Fri | Feb 21, 2020

The boss is often the problem

Published:Sunday | August 7, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Contributor

Leaders often ask why people are not more productive, and how to to get them to be more disciplined, time-conscious and concerned about the quality of their work. They usually don't like the answer that I most often give: 'The fish stinks the worst at the head'.

They would rather hear about the latest techniques being used abroad, or the most recent Harvard Business Review article on the topic.

Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff that's discovered abroad needs to stay there because it only makes sense in its original context.

They don't want to hear that they are the cause of the problem.

But there are a few things that all leaders should do regardless of where they are in the world to boost the productivity of their employees.


Back in the Caribbean workplaces of the 16th to 19th centuries, one of the common complaints of slave-owners was that their slaves were lazy.

As we look back, it's easy to understand why.

Yet, today we can hear similar sentiments expressed by supervisors, managers and executives who place the blame for low productivity squarely at the feet of causes that they can't control.

They complain about discipline, motivation, commitment, nationality and even race.

In trying to let themselves off the hook, they ignore the most recent research from authors like Malcolm Gladwell, the writer of Outliers, who argue that high performance has little to do with character, or other intangibles. Instead, it has everything to do with engaging in steady practices that focus on improvement.

This should be good news because there are many things that managers can do to create an environment that promotes certain habits, practices and rituals. Unfortunately, outside of education, sports and music — a few areas we happen to excel in — there exists little or no structured efforts to continually get better.

Ben Franklin, the American philosopher and Founding Father, wrote about his decades-long efforts to improve his writing by engaging in exercises to re-draft the classics.

I have found few managers who are committed to practising the essentials of their craft in the same rigorous manner.

We seem to readily understand that without practice, Asafa and company cannot hope to improve their times.

However, managers around the world have a hard time sparing a day for training, and when they do attend, they often waste it by distracting themselves with their BlackBerrys.

By contrast, most efforts to reform the character of an employee are unsuccessful, no matter how many times the new 'Values Statement' is repeated in meetings. Managers need to focus on shaping observable behaviours and, especially here in Jamaica, give up their fixation on intangibles like 'attitudes'.


Once the emphasis shifts to practising weak skills, improved results are much easier to attain, and demonstrate.

Take the case of newly promoted managers who, by virtue of the new honour, find themselves in a very difficult spot.

They are in desperate need of new skills that are hard to master, especially in the midst of constant pressure to produce results.

Yet, managers typically spend the least time in training, receive hardly any coaching and are expected to perform like mini-executives and uber-employees at the very same time.

And, worst of all, they often don't realise that they are now under a new spotlight.

As they inevitably get off to a rocky start, employees watch closely.

Most take the low road, and engage in defensive routines in order to look good.

The rare few will demonstrate that they need to improve their skills, hire a coach, attend quality training and start tracking their performance over time.

In other words, they take the opportunity to show their employees how to engage in the kind of practice that builds new, observable, measurable skills.

If Tiger Woods can publicly re-engineer his swing every two-three years, then a manager can also publicly lift his/her game via hard practice that everyone notices.

Employees get the message if the manager is transparent - when performance fails, get help by working hard to practise new skills.

It is far better than teaching them to hide their flaws, and to pretend that nothing needs to be fixed.

Francis Wade is a management consultant with Framework