Imagine you’re part of a crew on a large ship. You sail toward your destination, maintaining the ship to the best of your ability. Suddenly, the ship leans to a side, and you almost lose your footing. You look to the helm to see the captain yanking the wheel, announcing a new direction for no apparent reason. But you can’t just turn the helm; you need to adjust the sails, secure cargo, and do many other things to turn the ship. When there’s a disconnect between upper management and the rest of the organization, things go wrong.
If big decisions that affect your work are made without warning, you might throw up your hands and believe that this is just how it is at every company. But that’s not true.
Here’s how to pinpoint upper management mistakes and what to do about them.
The main problems with upper management
Upper management sucks when they lack three of the basic traits for good leadership:
- Good communication: They don’t clearly communicate their strategic goals to the lower levels of the company.
- Understanding team and company needs: They’re out of touch with the problems that line employees face.
- Team alignment: They need to make big changes to the company but haven’t prepared or aligned the teams to what those changes are.
Identifying upper management problems in your workplace
When upper management fails at any (or all three) of the above criteria, the effects are clear. Here’s how to find out where your upper management is failing you:
- Unclear goals: Ask your nearest team member what the company’s strategic goals are. If their answer is “Uh, to sell that thing we produce?” then he or she probably doesn’t know. This is a symptom of poor communication.
- Lack of feedback loop: Think of how often upper management actually solve problems that are most relevant to the line workers and customers? Do they get feedback from team members who interface directly with customers? Compare that to how often they have meetings with other upper management in their secluded conference rooms. If management discussions do not result in strategic feedback loops from other employees, they may be oblivious to the team’s and company’s actual needs.
- “Do as you’re told” mentality: When big changes happen in the company (hello, startup pivots!), how are they communicated to the team before hand? How does information travel from the top to the bottom, and who is it shared with? Was the team involved in planning or did the captain just walk up to the helm and yank the wheel? Sometimes, team members can feel as though the expectation is to keep quiet and do as they’re told, even while they may not understand the reason for the change. If any of this gives you anxiety about your current workplace, then it’s time to think about improving team alignment.
Even though you might care deeply about your work — or about not being miserable at work — dealing with these problems can cripple an otherwise great job. You’re not alone in this, and there are ways to help your situation. Let’s take a look at a few.
What to do if you’re upper management
Think about the issues mentioned above. Are you the cause of any of them? Leadership is a tricky thing, and it can be hard to get it right. Making changes in how one leads takes some serious self-reflection. But rather than getting discouraged, simply follow these steps to fix the problems.
It’s not enough for the captain to know where the ship is heading; the whole crew needs to be informed.
- Clarify company goals and the plan to reach them, so your employees never have to wonder “why are we doing this?”.
- Try to maximize communication with all levels of employees and the number of people you speak with daily and weekly. Use tools to facilitate daily flow of information within your teams.
Stay in touch with your teams’ actual needs.
As important as it is for the ship’s crew to understand the mission of the ship, it’s important for the captain to understand the crew.
- Get to know the temperament of the office. Are people happy? You don’t need to check in with every employee every day to see how they’re feeling, but you should check in on a regular basis. Employees are happier — and work harder — when they know their bosses care.
- Be honest about goals, progress, problems, and how you feel about your team members’ work. Honesty goes a long way towards building a productive work environment. Encourage honest feedback from your team as well, and learn why problems arise or goals haven’t been met.
- Learn to treat your team members individually. Every person is different, and will have different preferences when it comes to communication, work style, and being managed. Teamwork effectiveness will skyrocket if you find the best ways to work with each.
Align your teams to company changes.
One of the hardest jobs a manager has is acting as the go-between for workers and upper management. When it’s your turn to pass along big information (good or bad), here are some tips to follow:
- Make sure that those who need to know the information get it before big moves are made.
- Be honest with your team, even if it’s tough news. Honesty builds trust, and trust will get your team through even the worst of times.
- Use big-picture perspective to help make sense of changes, and to clarify how those changes fit into overall goals.
- Stick to your values. Frame important news in terms of your corporate values to help employees understand decisions.
What to do when you’re NOT upper management
Sure, if you’re in a position of power it may seem simple to make things right. But what happens when you’re just a good little worker bee, and you see these problematic behaviors further up the corporate ladder? Do you just keep your head down and do as you’re told? Or do you try to fix things? If you see signs that your company is suffering from these common management issues, here’s what you should do.
- Broaching the topic
- Start by documenting evidence that you can use to get management’s attention. You’re going to need to convince everyone that there’s an issue before you can start on a solution.
- How to provide feedback upstream (and not get fired)
- Managing upwards may be daunting, but it’s an important skill to have. Good managers are going to be appreciative of this, but remember that not every manager is a good manager…
- Communicate your feedback clearly, concisely, and from a position of respect. Would your boss react better to a well-developed presentation, or something less formal? Think about the best way to get your message across.
- Developing Good Practices
- Start making the changes you want to see in your own team, and let that serve as a beacon for the rest of your company to follow. Corporate cultures have a funny way of embracing stagnation, but when one department starts doing something differently it can cause ripples throughout the entire organization.
Upper management doesn’t have to suck, and when it does, you are not helpless. Identify the problem and tactfully bring it up the chain. Remember: you’re all on the same ship together, and good leadership can get the ship to its destination — while avoiding a mutiny.
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