Hiring Decision is Clouded by Urgency

“But, it’s my decision,” Janice tried to explain. “How can you hold my manager accountable for my decision?”

“Who is your coach?” I asked.

Janice stopped cold. Her eyes briefly closed, fluttered. “My manager is my coach,” she replied.

“Prior to your last hire, did you write a role description?” I prompted.

“Well, I used one from HR. It’s an old one, but that was all they had.”

“And, what was your hiring criteria?”

“Well, I was a bit desperate, so I really needed someone who could start immediately,” Janice replied.

“And your coach, what was his hiring criteria?”

“Funny, after it was all over, he said he never would have hired the person I picked. He said the candidate wasn’t strong enough. He said I should have held up a higher standard for the position. Not to be so quick to make a decision.”

“And that’s why I hold your manager accountable for the quality of your decision. He is your coach. He sets the context for your decision. He is the quarterback for this hire. He knows what is really required for success in the role. You are concerned about production. He is concerned about building a stronger team.”

What’s Your Point?
Hiring managers are almost always under the gun to make a quick hire. There is a missing person on the team and the hiring manager is covering the work. Decision making is clouded by urgency. The hiring manager’s manager (the MOR) has clearer perspective on what is really required for success in the role. It is critical for the MOR to step up and be an active coach.

Managerial Acccountability Up the Food Chain

“I understand, that, as a manager, I am accountable for the output of my team,” Janice was trying to make sense of who is accountable. “But my manager isn’t accountable for my output, is he? I thought it was only about our production teams.”

“As a manager, you are accountable for the output of your production team. You are accountable for their work output. Why shouldn’t your manager be accountable for your work output?” I asked.

“But, I don’t do production work, at least, not anymore,” she defended.

“Work is making decisions and solving problems. When your production team has a difficult decision to make or a difficult problem to solve, don’t you jump in and help them through?”

“Yes, because I am accountable for the team’s output. If I don’t help them make the right decision, I am on the hook for the consequence.”

“And you have told me that you are struggling, when it comes to hiring. You have a difficult decision to make. That’s work. What is the output of your decision making?” I prompted.

“It’s either going to be a good hire or a bad hire,” Janice relented.

“And why shouldn’t I hold your manager accountable for the quality of your decision?”

What’s Your Point?

Accountability is not just about production. Managerial accountability goes all they way up the food chain.

  • Supervisors (S-II) are accountable for the output of production.
  • Managers (S-III) are accountable for the output of supervisors (S-II).
  • Executive managers (S-IV) are accountable for the output of managers (S-III).
  • Business unit presidents (S-V) are accountable for the output of their executive managers (S-IV).

So, Easily Turned Away

“There must be a trick to hiring,” Janice announced. “My manager always seems to find good people.”

“You feel your manager is better at hiring than you are?” I wanted to know.

“Better track record. He only hires one or two people a year, and they seem to stick. They are really smart, know how to do the job from the first day, they are confident, in control. How does he find these people?” she grimaced. “I’ve tried, I know how hard it is.”

“Have you ever asked him?”

“Yes,” Janice explained. “He just grins, says I will catch on, and then leaves me to twist in the wind.”

“Oh, really?”

“Once, just once, I wish he would take the time to help me. He just says, your team, your responsibility. But, he sees my struggle. He sees the turnover on my team.”

“So, you are so easily turned away?” I challenged.

“What?” Janice leaned back.

“You know, as a manager, that you are accountable for the output of your team. The same holds true for your manager. He is accountable for your output.”

What’s Your Point
When we understand that it is the manager accountable for the output of the team, everything changes. Janice’s manager is accountable for the quality of Janice’s decision, yet Janice is so easily turned away. This is a two way street. Janice needs help (we all need help and coaching makes us better) and she should actively seek that coaching from her manager.

“I need help. Here is the decision I am struggling with, and here are my two alternatives.” Powerful words.

