Toxic employees – look at yourself first

I recently read an article that had been posted in LinkedIn from Inc. This particular article highlights 8 rules for spotting a toxic employee.

I am generally uncomfortable with frameworks like this. They give the lazy manager a way out of managing effectively. They make it easy to fire people when the focus should be on developing people.

Before any manager starts to use such rules they should look at themselves and their management colleagues to assess whether they have created the climate where “toxic employees” thrive. Are you, as a manager, taking responsibility for the working environment or are you finding scape-goats?

The rules in the article are useful for identifying problems with your teams but you should look both ways before you decide what the cause of the problems is.

Rule 1 is about gossip – do you have an open and transparent environment where there is no need to gossip? Do you have a blame culture or are mistakes welcomed and seen as opportunities for the team to learn?

Rule 2 discusses the meeting after the meeting – again do you have an open and transparent environment where your decisions can be challenged? Are you able to admit to your team that you make mistakes? Are you able to take advice from your team members? Do you allow open discussion of key issues? Do you let your team know in good time of the critical issues that are coming up so they can help you? Are you humble?

Rule 3 covers not working as a team member – do you get your hands dirty and help the team out? Do you have an appraisal system that encourages individuals to compete with each other? Do you micro-manage? Do you allow teams to organise their work among themselves?

Rule 4 relates to coasting – are you really appreciative in a tangible way? Does your organisation provide any real benefits to doing a good job over just getting by? Have you set stretch goals? Do you penalise staff for missing stretch goals even when they have over-achieved? Do you recognise the value of your employees? Is it clear and transparent why some staff are rewarded more than others?

Rule 5 talks about experience – are you identifying useful experience in your team? Are you giving experienced staff objectives and tasks to pass on their experience? Are you showing that you value learning? Do you ask your experienced staff for help?

Rule 6 focuses on peer pressure – have you built a set of objectives for your team where their interests are aligned with those of the organisations? Do they win when the organisation wins? Does their hard work result in benefits for the staff?

Rule 7 adds grabbing credit – do you give credit where it’s due? Have you created an environment where staff are competing with each other? Which do you praise more, team work or individual performance? Do you encourage the quieter team members to contribute? Do you know the team well enough to understand who is really doing the work?

Rule 8 finishes the article with blaming others – is there a blame culture? Do you praise and reward taking responsibility?

Management sets the culture of an organisation. Good managers recognise this and work hard to put in place practices that support team work. Good managers are followed by their teams. If the team is following a “toxic” employee then the management need to take a good hard look at the working environment that they have created.

Leadership Principles

Introduction

Manager’s are often under pressure to compromise and deviate from what they feel is right. A manager, project manager, or any other leader needs a baseline of principle from which to base his actions. Managers need to know when to stand firm.

The Principles

These principles of leadership are based on my understanding of “Tough Minded Leadership” by Joe D Batten. The “traditional” approach to management is based around a steady state with well defined projects to make incremental changes. It concentrates on budgets, objectives, and timescales. This approach fails dismally in times of rapid change. It fails the individual and the organization generally due to its attention to the invalid goals of budget, schedule and objectives. A far more dynamic approach to management is required. It is more challenging. It recognizes that budget, timescale and objectives are in flux. The principles ensure meaningful deliverables and keep managers sane.

So what are they principles?

Create Expectation

Create a common understanding of project, corporate and personal goals. Develop plans cooperatively as a team to achieve progress on personal goals through achieving project and corporate goals. Create expectations of each person fulfilling their role. Create personal moral contracts between team members to help each other achieve personal goals.

Expectation := Results

Open honest supportive expectation become results. You create a moral obligation that is far stronger than threat or authority because this is personal.

Don’t order, direct, instruct or tell team members what to do or how to perform. This is hard to achieve. The corollary, which is more difficult, is to get those above you in the management to act in the same way.

