A situation came to my attention yesterday morning and I thought it worthy of a case study on the blog, with some added questions for you. Sorry it is a bit longer than usual.
“How can something that appeared so minor have been blown so far out of proportion”, I was asked by a prospective client. What was, in the first instance, one small comment to a member of staff and a well respected manager has been put in the dock with accusations of bullying and abrasive management. Her whole career is in the balance. How can this have been allowed to happen?
So many times I have seen situation like this get out of hand. It’s amazing how quickly people turn on a manager who has hitherto been considered an organisational and team asset.
Let’s call this woman Jenny. She has been in post for thirteen years and is manager of a large sales department with in excess of a hundred staff in six teams; a fairly senior manager. Her team leaders are her direct reports and have, between them, a total of 45 years under her management; mostly they know each other well and have always got along fine.
At the end of last year a new team leader joined the department. He came in very energetically and performed really well during his first weeks in post. However, about two months ago, during a regular supervision session, he told Jenny that he had not appreciated the way she spoke to him during his induction period. She was somewhat confused as no-one had ever made such a comment to her before. She enquired into the specifics of his allegation and was told that she had been abrupt and sometimes a little dismissive of him; on one occasion he found himself feeling humiliated at a team meeting.
She apologised if she had caused offence and said she would be more careful in future, recognising that he was quite sensitive. The following week Jenny was called to the director’s office and was told that a grievance had been taken out against her and HR were investigating the claim made by another member of the team that she has been treated disrespectfully. She could not think what this related to.
During the next two weeks HR spoke to each of the team leaders canvassing their views on Jenny’s management style. It appeared that after so many years of successfully working together, she was suddenly being branded a bullying manager. How could this have happened? Finally, it was established that it had been a simple hand gesture towards a team leader had caused the grievance; Jenny had waved her out of her office because she was on a confidential phone call; the gesticulation was adjudged to have been aggressive.
Within a few days, her style of management was questionable. Each member of team came up with past situations they had viewed as “just the way Jenny did things” and had accepted them at the time. Now, with HR intervention, the same situations were being regarded as bullying. After asking for specific situations, HR now had a catalogue of managerial errors questioning Jenny’s leadership.
So what caused this to happen? Was the catalyst the new member of staff, or had Jenny really changed? Was she less tolerant or more demanding than previously – probably not – just open to greater scrutiny. What was it about how she presented herself at work, or the relationship she had with her team members, that could have contributed to her problems.
What was evident was that something in Jenny’s management style needed to be addressed. Through a “Working with Difference” coaching programme she is going to explore her management style, aiming to develop a greater awareness of the impact her management behaviour can have on team members. She will examine how she copes with the power she has over her staff.
Management is not an easy place to be and can be quite lonely. Learning to deal with personal power is difficult and complex and can be more problematic than managing staff. Indeed, until the power imbalance within managerial relationships is fully addressed and understood by all parties, this kind of scenario could easily occur – in any organisation, maybe even yours. Organisational power is generally unrecognised as an equality issue – but power and inequality and not easily separated.
So, the question is, how are you doing in your managerial relationships? Is your behaviour always correct, or is a catalogue of your errors being stored by your staff, waiting to be exposed at a later date. Could a situation arise between you and your manager or your reports that could end up in dysfunctionality or a complete breakdown? I think it’s worth looking in to, don’t you?
As a postscript, I am sure with the early intervention and support from HR, Jenny and her team will be OK!