Why Hiring is Difficult (to get it right)

“Sure, it would be better to know, the first day, if the candidate is going to make it. It’s such a struggle. Agonizing. Sometimes, I want to tear my hair out. Sometimes, I just want to quit,” Janice lamented.

“Tell me more,” I prompted.

“When I became a manager, three years ago, I was all excited. My chance to step up in the world, assume more responsibility. I would have a team that would report to me. I would have respect.”


“That’s not really how it all turned out. I mean, it has its good days and bad days, but hiring people, I mean, hiring the right people is really tough. Seven people over two years. One problem, I don’t do it often enough to get good at it. Do the math, on average, once every four months I have to go back to the drawing board. It’s like starting all over, again,” she explained.

“If you did this hiring thing well, what would life be like, as a manager?” I asked.

“All that I dreamed about when I became a manager,” she replied. “I thought the role of a manager would be uplifting, important. But I always feel like I am down in the weeds. And I can tell, it’s because I don’t have the right people on my team.”

What’s Your Point?
Hiring managers don’t practice enough to get good at hiring (unless they practice). Headhunters practice everyday and they role play with your candidates. They anticipate inane questions in the interview so manicured responses sound elegant. Hiring managers don’t practice enough, so they get fooled almost every time. In what way could the hiring manager spend enough time thinking and practicing to make this a better process? If this job is done well, life as a manager is a wonderful experience.

How Long Does It Take to Know (if a new employee will make it)?

“I’m just not good at this,” Janice explained. “Over the past two years, I have hired seven people on my team. You would think I would get better at picking people, but this last hire is just another example of my inability to figure someone out in the interview process.”

“What is it that you are trying to figure out?” I asked.

“Whether this candidate would be any good for the job,” she replied. “I don’t have a lot of time to train and coach, though that seems to be what I do most of, when I am not engaged in damage control.”

“Damage control?”

“New recruits always screw up. And most of the time, they screw up in front of the customer. Damage control. Then, train and coach. At some point, I figure out, the new recruit is just not suited to the position. I get frustrated, and they either quit or I have to let them go.”

“How long does it take to figure that out?”

“Sometimes, it’s quick, a couple of weeks, but, as a matter of policy, we normally give a new hire the benefit of the doubt during a ninety day probation period,” she sighed.

“In what way could you have a high confidence level in the candidate’s success on the first day they show up?”

How to Get a Team Member to Ask for Help (when they need it)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have a member of my team that works hard and handles day to day tasks well, but, when his plate gets a little too full, I often don’t find out about it until after an issue happens with a client. I do my best to stay on top of his task list and he knows he can always ask me for help, he just doesn’t. Every client has different times where they are busy and times they are quiet so I need my team to let me know when they need additional resources to hit their deadlines. I think not-asking for help is a mixture of pride and a lack of foresight to see trouble coming. As his manager, how can I help make this situation better (without looking over his shoulder all day, every day)?

Little problems, allowed to fester, become big problems. And, as the manager, you would have fixed the little problem (when it was easy to fix) if you had only known.

This situation has several parts to it –

  • The team member’s recognition the problem exists.
  • The team member’s understanding where to go for help.
  • The team member’s mindset (belief) about the problem and the channels for help.

Problem Recognition
As the manager, given the same circumstance, you would have recognized the problem or at least the potential for a problem. Your team member may not see what you see, yet, you rely on your team member to spot the trouble. Spend time with your team, in general discussion, on problem identification. You can start with debriefs of completed projects.

  • What did we expect?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How did we find out what went wrong?
  • How can we recognize something-going-wrong next time?
  • When we recognize something-going-wrong, what can we do about it?

Next move to existing projects and ask the same questions.

  • What do we expect in this current project?
  • What do we do well, what are our strengths?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we find out something is about to go wrong?
  • How will we recognize something is about to go wrong?
  • When we recognize something about to go wrong, what can we do to prevent it?

Channels for Help
These debrief meetings lead into project status meetings. A project going OKAY doesn’t really tell us much. Create some sort of shorthand or code that describes specific states of projects. You can use project stages, color codes, alphabet codes. You pick. Most importantly, identify the code level when the decision is in the hands of the team member and the code level when the decision needs to surface to the manager.

