tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Hands-on management is only option in high performance environment

A fundamental shift in the workplace in the last decade has made management much more difficult. Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, Inc., said the workforce has shifted away from a long-term hierarchal approach toward a new short-term transactional approach. The consequences of this shift require greater levels of hands-on management but should result in higher levels of productivity.

Tulgan is the author of 14 books, including “Winning the Talent Wars” and “Managing Generation X.” From his New Haven, Connecticut base, he writes and consults according to the results of more than 11,000 interviews he has conducted since 1994 with employees at all levels in the workforce. I heard him speak at a business conference in Phoenix on Feb. 22.

“The old way was to do as you are told, keep your head down, make one short-term sacrifice after another, and in the long run the expectation was the organization would take care of you,” Tulgan explained. “In the new model, employees ask what do you have to offer me today, tomorrow and next week?”

Tulgan described groups of workers who fall into four age groups: Silent Generation (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1977), and Generation Y (born after 1977). Initially, older workers thought the younger workers were selfish, given their propensity for immediate reward. Tulgan explained, however, that many older workers, including Boomers, have adopted the attitudes introduced by employees in generations X and Y.

Tulgan said managers brought about the change. They abandoned legacy employment practices that promised lifetime employment, for a more flexible model. When they instituted the first waves of downsizing in the 1990s, older works panicked. Younger workers, on the other hand, said, “Downsize me. I’ll just go do something else.”

Tulgan summarized: “Did managers think that the people who weren’t downsized out of a job wouldn’t begin to think like free agents? There are free markets for everything, including talent.”

Tulgan said managers were right to abandon promises of job security, which often held companies back. “Business managers need to be able to move quickly… Business leaders had to kill the myth of job security,” he said.

When the dot-com bubble burst with the onset of the new millennium, Gen Xers toned down their attitude, but instead of adopting the Boomers’ long-term climb-the-ladder approach, they began to “keep their options open.”

“No hard feelings, they’d say,” Tulgan play-acted on the stage with an empty office chair. “I have to take care of myself and my family.”

Young workers, Tulgan said, “are ready to work better, faster than anyone, all day, everyday. But they are not willing to do that in exchange for long-term promises about long-term rewards. They have high expectations not just for themselves, but also for you. They don’t want to know what they are going to get in seven years, 10 years, or 12 years. They want to know what’s the deal today, tomorrow, and next week. They want to know what you can do for them now.”

Young workers are the product of an educational shift that took place in the mid 1980s among teachers, parents and counselors. They began emphasizing self-esteem, Tulgan noted. “Don’t worry about how the other kids play. Those are their rules. That’s their style. You have your rules, you have your style.” Tulgan said that’s why so many younger workers have trouble showing up to work on time today.

Older managers can easily become frustrated with the attitude of younger workers. “We pay you, do as you are told!” Tulgan described the reaction of many managers toward younger subordinates. “But once you do that, you have already accepted a fundamental shift away from the long-term hierarchal model toward the short-term transactional model. It used to be ‘start at the lowest rung of the ladder, work you way up,’ Now it’s ‘we pay you, do as you’re told.’”

Younger workers are experts at information management, given that most of them were raised on computers, DVD players, cell phones, instant messaging, and satellite television with hundreds of channels, Tulgan said. In the workplace, he said, this makes them excellent researchers. “They can find the right answer, they just don’t always know what it means,” he said. “Older workers have to put those answers into context. They can provide the depth and the wisdom.”

As younger workers began to fill more of the employee ranks, and managers increasingly abandoned the idea of job security in favor of flexible staffing levels, Boomers began to realize that seniority didn’t mean anything. But instead of being outraged, Tulgan said they adopted the short-term transactional approach to employment that younger workers held from the beginning. “When the Baby Boomers started thinking this way, there was no turning back,” said Tulgan.

Boomers make up 46 percent of today’s workforce. Generations X and Y account for 44 percent.

The short-term transactional approach of most workers, Tulgan said, has changed the responsibility of managers. “What we are seeing is a market-based relationship with employees,” he said. “What do you get in a free market? Whatever you can negotiate. Managing people today has become a day-to-day negotiation.”

Mangers need to be ready to respond to employee demands that can range from time off to a bonus, to being allowed to bring their dog to work. An effective manager will negotiate those expectations with greater demands. Accountability holds the formula in balance, Tulgan said.

“Managers who untie their hands, role up their sleeves and take a hands-on approach to leadership, drive performance,” Tulgan said. “They spell out expectations every step of the way. And they hold people accountable.”

In order to hold employees accountable, a manager needs to have a high level of knowledge about his or her direct reports, Tulgan said. These managers should talk to their direct reports at least 10 minutes every day, Tulgan said. “Spell out expectations, clarify goals, make sure deadlines are clear.”

Managers should write down project details, and when problems emerge, good managers deal with them immediately. Ability, skill or will are at the root of nearly all performance problems, Tulgan said. Employees failing to live up to expectations should be directed into other tasks, given additional training, or motivated in new ways. If these tactics fail, Tulgan said, a good manager quickly fires them.

“One of the keys to keeping good performers is to get rid of low performers quicker,” Tulgan said. Higher performers hate to work with low performers, Tulgan said, and low performers usually cause more work for high performers. The most dangerous thing about keeping low performers, Tulgan said, is the message it sends that low performance work is acceptable.

“High performance every step of the way is your only option,” Tulgan said. “You’ve got to manage one day at a time, one person at a time. I know this is high maintenance. The good news is, if you commit to the high maintenance, the performance you will get will be through the roof.”

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