Are you a callous, unfeeling manager?

Published: Sunday | February 3, 2013 Comments 0

Francis Wade, Columnist

Have you ever cringed as you watched a friend of yours, usually kind and considerate, talk down to his/her helper as if she were less than human?

Or have you ever heard someone explain that the gardener has special cutlery that's 'never mixed with regular cutlery' because 'you don't know where he's coming from'?

Or have you ever seen a manager refuse to pay someone at the last minute before he/she leaves for the day because, 'We are short this month and you just will have to wait'?

These common workplace behaviours pervade employer-to-employee interactions in Jamaica within the smallest households and the largest companies. They are not new; they have been part and parcel of work life since Columbus landed here.

As a consultant, I sometimes have the privilege of turning friends and acquaintances into clients.

I've learned that a sweet individual with a chatty demeanour and nice smile sometimes transforms into something else; when people assume the 'boss' position, they assert themselves and behave differently. They sometimes turn into tyrants.

However, it doesn't seem so to them. They are just doing what bosses do - pay on an irregular basis, replace harsh criticism with honest and direct feedback, and terminate services without warning or explanation.

Now and then an employee might complain, but fear and poverty make most people abandon their principles.

They suck up the abuse as if it were normal; they're hurt, but desperately afraid to 'lose the work'.

In the absence of sufficient feedback, the boss soldiers on, believing that their abusive actions affect neither their reputations nor productivity. But quiet whispers in the hallways tell a different story. The firm's culture records and retells every single instance of maltreatment, and that information, sometimes from many years ago, poisons new hires quickly.

As I mentioned, this behaviour isn't new. The Spaniards who enslaved the Arawaks and eventually wiped them out were cut from the same cloth.

Now and then, I come across letters and diaries from slave owners in 17th and 18th century Jamaica. In one account, a slave owner bemoaned the fact that his slaves took advantage of his pleasant nature. Over time, he regretted, he had to become harsh in order to get better results.

Convincing lesson

Imagine the journey he must have taken from cringing at the sight of a whip to being someone who learned to draw blood just to 'teach the rest of those people' a convincing lesson.

In a few short years, he became callous and unaware of the abuse.

And, in the modern Jamaican workplace, so have we.

Unknown to ourselves, we have done nothing to break ourselves from the same callous, plantation management style that is so startling to outsiders who come to live in Jamaica.

They may keep quiet, but what they see appals them. They aren't satisfied with what we usually tell each other: 'That's how you have to treat these people'.

If, as a manager in a household, church or company, you suspect that you have become callous and unaware, that means that there's hope.

Your suspicion and curiosity mean that you might be open to see for the first time the problems in your behaviour that others recognise. But how can you unveil the truth?

Your employees probably won't raise their hands freely to give you feedback in open meetings, the way they do in other countries. Stop complaining that they should.

To get effective first-time feedback, you may need to employ indirect methods. Surveys, private interviews and focus groups can reveal the degree of your insensitivity.

Also, try watching carefully to see what happens if you read this article to a few trusted insiders. Don't ask them, 'Am I callous?'.

The average employee, contractor or consultant knows better than to answer that question with candour. Instead, use subtlety and ask, 'In what ways have I demonstrated unfeeling behaviour?'

Promise them confidentiality, and then close the door. Listen carefully to what they say. Watch what they deny closely. Observe what they won't mention even though you know it's on their minds.

Draw your conclusions from the words they use as well as their demeanour. Then, get to work to identify your own abusive behaviours in order to free yourself of them and their terrible history.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'. Send feedback to columns@fwconsulting.com.

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