A key thing I’ve learned in my career and my own work experience:
“Bad managers tell employees what to do, good managers explain why they need to do it, but great managers involve people in decision making and improvement.”
There might be more to management to that, but I think that’s a pretty good start. “Lean management,” or the Toyota management style, encourages leaders to live in that “good to great” range (with apologies to Jim Collins).
Bad managers bark orders. They are directive and tell employees what to do, without any explanation or context. I saw that style of management quite often during my first two years at General Motors (read my previous post about that experience) and the workplace was incredibly dysfunctional as a result.
There are top-down, “command and control” managers in every type of workplace, unfortunately. Managers who are controlling and have all the answers want their employees to “check their brains at the door,” and often say so quite explicitly — or they spread that message in more subtle ways.
At GM, front-line employees complained that they were “hired for their backs and their arms, not their brains.” In hospitals, healthcare professionals (even those with master’s degrees) have complained, “They just want us to do what we’re told.” This is not a recipe for quality, productivity, or good customer service.
A friend of mine lives in a high-rise condo building. One example of “telling” was the general manager telling employees that the doors to the resident gym must now be kept closed at all times. For years, previously, the doors had been left open unless a resident wanted privacy and chose to close them.
My friend asked one of the employees, “Why are the doors closed all of the time now?” The employee replied, “I don’t know, [the manager] just told us to.”
It’s disrespectful to just give directives without letting people understand the reason(s) why. There might have very well been a good reason why the doors were now to be kept closed. Had the manager taken just a few minutes to share a reason why the employees would feel better about themselves and would more likely keep the doors closed. If employees are following directives out of a fear of being “written up,” they aren’t in a position to provide great service.
A good condo manager would explain why the doors now need to be closed. And, if there wasn’t a good reason why they wouldn’t force the change on a whim.
A great condo manager would involve the employees in coming up with solutions to whatever problem is being solved by keeping the doors closed. The employees, when being posed with the problem, might come up with the idea of “close the doors” or they might come up with something better. Either way, they would feel a greater sense of ownership over the idea since they were involved in its creation.
During my time at GM, the better of the two plant managers I worked for taught us that Lean leaders (in the style of Toyota leaders) will always explain why something must be done, in those rare instances when they have to give a directive. The dynamic changes from “thou shalt wear safety gloves (because I’m the boss and I told you so)” to “you must wear safety gloves (because it’s necessary for your safety and we don’t want you to get hurt, even though you might think there is a little risk).”
Bad managers tell. Good managers explain why.
Great managers go beyond this.
Great managers might engage the employees in figuring out how to reduce the safety risk that makes gloves necessary in the first place. Maybe an employee would suggest that a different, but equally effective, chemical be used. We don’t know unless we engage our employees.
In 90% of workplace situations, I’d guess, the manager shouldn’t be telling people what to do, even if they are making the effort to explain why. Great managers engage people in designing their work and they continue to engage them in ongoing improvement. As I learned from former Toyota employees and the books of Taiichi Ohno, work procedures “should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.”
This mindset and approach requires that leaders set aside their egos and century-old habits. of top-down management. Managers won’t have all of the answers. Instead of dictating how things get done (and expecting obedience and compliance), managers need to work together with employees to define how the work is done. Managers need to ask employees what ideas they have for improving the workplace, through the practice of “Kaizen.”
Our employees are adults and they deserve our respect. They deserve great leaders who can work together to help everybody succeed and do what’s best for their customers (or residents).
This was originally published on LinkedIn.
Learn more about Mark’s latest book, Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More.