It was a sad moment to see the headline in to-day’s Times (The Times, London, June 7, 2018) as I was returning on a flight home from Europe:
Amnesty official ‘killed himself over work stress’
The article explained how a 65 year-old employee of this venerable organization had complained several times of overwork as a result of a major reorganization. His body was found in his office this past weekend where he took his life. Apparently a note was found in which “he wrote that he had asked for assistance with an increasingly heavy workload, but none had been provided”.
How tragic and sad that an employee was this distraught and felt that he could not be heard.
How is it possible that such a thing can happen? What are the factors that can lead to such a situation? How can we as managers in organizations help to ensure that it never happens again?
The first thing we need to realize is that, in general, people want to do well. They want to be successful, they want their teams to be successful, and they want their organizations to be successful. In private sector organizations this translates into assuring client satisfaction and meeting target profit levels. In the public and non-profit worlds, this translates into doing good work on behalf of target populations. As a result this desire to do well is magnified in the non-profit world.
This desire to do well, whether in a private, public or non-profit organization, is a two-edged sword.
On the one hand, those most devoted are incredibly motivated to do well. They are results-focused and work oriented. Long hours are simply accepted as normal, whether paid or not.
We have all met these people. They are always willing to go the extra mile. But how many of them have paid the price in their personal lives: absentee parenting, divorces or separation, burnout, illnesses, breakdowns, or as we have recently seen reported, suicide.
As managers in organizations we need to collectively do a better job of managing this precious resource entrusted to us – our human resource.
Thankfully Amnesty, according to the same article, has launched an independent investigation into this incident. Until the results are in, we cannot know what really happened or what all of the contributing circumstances may have been. Whatever the case, this should be a wake-up call for managers everywhere. It is very easy for managers to take advantage of the fact that team members will tend to go the extra mile when asked. Sometimes the team does need to dig in – it’s part of the challenge of attaining success. When it becomes a way of life to put in the extra hours because there is always too much to do and not enough hours to do it – it has gone too far. This is the job of the manager to resolve.
Here are three things to think about.
Do we have a plan that precisely describes how our department will contribute to the organization strategy? This includes mission, vision, and values of course. Plans also include an objectives or goals section. In this section, are we precise about those goals that we can reasonably achieve? This is where managers have to do the hard work they are paid to do: set priorities. How do we as a team plan to achieve the goals for which we are accountable? Do we have the resources, financing, equipment, IT, and Human that we will need? If we don’t have the resources where will we get them? If we can’t get the resources, which goals will we delay implementing? When a new goal arises during the year, what will we cut back on so we can accomplish this goal within resources?
The easy solution for a manager is to ask subordinates to “dig a little deeper”, work smarter not harder”, “put in 110%”, or perhaps callously “work it out!”
This is abdication of managerial work. If we as managers don’t set the priorities, team members will try to do it all. They care. But they won’t have the time or energy. So either they do it all but at poor quality, or they try to do it all but fail, and so something randomly falls through the cracks. The other option is that they sacrifice their personal lives to make up for the manager’s shortfall in resource planning and priority setting. This last option is probably the most popular but is doomed to failure. At some point the organization cannot continue to prosper at the expense of its employees. Such a business model is not sustainable or scalable.
Setting context is the work a manager must do to help team members understand the focus of their work and the priorities they have. In to-day’s world it is impossible for a manager to know every situation that a team member will face. Decisions need to be made, and they need to be made in a consistent way so that the overall team’s performance is maximized.
If team members are left to “figure it out”, they will make decisions and take initiatives to the best of their ability. But synergy will be lost because decisions taken individually in isolation cannot be as powerful as decisions taken individually in a collaborative atmosphere. Creating this collegiality and common context is the most important work a manager can do.
Managers are accountable for creating and maintaining four feedback loops: with each team member, with the team as a group, with organizational peers, and with the community.
Feedback reflects the two-way dimension of honest and transparent communication: giving information, and ensuring the information is heard and understood; receiving communication, and assuring that it is understood.
The manager needs to be completely comfortable that each team member receives and understands the context, and is crystal clear about the accountability and authority they have to do their work. They also need to know that the team member has access for a check-in when circumstances change or support is required.
These are three of the Five Requirements of Effective ManagersTM. Learn more here.
Mangers! We need to do our managerial leadership work – so we can build teams that are successful without taking advantage of those that we depend upon for doing so much.
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