One of the biggest challenges I come across in my profession is what I have come to call ‘non-managing’ managers. These individuals have often come into a management position by virtue of their technical skills or simply by default, being entrepreneurs who have created small businesses of their own. I refer to this group as ‘non-managers’ because, while remarkably astute and business savvy in many ways, ‘non-managers’ have significant difficulty conducting difficult conversations and tend to avoid the tough challenges of managing people, for instance managing poor performers or team conflict. My experience has been that ‘non-managers’ are often absent or avoidant, thus failing to provide strong leadership and instil a strong values-driven culture.
By avoiding addressing destructive conflict in its early stages in a team, ‘non-managers’ often allow the negative team dynamics to escalate to the point that it becomes a toxic working environment. When battle lines are draw, often colleagues feel they have no choice but to take sides or disengage entirely in order to cope with the destructive environment. What may have begun as a clash of personalities or a misunderstanding between people who have differing work and communication styles, easily develops into full-blown personalised conflict that affects the entire team. Needless to say, the repercussions of such a toxic environment are far-reaching, with negative outcomes likely for both mental health and safety of workers as well as from an industrial relations perspective. The impact on mental health and well being may be observed, for instance, in increased stress leave and the employer may even become more susceptible to workers compensation claims related to bullying and constructive dismissal if the issues remain unresolved.
It is often only once a situation has become toxic that a psychologist or HR professional is called to resolve the matter. Sadly, by this stage valuable employees have often already made plans to leave the organisation. In these situations a large part of the solution really lies in assisting the ‘non-managing’ manager to provide strong leadership, set clear boundaries and reinforce the expected behaviours in the group. An external professional can help a team to understand their differences and re-engage in a more constructive way, helping them to refocus their energy on forging a positive way forward. However, it is also critical that the manager fully engage in reinforcing this new approach and be willing to hold the group accountable for adhering to their agreed upon actions.
In cases where a manager simply does not have the skills and confidence to manage a team, but is willing to learn, coaching is a powerful tool that can help develop the necessary skills. But all too often, I have found that ‘non- managers’ seek to abdicate this responsibility by calling an external professional and then simply hope for the best. In these cases, to avoid a client becoming dependent on an external consultant to manage their team’s dynamics, I generally try to work closely with the manager and be very clear about the limitations of external intervention in the absence of strong leadership over the long-term. In some cases, this is enough to engage the ‘non-manager’ more directly in wanting to change their approach – in others, they remain resistant and avoidant and it is generally a matter of time before I am called again to manage the next eruption of team conflict.
What I have found useful when taking up work with new clients is to pre-empt the development of this dynamic before it occurs, using the following approaches:
- Spot the ‘non-managers’ early and recommend coaching in difficult conversations and leadership. They are often more receptive to this if they are not already facing a crisis.
- Help managers establish mechanisms to communicate with and stay in touch with the dynamics of the team (eg. regular problem-solving or team planning sessions).
- Help managers have a clear approach to performance management and maintain regular conversations that reinforce expected individual behaviours as part of performance. This may involve including negotiated KPI’s that are related to the team values (e.g. demonstrating respect toward others).
- Help managers put in place a clear induction that outlines expected team and individual behaviours; what is expected and how non-adherence will be managed.
By putting these mechanisms in place early, before conflict becomes an issue, ‘non-managers’ can become proactive managers before they are confronted by the need to have difficult conversations or take extreme action when a team dynamic has become toxic.
This article was first published on the HR Business Direction blog as ‘Managing non-managers’.
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