Management control - we have a problem

Continuing our series of on-the-spot coaching advice, chartered engineer and qualified management coach Janet Wright answers your engineering management dilemmas…

There's never a dull moment here at E&T Towers where, as usual, we're under siege from readers wanting solutions to their management dilemmas. And, as usual, while we can claim to offer the best possible professional analysis of these generalised problems that have been based on real-life incidents, there is no substitute for getting advice that has been tailored to your specific management style and structure.

In this instalment, we look at the issue of a member of staff who feels undermined by their manager's free-and-easy approach to problem solving, and an employee who feels that their career path is being blocked by a directive handed down by upper management.

My boss make me feel like an idiot

Q: My boss is a larger than life character; very knowledgeable but short on communication skills. He is far happier shooting from the hip than following any predetermined plan. Recently, our company has made some fairly major process changes and I've been involved in rolling this out. In order to ensure that a consistent message was given to staff, the management team met and agreed what was to be covered in the briefing - local content was to be added by managers like myself. My boss was unable to attend.

When the time came to cascade this information, my boss did not support me. In fact, he interrupted and questioned what I was saying. This just served to confuse the message and made me look foolish in front of my staff. I feel I must confront him on this matter but am not sure how to go about it.

Janet says: As you know, 'it takes two to tango' so I think you must take some of the blame for this situation. If you bear this in mind as you approach the discussion with your boss, I think it will help achieve a successful outcome.

You have already told me that you recognise your boss to be a bit of a maverick and so you must have had some inkling that there were likely to be problems when he did not attend your preparatory meeting. I agree with you that cascades must give clear messages to their audience so it does seem that running the content past your boss first was essential. However, I'm not party to your local circumstances; you probably tried to meet with your boss, but had time constraints - who doesn't? - and felt that you had to proceed regardless.

You now have to deal with the fall-out of that decision which seem to be two-fold; firstly, check to see whether your intended message got through or not in the cascade in question and, if not, re-communicate it; and secondly, deal with the relationship you have with your boss.

Before we do this, let us just focus briefly on your comment about "making me look foolish in front of my staff". I am sure that others have noticed your boss' 'larger than life character', and so his behaviour at the cascade was probably no surprise. You make no mention of the way you responded, so I assume that you took a passive position and tried to deliver the message as best you could.

I am sure that most people present felt some empathy with your position. I think your perception that this made you "look foolish" could not be further from the truth. If you are still unconvinced, then why not ask some of your staff for their views? It is always good to do a reality check now and then.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. If you had been able to meet with your boss before the cascade, what would you have said that could have avoided what happened? What were the critical elements of the cascade that you wanted him to sponsor?

Play around with a hypothetical conversation - how could you have got him on board? Put yourself in your boss' position and figure out what would be the best way to gain his attention. Would asking him to play an active part in delivering the message have helped? If he had been asked to help with Q&As at the end of the session would that have helped focus his mind? As he was not aware of the content, perhaps gaining his agreement to delay or proceed with the communiqué under these circumstances would have strengthened your position during the cascade.

All the insight that you gain from this exercise can now be used to plan a meeting with your boss. Think about what you want the result of this meeting to be. Remembering that you must take some of the blame for what happened, focus on your errors and explain how you would like to rectify these for the future.

You can certainly tell your boss that you felt very uncomfortable during the session, but avoid making any accusatory statements toward him as this will only serve to put him on the defensive. What you want your boss to do is empathise with your position and then, if he has any people skills at all, he will realise that he had a role to play in this. If this tactic works then he will admit to some of the blame.

From this position you can begin to build a more effective working relationship with your manager. But, in order for this strategy to be the most effective, you must not lose any time in setting up your initial meeting.

Headcount freeze is blocking my career

Q: I've been unhappy in my current job for sometime now. I have discussed possible career moves with my boss and have let it be known that I am looking for a new challenge outside of my existing department.

I have recently been approached by the manager of another department and offered a job. It is just what I have been looking for; more responsibility and more money. The problem is that there is a headcount freeze on at the moment, and my current boss has said that no internal moves are permitted while the headcount freeze is in place.

I'm worried that the job will be given to someone else. What should I do?

Janet says: It's good that you have let your boss know that you're looking for a new challenge. Too often we are not honest with our managers or ourselves about how we feel about the work we do.

A headcount freeze is a corporate mechanism to identify and keep employee costs under control; it is actually aimed at external recruitment, as this is the only way that overall headcount can grow. However, if this is not accompanied by some sort of internal control on headcount movement then the company risks losing staff from critical positions. Therefore, it is likely that your company will allow internal moves but has put in place a justification process to control it, not prevent it.

You ask what you should do. I can't tell from your question whether it is you that has approached your boss about moving or the manager with the vacancy. While you have already made it clear to your boss that you are looking for a move it is important that 'negotiations' are held at management level; don't allow them to be conducted through you. This will prevent any bad feelings, whether you move or not, being associated with you.

As I mentioned, headcount freezes are normally accompanied by a categorisation of roles within the company. It is far more difficult to get a move sanctioned if the individual in question is in a critical role. Do you know what category your role falls into? Do you know what category the role on offer has been allocated? If it is a critical role then the chances of getting your move approved should be much higher.

I'm wondering what reason your boss has to prevent your move. It cannot be because internal moves are not permitted, otherwise how is it possible that you have been offered another job? It would be useful to understand why he is choosing to interpret it this way. Justifying headcount when a freeze is in place can be a lengthy and cumbersome process, often purposely so. Maybe your boss wants to avoid going through this process. If you really want this job then you are perfectly entitled to know why he is blocking your move.

Do you know how long the headcount freeze is due to be in place? If it is for a short period of time, say three months, then maybe an agreement can be reached whereby you move into the job once the freeze is removed. If the freeze is longer or indeterminate, then maybe you could transition into the role over a number of months, giving your boss time to apply for and gain approval to replace you. I would recommend you get this in writing as you do not want to end up doing two jobs instead of one.

Finally, I think it is important to say that many companies who apply headcount freezes are looking, not only to avoid an unnecessary increase in employee costs, but to make savings in this area. Do make sure, if you have done due diligence on your new role, to ensure it would not be at risk should any reduction in headcount follow.

If you have a management related problem that you would like to see analysed then write to janet@thewrightcoach.co.uk.

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