Changing Your Management Style

Consider the following problem. An organization has spent years with a relatively “frozen” managerial style: autonomy is almost non-existent, there is little to no free money available to experiment, decisions are made “on high” and that which was not in the plan does not happen.

Perhaps, on top of this, there is a clear class divide between those in management and those who are staff, and highly restricted information flow between the two groups.

Managers spend almost all of the week hiding behind status meetings and email and are chronically overbooked. Now you want to change this.

One of the worst things to do, when you are the manager who wants to make change, is to simply up-end the organization and says “now we do things differently”.

Unfortunately, most people prefer security over freedom. By simply changing the rules overnight, we take away the feeling of security, and so the individuals affected often “freeze”, waiting for further instructions.

Managers who want to make change happen in the workplace must therefore resist the urge to “just change”, and deal with a growth process that allows all involved to come to understand that their real security lies within.

This is why the essence of management is in creating safety and freedom simultaneously.

Introduce changes slowly. Reducing status meetings is a good beginning: it frees up time in your schedule and is seen as simply a different way to report.

Consider introducing a wiki or similar tool for status reports, thereby creating living documents. Encourage people to start commenting and sharing by doing so yourself (you also get more information this way, once you signal you’re reading and engaging).

Use the freed-up time to meet one-on-one with people, and begin to open the lines of dialogue. Discuss the business with them, and begin to engage them in thinking about it for themselves.

As you do this, you can begin to make changes to the performance management environment. You get more and better results when people are free to shift their efforts without worrying that they’re “blowing their year”. A few (remember, that’s a number between three and five at most) broad categories rather than the typical fifteen to twenty or more discrete bullets makes more sense. “Achieve an average ROI of 8% on all projects you manage” (for a project manager) rather than individual line items for each project in the plan, for instance, gives manoeuvring room, encourages the making of trade-offs — and the result will be more three-point landings (on time, on cost, on scope with quality).

As a next step, consider “taxing” projects that pass through your group.

The goal is to free up some money for new initiatives. As with a business faced with a new tax imposed by government, consider how to get the job done without raising prices (or, in this case, project costs).

You can use the freed-up sums first to open minds by using conferences and education sessions to stimulate them, then further sums can be put against small transformational projects of your own. (The goal is to get to the point where the funds are like an investment pool, with the ideas coming up from the staff, since it’s likely at this point that you don’t work for someone who will offer you similar freedom and discretion.)

You will need to express a vision for the future, and sell it assiduously. Audacity is worthwhile: I know of a team leader who set the goal that every modification to SAP in their shop would be removed. Three years later, it had been done — and he jumped all the way to Director in one career move. Finding ways to remove major roadblocks can take several years — but it keeps everyone focused and engaged on finding ways to “do the impossible”.

At first it’s only a five year “dream” for the group — then that dream begins to be fleshed out, and as much by your team as by you. Talk about how you see things being different. In casual conversations, you will quickly find out who is taking the vision further for themselves, and who is waiting to be told what to do.

Celebrate victories, even if they are small. Creating a culture of risk-taking and individual initiative depends on a sense that “what I do is noted”.

Even more important, celebrate learning, including things that go wrong (even badly wrong). Independence means that wrong steps will be taken: what is learned from them needs recognition (and, by doing so, you make it clear that perfection is not what is desired, thereby laying an important foundation for security to transfer from “perfect execution of instructions” to “ability to create and recover”).

Yes, it will take time. The culture of risk-aversion and “keep my head down and it will all be fine” took many years to build; it will not be overturned overnight.

You will know you have achieved your goal when you are able to compete with start-ups for the best and brightest, because “here, or there, I get to make a difference and be recognized for it”. Isn’t that why you became a manager?


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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