The Root of Management Lapses

This is the first of two posts we put out discussing Dann’s 7 Questions and the theory behind them. To view the 2nd post, click here.

W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality movement, was famously quoted as saying that if America wanted to do in its rival countries, it should simply export American management. Deming was talking about our practice of always looking for the “right” people rather than investing in systems improvement that would enable the people you have to be more productive.

In my experience, Deming’s view is accurate, but there is a root cause of the lapse in American management that bears closer inspection.

Simply manage

Harold Gineen, an Englishmen and the legendary CEO of ITT from ’57-’77, summed up the lapse in his book, Managing. Gineen advised simply to “manage, manage, manage”. His view is that American managers don’t manage because nobody makes them do it. But, in my mind, this still begs the question of why managers don’t do it of their own volition.

The principle of technical priority

I found the answer that rang true for me, and continues to, in the work of Louis Allen, a pioneering management consultant who wrote several books including the self-published The Louis A. Allen – Principles of Professional Management. Allen developed his principles through studying patterns of success and their sources in Fortune 100 companies over a 40 year period early in the 20th Century. Thus, his principles arise from direct observation of the dynamics of organizations.

Management vs. technical work

Allen defined “management work” as the work one does to achieve organizational results through others and “technical work” as the work done to produce organizational results directly.

Management vs. technical workAllen’s first principle, the Principle of Technical Priority states that “when called upon to perform both management work and technical work during the same time period, managers tend to give priority to technical work”. In other words, managers are choosing not to manage. But why?

There are a host of reasons, among them:

  • They have not been trained to manage.
  • They are proficient at technical work.
  • The cycle for completion of technical work is much shorter.
  • Technical work brings tangible results. The results of management work are intangible and often uncertain.
  • Management work involves confronting and evaluating others, which is inherently uncomfortable.

I have found one additional reason that Allen did not discuss. If a manager does not feel good about his own performance, he/she finds it difficult to hold others accountable for non-performance or to evaluate. It becomes hard to hold others accountable for non-performance.

The “management gap”

Allen’s view is that the failure to choose to manage results is a “management gap” between what subordinates need to optimize their performance and what actually gets delivered. In other words, the gap is a lack of planning, organizing, leading or controlling. In short, because of the failure to manage, employees underperform, as does the organization.

The major deficiency

Having taught and coached managers for 40 years, and reflecting on my own management, I see the greatest lapse to be a failure to confront non-performance by subordinates. The number one question I hear from managers in training is “when do I give up on an employee?” Underneath the question is a gnawing sense that somehow the non-performance is rooted in the failure of the manager to give that employee what was needed to succeed. Due to the management gap, that is often the case, but that gnawing sense prevents managers from even having conversations with subordinates about underperformance, and hence the unsatisfactory performance goes on without being faced.

The prescription

What to do about it is summarized in the leadership books of Ken Blanchard, all of which are excellent. The One Minute Manager, the first in his long series of books, lays out the steps managers need to take to fill the gap. Namely: give clear direction, give feedback often on results, and confront quickly the failure to perform. A more sophisticated methodology for meeting employee needs for success is found in Blanchard’s Situational Leadership II model.

management gapI have developed a tool to help managers get over that gnawing question of “is it me or the employee”? Dann’s Seven Questions is a simple set of questions you can dialogue with your subordinates about. If they answer “yes” to all the questions, then you have done all that should be expected of you in making the employee successful. If the employee is still not performing, then one of two situations exist. Either you miss-hired and put someone in a position they could not succeed in (you own it) or the employee, at this time in their life, is simply choosing to fail (the employee owns it).

We’d be happy to send you a copy of Dann’s Seven Questions for you to use with the employees reporting to you re. how you could better aid them in contributing more to the organization. But, a word of caution. It is important with each of the questions to emphasize that you are asking whether you as a supervisor have answered the question fully and completely for the employee, not whether the employee has figured it out for him or herself. For example, have they determined what good performance looks like by trial and error, or have you clearly communicated what your standards are for evaluating that they are performing well on a task?

To get a copy, simply send us an e-mail. Do the same if questions arise when you are using this tool. I would be happy to engage in a conversation with you about using the tool effectively.

As Ken Blanchard famously said, “feedback is the breakfast of champions”. This holds true for your subordinate as well as for yourself. Dann’s Seven Questions could lead to the most productive conversation you have ever had with your direct reports.

Addendum to the Seven Questions

Since the original publishing of this post, Bill Dann has written a book covering his 7 Questions and how to use them. To learn more or get your own copy of Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports, click here.

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