During my early working years I was employed in a training role by a top 20 UK Building Society. This organisation wasn’t one of the big boys, but it did have an industry and public persona as being innovative and as having a progressive management style. I say public persona because sometimes, from the inside, the perspective was very different. Some branches performed well against targets and some branches failed miserably. More often than not, the difference was simply down to the leadership style of the branch manager, regardless of gender, age or experience.

I would often get complaints from the branch manager of a poorly performing branch that the staff wouldn’t take any responsibility or accountability for hitting their branch targets. On speaking to the staff, they would invariably say that it wasn’t their job to ‘sell’, they felt awkward being ‘pushy’ with often longstanding customers, and resented being put under pressure to be something they didn’t sign up for by a manager who did not ‘walk the talk’.
In the branches that were performing well, there were no such complaints and the atmosphere was fun and relaxed, whilst still being productive. So what were key differences in these two types of branch, working for the same organisation with the same type of person working in each, dealing with the same range of products and services and often just a few miles apart from each other?
Let’s take a closer look.
Working within an organisation, versus working at an organisation
In well-performing branches, staff were asked their opinions on ways to improve, take on new projects and given accountability. If they made a mistake, they were not told off or criticised but coached to see what they could learn from the experience. These staff members were prepared to take small risks to go the extra mile and were not afraid of responsibility as they knew it made them better versions of themselves
In other branches, I would hear staff being told what to do and when to do it. The importance of the task was not explained, and the staff member had no idea about the impact they were having on making a difference. If they made a mistake they were heavily criticised with comments such as, “I should have done it myself” or “I knew I should have asked (x) to do it”. This made the person feel inadequate and wary of wanting to take any responsibility again. Sometimes I would even hear a manager say, “you’re just like kids you are” to their staff and then wonder why they behaved like children!
Do you have colleagues or staff?
In the performing branches, staff members were regarded as co-workers. The manager understood that they were human and had human type problems that sometimes interfered with their performance at work. The manager accepted that in these instances, the member of staff concerned might need more flexibility and support to help them deal with whatever was going on in their lives at home. The situation with regard to their depleted ‘work-self’ was viewed as being short-term and they were given the respect and time they needed to sort things out.  The fact that they had been supported through a difficult time in their lives meant that they felt gratitude to their manager and the organisation, so building mutually trusting and productive relationships.
By way of contrast, there were strict rules and regulations in force in the underperforming branches. No personal phone calls were allowed, and no flexibility to take breaks, or vary working hours whilst sorting out things like illness in the family. There were no concessions for the school run or sports day. In this atmosphere of zero tolerance, respect between management and staff was non-existent and the unsurprisingly poor working relationship showed up on the bottom line, on the absence chart and in the rate of staff turnover.
A democracy of many versus the democracy of me
Managers who regarded themselves as one of the team, no more important than the cleaner or the trainee were Captains of very steady ships. He or she would make cups of tea, tidy the office, stay behind to word process files which had built up during the day, even buy pizza to celebrate the good times. They worked alongside their co-workers to achieve mutual success.
In other branches, there was a clear hierarchical system in place based on orthodoxy of “I am the boss and you are a plebe”. The achievement of targets in these branches was, apparently, purely down to the manager and no one else. These managers would take all the credit from their superiors with no mention of their staff as a whole, or of specific individuals whose performance had contributed. As far as Head Office was concerned, this branch was a ‘one-man’ show.

Personal performance, knowing what’s expected of you.
In most branches there were clear expectations and procedures in place for dealing with underperformance or unacceptable behaviour.  Every year, these expectations and targets were discussed with each branch staff member and every person knew their role and what was expected of them. If a training need was identified, the individual was given the guidance training and then allowed time to make mistakes whilst practicing and getting to grips with the new learning.
At branches where there was no clear direction or structured dialogue around the problem causing the underperformance, the situation was very different. Communication was either aggressive or passive aggressive, such as sarcasm or put-downs and small issues quickly became bigger problems and eventually full-blown disciplinary matters.  The atmosphere in these branches was divisive and self-destructive and unsurprisingly, these ‘problem’ branches were amongst the poor performers.
Do you nurture an atmosphere of continuous improvement?
Regular feedback, performance reviews and informal reviews were conducted frequently in some branches.  Staff knew what was expected of them and more importantly, received genuine praise and recognition for a job well done. The staff members were confident enough to want to strive for continuous improvement and welcomed regular training opportunities as being part of their own personal development.
At the other extreme, within some branches, performance reviews were either not bothered with at all, or if they were, it was a paper exercise and not regarded with any importance. I sometimes heard of staff being asked to complete their own performance reviews, just to get the ‘paperwork’ done, such was the low regard for both the staff member and their self-improvement.  Consequently, staff had no clear examples to refer back to of what has been achieved well or what their development needs were. These were the same branches where people stayed at the same grade all the time they were there, they were not given promotion opportunities, or any reason to work harder for themselves or the organisation. In these branches I saw many examples of good staff becoming demotivated and lacking in belief in their own abilities.
Knowing your limits as a manager
The manager was self aware enough to know their own strengths and weaknesses. They knew what made them angry, critical, fearful, and anxious and had strategies to limit the impact of these irrational feelings on their management style. They were not afraid to show vulnerability in the office nor too proud to ask for help. These managers were respected and trusted by the team and by their line management and actively asked for feedback on their leaderships style and made improvements where needed
The under pressure manager of an underperforming branch was unaware of how their actions affected their team. They often shouted, threw things across the desk or would even sulk in their office. If not achieving targets it would be, “what are you lot going to do about it?” rather than recognising that they were part of the problem. Having no interest in how they performed as a manager, they believed their management style was good enough as it was and rejected any notion of self-development.
What type of a manager are you, can you recognise the relationship between management style and management performance in your organisation? There is a clear difference between a mediocre manager who gets tasks and a process completed, against a leader who leads his or her team to be the best version of themselves and performs at, or invariably above the expected norms of performance, job satisfaction and self-esteem.
If our staff are fearful, have insecurities and feel they are not good enough, they won’t be pro-active, won’t embrace new responsibilities and won’t put forward new ideas. Those new ideas may just be what your company needs to survive the next 100 years. If you see this happening amongst your staff, consider that they are possibly not taking responsibility because they are scared, of you.
Think about sitting down and having a proper chat. Simply ask questions and listen, you might learn something! (If you haven’t yet discovered the diplomacy tactic of buying pizza, now would be a great time to try it).

 

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