Integrity

“… what’s on my lung is on my tongue. I will always stand up for myself and I won’t toe the line. I won’ t play the game if it’s not an honest game and an honourable game. There are a lot of people who don’t make waves and don’t speak up. I can’t be like that.” — Alan Sugar

If you don’t know, then say so. If a schedule is slipping then say so. If quality is low then say so. If you screw up then say so.

Always be open, honest and vulnerable. If someone takes advantage of that vulnerability then that’s life! Integrity is more important than a job. It is important to accept that the truth is often risky in the short term. However, messing with the truth is more risky, especially in the long term.

If you’re dealing with suppliers, then be honest and open. You may say, “What about negotiation?” I would reply, “What about partnership?” A good negotiator can reach a fair deal by being honest and open. If you reach an unfair deal then you open yourself for the same treatment later. In technology, you must accept that the supplier has some aces because technology is not a commodity.

Expect the Highest Standards of Yourself

Give 100%. Don’t be above the team. Don’t be a hypocrite. Encourage and accept criticism from the team — but make sure you can handle it. Make sure you know enough about the jobs that others are doing to know what they are facing. Also to gain their respect, to contribute to their work, and to understand their progress or otherwise
Guts and determination are an essential expectation.

Enthusiasm

It’s that can do, positive thinking thing. Most objectives are near impossible when they are served up by management. You have to be positive to be able to work out how to achieve something useful. There will be plenty of negative people in the team ready to accept failure from the start. Your enthusiasm and ability to find solutions will win them over so they can make a constructive contribution. There will be plenty of people outside the team ready to pull you down. You’re determination will prove them wrong.

See the Positive in Everyone

You need to see the positive in everyone, particularly in the team when often you have no choice over the members. Everyone has strengths that can be used to support the work and others in the team. Sometimes they hide them well — maybe that’s their strength!

People are People

Try to understand why people act as they do. It is often down to their conditioning, their background, and the environment that they are or were working in. The only way you will understand how people think is to get to know them. If you think badly of them then they probably think the same way of you. Is that how to do a good job? Give them a chance. They might give you a chance when you screw up!

Tell The Truth

“I have only two eyes and ears: there are other eyes and ears on the pitch and I am always prepared to listen.” — Lawrence Dallaglio

Tell your boss the truth. He can’t make sensible decisions without good information. Managers are idiots because no one tells them the truth!

Don’t wait until you have the full facts, it might be too late. Give your boss the pieces of the jigsaw that you have. Between you might be able to see the full picture.

Please, Thank You and Help!

It is simple courtesy to say please and thank you but how many managers say it? It’s also important to act on it. In an appraisal, a good rating or a pay rise says you meant it. Asking for help is a great compliment to someone and rarely an imposition. It also recognises that you are not perfect.

Fun

No job is worth it if there is no fun. The fun should be during the work as well as socially. Don’t do stupid hours.

Some managers and users won’t like to see your team enjoying themselves. You need to protect the team from the “Victorian” work ethic, it’s destructive. Why should anyone work for you if it isn’t fun?

Control

If the personal contracts are in place then the team control themselves. Communication within the team is established to deliver the contracts. Reporting is automatic. Exceptions are reported as potential failure to honour a contract. Regular reporting is automatic to help you fulfil your role.

Be Bold

“Its not what you predict but what your imagination inspires. It is aspiration that creates the future.” — Zurich Group advertisement.

Work is about realizing a vision. That vision must be communicated and understood by the team. A bold plan is an honest plan. It doesn’t say more than is known — you can’t commit to a date until you’re on top of it. The management or client won’t like it but you have to tough that one out.

When you have information, create a plan that uses it. Don’t ignore the facts because they don’t fit.

Live the Plan

You have to believe in the plan for others to take it seriously. If others are to take it seriously then it must be credible and your belief in it must be credible.

Conclusions

The principles are simple but effective –

  • Create expectation
  • Integrity
  • Expect the highest standards of yourself
  • Enthusiasm
  • See the positive in everyone
  • People are people
  • Tell the truth
  • Fun
  • Control
  • Be bold
  • Live the plan

The danger of passion…

Like many enterprise architects, I am extremely passionate about my work. I like to work with and employ passionate people. But the passion that creates drive, which causes them to push through when others would stop, is dangerous. It can override sensitivity to other people’s feelings. It can mean poorly thought through action prevails over a considered plan.

