. Everything is prefixed with “The” – The Jedi, The Breakfast, The Milk, The Commute. Look back through your archives circa 2005; posts were stories loosely tied to prior experience, whereas everything now seems to be a fictional scenario where you give a typical office personality/object/task a strange name. It almost seems like an attempt to force some strange jargon onto the world.

    Long-time reader watching out for you, man. Things are getting a bit stale.

    Kind regards,

    The Comment Poster

  2. JimD UK 13 years ago

    Trust your gut – Confront Phil head on and ask Phil what Phil would do. He has the best info – you and the team are one step removed; though maybe with better perspective. Often you confront Phil and he solves the problem/ quits.

    (if it’s an easy problem – get more eyeballs first – ask people obliquely or straight on in the pub about the situation – you’re a manager so you know whether you run a stream of consciousness info-sharing style, or are gnomic, or are silent – don’t change your style *ever*)

    If it’s a hard problem – make a decision – live with it.

    Reading between the lines – you’re not a dictator yet (though you may be worried)

    Occasionally it gets complicated, and you have to go straight for the resolution. If you’re not all code and design, that’s what you’re paid for – so the rest of the team don’t have to worry about this stuff.

  3. David 13 years ago

    Can’t fully agree with Jason, but it feels like you’re writing more with your head and a little less with your heart. Miss the heart, sir.

  4. Interesting read, I can’t help but agree that a blend of the above traits is ideal. At a minimum I’d settle for anyone with some management training, I’ve seen so much improvisation…

  5. Stephen 13 years ago

    You seem to assume that a manager’s blend of these traits is inherent in the manager rather than chosen by the manager or stimulated by context.

    Personally, I choose my dominant style based on what I think is required for what I am trying to accomplish. I’ve had times when that has been interpreted as an inherent or unchangeable style, but that’s a different challenge. For example, I often use some combination of Debate and Mandate when trying to effect significant change.

    I’ve also seen and experienced times when a dominant style emerges in response to or alignment with the styles around you.

    Maybe someone needs to use their powers of Debate and just ask Phil if his style is conscious or not.

  6. You’re missing an ‘of’ in the first sentence of the last paragraph.

    Tough crowd so far. As a relatively new reader, I enjoyed the article. I also drilled down to Organics and Mechanics and enjoyed that as well.

  7. Good article. As a manager, I know that I started out as a dictator (isn’t that why they asked me to be the boss?), evolved into a machine (after all, I was on the debate team in high school), and am now learning the art of the Jedi master (you know best, but have you thought about this?). But agree that all three modes have their places, and a good manager has to be able to use more than one of these at different times to be effective.

  8. drusha 13 years ago

    Good post. I find the best solution depends on context.

    I’ve never been able to use the dictator model effectively; it breeds rebellion and resentment outweighing whatever benefits it brings to cohesion.

    With my peers and superiors, I use the nudge; with the people below me, I use the debate. I find that the well-structured debate is generally the most effective way to resolve problems, but nobody listens to you when you call for debate from below; the nudge is second-best.

  9. I think we’ve moved to a collaboarative workforce (and style)… at least in the tech world. The whole Dictator sterotype just cannot work. And the Jedi master sterotype, although effective, can often often be a waste of time, although in theory it could lead to debate.

    Debate is by far my favourite. More debate = more brainpower = more questions = more discussion = more answers.

  10. oogmar 13 years ago

    messaged = massaged?

    My favorite management run with Jedi Master until backed into the corner, at which point the glorious Mandate clears things up immediately.

    They employ Machines. A manager can’t do much about employees incapable of managing themselves.