The People Managing Part of Managing

Many conversations among many public HR professionals (I’m sure this holds true for private sector HR professionals as well) rarely fail to mention in frustration some of their program managers who don’t like, don’t want to, or just can’t do the people management piece of their jobs.  They were great nurses, engineers, biologists, investigators, programmers, case workers and so on. But when they were promoted to become managers they struggled with the people managing piece of their jobs. They generally don’t like to set clear expectations for their subordinates, nor do they like following-up on what they need to follow-up on, hold their subordinates accountable, evaluate performance, and any and all of the legwork a manager really has to do in order to be a successful people manager.  They appear to expect their employees to learn or develop by osmosis, so they don’t actively train or coach.  They, however, typically like their technical program duties which they will do to the detriment, and sometimes as an escape or refuge from, their people management responsibilities. 

But why do they become managers?  Well, that is the sure way to get more money and prestige.  They may also think, initially, that they can handle the “soft art” of people management because they expect their subordinates to share their professional attitude and zeal.  They may even deal with some issues for a while, and even contact their HR departments for help.  But when HR emphasizes to them time and time again the importance of documenting important conversations and events, setting expectations, following up, reviewing performance, reprimanding, and so on they generally scale back their HR engagement. They may at first even question HR’s understanding of the day to day activities associated with managing a program.  But later, they typically stop contacting HR altogether because they know what they are going to be asked to do, and they subsequently retreat to the comfort of their program activities ignoring their people management issues.  This can go on for a while, or even for years, as the manager continues to avoid dealing with the people management issues.  Problem employees often sense the uneasiness the manager displays and they escalate their behavior. Other employees feel the manager is not taking care of problems and they resent having to do not only their work, but that of others who seem to be getting away with murder. 

A breaking point eventually arrives.  That point can take any one of several forms: Other employees go to the union or the manager’s manager or HR, good employees start leaving the agency or the department or section, work product deteriorates to the point noticed by stakeholders, some employees charge harassment or discrimination (because they are given more work than others), the list can go on. At that breaking point, the working relationships are in shreds and may be irretrievably damaged and pressure may be on the manager to exit.  Or, it may be just the wake up call the manager needed to start people managing.  That latter scenario is rare:  Managers who don’t like the people management piece of their job are seldom reformed.  Most HR professionals spend most of the time in these situations trying to contain the damage.  Good HR departments with strong training components can provide some tools and support for struggling managers who want to do better, but this is seldom effective if it is not done proactively.

The most important proactive way to avoid such situations is to make sure organizations hire good people managers by instituting or maintaining robust selection regimes that are designed to make appropriate hiring or promotional decisions. But in this age of severe budget cuts, the most negatively affected areas are the very areas that would mitigate this problem: Recruitment and Training. The realistic outlook is there will always be program managers who don’t like, don’t want to, or just can’t do the people management piece of their jobs.


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