Manger, don't over forgive yourself

August 18, 2018


The CTO stood up in front of the entire team and announced the transition to Agile, “Agile is a journey that we will enter together.  It will help us be a better team.”  The engineers were enthusiastic about the change and looked forward to learning what was expected.  The CTO assured everyone that this would be coordinated training and the team would get the resources needed to make the transition. He bought a few books and started to have meetings to get organized. The subject of formal training came up and he assured everyone that there would be formal training.


A few weeks into the Agile transformation the CTO got busy with a new partnership Sales had brought in.  This partnership would require some significant discussions and planning and presented an enormous opportunity for the company.  As he got busier and busier he just assumed the team would figure out how to get to Agile.  They did, sort of.  But they also lost faith in their CTO.  He had not followed through, once again. He did have regular reviews in which he expressed his disappointment that they weren’t making better progress on the Agile transformation, as if he was not a contributing factor. He took no responsibility and seems to have forgotten that he did not meet the expectations he set at the start of the journey.


This is all too frequent a scenario: the management holds the team accountable much more strongly than they hold themselves accountable.  They do not expect to be judged for their non-delivery in anywhere near the strength that they hold their people accountable.  The manager genuinely thinks that nobody really notices, expect those few complainers, who are just too picky.


But it does not have to be big things.  An ignored deadline, and ignore request, an unwillingness to be open, all fit the bill.  Accountability is a 2-way street.  You should be at least as accountable to your people as you expect them to be to you.  You cannot be of the attitude “They need to do as they say but I am forgiven when I don’t deliver.”  Your team is a demanding of you as you are of them, and you need to deliver too.


Too often, the manager thinks, they can see he’s busy: “They can see that what I am doing is really important for the company.  They can see that my intentions are pure and that want to help.  They can see that I work hard and care a lot about the company.  They know I am a good guy.” In what universe?


This level of self-delusion is frequent and creates cynicism.  The double standard about accountability creates the cynicism.  It says that people are not worthy enough for a promise to be kept. The reality is that people judge others, particularly their bosses all the time.  People view their bosses through the lens that they think they are being viewed. They often do not view the boss with special forgiveness.


When the manager has a double standard, it’s visible to everyone but the manager.  It becomes the source of conversation, gossip, and unhappiness.  It creates a toxic work environment that undermines trust and confidence in the organization.  Yet, often the manager continues to pretend that they are credible and that their lack of delivery is OK.


Does the fact that the manager isn’t delivering affect the team’s effort and commitment?  Of course, it does.  When the manager is not delivering to the team, the team’s emotions come into play effecting morale and delivery.  People want their managers to have integrity, which means that they keep their word.  That they are there to help make the team successful. Promising and not delivering hurts integrity. 


The double standard significantly increases the sense of unfairness, which hurts morale and undermines the managers credibility. The basic sense of unfairness elicits the question: Why is it that the management is not required to deliver, and we are? How is that fair in any way?

You might ask, what constitutes a commitment?  Did the CTO expressly promise things that were not delivered? Was there a concrete statement with a signature and specific items outlined that are not being delivered?  What violation do they see here?


The answer is that the management is held to account not just for what it actually committed to, but also for what it reasonably should do.  For what is perceived as reasonable best practice.  When making big changes, for example, there is an expectation that management has skin in the game and that it will help in the transition.  Did management act in what people think was a normative or reasonable manner?  People are complicated, and their expectations are equally complicated.   Management needs to act in accordance with expectations. After all, their perception is their reality.


The point here is for management to understand the they are held to a higher standard and that they work with their people to make sure they are in sync with what the team thinks.  Management should not assume they are immune from these judgments. They should not assume that they are automatically forgiven because they work hard, or are good guys, or are dedicated, or are any of a bunch of things. 


They should lead the way in accountability.  They should assume that they have to measure up to a higher standard set by their people.  That their behavior (particularly bad) will be emulated far more than the behavior they articulate as desirable. If the manger is not accountable, the people do not feel accountable.


And the manager is accountable to their team.  I see far too many managers who think accountability is a one-way street. It is not. It is a two-way street.  As a manager, you are accountable to the people that work for you.  If you do not behave that way, you will pay for it in morale, turnover and poor delivery.


Managers should assume that they are held to a higher standard and that they should perform well. They should check in with their teams and really understand how they are being viewed.  They should communicate clearly about what they can and will do, as well as what they will not do.  What a manager is not going to do is as important as what they are going to do. 


Expectations need to be set and reset all the time.  But this needs to be done early, before people believe the delivery is coming. They should not be focused on their excuses, they should be focused on setting and meeting expectations. They should exceed the expectations of their teams. 


Mangers should also lead by example.



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Westerly Consulting, LLC

All photographs by Fred Engel