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Voice from the workplace: Why do we mismanage people?

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Voice from the workplace

In a new series looking at an employee’s view of the workplace, we explore the various problems and issues experienced by this member of staff and highlight how HR and management can help to put it right. This week, management consultant John Pope responds to the problem of bad management when handling change.


Introduction by John Pope

I have been a management consultant for so long that I have almost forgotten what it is like to do a ‘proper job’. I have been out of the firing line and watching the battle, sometimes calling for a cease-fire, sometimes getting a peaceful resolution of problems, and bandaging the wounded. And while bandaging, they sometimes tell me how they got hurt and keep getting hurt. I think the voice of the wounded employee – HR’s customer – should be heard.

I have a great friend who I have known for 15 years. I know her to be very well organised, conscientious and knowledgeable. She is of high calibre and could easily have risen to senior management level. As it happens, she stayed home to look after her children and now works part-time for an organisation within local government.

She tells me horrifying stories of bad management. I have a number of them. Here, in her own words, she details her issues for the benefit of managers and HR professionals. You will not get the full scale of her frustrations – she does not want to seem hyper-critical – but I think she has pulled her punches.

Now as managers and professionals, you will be able to identify the issues, the mistakes that have been made and how this unhappy situation could have been prevented. You might also want to comment on how common it is, and above all point out where and how HR could have helped.

The employee’s perspective: Reorganisation and disorganisation

I have been doing the same job for over 13 years and have been subjected to several reorganisations (I think there must have been five) with different job descriptions: receptionist; customer services advisor; customer services officer; customer services advisor (yes, I did mention to the director in charge of the latest reorganisation that this would make us the same as we were before – she hadn’t even realised!)

If anyone in our directorate was asked which directorate they worked for, they would probably have to think very hard because the name had changed so often, and I very much doubt that many would get it right.

Managers have been continually shuffled around, with changing titles and roles. I am not sure they know who and what they are, so how can we expect to? There are always loose ends in every change. We often do not know who to contact as we are not informed of changes in the organisation.

“If anyone in our directorate was asked which directorate they worked for, they would probably have to think very hard because the name had changed so often, and I very much doubt that many would get it right.”

When a clever name was chosen for the new type of service, I told the managers that it would confuse the customers. Of course they didn’t listen and now we get customers for another organisation. They also used a slogan promoting the new service stating: ‘You have the questions – we have the answers’. The project managers were also of the opinion that it was over-promising; we could not possibly know all the answers! The consequence of this was that we get asked anything and everything and we are committed by our ‘capability statement’ to get the answers.

The new name for the new service, now several years old, is still causing confusion. Many staff in the organisation do not know what we are and what we do, so how can the customer? We do regular on-street surveys; when asked what they think about our office they invariably say “who?” We then have to revert to the name they knew us by and then they say, “oh – there!”

A few years ago someone thought it would be a good idea to amalgamate two areas of service. One area of service was particularly unhappy about it and had always been considered to be ‘out on its own’. Various groups were set up (made up of an amalgamation of the two services), and had numerous project group meetings, working together to convince those concerned staff that the amalgamation would be good for the organisation.

The cost implication of all this, with sites spread out across the county and the ‘consultants’ brought in to advise the organisation, must have been enormous. We went through the process and what happened? After months of hard work it was never implemented.

It is not that we are against change; we want to have improvements to our service but the people making the changes often do not have a clue about what it is like, or for that matter understand what we actually do. Most of them have never even worked on the front-line. If they do visit, they exude importance and un-approachability. It rather feels like you are being visited by royalty. How do they expect to get an open and honest reaction from the staff?

Each time it feels as if we are being consumed and regurgitated, and still come out doing virtually the same job but with new titles, new badges – and new uniforms to go with the new branded colour!


John Pope responds

There is no ‘correct’ answer – a lot depends on circumstances, but in general:

Managers:

  • Don’t reorganise unless there are clear benefits which you are certain will be attained. Reorganisations must be justified by more than gut feeling.
  • The manager who recommends the reorganisation must carry it out in person and carry the can.
  • Understand the history of previous organisation and reorganisation – know what has been tried before.
  • Do a proper study, consult widely. Use the cumulative wisdom and experience of the staff. Make sure you get the full story, not the sanitised version. Get the customer’s (internal and well as external) views on the present.
  • Work out the plan, test it in detail. Do it at the right time – not at the busiest time of year.
  • Test the plan with staff – don’t bully them into saying ‘yes’.
  • Get HR in early – check the employment implications. Arrange proper briefing and training of staff beforehand.
  • Make sure that everyone knows about the new organisation and is clear on who does what.

Motto: Don’t make changes blindly.


HR professionals:

  • Be there – not miles away; be there early, don’t wait for an invitation.
  • Be aware of managers’ intentions.
  • Get the staff views privately – they may not want to say them to a bossy manager.
  • Check the implications for collective and individual changes and brief the managers before their plans are carved in stone.
  • Check staffing levels, grades thoroughly, including re-grading issues; warn managers of tricky issues and test their solutions.
  • Test the training plans, the redundancy plans, etc.
  • Be prepared to go over the managers head if you are unhappy about the plans – no, you are not a brake on progress; your role is to help and to reduce the chance of expensive mistakes.
  • Help the managers handle the issues – train before the change, be ready to pick up the pieces afterwards.
  • Check up after the change – how well did the HR planning work?

Motto: Prevention is better than cure.


HR Zone would like to know how you would deal with this situation. Please post your experiences, views and comments below.

3 Responses

  1. Acknowledging mistakes can help to overcome resistance
    I don’t disagree that previous experiences will influence peoples’ view of change. But the resistance needs to be overcome, otherwise there will be a continuing cycle of failed change and disillusioned people. In order to overcome the resistance resulting from previous negative experiences, it is necessary for managers – at whatever level – to acknowledge that they may have got it wrong and then to work with their teams to plan a future change, having first agreed that a change is actually necessary. Accepting responsibility for previous problems can be very difficult, particularly if there is a blame culture in the organisation. But HR staff can play a key role by working with senior managers to create an environment where making mistakes is OK – provided that people learn from them. This can help, in turn, to lead to a situation where people trust each other and their managers, accept the inevitability of change and work together to make a success of it. It sounds simple; it isn’t, but it can work, as I know from personal experience.

  2. Good point but bad experience is often the cause,
    A good point, change is ‘done ‘ to people too often. But much of the resistance to change, and especially reorganization, is a direct result of peoples previous experiences of badly managed changes.

  3. Involving employees in change helps acceptance
    As a recently-retired HR adviser from central government, I have much sympathy with the employee in this sorry saga.

    The fundamental problem with change is that it so often done TO people, rather than done WITH people. Unless people feel they have, at least, some influence over change, however necessary it might be, they are unlikely to go along with it willingly. But if they understand the benefits – or the likely benefits (I don’t believe clear benefits can ever be guaranteed) – and have trust in those leading the change, they are more likely to accept it. HR professionals have a key role to play in supporting people through change, but they should not be expected to take the lead; it is for the managers directly involved to lead, but in partnership with all the people directly affected.

    We have to accept that change is inevitable. Companies have to remain competitive if they are to survive; public sector organisations have to respond to the changing demands of their customers (the public) in the delivery of services. But employees have to understand why changes are being made and what the impact will be on them.

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