THE CARDINAL SINS OF MANAGEMENT: 2. ABANDONING SHIP

Cardinal Sin number two — Abandoning Ship — is a close relative of rejecting blame but is, in my experience, sufficiently different in its dynamics and insidiousness to warrant a separate discussion.

Picture a lively meeting between a manager and his or her staff.  Collectively they have a challenging work-related problem to solve and they are discussing various alternative solutions.  In time, two approaches emerge as having the most potential for resolving the problem.  But the manager finds herself or himself in favor of option one, while the staff is strongly inclined toward option two.  The discussion continues for a while but it becomes clear the two sides are to remain apart.  What next?

Clearly the manager, as boss, can simple say “we are going to do it my way”. He or she will be held accountable for the outcome and thus it is perfectly acceptable for them to make the call.  The staff will likely feel a bit disgruntled but they did have their say.

However, suppose our manager at some point, throws up his or her hands and says something like this”  “OK, I’m tired of all this arguing.  Enough!  Have it your way.  We’ll go with option two but I know it isn’t going to work and just remember, I told you so”. End of meeting and end of discussion.

What has just happened here?  Does our staff of subordinates feel empowered?  Or do they feel abandoned ?  Does our staff believe their boss will join them in making a full effort to make option two succeed?  Or do they most likely suspect that he or she will silently remain on the side lines, secretly rooting for the entire effort to fail?  In the long run — for the sake of group cohesiveness — would it have been better for the boss to simply have insisted on option one, rather than take the course he or she did?

This latter hypothetical situation is an example of what I refer to as a manager’s Abandoning Ship.

When a manager invites her or his subordinates to join them in discussing how to address a problem, a partnership relationship between them is clearly implied.  Although the manager may choose a course of action that is not universally supported by the entire staff, he or she will nevertheless — in exchange for having been consulted — invariably expect the staff to try their best to make that decision work .  Our manager will not appreciate sabotage or slow rolling.

Subordinates similarly expect the same total commitment from the boss when he or she has given the blessing of their authority to a course of action they — collectively or individually — wish to pursue.  Luke warm, passive, indifferent, or non-existent involvement mocks the notion of a partnership.  It is, in the long run, better for a manager to withhold permission entirely.

I appreciate that I have written the above example in somewhat dramatic terms, while in the real world of work the act of a manager’s abandoning ship is usually more subtle.  But subordinates intuitively know when it has occurred, when they are on their own, and when they alone will need to bear the full burden of making something succeed.  Moreover, if that something fails, they know that the manager will point the accusing finger squarely in their direction.

Because of the destructive nature of this passive aggressive managerial behavior on a work unit’s ability to function as a partnered team, I have always been a bit baffled by the occurence of this  Cardinal Sin.  Even worse, in the eye’s of a manager’s superiors, he or she will be held accountable anyway for any outcome — whether they stood on the side lines or not — so why not put the full weight of a managers influence behind achieving a success.

As a manager, it is always better to simply say that “it’s my call, I’ll be held accountable, so we will do it my way” and deal with any subordinate irritation that creates, than to undermine your authority and trust by seeming to acquiesce, then cast your subordinates adrift without your participating support.  The best managers always put their full personal support and effort behind every decision the make.

Few subordinates will put up with — or work with — an abandoning manager for longer than necessary.  And even fewer competent senior executives will view such behavior by a junior manager as qualifying them for senior management responsibility.

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