Monday, January 05, 2009

Leadership Lessons

‘None are more unjust in their judgments of others than those who have a high opinion of themselves’- C.H. Spurgeon, 1834 – 1892

One evening many years ago I was manager on call for my hospital and at around 7 pm the phone rang. It was the switchboard to tell me the fire alarm was going off. I drove to the hospital thinking that as usual this would be another false alarm.

I arrived and was met by a less common situation in that there was a genuine problem. One of the evening cleaners had unfortunately forgotten she had left a pot of water boiling on a hot plate and the water had boiled dry causing the pan to become extremely hot and eventually smoke had begun to emerge thus activating the smoke detectors and setting off the fire alarm. The local fire brigade complete with two engines blue lights flashing and sirens screaming had arrived on the scene to quickly confirm there was no serious damage and all was returning to calm. The poor cleaner was very upset that her oversight had caused such a commotion and I could not help feeling sorry for her. As calm was restored the catering manager who had been called out from home too arrived on the scene. She was a stern woman who, upon surveying the scene and hearing what had happened, proceeded to launch into what I can only describe as a tirade of abuse aimed at the cleaner. The manager accused her of gross inefficiency and stupidity for allowing this incident to happen. Let’s be honest this was not what the cleaner wanted to hear. She was already clearly upset and feeling guilty and then to have this telling off sent her over the edge and she burst into tears. Now we had a situation that was distressing for the few people gathered in the immediate area and caused much embarrassment.

The memory of that incident is still vivid in my head and it taught me many things about managing people.
When people have made a mistake the last thing they need to be reminded of in an aggressive way is that they have made that mistake and thereby made to feel like some immature cretin with no intelligence.

Of course there is clearly a time and a place for a ticking off when merited. As adults, and particularly as managers, with responsibility for managing people, we should surely understand and indeed have empathy with people who make genuine mistakes that do not amount to gross negligence.

I believe that when people have made a mistake they will invariably ‘punish’ themselves enough without the need for some arrogant and uncaring manager to rub salt in the wounds by balling them out in public.

Leadership Lesson - You don’t need to shout – people know when they have made a mistake.


Anonymous said...

There are many good comments in this blog and yet the result, I believe, can be very misleading to the inexperienced.

The goal of management and leadership is always to further the achievements of the individual and the team.

I have been a successful manager and executive for many years and I have had direct reports who obviously understood when they made a mistake... enough said.

There were others that required that I "figuratively", hit them over the head with a 2 by 4, or they didn't "get it". And then there are those who want the intense interaction because they want that kind of exchange.

A manager and leader must be capable of adopting different styles of communication, management, and leadership, all in order to be "effective".

Your true message, as I read it, regarding the manager and the cleaning worker is that the manager was ineffective in this case.

Don't get me wrong... disgracing or embarrassing a direct report in public is never (I hesitate using absolutes) justified.

Likewise, "You don’t need to shout – people know when they have made a mistake", I believe, is equally not universal.

Be well,
Steven Cerri

Trevor Gay said...

Many thanks Steven - I appreciate your comments.

I agree with you entirely “different strokes for different folks” should be the motto of all managers. However I would contend it is NEVER excusable to ‘ball out’ an employee in a public setting. To me that shows immaturity and a lack of respect for the employee. As far as I can see “bullying” is another way of describing such behaviour.

Anonymous said...


I totally agree that bawling out an employee in public is inappropriate. I'm not in management, but a fellow employee once confided in me that she had been publicly berated for an honest mistake. My response was that it wasn't about discipline. It was about power. There is a huge difference between constructive criticism (in private) and a public dressing down, or bullying as you say. I welcome the first. The second only serves to make me resent my boss and go looking for another job. Just the thoughts of someone on the other side of the manager/employee relationship. By the way, I've been in my present job for over 20 years. Guess why.


Anonymous said...

Trevor...a good leader has many tools available and one of the most effective is the work climate and culture. One that is based on trust, teamwork, and continuous performance improvement means the leader has credibility and the trust of the team. Accountability is core to high performance teams and folks are accountable not just to the leader but the team as well. This often means no shouting is needed. I saw a documentary on the U.S. Navy Blue Angels aerial demonstration team years ago that shows a the de-briefing process that they go through after every flight. Each team member self identifies their mistakes, and ends their commemts by saying "I can fix this" to acknowledge responsibility for their mistakes and "Glad to be here" to acknowledge they are fortunate to be members of such an elite team. Having been a manager on or near the frontline for many years I have used this approach in team or staff meetings and it works. Many different ways to get results for sure.

