Steven Covey wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and we all know he is the pin-up boy for effectiveness. Colleagues, managers and peers love to quote frequently from his book. I’ve read it and it makes a lot of sense. But what I’ve found is that in workplaces in particular (the ones I’ve worked in anyway), Highly Effective People are often the exception rather than the rule. What is a more common occurrence is having to deal with Highly Useless People or HUPs. You know the ones I mean, and they come with a number of frustrations, particularly if you are someone who just wants to get on with things with the minimum of fuss and bother, someone who—you know—who likes to be productive.
1. All they do is talk, talk talk
Have you ever been to meeting or had a conversation with someone and there was a lot of talking and not much doing? A lot of promising and no delivering? Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah. In one place I worked, I had the “joy”of working with a highly paid project manager (a contractor and—I hate to say it—expendable) who loved to talk. What’s more he loved talking “high level” and “conceptual” (and he actually used those words in his sentences… a lot). He loved drawing confusing diagrams of his “high level” and “conceptual” ideas, and he often took these diagrams into meetings and talked to them, but no one knew what the hell he was on about. Instead, eyes glazed over and people tuned out. So how did this project fare under his leadership? Well, it was already struggling after a merger and a reorganisation of the business, and this particular project was set back a good six months—time it couldn’t afford. Of course, I did raise the issue with the powers that be—and I was not alone in my opinion—but it took them another three months or so to let him go.
2. Their words have no substance
Actually, what they say sounds like English, but they don’t really say anything. Or they utter words that sound really nice (don’t get me started on values… they are corporate propaganda and the handiwork of the devil as far as I’m concerned), but their words don’t match their actions. You know what I mean. The Chief Executive who says how important her staff is, and then refuses to invest in their professional development. Human Resources Managers who promise confidentiality and then discuss a sensitive matter with all and sundry. The corporate edict that declares “People Matter” and shows, by their collective corporate actions, that people, in fact, don’t matter at all. Not one jot. This sort of behaviour is rife in Australian workplaces, particularly in times of change and ensuing chaos. Values are plucked out of thin air, plonked into corporate plans and rolled out to the masses via workshops, or similar. Those who dare offer an alternative opinion are silenced in any number of ways… redeployment, redundancy, contract not renewed, promotion denied, even bullied. To be honest, I have no idea how some people sleep at night… but they do say that the higher one goes up the corporate ladder the more likely one will encounter a sociopath or two.
3. They have no strength of character
Character and integrity are qualities that separate the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the exceptional from the mediocre, the trustworthy from the devious. I’ve found that a person with character and integrity shines; they stand out from the crowd because they are exemplary. Australian politics is where you see a disappointing absence of character and integrity, although leaders and managers in Australian workplaces are often in a race to the bottom in this regard—in my experience anyway. Bronwyn Bishop—current Speaker of the House—is a politician who immediately springs to mind as someone in desperate need of an moral/ethical recalibration. She of the unjustifiable, tax-payer funded “entitlements”, Bronnie not only refused to apologise to the Australian people (she belatedly apologised a week or so later) but thought that paying back the money would fix the problem. Of course, it’s unacceptable to rort entitlements (even if it is “in the rules”), but she’s entirely missed the point. In times of economic strain, when politicians are asking their constituents to tighten collective belts, it’s obscene that a politician should take a $5000 helicopter ride to a destination that was only an hour away by car. This choice, this behavior, this “lapse in judgement” shows a complete lack of character and absolutely no integrity. And that’s what people are outraged about, and that’s why this issue won’t be disappearing any time soon.
4. Chaos reigns supreme
Any one who is familiar with neuroscience and how the brain responds to perceived threats or rewards will know that decreasing or increasing uncertainty is a major determinant of whether people thrive—or not—in certain environments. There is much that can be done to ensure our workplaces are more brain-friendly and less about people operating in survival mode. Planning, communication, certainty: things we often don’t get in businesses, but that we desperately need to be productive, engaged and motivated. I’m trying to work out if it’s because people don’t have the skills or can’t be bothered or don’t want to be accountable, but chaos and uncertainty are ruining our workplaces. It’s not hard to put a six month plan together, or firm up positions (if they are contracting or temping) or write a few guidelines and procedures. Fewer last minute, havoc-producing, knee-jerk reactions. And yet, it’s something that often falls by the wayside because we are all too busy surviving the chaos that our workplaces have become. Restructures, reorganisation, expansion, contraction, implosion. People who are unafraid to provide certainty are to be applauded and celebrated, because they are rare beasts.
