Screwpole teaches situational management...

Office suitably perverted, staff uninspired and bitter

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The Project Manager is completely unable to explain why his staff are behaving so miserably (unaware that the stifling office environment is sucking all the enjoyment and creativity out of the team) and is resorting to micromanagement to sort things out. Bad move – his team is a mixed bunch, some more capable than others and the PM’s directorial approach is making some of them resentful…

Illustration of Screwpole's situational management.
To: Mugwort
From: Uncle Screwpole
Subject: A place for everyone,
 and everyone in their place...

Dearest nephew,

I’m quite possibly –what’s the word for what I’m feeling? Oh yes – ‘pleased’ with you. From what I read in your triumphant email, it seems your transformation of the office environment into a poisonous cauldron of mistrust has caused even your Project Manager to forget the basic rules of management and treat all team members as if they were helpless babies. Most delightful.

The PM, in his desperation, is blanket-managing the team and completely ignoring the reality of different personalities and situations. This is a jolly fine state of affairs for you, Mugwort. The mistrust you have sewn means the PM cannot bring himself to have faith in even his most experienced and capable team members, and is personally directing every single one of them. The sheer stress of the effort will no doubt lead to his emotional breakdown [Perhaps a little shove in this direction would be helpful?].

We know the PM is trained in Situational Management but he’s so panicked he seems to have forgotten it all. Situational Management outlines four separate but linked methods of management: Direction, Coaching, Support, and Delegation.

A true master of Situational Management will know which style to use for any given task and person – individuals may even require different management styles for different tasks within the same project.

Try to think of it as an escalator, moving downwards [The only logical direction for things to move, no matter what the other side say]. At the bottom end is the Directed form of management, where individuals are taken by the hand and told how to do each and every task. At the other end is Delegation, where experienced, knowledgeable staff members are told to perform tasks and expected to complete them on their own. In between is Coaching, where the manager sets tasks and priorities but is interested in feedback from employees. And Support, where staff set their own timescales and solutions for tasks set by the manager, with regular evaluation.

An important fact to remember is that the higher one is on the escalator the less time and attention are dedicated to staff, but more time must be spent climbing the escalator in the first place.

It is also worth noting that the ‘warmth’ of the manager-employee relationship gets colder as one moves down the escalator. The general idea then, Mugwort, is to convince the PM to keep staff at the bottom of the escalator. Given the vast amount of effort he’s currently exhausting on them, he probably won’t have time to plan the progression of individuals or realise that a little effort spent moving them up the escalator will mean less managing in the future. But it may not be possible for the PM to spend less time with everyone, as some inherently need closer management.

For example, you mention the team’s ageing, embittered systems administrator, what was his name? Bob? Yes, he seems to know his stuff, but his tendency to trawl Wikipedia for synopses of ‘Man About the House’ episodes instead of doing actual work means he would benefit more from a Coaching approach, at least until he becomes a little more dedicated. Or take that nervous little thing you say has only recently joined the team, the one who is quite inexperienced and ‘tends to gibber uncontrollably’ when asked a question at the morning meeting - she would benefit more from a Directed management technique.

At the moment, your PM has everyone in the icy Directed phase. From new recruits to seasoned experts, he’s walking everyone through their duties with the cold functionality of a Victorian schoolmaster. There is no time for empathy. And as for any time to talk about problems with his team, the miserable saps can forget about it! The PM is otherwise far too busy firefighting to deal with such matters.

Happily, you say that some members of staff, particularly the most experienced or talented, are beginning to resent this approach openly. They are not growing as professionals, or being managed as they want to be. [You make it sound delightful! Perhaps I’ll take few days off for a visit. A while spent wallowing in a little passive-aggressive frustration would do me the world of good.]

Now, your PM is far too busy to stop and take stock of the situation. Long may this continue. At the very least, you must encourage him – after all, his bosses don’t bother to consider his personality, do they? Wouldn’t he like a little care and attention now and again? Tell him he’s right to be attentive to his ‘fragile’ staff in these stressful circumstances. He knows more about the intricacies of their jobs than they do, and people always need a little reminder of how to suck eggs properly…

If the PM did have time to stop and think, he would undoubtedly realise that he needs to talk to individuals, who each have different mindsets and are trying to complete different tasks. The same management approach will not work for everyone and some people prefer certain styles over others. He would also probably realise that he himself requires a different management approach from his own bosses, rather than the Delegation he is currently receiving [Seems like your cousin Hellebore is doing rather a good job with the directors upstairs].

But as petty as he may be, there is always room for your PM to become more pedantic. Distrust is again the pivotal factor here. Your PM obviously believes none of his staff can be trusted to complete tasks on their own; his team realise this. Perhaps you could fuel their contempt by convincing the PM to chair ‘back to BASIC’ seminars every afternoon, where he explains VERY SLOWLY how to code in the eponymous programming language.

You may feel that all you really need to do is keep things ticking over, but if I were in your hooves, Mugwort, I’d want to exercise a little finesse. You could persuade the PM to delegate tasks to his more talented employees – his crushing stress levels will surely make him agree. Unfortunately, his chronic mistrust will also make him interfere and begin Directing again. Flip-flopping between Delegation and Direction is one of the worst things a Situational Manager can do, as staff soon begin to feel like failures and assume their incompetence is forcing the manager to take back the trust placed in them.

Keep this in mind for our next correspondence, Mugwort. There is more to learn about delegation than you may think.

Your uncle, Screwpole.

Phil Rice is CTO of software vendor Erudine, the creator of the Erudine Behaviour Engine

With acknowledgement to CS Lewis' "Screwtape Letters".

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