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How a House Manager Trashed Morale in the Workplace

Sometimes a little success can be a very dangerous thing.

Last year I had one of the most surprising front line manager interviews ever.  I met a young woman who was very proud of her success as a house manager. She explained to me how she had come into a very tough situation.  The previous house manager had been fired and the house was in turmoil.  The staff were struggling to get even the basics done and they were all upset with recent management decisions.  She was hired from outside the agency to take over. She had never worked in this field before, but had come from the front lines in a similar environment. Her proudest accomplishment was that she had put in place detailed duty rosters that broke down all the activities that needed to get done on every shift. She had also cleaned up and improved the scheduling to conform properly to agency policies.  This made her very popular with her manager and seemed to go over well with the house staff at first.

When I started asking about challenges she became very critical of the staff. Somehow things were getting worse the longer she works there. She felt people were against her and that no one respected her. I asked why she thought that was.  She said that people told her she never listens to them and that the rules and procedures were too much. I asked her how she was trying to improve the situation.  She said she had circulated all the duty rosters for comments and feedback and got very few specific comments back, but did get lots of negative feedback about the latest duty rosters.

Exclamation MarkI asked if I could try and help her and she said “yes – please I really don’t know what to do anymore”. I launched into a very comfortable thing for me, sharing my personal journey. The journey from uptight engineer and businessman who expected way too much from the people around him while giving nothing much back, to a more relaxed person, caring most about the people I work with.  I shared many different aspects of my journey, including how spending time one-on-one getting to know my team, coaching them to success and listening to their feedback on what I can do better was a huge thing for me.  I also shared that moving into this world of people and relationships had made me a better husband, father, friend and community member.  I basically made the case that she needs to lighten up and be a real person with her staff.  Get out from behind the rule books and duty rosters and show her people that she cares about them.  All along I was excited by the opportunity for her if she could find a new passion for people and add it to her very strong administrative skills.  If she could do that she could be great, I thought.

Throughout my sharing she nodded, seemed to be paying attention, but also had a strange look on her face at times.  At the end I asked her what she thought of what I had just said.  She said “oh, well I already do all that stuff, I am really good at it.”  As we talked more I realized I was fighting a losing battle. It would take someone better than me to get through to her about the people side of being a great manager.

One of my final questions was “if you could pass on one piece of advice to a new manager in the field, what would it be?”  Her answer “without a doubt I would tell them that detailed duty rosters are the most important thing for a manager to focus on.”

I don’t think her case is hopeless; I was once completely blind to fact that I was the biggest problem my team had to deal with.  It took some really tough times and some really great coaches to get me moving in the right direction.  I hope this front line manager figures it out soon for her sake and the sake of her team.

What could I have done better to try and get through to her? Comments please!


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