J.KANNAN said...

Let me begin my thoughts on your posting with a truth.

“To err is human”- be it man or woman and no exception to this. And it’s of no use to make “hue & cry” in such error occurred situation. Screaming and shouting is not the end solution, but beginning of complications/controversies leading to a strained human relations, more so b y a Manager/Leader, if he feels himself a” Responsible Manager.

Jut imagine for a while and reverse the situation- Had the water pot been put on the hot plate by the Manager (This can take place at times) and the same thing happened? He will patch up and suppress the whole thing within himself conveniently, keep cool and no voice will come out of his mouth-I shall call it a “Real misuse of power & position” by the Manager.

Even a most unpleasant situation can be set right in a very pleasant manner without hurting any body if only this Manager has opted for it-.Right Attitude and sober Approach of Manager matters a lot in such circumstances. When the Manager could accuse of the Cleaner of gross inefficiency and stupidity of the incident- Why can’t he confess to himself that its his total negligence, ignorance and irresponsibility too?- It needs a clean mind and good heart to arrive at such conclusion, one of the finest qualities of a good Manager

You are right Trevor, left to people who did the mistake, will realize and correct themselves and ensure such mistakes does not occur henceforth. By screaming and shouting in open the Manger has proved his total inefficiency and irresponsibility and unfit to lead a Team, and to go a little further a hypocrat!!!!

In your earlier posting on “Leadership Lessons” on 28 Nov 2008, Point No.12 is most apt under such circumstances reads as:-

“You don’t have to shout”-people know when they have made a mistake”

Is a guiding factor to all Managers under such circumstances?


Trevor Gay said...

John – thanks so much for your comment from the other side of the fence - and in fact you sum the situation up much better than me. I hope you will continue to visit Simplicity Blog and give us the benefit of your words. Managers who don’t realise the truth in what you say are indeed power crazed and lack personal insight. The last boss I had in my healthcare career was an absolute master at giving constructive feedback and I benefited occasionally from his wisdom. It was always behind closed doors and in the 4 years he was my boss and in fact the 20 years I knew him I never once heard him raise his voice.

Trevor Gay said...

Dave – thanks for that insight from the military. You are a prime example of taking the best from a military career and transferring it to the commercial world. The stereotype view that the military is all about bawling and shouting is as far from the truth as my being a fan of Liverpool Football Club. People don’t need reminding in an aggressive way – in my experience that is always counter productive.

Trevor Gay said...

JK – great to hear from you again. Thanks for reminding us all that managers – believe it or not – are also capable of making mistakes. Managers I’m sure would not wish to be dealt with in such an aggressive manner so why would they do that to employees accountable to them. The best managers will always have great ‘people skills’ and they will know how individual employees best respond. Tom Peters summed things up very well one time when he said ‘Life is too short to work with jerks’ – I like that and if I had a manager who worked in this aggressive way that I the line I would take – I was lucky never to have such a boss in my career. I don't think there are many managers like this, but even one is too many in my opinion :-)

Anonymous said...

Trevor - the true measure of a manager/leader is the way he treats his/her people when they make mistakes.

When people make mistakes, the focus has to be on problem and not on individual - shouting/thrashing just puts people off and solution takes longer. Being a manager/leader does not give you a license to shout and ill-treat your people.

Treating people well when they least expect it is a great way to re-inforce trust and confidence.

On these lines, I wrote "To err is human - Treating people when they make mistakes" which generated interesting comments. Link to the post:

Your thoughts are welcome! Cheers!

Trevor Gay said...

Tanmay – thanks for visiting Simplicity Blog and needless to say I agree with you 100%. The best anecdote I ever read about this is as follows:

At IBM a middle manager made a mistake costing the company 750,000$. He arrived at the Chief Executives office admitting his mistake and took with him his resignation letter. He asked the Chief Executive not tell him off - he knew had made the mistake - he wanted to just apologise and leave. The Chief Executive declined to accept the letter and said; 'Why would I want to sack you when I just spent 750,000$ on your training?'

That is surely the way to manage people.

I will visit your Blog and comment.