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When Management Fails

April 8, 2013

Dear Reader,

Today’s post comes on the heels of last Friday’s, when we discussed what characteristics good managers have.  I had good comments from Balkoth and Rimecat, both of whom added greatly to the discussion with their ideas and links.  I’ll sum them up here, but don’t hesitate to check out the comments in their original form.

Balkoth provided a link to a story about good management from an internal Google study: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/business/13hire.html?_r=4&pagewanted=all.  The results were interesting, to say the least.

Rimecat pointed out some qualities that perhaps should have been highlighted: self-awareness, transparency, and delegation.  I think those are each probably covered under one of my categories, but they are also incredibly important of their own right, and thus should have been mentioned in the discussions of those broader topics.

Today, though, is about what happens when management fails.  We’ve likely all experienced at work or in other aspects of our life (games, teams, clubs, etc), and it’s a uncomfortable place in which to find oneself.

Before we start, we should talk about what we’re really covering about here.  There are plenty of times one may be unhappy with their management, but that in and of itself doesn’t mean management failure.  A worker may disagree with a decision or be negatively affected, but that in and of itself does not mean management failure.

Management failure is a situation in which a manager or leadership team repeatedly makes decisions which negatively affect the group.  The decision can be group-wide (like a new, poorly-thought out strategy) or to an individual, by which the manager reveals an untrustworthy quality (such as punishing someone at random, revealing an arbitrariness or lack of consistency).  Often it’s a mixture of both of these over a longer period of time so that the organization begins to fail.

I’ve never been at a job long enough to experience this – not because I’m bad, but simply because I move a lot.  I’ve seen the start of it, though, when we got our “new” principal in at my NYC middle school.  She was from the “leadership academy,” a “rehabilitation” clinic for (failed) business people who were friends with Mayor Mike Bloomberg and decided become public school principals.  They got 3 years of training; one as a student teacher, one as a teacher, and one as an assistant principal, and then were given schools – often flagship “best of the best” schools, like mine – to lead.

She had her heart in the right place, but no concept of how education worked.  She worked against the teachers, supporting bad students and befriending bullies because she thought that she was “playing” them, making them be good, when in fact they were overtly playing her, much to their own satisfaction.  She attacked teachers verbally in front of students, parents, and other teachers, isolating them and herself socially.  She tried to turn teachers on teachers.

She lacked most of the qualities of a good manager, and as a former businessperson in a cutthroat NY money exchange (apparently not a good one, since she didn’t last), her attitude towards co-workers was very hostile.  The funny thing is, I’ve seen the same thing in both WoW guilds and LoL teams.  Sometimes people simply do not understand what it means to work together.

As the management fails in any organization, you begin to see a series of problems, each of which I noticed both in that work situation and in WoW guilds.  These behaviors can act as warning signs to group members who hopefully can work to right the ship, which will be what we discuss on Wednesday, since this correspondence is already getting lengthy.  The warning signs are as follows:

Greater Absenteeism – invariably, as things start to fall apart, more and more people stop showing up, show up late, or show up and mentally check out.  You see this at work as people start taking more “sick days” that are clearly just “tired of putting up with this place” days.  In a game environment, you see people stop signing up for raids, or signing up and no showing.  You also have people who come on the raids but are clearly not performing as they normally do.  It can also take the form of constant AFKs – sometimes unannounced.  Additionally, both at work or in games, you see people wanting to leave earlier and earlier, and often doing so.  This behavior can even become accepted, which is part of our next warning sign.

Loss of Standards – often, as management fails, you start to see a loss of standards.  Due to the higher and higher volume of “problems” that management has to handle as it fails, it begins to become lax in dealing with small things.  It’ll be called something like “choosing their battles,” but there shouldn’t be a battle to begin with; if you have clearly stated expectations that aren’t being met, then it should be simple to address them, not a “battle” at all.  It wasn’t as easy for me to notice in my educations situation, not being aware of every other teacher’s timecard, but there were certainly more teachers showing up late, texting on their phones during class (which really irritates me), or strolling leisurely back from lunch hour instead of meeting their class, which was the stated expectation.  In guilds, you see it all the time.  People not signing up but being allowed into a raid before people who signed up.  People showing up late or taking extended or frequent AFKs. People not having basic consumables.  As more and more people see that this is an accepted behavior, the behavior spreads until the organization loses the capability to perform whatever task it’s meant to perform.

Greater Emotionality –  as the ship sinks, members succumb to greater bouts of emotionality.  Now let me be clear; I’ve no problem with having emotions in an organization; a D&D group is predicated on the idea of role playing, and playing those roles requires creating those emotions.  However, every group finds the proper balance, and that balance is accepted as long as the group is functioning.  When, however, the management starts to fail, the emotional balance becomes offset.  At both work and in game, you see more nasty emotional encounters happening, and those encounters breed more emotionality among others, spreading the discontent.

Formation of sub-groups –  the common result of this discontent is the formation of sub-groups, or cliques.  Even under bad management, there will be “loyal” members who support their leader.  These members will huddle together around the leader, becoming increasingly defensive to any perceived slight.  There will be a group of strong opponents, as well, who will huddle in the other corner.  There will be many, many small groups of relatively neutral parties in the middle who are generally unhappy with the state of things, but who are being bombarded by both sides and begin to dislike both.

Secrecy – another consequence of the failure of management is greater secrecy.  As part of the existence of the sub-groups, communication between groups and individuals will break down.  People will complain to receptive ears, but since nothing’s changed when they previously addressed problems with the management, they’ll stop trying to talk to them.  The management, too, may stop trying to explain itself because it usually ends up having to defend anything it says to a semi-hostile crowd.  As a result, decisions coming from above arrive as mandates and appear to be unilateral edicts that don’t take members’ ideas into account.  As this continues more and more nothing is said, decisions are made in secret, and plots form.

Negativity – the final result of all of these is an overwhelming environment of negativity.  In particular, distance and distrust reign.  Anyone who’s still around, whether by choice in a game setting or by necessity in an employment situation, begins to turn inward and keep to oneself since so many encounters lead to negativity.  Here, the organization has essentially dissolved into a disconnected group of individuals, and while the organization may still exist in name, it does not in function.

While I presented those warnings as a series of events, they need not actually occur in any particular order, and, more likely are occurring in small quantities all at once, feeding on one another as the drama and unhappiness grow.  That’s what makes breaking the cycle of disintegration so difficult; you can’t necessarily face only one front, since it’s being reinforced by so many others; instead, you have to address the culture as a whole.  Ferrel talks very clearly about this in his Guild Leader’s Companion.

Next time, we’ll look at a more hopeful situation: what individuals can try to do when they see these warning signs and want to help right the ship.  I’ll be honest, though; I’ve never succeeded at doing so.  I’ve tried, though, repeatedly, and will at least impart what good and bad decisions I made along the way.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and too often looking for warning signs)

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