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Want to Be a Better Manager? Sweat the Small Stuff

Want to Be a Better Manager? Sweat the Small Stuff

We’ve mastered the art of knowing what’s a big enough issue to require our time and energy, and what we can simply overlook in order not to be weighed down. We’ve read countless articles advising us to focus on the bigger picture, keep our eyes on the prize, and enter into the long game. By focusing on our long-term objectives, we hope to define the path that will help us reach them.

But what if those niggling, everyday pain points we’re trying to ignore are the very things holding us back? The minutiae can be a productivity blocker at best, and at worst, a major drain on workplace culture. This is true at any level within an organization.

Why do we ignore these things? It might be that we don’t think it’s worth wasting our breath on something so small, or we don’t feel comfortable having these conversations at all. But nothing changes without a conversation. Once we master the smaller issues, the bigger ones become much easier.

Leaders – listen!

If you’re part of a senior leadership team, you are undoubtedly focused on the bigger picture. It’s your responsibility to drive business forward. But you are also responsible for your workforce. If you don’t take the time to listen to what’s going on, you run the risk of becoming tone deaf and disconnected.

I worked with the senior leadership team of a multinational financial services company dealing with the aftereffects of this. A senior manager had a team of people working for him, all of whom had made complaints about his behavior. He had an obnoxious sense of humor and did not breed an environment conducive to productivity. Those who made complaints were very specific, noting that he picked on particular individuals, was inconsistent in his decision-making, and clearly had favorites, particularly based on nationality.

Senior leadership’s initial response was, “But he’s hitting his numbers – it’s fine.” Guess what? It didn’t take long until his numbers were dramatically down, because all the good people in his team went somewhere else, and those who were left behind felt dejected and resentful.

[Related: Here's Why Burning Out At Work Can Actually Be The Best Thing For Your Career]

Small things add up to create culture.

Culture is an amalgam of behaviors. It’s not enough to say that you have a great company culture; it must be seen in the behavior of every employee at every level of the business. Sometimes, it’s the seemingly "small" stuff that can really impact workplace culture.

GM’s CEO Mary Barra understood this when she was head of HR, completely overhauling the ten-page company dress code guidelines and reducing it to two words: “Dress appropriately.” Not only did this help reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, but it empowered middle management (the ones who were tasked with upholding the new policy). Barra noted, “If they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can they handle?”

Another example: A mid-sized organization used to get a fruit basket delivered weekly for employees. When this was cancelled, some employees were furious – they felt that they were having a perk taken away from them. Because of other organizational changes, they started to speculate that the business was making cutbacks and was in financial trouble. Of course, it doesn’t take long for this type of talk to take hold in a company, and it can have a detrimental effect on culture.

While this was all going on, not one person simply asked management why they were no longer getting their healthy perk. When someone finally spoke up, management reinstated the deliveries. There was no issue at all, beyond a breakdown in communication. Doesn't that seem unnecessary?

[Related: You Can't Eat Your Culture And Have Your Strategy, Too.]

Time to get personal.

If you directly manage someone, or work with others on a daily basis, there will inevitably be times when you need to bring up less-than-savory issues. If an issue is becoming chronic – someone repeatedly being late, or "jokingly" teasing a colleague – it needs to be addressed. Having conversations of this nature are rarely fun, yet failing to have them not only has a negative impact on business, but does a huge disservice to the person at the center of the issue. It’s far kinder to bring it to their attention, hold them accountable, and give them the opportunity to learn and grow. They will thank you for it in the long run. Your organizational culture will thank you for it immediately.

In some cases, it may not be someone’s actions causing problems, but something of a far more embarrassing nature. I have been paid eight different times to tell workers that they smell bad. Something that seems so inconsequential to the business's bigger picture can prove damaging to teams by isolating individuals. This is not good for culture. We have to acknowledge that this is a difficult conversation for both parties, but the focus is giving the "offender" useful information which will help them in the long-run.

While I wholeheartedly agree that we need to focus on our long-term goals, we also need to understand the web of intricacies that exist in an organization in order to identify the pain points that hold us back. It’s only by having a conversation that we can address them. Without this, nothing changes.

[Related: How Decision-Making Is Different Between Men And Women And Why It Matters In Business]


Dawn Metcalfe is Managing Director at PDSi. PDSi helps individuals, teams, and organizations get even better at what they do.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.