Dealing with a Failing Management
In our last two correspondences, we discussed the qualities of good management, and the signs that management is failing. Today, we’ll examine the last part of this situation, what individuals can do to deal with bad management.
The sad fact is that there’s often very little one can do. So many things can go wrong so quickly that often a single person trying to work to right the ship is simply going to be overwhelmed by the many spinning and negative pieces. Still, many of us who’ve encountered these situations feel an obligation to try, either from a sense of loyalty to the organization or simply as a moral imperative to try to do what’s right (or often both). So for those of us, here’s some strategies that you might be able to use.
Let me start with a disclaimer, though. If you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, which was excellently explained a few months ago by Apple Cider, then this is only going to greatly add to it. Also, some people may view these actions as meddling, and it may make you a target, like a neutral party getting in the middle of a pair of spatting spouses (which you should never, ever do. More police officers die this way than any other). If either of those are too big a concern, then keep your head down or flee, both of which are perfectly acceptable responses to a failing management. If, however, you feel that taking some action on the off chance it helps is better than taking no action that will definitely not cause further problems, then these strategies are for you.
1) The Mediator
I worked for many years training peer mediators in public schools. These students were trained to help mediate minor peer disputes that needed attention to prevent any escalation but weren’t really problems in the first place. Teachers or the guidance counselor would sit in as well, as a secure background in case things didn’t work out. The students were trained to provide a set of rules to the opposing sides: all comments should be made to the mediator. All comments must be about facts – something that happened or a way that the speaker feels. All participants were to keep as level a head as possible. Of course, there were many more specific ones, but those were the gist of them. By making the opposing sides speak to you instead of to each other, the directness of the confrontation is lessened. By having them talk about things that specifically happened or about how they feel rather than hurling accusations, the participants must be more introspective. And by enforcing a realistically level-headed environment (there’s bound to be some runaway emotions, but then you take a break and come back when everyone’s calmed down), you keep the tone of the conversation more civil.
It worked wonders in the school, but of course the threat of ADULT INTERVENTION usually encouraged the participants to want to make it work. If the management is one of the problems, though, there’s not a higher authority you can turn to. Still, sometimes all it really takes is a good conversation that helps clear the air to get the process of rebuilding started.
2) The Devil’s Advocate
I often find myself talking to both sides independently, though, as it’s usually quite quickly that communications break down. Since I’m generally friendly and am always willing to listen, I often find myself in a position where both sides are coming to “confide” in me, and while I never break a confidence (in the effort of full disclosure: except to my wife, who I talk to about everything and keep no secrets from), I feel it’s a good opportunity to play devil’s advocate to see if I can get each side to at least acknowledge the other’s point of view. If you can get both sides to at least acknowledge the other, it’s much easier to get them to come together and begin to work things out. You can then use this consensus-building to start to find a middle ground that everyone can work with. I usually then provide this middle ground to both sides, so they can approach each other with a “solution” that they already both agree with. Sure, it’s clear in the end that I helped set it up, but you just duck your head and deny, deny, deny, letting the squabbling parties feel good about coming to a working agreement.
3) Tough Love
If you’re in a position close enough to your management that they truly want to hear what you have to say, then sometimes tough love is best. Sometimes, particularly in long-existing or heavily friend-based organizations, management surrounds itself with like-thinking individuals, and as a result, is constantly affirmed on every thought they have. That’s not a very healthy situation, and in the long term, it can be quite dangerous; governments often do this, which leads to many, many problems (see: North Korea – or, for that matter, GW). Sometimes just having someone be honest with them about how the members are feeling creates a epiphany moment when they realize that the opposition isn’t just a group a whiners, but might have a valid point. Even if it opens only a tiny crack in a leader’s self-assuredness, that’s a start at finding a solution.
Occasionally, what a failing organization needs is just someone to break the negativity. If that seems to be the case, you can always try to be the “let’s pull together” person, trying your hardest to keep things positive and moving in a corrective direction. Management often feels the weight of all failures more than they should, and as a result, if you simply buck up and play the cheerleader for the organization, you can generate some “team membership juices” and get them fermenting into – one would hope – eventually re-ownership of the organization for all. This is more often a good strategy during short periods of rough spots, like when you’ve had a fragmentation and a group of core raiders have left, leaving the team temporarily – hopefully – short staffed. Those events can often turn very negative very quickly, causing more raiders to bail, but if you’re willing to shoulder the Atlas-ean nature of the job, it can make a huge difference. Just make sure it doesn’t go on too long, and that if you need to switch to “adult-conversation” mode about the guild’s future, don’t let your efforts get in the way; covering up for failure isn’t your goal, just bridging the hopefully small gap between temporary setbacks and a return to normalcy.
5) The Vocal Majority
Sometimes the best way to solve the problem of two sides fighting is to create a third site that just wants to see the end of the fight. Since there’s often far more people in the middle of the argument than on either side, organizing those people to speak up and ask that things improve – not taking sides mind you, but just coming to some resolution – can get the ball rolling. If both sides truly want the group to stay together but simply have different opinions about how to do it, seeing an organized group of upset individuals who aren’t making any demands other than a resolution of some kind can really make clear how harmful the disagreement is. That way, both sides have more of an impetus to find a solution than to dig in their heels, and getting talks under way seems more pressing since there’s such a large and now-vocal group who’s saddened by the tussle.
Those sum up the various strategies I’ve tried, but again remember that they’ve never worked out for me. I either got into the game too late to do any good, was overwhelmed and lost my own fighting spirit, or was shouted down by one side or the other (or both) and told to stay out of it. In each of those cases, though, I’m still glad I tried, even if it was to no apparent avail. I know at least there was nothing more I could have done before I left, leaving my conscience clear.