Duck Soup

Sometimes a duck is just a duck.

Not long ago a client engaged me purportedly to deal with an unhealthy workplace culture. Here’s a free tip: never self-diagnose.

“Culture” is the popular diagnosis for just about any ill in the workplace. But its not always so.

In this case, as in others, unprofessional behavior was rampant in the office. Unhelpful, backbiting, gossiping, lazy – think junior high. But that was just the manifestation of the root cause: poor management.

I know, its much sexier to say you have a cultural issue. Its much more exciting to pretend there’s an unusual set of circumstances unique to your business causing these types of problems.

But sometimes a duck is just a duck

Over the years we’ve become confused and uncertain about management as roles in the workplace have changed. Teams may be distributed across time zones, collaboration is more often the model rather than strict hierarchy and our office environments are ever more dynamic.

It isn’t easy being a manager.

But you don’t have to be one

There is little sympathy for the manager who bitches about being the manager: when you are in charge, take the reins and drive.

Or get out of the way and let someone else do it

The problems in this case weren’t cultural (the host environment did not sanction the behavior) and they were solvable. In many cases managers have forgotten, or perhaps never learned, the fundamentals:

  • When you lead, lead – set standards, set expectations and call people on performance and unacceptable behavior. People will rise to the challenge. So – challenge them
  • Solve problems in the moment – bad news unlike wine does not get better with time. Straighten out problems when they happen and look for systemic corrections to prevent their re-occurrence
  • Pay attention – think twice and then three times before you close your door. Stay connected to the team, immerse yourself in the flow. If you don’t know what’s going on, who does? Stay plugged in
  • Praise publicly for real stuff – false, phony praise does more harm than good, but when people step up, tell the world. That’s your job. Yes, I know they’re getting paid for it. But if they do a good job tell them
  • Correct privately – deal with your shit. Just do it. Nothing loses respect – and effectiveness – faster than the manager who refuses to address things. Do it quietly, privately and with respect: but do it

There are many paths to success other than being the boss, so take one of those if leading people proves too burdensome.

Cultural issues are important and manifest: we all want to work on them. But sometimes it isn’t quite that challenging to correct workplace drama. Sometimes the issues and answers are right in front of us.

If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

Its probably a duck.


2 thoughts on “Duck Soup

  1. Presence is important. The #1 criticism I hear when others suspect bad leadership is “I never see them come out of their office”. I even heard that critique about managers who lead remote teams. If the perception is that they isolate themselves from everyone else they are not seen as engaged.

    I never close my door without reason. A private meeting or focusing on a specific task might get me to close it. The door stays open otherwise and even if I need to focus on a task I try to limit it to no more than an hour at a time.

    I get up to ask questions. I run into people in the hall. I know the name of all of my direct reports’ employees and address them by name.

    I won’t ever pretend to be the perfect leader or boss. I have my weaknesses. At the same time, I am not going to fall prey to the same mistakes I’ve seen others make. I will at least make new mistakes all my own.

    • Agree with you Rob. While I’m far from perfect I know that without a solid connection nothing really gets better. If nothing else, remaining close to the team enables us top grasp the real demands and thus, at least be a more empathetic leader. People work a lot harder for a boss who’s perceived as being with them.

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