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Does Your Company Resemble a Schoolyard on Steroids?

You Can Mitigate Sandbox Politics

If you’re a senior manager, you may sometimes feel as if you’re running an out-of-control pre-school or schoolyard, not a professional department. If you have demanding, territorial, stubborn, incapable, or indecisive managers, you may take the path of least resistance now – but eventually pay dearly. You may be inadvertently facilitating corporate chaos by averting productive communication. In other words, you might need to help "TOT (Terrible Office Tyrant)-proof" your company.

A recent, well-publicized study by the American Management Association, reveals that bosses believe their employees are average - at best - in “critical thinking, communication skills, collaboration/team building and creativity and innovation.” One could argue that management must then do a better job at training or hiring, or likely, both.

The more serious outgrowth of a lack of collaboration and communication is conflict, or a “TOT zone,” where neither managers nor employees even come to the table. In this time of lightning speed digital communication and “no time for down time” management, it’s no wonder that collaboration and team building skills seem sub-par. Employees are often just trying to read between the lines of 10-word directives found in a quick e-mail.

Senior managers DO have an opportunity to look for red flags that the supervisors they've hired are not managing properly.

Signs of a “TOT Zone”

If you have TOT managers on your team, you may be breeding a small army of troublesome toddlers. Although it might be easier to stay behind closed doors to shut out metaphorical hair pulling, sand throwing and other flying debris – you owe it to your team to care. To spot a tyrant or two, consider the following:

• Are there signs of tyrants creating chaos? To see how supervisors are managing their employees, talk to the staff. Are there complaints of territorialism, where new ideas are quashed? Where intimidation or fear is the order of the day? When dealing with a childish boss, many employees have little choice but to endure the tirades, incessant questions, impulsiveness, and hair-trigger mood swings that are shared daily. When you dig deep, you'll uncover information on how your managers are perceived.

• Beware of the blame game. I recently saw a cartoon on the Internet that read: “To Err is Human. To Blame it on Someone Else Shows Management Potential.” Dark humor, but perhaps a truism in corporate America. “We must become the change we want to see” are the words of Mahatma Gandhi. This timeless phrase couldn’t be more true in business. To mitigate TOT behavior among your managers, you must be the role model they look up to and emulate.

• Are you guiding your managers? In one national independent study commissioned by our firm, 91 percent felt that it’s positive for morale when managers change course after getting employee feedback. How safe is it to make mistakes at your firm? If it isn’t, don’t expect innovation. And that means that you must make your mistakes known - assuming they aren’t major blunders, but a move in a different direction based on new information.

As tempting as it is to succumb to “my way or the highway” management, imagine for a day or week that your perspective is off base. You’d be surprised how many new ideas you’ll allow in with a temporary assumption that your way doesn’t work. Everyone comes to work with the hope that they can make a difference, from the mailroom to the boardroom. Make sure you do your part to facilitate that in your corporate culture.

• Check your hiring practices. Energy and enthusiasm in new hires is great; just be sure that they also possess sound judgment when asked hypothetical questions in the interview process. Avoid the ping-pong match, yes and no questions. You want managers who are good listeners and problem solvers. A good manager will inspire and motivate, but also spot obstacles and negative events early. When interviewing, ask prospective managers how they led a group of people to great accomplishments, not just about their individual track records.

Subtle Warning Signs

Sometimes the warning signs that managers or employees are TOTs in the making are less visible. Unfortunately, Terrible Office Tyrants don’t leave juice stains on the wall or chocolate chips on the hallway carpet.

• “Yes” Men. Although it would be nice if everyone agreed with you, accommodating “yes” men and women cause stagnation and cover up chaos. If your staff says “yes,” but does nothing about the problem – or does whatever they feel is appropriate, you’re ultimately brewing conflict.

Don’t enable favoritism just because certain employees are always agreeable. For some, it would be convenient if their entire team nodded in unison. (When cloning is perfected, these managers can be first on the sign-up sheet!) Smart leaders encourage open, challenging, honest dialogue.

• The Disappearing Staff. If you remember having a staff of 25 and now your headcount appears to be 12 – or it seems like an inexplicable pandemic has hit only your staff, it might be time do an audit of your management team. Okay, you're more likely to witness increased absenteeism and turnover, a more quiet demeanor among your staff, and/or less participation in staff meetings. If your managers or staff avoid their problems by doing a Houdini act, then it’s time for some frank discussions, if not some exploration into management training, mentoring or coaching.

• The Silent Protestor. You may notice that projects are not being completed in a timely manner or an employee says one thing and does another. His passive/aggressive behavior keeps everyone on edge or distracted. Does he say phrases like, “What does it matter, as long as I get the work done?” Be direct in your communications with him — e.g., “You’re not getting the work done.” Clarity of purpose falls upon the manager, and it will engender the same in others.

Granted, everyone has a little TOT inside them. But let’s face it, the inner child should stay there when it comes to the office. You can help mitigate a TOT-Zone.

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