Managing People Is Hard – This Is Why

It’s always been hard to manage people. It is much harder today than ever before, and it’s getting harder every day. Here's why.

Training Magazine- management

Globalization and Technology

Let’s start with globalization and technology. The pace of change is accelerating for everyone—from the macro-level down to the micro. In today’s knowledge-driven, machine-powered, highly interconnected, fiercely competitive global marketplace, everything is complex, fast-moving, and always in flux. Work that used to take weeks must be done in moments. Relationships that would have been nearly impossible due to geography are now taken for granted. Communication and travel are almost instantaneous.

Yet we are also vulnerable in entirely new ways. One technical glitch today can slow down (or shut down) your operation for days or weeks at a time—not just in your machines, but in machines who-knows-where with which you had no idea you had any connection whatsoever. An earthquake on the other side of the world today—actual or metaphorical—could affect you in ways you probably cannot even imagine, including ways that didn’t exist yesterday. Not to mention your customers, vendors, contractors, partners, colleagues, and counterparts in other departments and workgroups.

Everybody is under more pressure. The corporate order of the day is to run ever more lean and flexible. Squeeze more and more productivity and quality out of tightly controlled resources—Chase innovation and technology to keep from falling behind. Manage talent as a capital (depreciating) asset in the wake of a profound transformation in the fundamental employer-employee relationship. After decades of constant downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering, nobody expects to pay their dues and climb the corporate ladder.

Job Security

Job security has been dead for some time now. The default presumption of long-term hierarchical employment relationships has been replaced by a new presumptive career path built on a growing portfolio of short-term transactional employment relationships of varying scope and duration.

Never forget that most employees work because they must. They work to support themselves and their families. Most are pursuing some intermediate and longer-term security, but today that plan is rarely contingent on a long-term relationship with one particular employer. Very few employees now look at one employer as a primary source of their long-term career security, much less their long-term economic security.

The problem is that the promise (implied or even explicit) of long-term vesting rewards from employers is no longer enough to get employees to perform today. Employees are less willing to follow orders, work harder, and contribute their best today for vague promises about what they might get in five years or ten years. Who knows where they’ll be in five or ten years? There is too much uncertainty.

Employees today want to know, “What do you want from me today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year? And what do you have to offer me in return today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year?”

Managers today are always in danger of losing good people. People come and go. People move around internally. These factors militate against continuity in working relationships. Sometimes those who are least likely to leave are the hardest to manage. Everybody is a particular case.

Managing people has become an ongoing (sometimes daily) negotiation. That is high maintenance!

At the same time, like almost everybody else, most managers are being asked to do more with less. They have more of their nonmanagement tasks and responsibilities, increased administrative burdens, and growing managerial spans of control, often including employees working in different locations or on different schedules and depending more and more on people in other workgroups and departments. With so much resource and process streamlining, there is growing interdependency in almost everybody’s work. Everything we do now involves a lot of moving parts. We depend on so many other people all the time.

Meanwhile, as always, everybody involved is human. People have feelings. That’s a significant consideration for everybody involved.

There are so many factors beyond anyone manager’s control. Maybe it feels like our problems have outgrown the fundamentals. Our situation is too complex. Our challenges are too advanced. Most managers convince themselves that the fundamentals are no longer enough or don’t have time.

When managers build and maintain high-quality one-on-one dialogues with their direct reports, they almost always increase employee performance and morale, increase retention of high performers and turnover among low performers, and achieve significant measurable improvements in business outcomes.

The Good News

Here’s the good news: They spend less and less time firefighting. They get ahead of the problems and prevent the fires. They break the vicious cycle. They start getting their management time back. Then, if they don’t slip up on the fundamentals, a virtuous upward spiral begins to build.

How do you break free from the vicious cycle? Those regular one-on-ones are your fire prevention, preparation, and training. That’s where real impact occurs. Not in the crucial conversations but rather in the routine discussions. First, you need to make those regular conversations much, much better.

As a manager, do you want to stop agonizing? Do you want to stop struggling? Do you want to sidestep one crisis after another? Do you want to get the most out of your people? Do you want to master the seemingly most challenging management relationships quickly?

I teach managers to do what the very best managers do: Build and maintain an ongoing, regular one-on-one dialogue with every person you manage to:

  • Make expectations clear
  • Track performance and provide constant candid feedback
  • Provide support, direction, troubleshooting, and guidance
  • Make accountability a process, not a slogan
  • Recognize and reward in line with performance

That’s it. Highly structured, highly substantive one-on-one dialogue.