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Where Have All the Honest Managers Gone?

by Bob Selden

I well remember as a young bank clerk many years ago, sitting at my desk one morning. Around me were the sounds of hustle and bustle of a busy office – people were sipping their coffee (in those days it was instant!), opening the mail (ah, for the days before email!) and telling of the events of last evening or their trip to work that morning. As a morning person, it was my best time of the day when I was at my most positive, creative and effective best, so I had my head down and bum up. Time later for relaxing.

Suddenly, the air was split with an earth-shattering yell. My usually very quiet, reserved manager had come out of his office, red in the face and yelling, "Who did this?" Everyone stopped dead. When he recovered enough to tell us what the "this" was, I discovered to my horror that it was obviously something that I had done that had upset him. Apparently, I had made a blunder that would impact one of our best customers most unfavourably. I very tentatively, put my hand up, "Mm, mm, mm, me, Sir", I managed to stammer. "Into my office, now!" he replied.

By the time we had both sat down in his office, he had recovered his composure somewhat. To my great surprise, he started the conversation with, "Bob, I really appreciate your honesty in admitting to this mistake. I am very disappointed that it has happened, but with some luck, we can probably correct it. Thank you for owning up to your mistake so readily".

That experience for me was bitter sweet and obviously long lasting. It certainly had a major impact on my later mode of operating when I became a manager. On the one hand, I was mortified to have made such a stupid mistake. Yet, on the other hand, I had really felt good and upbeat about the way it had been handled. I thought of that experience as I read an article in the International Herald Tribune recently (3 Jan, 2007, p.11) titled "Two of five bosses don't keep their word". The article reported on a soon to be released study in The Leadership Quarterly (an international journal of political, social and behavioural science published in association with the International Leadership Association) that found that, by and large, many bosses today are dishonest with and about their workers. The study specifically pointed out some damming evidence reported by workers about the honesty of their bosses:

  • 39% said their supervisors had failed to keep promises.
  • 37% said their supervisors had failed to give credit when due.
  • 31% said their supervisors had given them the "silent treatment" in the past year.
  • 27% said their supervisors had made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.
  • 24% said their supervisors had invaded their privacy.
  • 23% said their supervisors had blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimise embarrassment.

Florida State University, the authors of the report, suggests that such dishonesty creates problems for companies, such as poor morale, lower production and higher turnover. These results confirm my own research in interviews and focus groups with managers and their employees over the last twenty years. I too found that the major reason why people leave an organisation is because of poor management and leadership. People don't leave a company, they leave their boss!

What may surprise some readers is that the Florida State study also confirmed many earlier studies about the relationship between pay and turnover. It found that a good working environment is more important than pay and that "employees were more likely to leave if involved in an abusive relationship than if dissatisfied with pay."

My own research also throws up two other factors of note:

  • People join a company because of the excitement or enticement of an interesting job.
  • People stay in a company because of the values they share with their fellow workers (assuming of course, that they have good management).

So, where does that leave today's managers? And, most importantly, what does it suggest for companies that want to boost morale, increase productivity and decrease staff turnover?

I suggest there are three answers to this question on which every employer should focus in the relationship with his or her workers, whether he or she be the CEO or a new supervisor.

  1. Make sure pay and conditions are appropriate for the job and industry; and that they are fair and equitable. This removes one of the stumbling blocks to effective employee morale and satisfaction.
  2. Ensure that the job provides the employee with the ability to gain:
    • a sense of real achievement for the work that they do
    • recognition for what they achieve – regular "thank yous" and notes of appreciation go a long way
    • responsibility and even increased responsibility for what they do – make sure they are able to make decisions regarding their area of responsibility without having to "upwardly delegate"
    • from a job that has real interest and meaning for them
    • advancement and development, either by way of career progression, professional or personal development

    Remember, people join a company because of the excitement of the job. It is up to us as managers to do whatever we can to keep that excitement level high.

  3. Above all, be honest in what you say and do. A true manager's mantra should be "Do as I do", not "Do as I say". People leave a company because of poor leadership and management. I have found that people will accept mistakes if we are open about them. They will not accept cover ups. The foundation for effective leadership and management is honesty. These are qualities that everyone values.

So, where have all the honest managers gone? I have no "amazing" research to provide the answers (although it would make an interesting study). However, I will suggest that:

  • Honesty, particularly in western society, is in decline generally due to the emphasis on individualism, not community. We have become a "Me too" society, where material and personal gain are valued above the good of the community. Every day one reads in the press or hears on the TV some new "revelation" about a cover up, lack of integrity, or just plain dishonesty that has led to yet another major commercial or international disaster.
  • Organisations, particularly since the late 80s, have spent an inordinate amount of time and resources on boosting the job "satisfiers" (as Frederick Herzberg called them) – pay and conditions, at the expense of the true "motivators" – achievement, recognition, responsibility, meaningful and interesting work, and growth and advancement. The result? When material gain becomes the all consuming and overt goal pursued by organisations (such as maximum shareholder returns and exorbitant senior manager benefits) over intrinsic basic human motivators, managers will do almost anything to "cover their bums" so that their extrinsic rewards are maintained.

Am I being too harsh on today's managers? I wonder how many of today's managers would take the same approach as my old manager when faced with a similar situation to that of "my mistake"?

Copyright © The National Learning Institute

About the Author

Bob Selden is passionate about developing effective leadership and management within organisations. He also works with individual managers in their personal development as a part time faculty member on the leadership and management development programs at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Australian Graduate School of Management, Sydney Australia. He'd really like to hear your thoughts on leadership and management development via the National Learning Institute.

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