Managing by fear (or fear of managers)

One day, a president of Wisconsin Bell arrived at work in his downtown Milwaukee headquarters to find there was scaffolding along the front of the building.

“Why is this scaffolding here?” he asked one of the workers.

“Oh, no,” the worker thought, “The President wants the scaffolding gone.”

That same day, the President walked out of the building at lunch to find the scaffolding had all been torn down.

“Where did the scaffolding go?” he asked a worker.

“Oh, no,” the worker thought, “he wants the scaffolding back.”

At the end of the day, the President left for the day, only to find the scaffolding back up in front of the building. There were no workers to ask, so he went home wondering, “what’s the scaffolding for?”

I remember my Dad telling me this story when I was very young. (He reported to that president at Wisconsin Bell and was responsible for the scaffolding.)

I was reminded of this story after watching Whiplash, which is very quickly rising on my favorite film list. The movie opens with a kid playing the drums in a school room by himself. An instructor walks in, and the kid stops playing.

The instructor asks him, “why did you stop playing?” The kid’s response is to start playing.

Then the instructor asks him, “why did you start playing when I asked you why you stopped?”

Both instances are driven by the same element: fear.

Sometimes the fear is instilled by the manager. Some executive or middle managers intentionally lead by fear. But sometimes, people come to the table with that fear – even when the manager doesn’t want that at all.

The result is that the employee starts trying to guess what the manager wants and acts to please the manager, instead of doing what they think is right for the business or project. They try and give the manager what they think the manager wants instead of staying true to the goals of their job.

Employees in fear look at every question asked of them by that manager through a vacuum. They don’t answer the question being asked because they don’t consider that the manager is seeking information to put into a larger context.

Think of how much time the contractors wasted putting up and taking down the scaffolding, when all that president wanted to know was why it was there. He was simply curious.

Unfortunately, another negative effect of this fear is that those workers probably spent the day talking about what an irrational and cruel man that president was for making them put up and take down the scaffolding. You can just hear them asking, “why can’t he make up his mind?”

This fear can be very destructive to a workforce and the projects upon which they’re working.

With this story in mind, I have always worked to be sure my team was not panicking, not working in fear and not assuming I was asking anything other than the question I put forth.

Managing by fear, or having workers that fear their manager, can take you down this road pretty quickly. I don’t want my employees to try and please me. I want them to do excellent work and stay true to the goals of the project. Nothing would please me more.


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LinkedIn recommendations

This year, I undertook and completed my LinkedIn recommendations project.

Unlike many, I run my LinkedIneage pretty tightly. I don’t accept invitations from people I don’t know and trust, and I remove connections who won’t return calls or emails or who have just grown distant for whatever reason.

One of the things I wanted to do with my LinkedIn connections is proactively write a recommendation (without being asked) for a handful of my closest business connections.

My motivation was simply to appreciate those who had really made a difference in my professional growth. And it was exciting to hear the surprised excitement when they were received. To me, it’s important that those who’ve really made a life-changing difference know who they are.

Speaking of which, I recently received two recommendations of my own. And what was most gratifying and amazing about them was not the simple fact that I received some praise. Most exciting was that what they wrote mirrors what my goals have been for leading and managing the teams I’ve built.

See for yourself. This is from Michael Ryan Wilson, an excellent strategist and leader, in his own right:

“Jon is a different kind of leader. Certainly not textbook, he empowers and trusts his team members to make the right decisions. The accountability and purpose he gave art directors, designers, writers, and developers helped grow a creative department in both knowledge and physical numbers. His ability to identify and utilize talent, implementing structure, was essential in building and leading teams.

I was lucky to work for him, on very large accounts and projects for Verizon Wireless and Safeway. The marketing strategies and creative solutions he drove were ambitious, and one of the things I appreciated the most. We never settled for “just good enough”, as long as it exceeded the business goals. With Jon, there is no ego’s, he can be told his idea is wrong, and will help adapt and evolve the right solution. This is how we came to create such visionary work.

I am thankful to have been a key piece in his team. He gave me the support and confidence to make the next steps in my career. I genuinely look forward to working with Jon again in the future.”

The second is Tanya Williams, who is an amazing designer I was fortunate to work with for nearly three years:

“Jon is one of the best leaders I’ve been privileged to work with in my career. I’ve seen him double the size of our creative team and our creative business within the first year that he worked at Responsys. He took entry-level creatives and turned them into leaders. He took a team that with a struggling morale and turned them into the team that everybody wanted to be a part of.

Jon is fearless. He approaches every project as if anything was possible. As a result, his “dream big” mentality has won the business of clients and their customers (oh, and lots of industry awards).

My favorite thing about Jon though is how he leads his team. Jon genuinely wants to help his employees become better at what they do. He is encouraging and creates an environment that is fun and rewarding, an environment that people are proud to be a part of. He is always willing to confront and solve issues one on one with his peers and team members that result in employee personal growth and trust.

I am lucky enough to be one of those team members who is better than I once was and all because Jon had seen my potential and wouldn’t let me slide. I would be honored to work with him again one day.”

In both cases, what they wrote is exactly what I aspire to be every day. They both describe exactly the experience I want my employees to have. It’s what I want to bring to any team I lead.

I’m thrilled that they both had the kind of experience I’m trying to provide, and hopefully, others on my team feel the same.

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Not quite a donut shop

Given my renowned donut expertise, someone recently suggested I open a donut shop.

The problem is that I don’t really know much about how to make them, so I’m not sure I could do it well.

But I am an expert at eating them, so I was thinking I could open a donut eating shop.

People would bring me donuts and pay me to eat them.

I really think this is a tenable idea because it solves several problems that I face right now.

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Peer pressure discipline…

…doesn’t work.

A friend of mine was just telling me about how his 7-year-old daughter came home from school mad because they didn’t get to go outside for recess. They were made to stay inside because one of their classmates was acting out.

The theory of this approach is peer pressure discipline. The idea is that this will teach the classmates to take on the role of telling those who act out that they need to stop or else they’ll all suffer.

But it doesn’t work. This isn’t the first time this has happened to her class, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The problem is that people at any age, but especially that young age, aren’t inclined to speak out. Speaking out involves confrontation and the ability to mete out appropriate consequences. Neither of these are things people are very good at.

It also spreads out the punishment across a group of people who weren’t doing anything wrong. This dilutes the power of the punishment, rendering the message meaningless to the person for whom it was most intended.

I’ve experienced this on a professional level. We had a person coming in chronically late. Instead of sitting with that person and reviewing attendance expectations with them, the manager sat everyone down to tell them everyone needs to start coming in on time.

The problem with this approach is that everyone who is coming in on time gets angry and resents being told to stop doing something they’re not doing. And more often than not, the person for whom the message is intended isn’t paying attention or doesn’t realize the message was intended for them.

In fact, it tells them they’re not the only one doing it, and they are free to continue because they won’t be singled out.

Confrontation of an issue is very difficult for people to do. This is one reason why personnel management is so difficult. Only a minority of managers, in my experience, have  what it takes to confront an issue and work with the relevant person (or people) toward a conclusion.

If you want to effectively manage people, you need to confront issues as soon as they arise with only the person(s) involved in or affected by the issue.

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God or evolution?

Speaking of evolution…

Why can’t we all agree that evolution is God’s grand design? That way, everybody gets to be right.

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