I was reminded a few weeks ago that one task of a leader is to tone down the rhetoric that naturally arises in an organization. We have a tendency to grouse, complain, gripe, etc. about all aspects of our jobs that we do not like. It can get so bad that some organizations develop a culture based more on “gripe sessions” (perhaps more commonly known as “bitch sessions”!) than productive problem solving. Let’s face it, every organization has problems and since no manager is perfect there are usually plenty of things for an employee to complain about. The problem arises when complaints and gripe sessions begin to impact productivity and feed on one another. You have probably seen it happen; “Did you see what Sam Smith did this week!”, “Why is Jennifer Jones always taking credit for my work!” etc., etc. Nine times out of ten, Jennifer and Sam have no idea there is even a problem. In addition, as the problems get talked about more and more, they take on an almost legendary status. No longer is it a single event, but it is something that happens constantly, even if it is only because it has been talked about constantly. To be sure, there is a balance in this. We want open, transparent dialogue about problems and issues. That was the point for my last blog. And we are all human so we need to “blow off steam”. But we need to minimize unproductive gripe sessions leading to no resolution and only magnifying the problems!
This is where good management comes in. Most (maybe all!) managers have their own issues with their organization to complain about. So instead of supporting open productive, problem solving dialogue and being a role model for their employees, sometimes these managers jump right into the grip sessions. They feel they are building camaraderie or esprit-de-cour with their employees by griping about the problems that the organization has, especially the managers that are higher up in the organization. Don’t do it! Although you might be building some short term camaraderie, over the long term you are just undermining your own credibility and the credibility of the organization. In addition, you are hurting the productivity of your group and thus impacting your own performance. Your goal as a manager in all these situations should be to turn the conversation into a productive “What’s the problem? What’s the solution? What’s the next step?” By turning unproductive “bitch sessions” into productive problem solving sessions, you have not only enhanced the culture of the organization, but you have participated in continuous improvement – a cornerstone of quality management in organizational processes. So whatever else you do in these situations, try to tone down the rhetoric and move it to a problem identification and solution approach.
So what does this have to do with leadership and friendship? Leadership is largely about motivating employees (including your peers) around a common vision. You can “manage” employees and simply ignore the complaining and the gripe sessions but you won’t truly be leading them unless you jump right in to the fray, turn them towards productive problem solving activities and provide a vision moving forward. I bring friendship into this discussion because if you try to be a close friend of people who report to you, this leadership won’t happen. With the caveat that family-owned businesses are a different animal than most organizations, close friendship and leadership don’t mix! I know many of you will disagree with this and will talk about cultures where being a good friend to your employees is appropriate but I still hold my ground. You are losing leadership opportunities and missing out on effective organizational dynamics and productivity if you try to be a close friend to your employees. Don’t confuse being a close friend with being friendly! Camaraderie, social activities, trust, sincerity, etc. are all important traits for you to cultivate as a leader. But draw the line at being a close friend. I have seen it time and time again where peers have developed strong bonds and close friendships only to have them unsustainable upon the promotion of one of the friends to a management role. You cannot be objective, carry out the tough decisions, and provide the coaching/performance feedback to your employees if you are also trying to be a good friend. And although my caveat above is that family-owned businesses are different animals, plenty of family relationships have been torn apart for the same reason. So cultivate a strong environment of trust and develop relationships based on a positive, friendly atmosphere, but do not cross the line and try to be a close friend to your employees.
And how does this impact the gripe sessions? This is a prime example of why the close friend card does not work in an employee-manager relationship. We want to support our employees; we must support our good friends! When the gripe sessions start and you are managing a group who is essentially a subset of your good friends and you, in fact, agree with most of their complaints, how can you avoid getting involved in this negativity and unproductive grousing? As a close friend, you will invariably participate to support your friends. In fact though, as the supervisor or manager of the group, your very presence and participation will escalate the problem. Instead of being just a simple impromptu complaint session to blow off a little steam, it now becomes a sanctioned systemic problem in the company or organization – “even our group leader says so.” And you have lost a great opportunity to identify and address issues that employees feel are important. It sounds so easy to say as a manager or leader “don’t get involved in the complaining,” but on a daily basis, with the stress and frustration that you will likely feel in any management position, it is difficult. But if you keep your management and leadership role in mind and if you avoid trying to be a close friend to your employees and you instead focus on being a trusting, trustworthy manager, it can be done.
In summary, my take-aways for this posting are:
- Do everything possible to dampen the rhetoric and “gripe sessions” in your organizations.
- Listen and be empathetic to employees concerns – foster an open environment – and then turn the discussion around to a “problem identification and solution session”
- Don’t try to be a close friend to your employees; rather, focus on motivating and providing vision for your employees while managing their performance. You, the employee and the organization will be much better off in the long run.
You can actually apply all of these principles in your peer-to-peer relationships too because leadership is not about how many people work under you in the organization; it is about attitude and approach to your work on a daily basis. But I will wait to expand on that another time.