DALE DAUTEN | THE CORPORATE CURMUDGEON

Good managers trust employees to do their jobs

"Understanding human needs is half the job of meeting them." - Adlai Stevenson

There's a television commercial I keep seeing that has me befuddled. Maybe you've seen this thing. It's for some cellphone walkie-talkie. A standard corporate employee is at his desk when a second employee asks how some assignment is coming along. Desk Guy then uses the phone to instantly check with several colleagues, then turns back to Standing Guy as he triumphantly puts his feet up on the desk and folds his hands behind his head. Then, along comes Management -- a heavy guy with a clipboard and a tie -- who takes one look at the smug, relaxed employee, announces: "You're fired" and walks away. That's it.

This seems to me to convey the message, "Use our product and get fired." I know that's going too deep (which is the same as not being sufficiently shallow). And yes, I understand that the "joke" is supposed to be that managers are idiots.

It is true that Management often falls into the category of "when bad things happen to good people." And I don't just mean bad management happening to underlings; I mean that becoming a manager can itself be a bad thing, for it is a leading cause of jerkdom. Take a decent likable person, make him or her a manager, and the worst elements of the personality bubble up.

Why? Because most people have a fundamental misunderstanding of leadership. And they have it because their manager role models had the same misunderstanding. The classic model of management is the same for the corporation or nonprofit as the grade school, the hospital, or the prison -- the do-what-we-tell-you model.

What got me thinking about management models was reading an announcement about a new version of some software that made these dreary boasts: "It's easy to allow access to work-related websites only, while blocking Web surfing and access to online entertainment sites. Workers continue to use e-mail, shared files, and business tools. Workers can be kept off the Internet during specified hours of the work day."

Later we are assured, "Trusted employees can be given passwords that give them unrestricted access to the Internet." And who would be a "trusted employee"? That would be the person making the decision about the software, of course. So the pitch becomes: "You are the office God of the Internet. You alone decide who can see what and when."

I don't know how it is where you work, but one of the criteria for all employees who've worked for me is that I trust them. All of them are "trusted employees." Doesn't that mean that no one would dare visit sites that are "non-work-related"? Of course they would. Good for them. If somebody wants to go to WebMD and see if that thing on his face might be troublesome, that's fine. If someone wants to read movie reviews, or get a recipe for dinner, or watch some dog high jinks on YouTube, well that's fine, too. That's not what trust is about. I trust them to do their jobs. Period.

That simple philosophy eliminates the majority of current management time. You don't need to be suspicious as to why people are laughing, or where everyone is, or is that a personal phone call, or any of the rest of worrying and wondering functions. That frees up a lot of time. And that takes us back to Desk Guy, who's fired for having done his work too easily. What do you do with the time freed up by trusting employees to do their jobs? In the same batch of mail that brought news of the cyber-cop to watch over computer usage, there was a survey from Opinion Research about meetings, and the number one complaint about business meetings was their being disorganized or rambling. Now there's where we need a cop , to keep an eye on management. If managers stray into trying to police employees' time rather than output, out comes a ruler, poised for whacking.

The problem with managers is not that they waste their time, but that they have a multiplier effect on time wasting . . . an hour of a bad meeting is multiplied by 12 attendees. It's management, not YouTube, that's still the king of lost hours. Which leads us back to this principle: The one who manages least, manages best.

Dale Dauten is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at dale@dauten.com.