I recently conducted an Employee Engagement Survey Program for a mid-sized high tech firm. As I find in many of the employee surveys I conduct, the results for several of the departments clearly indicated that employees were unhappy with the manager of their department.
I assigned each department head to meet with their employees to discuss their department's survey results and involve people in developing action plans to improve the situation.
I first met with the department heads to discuss how they should conduct these meetings. The obvious question on the minds of several of them was, "How do I handle the elephant that will undoubtedly be in the middle of the room (i.e., that many of the negative results are because they don't think I am doing a good job managing the department.)
HOW TO RESPOND TO EMPLOYEES UNHAPPY WITH YOU, THEIR MANAGER
Let's first consider the options. When employees voice their displeasure with you as their manager, you could:
Think to yourself, "They are just wrong."
Tell them they are free to quit their job at any time.
Hope it will all just pass.
Deny that there is a problem.
Fight back and tell them that they are not doing their jobs well.
The problem with these approaches is that they are just pouring gasoline on an ongoing fire. Obviously a better approach is needed.
Here is the strategy I shared with the department heads. It is counterintuitive but highly effective. It is the approach used by wolves in the wild. Yes, wild wolves.
As shown in the photo below (from WolfHowl.org), when a more powerful wolf attacks, the strategy they use is to become blatantly submissive by rolling on their back, drawing in their paws, and exposing their vulnerable throat and underside.
Now you might think that this provides an opportunity for the dominant wolf to move in for the kill. But what actually happens is that the aggressor just stops and moves away knowing that he is the victor.
WHAT SHOULD THE MANAGER DO?
Now, of course, I did not instruct the department heads to roll over on their backs and expose their necks and bellies when their employees expressed concerns about them. But here is what I did say.
Tell your employees that you recognize they have concerns about your performance as a manager and that you agree you need to do a better job.
Say that you know you are not the best manager in the world and that you want to improve.
Also say that you need their help and ask for suggestions either now in the group setting or in individual meetings afterward.
So, let's stop and think about this strategy. What could go wrong?
- You could lose your credibility as a manager.
I contend that this will increase rather than decrease your credibility as long as you listen to their suggestions and commit to changing your behavior.
- Your employees will use the opportunity to take vicious swipes
at you and make you lose face in front of your department.
I contend that if employees are that angry with you that they would denigrate you publicly, you undoubtedly lost these employees a long time ago. It is time for you to own up to your shortcomings. Don't become defensive or counterattack. Instead, fend off attacks (i.e., criticisms or accusations) by maintaining a stance of sincerity, openness, curiosity, and professionalism. Nod your head, ask for clarification, probe for understanding, and ask for constructive suggestions.
- Your boss might find out.
I would go out of my way to make sure my boss did find out by telling him or her what happened when you fessed up to your shortcomings with employees. It will show that you are sincerely interested in improving and are committed to doing so.
Take a lesson from the wolves. When being attacked by employees, don't become defensive or fight back. Admit that you recognize that you are not the best manager and need to improve. Invite their suggestions. As the wolves would tell you (if they could speak), this will help you to survive and live another day.
(For more information on this topic, read my book published by the American Management Association, "30 Reasons Employees Hate Their Managers: What Your People May Be Thinking and What You Can Do About It." )