Mary is an established member of her team, with good social and professional relationships with her co-workers. Her boss has managed the unit with a fair degree of success (neither perfect nor imperfect), and everyone knows where the boundaries are and what is expected of them.
Boss moves on with fond farewells. New boss Sarah arrives, with her own way of doing things. Mary feels put out by the changes, and wants to carry on working as before. She complains to colleagues about the changes, and starts to campaign with them that they should not implement them. She tells her colleagues that many of the changes are pointless and will not work, and she will not participate in them. When a colleague tells her "Sarah’s the boss, why not just do what she says?" Mary turns on her heel and laughs. Although Mary is a valued member of the team, her campaigning is making life very difficult for her new boss. The team is dividing into ‘pro Sarah’ and ‘pro Mary’ camps. Mary talks about "I was here first", and "it worked well before"
Sarah was a very popular boss with her old team, and she is well liked by some of the new team. She is very approachable, regularly buys drinks for everyone in the pub, and is willing to bend the rules to help her team members, letting them go home early if needed. Standards are slipping a bit – the old boss was a stickler for detail, whereas Sarah is more of an overview person. No-one from outside would notice the difference, but old team members shrug their shoulders and pick up the slack. Sarah doesn’t seem to know.
Why is it we are so bad at change
Planning for change, or accepting changes that are not planned, is something few us are willing or able to do.
Sarah went into a new team without a clear plan for how she would evaluate whether change was needed, communicate that change, implement it, and monitor it. She just did what worked well in her old team.
Mary did not expect any change except for the name of her boss. When faced with change she resisted it all.
If the team is lucky there will be a natural mediator on the team – one of those wonderful people who are the glue that really make the workplace work. We need someone to say to Mary: "The boss is the boss. Unless it is dangerous, or illegal, it is her job to say what we do. If you think it is inefficient or there are better ways, have a quiet word with her and let her know, otherwise you need to do it." And we need someone to feedback to Sarah that she is changing how things are done (she may not be aware of it), and that she needs a process for bringing people along with her and for dealing with Mary.
How many HR specialists does it take to change a light bulb?
That depends on whether you want to keep the light bulb.
Sarah could have a useful learning experience that will enhance her skills and make her next promotion easier, or she could struggle with Mary and slowly begin to fail – she could get stuck here. Mary may even accuse her of bullying, as Sarah repeats the same instructions over and over again and Mary gets progressively more isolated from her team.
Mary can learn how to handle change and difficult situations. Or she can campaign against her boss, and sooner or later she will find herself with no promotion prospects, and quite possibly no job. Mary can feel bitter that her lovely job was ‘stolen’ from her by this awful manager – an attitude that may affect her life at home as well as at work.
It’s not a big deal to help new managers put together a system of ‘raising the bar’ so that they can change the way a team works. It’s not such a big deal to help Mary (at an early stage) to work out the difference between changes she needs to give feedback on, and those that are not really something to worry about.
So where were HR when all this was happening? They were busy with other important things. They had not routinely touched base to see how this team functioned. Of course, when Mary claimed she was being bullied, and Sarah claimed she was totally unsupported by management, HR were all over the investigations like a rash. The hours of note taking and decision making meant they were then too busy to touch base with any of their other teams.
Is there a happy ending to this tale? Not really: Mary spent years resenting Sarah, and then transferred to another team. She is not regarded as a popular or successful team member, because she has kept up the habit of complaining about the boss and resisting all change. Sarah never got another promotion in the organisation. She stayed in post for a few years and then got a job outside. She started with her new team in the same way, and is now convinced that people are just awkward and you have to push them harder to get what you want. HR are still doing a lot of paperwork and taking a lot of notes at meetings with unhappy people. No change there then.
Employment law is where the rubber meets the road – where people problems become legal problems and the law intervenes. It can’t make Sarah a better manager, or Mary a more realistic employee. It can’t make an organisation introduce the small interventions that prevent this type of problem What employment law does do is penalise and sanction those organisations who get to tribunal after they haven’t done their part and a legal issue has arisen.
Of course if there are any ‘equality’ or ‘discrimination’ issues here, this turns into a nightmare scenario. Sarah picked on me because I am white, transsexual….. Even in unfair dismissal terms, the process of performance management can be a very long haul if it is started late and from an already-broken situation.
If there were no employment law and the organisation was free to act in any way, would that really solve this problem? To what extent is the very existence of employment law the problem?
To my thinking, employment law, if incorrectly applied, can be a complicating factor, but it’s never the problem itself. Giving long serving employees three warnings and an opportunity to change their behaviour doesn’t seem unreasonable. In this situation would you really want to walk in and just sack Sarah or Mary (or both)?
There is another complicating factor: in many organisations, both performance management programmes and warnings are often seen as the death knell for individuals – simply the start of an inevitable process of ‘managing someone out of the business’. We need to do something to change that – but that’s not an employment law issue, it’s a cultural one.
It’s not employment law that gives us difficult problems. The Sarah/Mary problem is one we get every day, and it has a relatively easy prevention plan, early on. But allow it to fester to the point when employment law becomes an issue, and then you are in for a more painful remedy.
Annabel Kaye is Managing Director of Irenicon Ltd, a specialist employment law consultancy.
Tel: 08452 303050 Fax: 08452 303060 Website: