What is a manager to do about feelings in business?
— Aurelio Collado Torres, Monterrey, Mexico
Why, manage them, of course. Not to mock your question in the slightest: We are dead serious. If there is one thing that doesn’t get enough attention for undermining productivity, creativity and the general smooth functioning of business, it is the mismanagement of emotion in the workplace. Too many managers would rather let people act, well, unmanaged.
Now, we are not even slightly qualified to opine on human nature — well, maybe we are as qualified as the next guy — but you don’t have to watch reality TV to know that, left unattended, people can fall into some pretty dysfunctional behaviour. Maybe it is because gossip, ganging up, paranoia and the like were hard-wired into the human brain to ensure the survival of the species, as some scientists have hypothesized.
But the underlying reasons why groups of people can get so terribly caught up in negative feelings don’t really matter. All that does — from a manager’s point of view — is that unhealthy emotions usually beget more unhealthy emotions.
That is why you have to manage them — which, fortunately, takes neither a degree in psychology nor more time than you already have. It takes only an active commitment to remove uncertainty from your organization and to instil a purposeful approach to inspiration.
Uncertainty first. No manager knows everything about each individual’s career trajectory or the company’s future plans. But, most managers know a lot more than they say. Since we started travelling around the world in 2002, we have asked audiences for a show of hands in answer to the question: “Over the past year, how many of you have received an honest performance appraisal that really tells you where you stand in the organization?” Typically, even with audiences that have been eagerly participating until that moment, we get a 10% “yes” showing; more often than you would believe, we get less.
That isn’t unacceptable: It is outrageous. You may be running a billion-dollar business, moving resources around the globe and presenting stacks of fancy PowerPoint slides to top management, but you simply do not have the right to call yourself a manager if you are not regularly telling your people — whether you have three direct reports or 13 — what they are doing well and where they need to improve. In fact, you should be so clear in your evaluations that, should the time ever come to part ways, no employee ever asks why, he just asks about “the deal” and the logistics of a smooth transition.
This kind of candour doesn’t come naturally to many managers. Some people would even say it is cruel. We would say the opposite — lack of candour steals careers, because it is usually too late for an employee to start over by the time he is being told he has to with a pink slip.
As for removing company uncertainty, sharing as much data as possible is always the best practice. In particular, no manager should ever commit the all-too-common sin of announcing some layoffs — usually to appease investors after the release of unfortunate results — without also announcing the specifics about when, where and who. Even when the news is bad, allow people to take their energy off worrying and place it on constructive action, be it restoring results or looking for another job.
Now, to inspiration — or, put another way, the transformation of any sort of generic feelings about work into a true passion for the mission. Everyone knows that nothing great ever happens without passion. But, too many managers adjust for that fact with oversize, overheated exhortations about the company’s “next big thing”.
Enthusiasm doesn’t hurt, of course, but authentic passion is sparked by purpose — by people knowing why the organization is taking a certain path and what the journey will mean to their jobs and lives. Most people don’t want to come to the office just to punch a clock; they come to give their lives meaning and dignity. You can help by showing your people how their work matters to the organization, the community and even the world. And not just with a speech once a year at the holiday party, but every single chance you get—hallways, elevators and parking lots included.
After all, people are all a manager has to work with. Don’t let their feelings get away from you.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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