If you are about to employ a passionate person then think it through. Get them to work through tough scenarios. When they miss out on a promotion or pay rise because they upset a key person who doesn’t understand passion, how would they deal with it? When a colleague actively obstructs them, how will they handle it? When the strategy that they have worked on for six months is rejected by the board, what will their reaction be? Can you help them think things through without stifling their power? Can you protect them? How would they avoid the situation? How would they reduce the damage caused to other people and themselves? How will you look? How will you deal with the problems that a passionate person can cause? You need to understand how you will use and direct this passion for positive effect. You need to understand how you will manage the risk to yourself and your passionate employee.

As a passionate person, you need to understand that how ever much your employer talks about wanting people who are passionate, this is usually a myth. The job adverts and person profiles are mostly written by “dry old fish” who wouldn’t recognise passion if it came up and kissed them. They are writing to attract staff, they may be half copying someone else’s work, they are selling. You are buying, you need to make sure it is not a con. Can your new manager cope with you? Will they protect you? Is the political situation one where you will be easily provoked into rash action?

Take a walk around the office — it is easy to spot passion — there should be raised voices, there should be people standing around talking animatedly about work. If there is quiet, if people are huddled in their own cubicles with little interaction then there is no passion. A passionate person communicates and shares. If there is quiet then you will be a misfit. Are you willing to be a pioneer and create some, at least initially, unwelcome noise? Does your new manager really want you to disrupt the current peaceful working environment? Is your new manager prepared to take a risk? Is your new manager prepared to have some fun?

Good performance?

Most architects that I know pay very little attention to their reputation and visibility within their organisations. They typically consider such activities with contempt.  It is playing politics, it is putting style over substance, it is dishonest.

Dishonest? Yes, dishonest! Why? Because every success is a team effort. Any one person taking credit is disrespecting the other team members.

So what do you do in a culture that recognises and rewards those who glister rather than those who just get on with their work and do an exceptional job. Your choice is stark – play the game, move on, fight or accept it.

If you play the political game then you earn the contempt of your peers and sometimes yourself.

If you accept then you will see those with little talent prosper, they will advance and perpetuate a political system that creates a kakistocracy – rule by the worst and all that this entails.

As one who has fought many times, I cannot recommend it. It is stressful. It will damage your reputation. And support is hard to find among managers who are just trying to survive themselves. A little passive aggressive resistance may be in order – be humble, retain your integrity, give valid praise in public to those who deserve it, counter any undeserved criticism of others and help those with unrecognised talents to find places where they can excel.

Your remaining option is to move on. This may take time since there is little point in moving on to a similar environment. You need to find the right people to work with. In particular, the right manager…

A manager of mine, when he understood what was happening, said “perhaps I am looking in the wrong place”. He realised that he could not rely on the grapevine to provide an accurate picture of performance. The news spread by others is biased, it is politicised, it carries the advertisements of the carriers. He had begun to realise that the formal performance reports of project managers, clients and others were often biased.

He worked out that he needed to get out there and continually and consistently look for himself. He started to take a deeper interest in the capabilities, aspirations, working environment and efforts of his team. Only then did he start to get an accurate picture of the performance of his team. And only then was he able to help them. Only then did he start doing his job as a manager. Only then did he discover the excellence in his team. With this knowledge he was able deploy the team better, grow their capabilities and to start to repair the reputations of his team.

Taking over…

A long time ago, I took on my first “real” management position with a responsibility. I was to lead a product development department of about 20 people. I didn’t know what leadership was. I had this vague concept that it was about a guy standing in front of a bunch of folk waving everyone forward over a parapet. The group would then charge forward joyfully into battle. Miraculously we would come out with minor cuts and bruises and no casualties ready to fight another day.

