Today’s driven, macho managers have lost the idea of how to use others properly

Here’s a little story — a true one — from the time when I was working with a major European organization. Sally P. was overworked, burned-out, stressed and exhausted — the whole nine yards. So her boss asked me to talk to her and see if I could help. It didn’t take long to discover the truth. Sally routinely stayed at her desk until 9.00 or 10.00 p.m., though she started work before 8.00 in the morning.

“What do you do?” I asked her.

“All day I’m busy with meeting, customers and staff matters,” she told me. “It’s madness. I only get to do the stuff I need to do after everyone else goes home.”

“And what’s that?”

“Reading through things. Checking everything has been done correctly. Sorting out tomorrow’s schedule. That kind of thing.”

What it came down to was this. Sally checked nearly all the work her subordinates did, even down to correcting typos in their reports and re-ordering “faulty” priorities. When I suggested this was a total waste of her time, she got angry.

“Not at all,” she said. “It’s essential. You’ve no idea the mistakes I find. It would be dreadful to let things like that slip past.”

“And what do you say to your people?” I asked.

“Well, I tell them, naturally. I get cross with them.”

“And…? Has it changed?”

“Not really. I mean, you can’t get good people today, can you?”

Delegating upwards

It took a while to get Sally to admit the truth. Her staff didn’t check their own mistakes because they knew she would do it anyway. And they didn’t change because they knew she didn’t trust them to do better. In fact, she treated them like naughty children, so that’s how they saw themselves.

Lack of trust is probably the single greatest cause of overwork amongst leaders at every level. Because they don’t trust others:

  • They can’t delegate anything other than the most mundane jobs.
  • They have to attend pointless meetings, in case something is said or decided behind their backs.
  • They have to be on every circulation list for the same reason.
  • They have to re-do, vet, double check and edit their subordinates’ work, because they don’t trust them to do it properly.
  • They have to devote time to regular boot-licking, because they suspect no one trusts them either.

Organizations are full of pointless activities that are only needed because nobody trusts their boss, their colleagues, their subordinates, their suppliers and, least of all their customers. Whole departments exist entirely on the assumption that, if you didn’t have them, idleness, corruption, embezzlement, petty theft, and misappropriation would be general. Then, of course, you need another group to make sure the first aren’t abusing their position to do all those things themselves. Look how HR departments — supposedly there to help find, train, and develop good employees — are being slowly transformed into corporate police: another branch of compliance and legal services.

Yet these same employees, who aren’t trusted to behave reasonably in working hours, are apparently worthy to choose a government, act on school boards and in positions of public trust, bring up children, handle their own finances, and fight and die for their country.

If you pay peanuts, the saying goes, you get monkeys. Well, if you treat employees like naughty children, congenital idlers, or incipient criminals, that’s pretty much what they’ll become — at least during working hours. And you’ll be like Sally: overworked, stressed, burned-out and neurotic — the typical image of the harassed executive of today.

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