Management: People, not procedures

The Challenge of Change offers a unique perspective on resilience training: that resilience is not about keeping your head above water for longer, which would still mean paddling furiously to keep afloat.  Instead, it says that there is no water to keep your head above, other than imagined ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if-onlys’, which the programme describes as ruminating about the worst things in your life that never happened.

A logical corollary is that there are no stressful events, only stressful ways of responding to events, and the Challenge of Change focuses on the steps individuals can take to become more resilient.  A question that is commonly asked is whether this exonerates management.  If stress is a self-inflicted injury, then people can learn to let go of the emotional upset that even the worst management practices might provoke.  Learning personal strategies for adapting to change is important, but the idea that because there are treatments available people are free to spread diseases is plainly wrong.  Managers have a clear duty of care towards those who report to them, and if they fail to meet it they will have high turnover and dissatisfied staff who only work to threats or inducements.

The question is, what is that duty of care?  What exactly should managers do or not do?  There are some simple guidelines, and the first is to avoid justification.  You can justify expecting people to work 24-7 by claiming that a bit of stress is good for them; in fact, as I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, most people feel miserable, resentful and angry when they’re stressed, and anything that makes you feel that way can hardly be good for you.  You can justify your outbursts of anger by claiming that once you’ve blown up it passes quickly and you’re back to ‘normal’.  If you use this particular justification you’re missing a far more important question: why are you so angry in the first place?

A second guideline, which is included in the Challenge of Change, is to restrict any performance evaluations to the role people perform and not them personally.  This may sound self-evident, but another cliché that has become part of management language is that we can ‘constructively criticise’.  Constructing is putting together, criticising is taking apart; they can’t be done simultaneously.  If you need proof, ask someone who’s been on the receiving end of so-called constructive criticism how they felt and what they did afterwards, and the likely answers will be ‘upset, ruminate’.  The Challenge of Change provides a simple strategy for separating the person from the work, which leaves the opportunity for the legitimate target – the work, not the person – to be evaluated in a detached and genuinely constructive fashion.  If you ever find yourself prefacing an evaluation with the phrase ‘I don’t mean this personally’, you can be sure that’s exactly what was intended and how it will be taken.

The difficulty with much management training is that it focuses on detailed procedures.  Trained monkeys can do procedures.  What management is really about is counselling.  This doesn’t mean becoming a literal counsellor – the term is used here as a metaphor.  Counselling is the art of working empathically with people, and since the company’s prime asset is its staff, managers who are unable to work with people ought not to be managers.  Successful companies are characterised first and foremost by staff who love their jobs, and the easiest way to get people to hate their jobs is to mismanage them.

The details of how people are managed might vary from one organisation to another – contrast for example the discipline and obedience required in the army with the independence needed in an R & D team.  However, providing the means for people to manage themselves by becoming more resilient is a prerequisite, and from a manager’s perspective there is a simple and complementary guiding principle: to not give your people things to ruminate about.