Why would they follow me? Perhaps I because I had said some rousing Shakespearian words. Why were there no casualties? I can’t fathom that one.

I had great optimism and incredible naivety. The result of this was a two year nightmare of making mistakes as my team meandered with no direction in some other field.

I eventually left that job to my great relief and probably my team’s. I had been the boss but not the leader. The two are not directly linked. Being boss gives you control over people’s pay and prospects. But they have a much greater level of control — the boss’s success lies in the hands of his team. This is the first great realisation. It doesn’t help directly because it only tells what not to do.

When I joined the software company as head of product development, I spoke to the directors. I learned what they expected of me and how it would benefit the company. Then, on my own, I decided how my team would deliver it. I stood up in front of them and told them what we were going to do. I got blank faces. I got shrugs of indifference. I got folded arms and frowns. There was a growing low hum of chatter in the background. Anyone observing would have realised that I had failed to convince and the team had moved from neutral to being against me.

I struggled on for a year with an ineffective team who just about kept me in a job but no more. Performance was lack lustre. Our year end bonus was pitifully low. I had a member of staff complain about my performance to the CEO and a salesman too. The CEO had appointed me so he called me in. He gave me a simple piece of advice, “ask for help”.

I asked for and followed the advice tentatively and finally left the company without really stepping up to the job. I had three months off before starting a new job. The separation and the break gave me the opportunity to reflect and learn from the experience.

The first lesson was that that being the boss does not make you a leader. The second lesson was that people chose to follow leaders. Leadership is earned over time. It does not come with the position. It is not a result of authority. A job described as a “leadership position” is one where you are expected to earn leadership quickly. I recruited a soldier into a team of mine who brought this home to me, he said, “the officer may be the boss in peacetime, but when we get on the battlefield, he relies on his men to keep him alive, it focuses the mind”.

The third lesson was that in most situations there are already leaders in place. There are people who are followed by the majority of the staff. They may not be in management positions. They may lead in a direction that contradicts the organizations objectives. But they are there. They are a route to establishing your leadership. You need to build relationships with them and get them to bring the rest of the team along. Since that first disastrous management role, I have always looked for these leaders and very quickly told them that I am putting my trust in them to help me make the team more successful.

I went through a number of transitions in my thinking:

Tell to Listen

I to We

Being above to Being on the level

Arrogance to Humility

Authority to Vulnerability

Being in front of the group to Being with the team

Driving the team to Batting for the team

This is what we are going to do to How can I help you?

Company goals to Individual goals

Boss to Servant

Going through these transitions is simply good management. Practicing good management earns the manager the leadership role. This was the fourth lesson.

The fifth lesson was that you have to defend your team. I have “been into bat” for my team over pay, grades and conditions and won most of the time. I won because the case for change was good and I followed through. Other managers who had similar situations but who didn’t have the guts to fight were not happy. I have had stand up shouting matches, attempts to discredit me, threats as a result of this. The weak manager is dangerous when cornered — this was the sixth lesson.

I, and the team as a whole, have expectations of each other. We will always aim to be professional. We cover for one another. We deal with problems in the team. We are like a family. What about the organization? This is tied up with being professional which implies delivering the organization’s objectives — this is the only reason for the team to exist. Failing to meet these objectives is the team’s biggest internal threat. The team will not protect a member that threatens its existence. It expects the leader to either change that team member’s behaviour or to remove them. The seventh lesson is that the leader protects the team from internal threats.

There are times when the organization’s existence and the current form of the team are not aligned. This may mean moving people out. In one role had to fire 12 architects because we were restructuring. My approach was to talk to each one and find out their aspirations. They were clever people, they knew what was happening. I eventually placed 11 of them in alternative roles within the organization; every move was a good move. Only one person left and went on to another organization. The eighth lesson is that the leader “bats for the team” even when managing them out.

There is a difficult balance in all of this. With the team on a day to day basis, you are a team member whose responsibility it is to represent the team to the organization. The organization sees you as the boss in control of a set of resources with a set of objectives to achieve. These views will come into conflict and it will be tough. You have to recognise when changes need to be made. You must not be seen as a wrecker who is just protecting his team — if that happens then you will lose all upward influence. This is the ninth lesson.

