When it comes to management responsibilities there are five lines that managers should never cross. As a professional, make sure you stay on the right side of the lines …
Professionals moving to management roles can expect to be presented with a wide range of opportunities as a result of their increasing levels of responsibility and authority. There is the potential to add more value to their employing organisation and much greater scope to positively influence the working lives of colleagues.
The likelihood that you will become a successful manager is greatly increased when you have a clear framework to guide your approach. Your position description (PD) should be a key point of reference in your decision-making about where and how to focus your energies because it defines the scope of your responsibilities, the limits of your authority and other significant boundaries associated with your role.
However position descriptions tend to be less useful when it comes to making sure you make wise choices about how you use your increasing power to influence others especially the people who report to you.
When it comes to the ‘how’ of management responsibilities there are five lines that managers should never cross. As a professional with a hard-won reputation to protect, make sure you stay on the right side of the lines between:
1. Fairness and favouritism;
2. Duty of care and intrusiveness;
3. Management and mateship;
4. Being authoritative and being authoritarian; and
5. Reality and illusion.
1. Fairness and favouritism
From a management perspective fairness means making sure that people get their share of the organisation’s rewards; for example remuneration that recognises the value a person adds suitable opportunities for career advancement and the chance to participate in decision-making.
Managers leave fairness behind when they pick favourites and give those people unjustified preferential treatment. For example a pay increment for sustained good performance is fair awarding a promotion largely on the basis of finding someone more likeable than others is favouritism. As a general rule you risk crossing the line between fairness and favouritism with decisions that preference your own self-interest over the interest of the organisation and the people around you at work.
For example a relatively inexperienced manager took the easier route by encouraging one of his direct reports to apply for a team leader role. The staff member had neither the skills nor the requisite experience for the role but the manager enjoyed this young man’s enthusiasm and encouraged him to submit an application. He had recently given him a particularly positive performance review on the strength of his youthful exuberance. There were several other strong external applicants so the manager assumed that no harm would be done as the job would go to an external appointee for sure.
On later reflection however the manager realised he had acted unfairly by avoiding giving timely performance feedback that whilst the staff member had the potential for team leadership he was not yet a strong contender. He had also been self indulgent in rewarding the youthful energy without providing honest feedback about areas of necessary professional development.
2. Duty of care or intrusiveness
An employer’s ‘duty of care’ means that they must do everything reasonably practicable to protect employees’ health and safety in the workplace. Duty of care which is covered by OHS legislation includes anticipating possible causes of injury and illness and removing or minimising them.
To adequately carry out their duty of care managers must both initiate conversations and be ready to respond when staff members raise issues of concern. For example taking action when there are signs of bullying eliminating workplace hazards and ensuring healthy workplace communications are all within the scope of ‘duty of care’.
But managers must be careful not to cross the line between attending to their duty of care obligations and intruding into the personal lives of staff members. For example it was brought to a manager’s attention that a particular staff member known to colleagues as outgoing and chatty was keeping to himself much more than in the past. It was generally known that his marriage had broken down and that he was involved in a family court case.
Confident that the staff member’s performance at work was not suffering the manager felt that it would not be appropriate to enquire directly about the staff member’s personal life. However given the staff member’s personal circumstances the manager made a point of checking whether he had sufficient project-related support at this time.
If you do decide to check whether a personal matter is affecting a worker’s performance at work make sure that you avoid crossing the line into intrusiveness by focusing your enquiries on workplace impacts or potential impacts and doing so in a supportive manner.
3. Manager and mate
Friendship including its Australian derivative ‘mateship’ can be an important aspect of people’s working lives especially where social relations at work spill over into people’s leisure time. People can be happier at work as a result of being friends with colleagues and when productivity consequentially increases managers are happier too!
But there’s an important line between management and mateship that managers should never cross. It’s the line between making decisions that are anchored in your role as a manager and allowing mateship to dominate.
For example an IT professional was the successful internal applicant for a team leader position ahead of several strong external applicants. She knew that one of her first tasks would be to deal with an issue of unsatisfactory performance that had been long-neglected by the previous team leader. Adding to her challenge was that the poorly-performing staff member was a good friend of hers. Following her appointment to the team leader role she knew that how she approached the performance matter would be closely scrutinised as it had been the focus of much attention during the selection process.
In a carefully planned approach she provided constructive performance feedback and the managerial support necessary to help the staff member to significantly lift his performance. She made sure to stay focused on his role and responsibilities and what she as his manager needed to do to support him.
4. Exercising legitimate authority and being authoritarian
In organisations ‘authority’ refers to the right to make decisions that are binding on others. Effective delegation of authority is an important aspect of healthy organisational functioning – so is the matching of delegated authority to the responsibilities of each person’s role. ‘Legitimate authority’ is delegated from a higher level and attaches to each specific role including your role as a manager.
For example when a division manager spends the company’s money within the approved budget he is using his legitimate authority and so his budget-based decisions are binding on the company as a whole.
However when managers step beyond the limits of their formally delegated authority and assume obedience according to their whim they are not exercising authority – they are being authoritarian. Generally speaking authoritarians are driven by their own need for power and it is usually gained by disempowering others.
When managers cross the line between exercising their legitimate authority and being authoritarian the result is usually significant collateral damage in the form of adverse productivity impacts and harm to others at work. Personal reputational damage usually ensues.
5. Reality and illusion
Managers are paid to make informed decisions – that is decisions based on identifying analysing and interpreting appropriate information. Whilst facts and hard evidence are important sources of information many of the decisions that professionals will be called on to make over the course of their management career also depend on their capacity to read and interpret their own and others’ experience.
For example a manager interested to understand a workplace culture in order to help him think critically about managing change paid close attention to his day-to-day experience and made enquiries about others’ subjective experience. Over time he learned a great deal about the reality of workplace life and the support people needed for cultural change to be effected.
Staying in touch with your own and others’ reality can be challenging in the contemporary workplace. Electronic communications working from home and the ubiquity of media messages provide fertile ground for unchecked assumptions to displace reality.
For example the time-poor manager who communicates with his staff principally via email and avoids face-to-face encounters is depriving himself of important information about the people behind the message. All too easily his assumptions about their mood feelings and attitude are substituted for any appreciation of staff members’ reality.
Making genuine enquiries face-to-face listening to what people have to say acknowledging people’s contributions and reflecting on what you have learned in the process all contribute to staying in touch with reality.
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About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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