By Delan Bruce
For many team leaders, managers and executives, 2020 started off fine. Then the pandemic happened—and kept on happening.
It has thrown daily life, including business, into disarray. For 1 in 4 U.S. workers, the pandemic has rendered the physical workplace off limits. So how can managers create a positive and collegial virtual office, where everyone not only endures the COVID-19 crisis but can find ways to flourish? How do they create a safe space where employees can ask positive questions, such as “why?”
Samuel Culbert, a professor of management and organizations at UCLA Anderson School of Management, has been studying management and organizations for half a century. Over the years, he’s consulted with scores of big clients, from Starbucks and Johnson & Johnson to the National Institutes of Health and the International Vaccine Institute.
“Good management is tough to get,” Culbert admits. But his insights, including those in his latest book, 2017’s “Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions,” can ensure those good intentions are backed up by good practices. He offers the following 10 tips:
1. Keep in mind that during the pandemic, everyone is insecure. People are worried about their health. They feel socially isolated. Some are overwhelmed by events taking place in the lives of loved ones. Many are worrying about keeping jobs and incomes. Parents are distracted by what their children might need while attending school remotely.
Culbert urges managers to recognize that everyone needs something unique in terms of support and understanding—particularly on issues they’re not inclined to bring up on their own. “The manager’s job is staging for others to perform at their best,” he says. “They need to ask reports, ‘What do you need from me? How can I help?’”
2. To gain trust, promote authentic conversations and communication. Recognize that a trusting relationship is the most effective managerial tool you can have. Culbert says: “Tune into your unpretentious self. Share a bit about your own challenges, drop airs of managerial superiority, relax the protocol, ask questions, and then be quiet and listen long enough for the person’s complete answer. Make it possible for people to say what they imagine you don’t want to hear. Isn’t someone telling you ‘I don’t know how’ preferable to receiving an ‘I’ve got this covered’ response and then getting a disappointing result?”
Straight-talk relationships are critical in organizations, but Culbert finds “bull—- is the communication etiquette of choice.” The author of the well-received 2008 book “Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-Talk at Work” would know. He says, “Someone telling a lie has to first think about the truth, as they know it, and then say something else with the intention to deceive. But with bull—-, a person doesn’t reflect on the truth they know; they merely think about what the other person needs to hear to support their agendas. Information gets exchanged, and advocacies get pushed, but it takes a different kind of give-and-take to make decisions for the best of the organization.”
3. In a world of self-interest, don’t just think about your interests, but also think about what your two-party relationships need to sustain and develop. Think, “What does the relationship need from me?” Be mindful that one of the main areas of self-interest is maintaining good relationships with colleagues. Those relationships can help managers succeed today and tomorrow.
4. Focus on results, and practice two-sided accountability. The manager holds reports accountable for getting good results, while the manager stands accountable for making sure employees have what they need to get results. In other words, the manager has skin in the game. Managers shouldn’t succeed while employees fail. Two-way accountability is the ideal platform from which managers and employees can work together to deliver the best outcomes for the company.
5. Stop expecting employees to work the way managers think they should be working. “The objective is to help people get work done, not to control how others perform their work,” Culbert says. “To understand what’s going on, the manager needs to comprehend the employee’s thinking and reasoning and know what skill sets the employee has to deploy.”
6. Don’t measure others based on the manager’s personal standards. Culbert advises, “Ask yourself the following questions: Why is that person doing what I would never do? What are they trying to accomplish, and why does it make sense to them to do it this way? How is this person construing the situation for personal success?”
7. Managers can’t hassle people about their imperfections—those aren’t going away. Everyone is imperfect. The manager has to join in and understand the framework within which the other person is operating and look out from there.
8. Be inquisitive about the mindsets of employees, then play to their strengths. Don’t assume anything. Keep in mind everyone has different needs. Being an effective manager requires a huge amount of inquiry.
9. Use “I” speak, not the third person. “I feel” and “I think” leave room for the other person to express their perspectives and different points of view. Everyone is working within a different mental framework that deserves appreciation and demonstrations of respect.
10. Listen to people on the front lines who are doing the work, whenever possible. “I was part of an international consortium of activist social scientists, business leaders, humanists and politicians called the Quality of Working Life movement, which thrived in the 1960s and ’70s before gradually losing momentum,” Culbert says.
The movement advocated melding technology with social needs, giving workers a voice in ensuring good management, participation in designing their jobs and autonomous work groups, where people were encouraged to learn one another’s assignments and function without regular supervision.
“It’s possible that these concepts may be reinvented out of necessity now,” he says. “The manager’s need to know and the distance from the activity have tremendously increased. There are not enough hours and there’s not enough access to watch what someone is up to or what a work group is creating. So maybe out of necessity, this will evolve into a cultural change. I’m all for that.”
• Delan Bruce in an associate editor at UCLA Magazine, where this piece was originally published.