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“I’ve Got Morons on My Team!” And Other Manager Myths

Posted by Elaine Varelas October 6, 2014 09:00 AM

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If you’ve seen the 1969 classic, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” you may recall the scene where one of the main characters, in a state of exasperation, blurts out, “I’ve got morons on my team!” Does this scene remind you of any managers within your organization? Do you have managers who are frustrated, fed up, and fuming over the incompetence of their teams?

It’s common for TV, movies, and even memes about the workplace, to depict the extremes of office life: lazy workers, maniacal managers, and disenchanted employees. While seeing this onscreen can produce a chuckle, living it day to day can feel unbearable. There may be managers in your company who fantasize about solving their employee problems by channeling Donald Trump a la The Apprentice and just saying “You’re Fired!”

Yet, if managers are feeling this desperate about virtually every member of their team, the problem may actually lie with the manager. If a team is failing, it is often because there is something lacking at the top—direction, communication, or leadership. HR managers fielding calls from frustrated managers, may want to be aware of common management pitfalls that can set managers and their employees up for failure. If employees aren’t cutting it, it is often one of these manager-related reasons.

Inadequate training—If employees are continually making mistakes on a similar project, they may need more training in a certain software or system within the organization. Until they’ve mastered Excel, they most likely won’t produce stellar spreadsheets.

Unclear expectations—It’s important that managers make job responsibilities clear to all employees, and not just assume they know what to do. Managers need to be explicit not just about the tasks associated with the job, but timelines and nuances, as well. What needs to be produced by the end of the day? By the end of the week? Is 100% accuracy expected the first time around or are multiple drafts acceptable? Should client phone calls and emails be returned within 48 hours or by the end of the day? Not making these details clear can set employees up for failure. These expectation should also come directly from the manager or the employee will pick up messages—sometimes erroneous ones—from others.

In one office, the administrative assistant continually called in to say he was working from home and his manager became increasingly frustrated. Finally, the manager met with the assistant to ask what was going on and remind him that he needed to be in the office. The assistant immediately turned red in the face and exclaimed, “Someone told me it was fine to work from home! If I’d known, I would have been here everyday!” After this bump, and many years later, this duo is still a strong team, yet this lack of clear expectations almost led to someone being fired.

Unreasonable expectations
—Unclear direction can lead to frustration, but unreasonable expectations can lead to fast (aka shoddy) work. People who are overwhelmed at work often rush and make mistakes. Make sure managers have clear output guidelines. This is easier for manufacturing jobs (200 widgets per week), but less so for service positions. When possible, managers should have qualitative data to guide employee productivity.

Managers need to distinguish the difference between a one-time event and a pattern. Every time there is an issue with an employee, the manager can ask, “What is missing here (training, expectations)? What happened (one-time or pattern)? And why (Human error, working too fast)?” The manager should look to find the teachable moment. Competent managers can use mistakes to educate employees and learn from their own communication mistakes.

Managers need to be okay having these uncomfortable conversations with their teams. HR professionals can lend support if managers need an unbiased third party to look at a situation or need ideas about how to approach employees. A manager who says, “Help me understand how you came to this conclusion?” is more productive (not to mention less offensive!) that one who says, “What the *$%# were you thinking?

HR professionals also may need to step in if a manager is unaware or unwilling to see his or her role in the team breakdown. If a manager is exasperated with a whole team and everyone is struggling, it may be time to look at the manager—and time for HR to have that difficult conversation with the manager.

Often, disconnects within a team are linked to communication (or lack thereof). Others may be related to a manager’s temperament and how he or she handles stress. Look at the manager’s communication style. How is information relayed to employees? Is criticism instructive or inflammatory? HR managers can also check with peers and colleagues to see if they, as outsiders, notice some room for improvement. What is their take on the issue? What do employees have to say? Everyone needs development and sometimes it is the manager’s turn. If a team is failing, giving the manager more training and support can set the team up for success.

Most people want to succeed and do well on the job—managers and employees alike. Providing a clear description of the work that’s required, laying out expectations, and constantly communicating about the job can ensure your organization will never be “full of morons.”

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Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.