Get out there!

Enterprise architects are often accused of “living in ivory towers”. They complain that their work is ignored. Architecture teams have their numbers cut, they are abolished, their staff are scattered around the IT function to “where their skills can be applied usefully”, and architects can be seen as an expensive luxury that adds little value. A good concept that fails to deliver!

A good enterprise architect invariably has significant practical experience at the sharp end of systems development, service delivery, or in the business. Good architects maintain contact with their roots and they develop new ones. This is critical to the execution of architecture work – and we must always remember “architecture is pointless without impact”.

An enterprise architect must have a range of practical skills covering data, applications, infrastructure and the business that they deliver to. The key here is practical. An architect achieves delivery through others. Those others must understand and respect the architectural insight. This means that architects must have credibility when they advise on decisions and implementation.

The foundations for achieving this are experience, sound understanding of the principles, up to date knowledge, well worked through advice and good communication skills.

However, there are other key activities that we have to work at continually:

  • Get out there in the business – I am out at the sharp end of the business at least once a month and I encourage my team to do the same. We need to see the reality of the people who make the money or deliver the service. We need to talk to them and understand their day to day problems. We need to understand the opportunities for improving performance where it counts. We need to observe the impact that our architect work has on real people. We need to see how we have succeeded or failed. Our conversations with business managers and in IT will then have more credibility.
  • Get out there in IT – What is good for the business is good for IT. But here the opportunities to get involved and help are much greater. As architects, we have information, skills, knowledge and tools that can help in development and service delivery. We can take complex problems away and let development and service delivery team focus on their core tasks. If we offer to take a problem away then we must deliver, we must deliver on time, we must deliver a solution that is easy to take on. If we fail then we lose credibility. If succeed then we have people willing to follow our guidance. We also have advocates.
  • Get out there amongst the managers – I want my architects talking to the Head of Internal Audit about business continuity. I want my architects talking to board directors about new operating models. I want my architects talking to the Strategy Director about new lines of business. I could take the credit; I could be in the meetings. But it is my team that deliver; it is my team that need the day to day relationships to be more effective. My team has a lot more bandwidth and capability than I have. My role is to facilitate their involvement, build their business and interpersonal skills, back them strongly when the going gets tough, help them to understand the politics, make sure that the whole team is coordinated, and to support and mentor them so they are effective.
  • Follow through to delivery – Don’t walk away when the concept, the options or the high level design has been communicated. If you do it will be misunderstood, corrupted, its integrity will be violated, or it will be discarded. However well you communicate, no one understands your ideas better than you do, and no one is more committed than you are. When you walk away and your advice falls apart, it is not because it was bad advice. It is usually because it lacked interpretation in the light of reality; it lacked a nuance that you could not have foretold. You needed to be there to make a small adjustment. You needed to be there to say “not in this situation”. You needed to be there to make sure that the job was completed properly. When your advice has been delivered to the business and is achieving benefits then you can move on.
  • Be available – You can schedule yourself into meetings, and take a formal part in projects to get you out there. But you also need to be available when other people want you. There needs to be slack in the schedules to allow informal contact, there needs to be a service culture amongst the architects. We don’t mind if you drop by any time, we are not too busy to build relationships. We have 30 minute “surgeries” every morning for anyone who wants to turn up and talk.
  • Be flexible – In order to get out there, we need to be flexible. Architects needs to cover for each other, architects need to shuffle the workload amongst themselves as a natural way of working. It is critical for me that the team is a self managing team. I set priorities, the team organise the workload to meet the needs without heavy planning.
  • No silos – I got rid of job titles such as “project architect”, “data architect”, “infrastructure architect”, we only have enterprise architects. Everyone has a focus and I try to align this with aptitudes, interests and capabilities. But I expect everyone in my team to be credible cover for everyone else, my role is to grow the skills to accomplish this.