5. They can’t make tough, sensible decisions
They say that a decision is better than no decision, but a weak or a poor decision is as bad, if not worse, than a decision that hasn’t been made at all. And a bad decision that needs to be reversed and isn’t, is probably the worst kind of decision of all. It’s organisational death by a thousand paper cuts. Fear and ego come into play here. Someone who won’t make a decision is afraid: they are afraid of the consequences of a making wrong decision. Someone who won’t reverse a decision is worried about how he or she is perceived, and is concerned they will appear weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tony Abbott, for example, is steadfast in his support of Bronwyn Bishop and it will come back to bite him. A tough decision on Bronnie (instead of the soft option of probation he has touted) would considerably improve his credibility. Instead, he is seen as a weak and ineffective by the Australian people. I have worked in places where managers who flip-flopped on decisions had a direct impact on staff morale. No one knows where the goal posts are, or if they do, they keep moving. Talk about a productivity killer. And I’ve been in workplaces where a firing decision needed to be made and wasn’t, with disastrous effects. And where bullies needed to be dealt with and weren’t…
6. They will run for cover
When the going gets tough, the tough get going… except if you are a HUP. Instead, you are more likely to run and/or hide and/or blame someone else. And who hasn’t witnessed this kind of finger pointing in the workplace? Rather than taking responsibility and saying: Oops! My bad! And here’s what I’m doing to fix it, someone else—usually with less power and hence a limited ability to formulate a credible rebuttal through no fault of their own—is blamed. I know of managers who have been absent for days (where are they? Who knows?) while their staff scurry around frantically trying to put out forest fires. By the time these managers return to their corner office, the crisis has been averted. Or it’s increased into a catastrophe and those very staff who were trying to contain the damage were hauled over the coals for their efforts. It’s not just managers who do the run and hide. Peers and colleagues do as well. Task not completed on time? Blame the admin staff. Budget overspent? Blame the finance people. Scheduled to help with an “all hands on deck” task? That’s what sick days are for. Or they just don’t respond to emails. Or attend meetings. It’s a mind boggling display of passive-aggressive behaviour at its finest.
7. They will hang you out to dry
Have you ever been “volunteered” to work on project or a piece of work (i.e. you’ve had no choice in the matter) but then had no support from the person who volunteered you? A few years ago, I was asked by my manager to help facilitate a leadership session because I “had the skills” to help it zing along. I was happy to do this particular task because I thought it would lead to greater visibility and promotional opportunities (yeah, right). I worked with this particular group of leaders, had a couple of successful sessions and was then asked to a leadership meeting—which included the Director—to explain the outcomes and the “where to from here”? My manager—the one who originally volunteered me for the task— was there, and smiled encouragingly at me while I was presenting to the rest of the group. He faded into the background when the Director said (and I’m paraphrasing): That’s all well and good, but why is Diane presenting this material? She’s not part of leadership team. Of course, the subtext was: get back in your place, little girl… who do you think you are? You’re not part of this elite group! I looked at my manager, expecting an explanation, support… something… anything! But he refused to meet my glance and was strangely silent. So I exited that meeting as gracefully and in as dignified a manner as I could. I never, ever forgot how that made me feel. Needless to say, the relationship between my manager and I deteriorated rapidly after that because, quite simply, I couldn’t trust him. And would it surprise you to learn that he hung me out to dry at least once more after that?
8. They think only of themselves*
Arrogance and ego falls into this category, as well as vested interests and an overblown sense of entitlement and importance. I worked (although I couldn’t actually work with him) a project manager (another contractor) who was always right… even when he was wrong. He was arrogant and completely lacking in emotional intelligence. Whatever I said caused him to become über defensive, so much so that I couldn’t talk to him without the discussion getting rather heated. He refused to listen to reason and experience, so I refused to deal with him. I excused myself from any conversation with him because it stressed me out so much. Another manager—a case where ambition exceeded ability—loved her personal assistant… and her office… and the salary and the prestige that accompanied her title. She lacked any ability to think strategically and had zero empathy. She pretended reasonably well though, and seemed quite mild-mannered and approachable. No one liked dealing with her because if she was challenged about a decision she’d made, she’d have a temper tantrum. It was unpleasant and unprofessional. I’ve found though, that is it rare for someone to knock back a role or a job—where more money is involved—on the basis that they admit to not having the skills, knowledge or experience to take on the role in the first place…
I find it endlessly fascinating that—as someone who works in learning and development—I know how much is spent on management and leadership in Australian workplaces. It could repay the debt of a small African nation. Several African nations. Why our workplaces aren’t joyful, thriving places of innovation and empowerment that encourage a diversity of views is an eternal unsolved mystery of the universe. Things should be much better than they are. Personally, I think the organisation—as it currently stands— needs to be completely reinvented. Of course that will never happen, because it would mean people would have to give up their power and vested interests. Still, I live in hope. Maybe it will happen when women eventually inherit the workplace… although, in my experience, an incompetent female manager is just as bad as an incompetent male one…
*You’re right. I can’t count!
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