I am suggesting a formal structure that guides your team to ask for help. As the manager, you are currently trusting the team member to make a decision without context. Create a context that provides specific guidelines about when and how to ask for help. Your team can (and will) help you create this context as part of the project debriefs.

Culture is a set of beliefs that provide context for behavior. Without context, the team member will create their own context, which can be misguided to the purpose of the project. Most team members do not think about the future implications of problems allowed to fester. Here are some questions to structure what we believe about the future of the problem.

  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a day?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a week?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a month?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a year?

Ask your team to collectively imagine into the future. It is a powerful way for a manager to get in touch with current mindsets and create a context to anticipate and prevent problems in the future. Change the context, behavior follows.

How HR Can Help Resolve a Conflict

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have a question about how to resolve conflicts between a manager and a team member. Is this a role that is appropriate for HR, or should the conflict be resolved by the MOR (Manager Once Removed)?

I am a big fan of the HR role. HR roles help bring discipline to all those functions that involve humans. And, many times, our problems are created by a lack of discipline.

  • Lack of discipline in the hiring process
  • Lack of discipline in context setting
  • Lack of discipline in the delegation process
  • Lack of discipline in the planning process
  • Lack of discipline in project reviews
  • Lack of discipline in effectiveness reviews

And, where HR can help in discipline, accountability still rests with the manager and the MOR.

You asked about a conflict between the manager and the team member. In all situations, I need more detail, but I assume most conflicts would be about work method or priority conflict. In some cases, there may be a conflict related to underperformance or misbehavior. In all cases, it is still the manager and the MOR who are accountable for resolving the conflict.

If the conflict is about work method or priority conflict, the team member is accountable for giving best advice. The manager is accountable to consider the advice and make an appropriate decision. If the two are still at loggerheads, the manager should seek advice and coaching from their manager (the MOR). Either manager can seek advice from the HR professional, but the manager and MOR are accountable for the decision and the consequence of that decision.

If the conflict is about underperformance or misbehavior, the discussion is different, but the accountability is the same. Elliott Jaques always traced underperformance or misbehavior to one of these four absolutes –

  • Capability
  • Skill (technical knowledge and practice)
  • Interest or passion for the work, value for the work
  • Required behaviors (contracted behaviors, habits or culture)

Elliott would also expect the manager to know which of these four absolutes contributed to the underperformance or misbehavior. The underlying cause might lead to more training, coaching or de-selection.

No matter the resolution, while HR can assist in the discipline of the process, the accountability remains with the manager and the MOR.

How a Manager Creates Context

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We have plenty of time to fight fires but never any time to make a plan of attack and everyone pull their weight. We are a bunch of individuals doing our own “thing” without the total picture perspective. We are the “managers” in the business. But we don’t manage; we fight the next fire, sometimes of our own creation. When other managers are not concerned with how their tactics affect the next process in line, the culture will not change. It’s a culture of, now that my part is done, I wash my hands of the problem and pass it along to the next manager to deal with. No ownership of the problem, so, no solution that benefits everyone. How can the culture change when the people with the culture don’t want to change?

One of the most important contributions for every manager is to create context. No behavior is isolated. ALL behavior exists inside of a context.

Context is a mental state. Wilfred Bion calls this the Basic Assumption Mental State (shortened to BAMS by Pat Murray). If, as a manager, you don’t understand the behavior, all you have to do is get in touch with the Basic Assumption Mental State or the context held in the mind of the team member. What do they believe, in that moment, about the context surrounding their behavior?

If a manager does not create the context for a team member’s behavior, the team member is free to make it up. (Because all behavior exists inside of some context.)

Let me muse about the context of your team members.

  • The most important thing around here is not to get blamed for anything.
  • The most important thing around here is to make sure, if you make a mistake, it does not get connected back to you, that someone else can be blamed.
  • The most important thing around here is that if you make a mistake, make sure it cannot be discovered in your work area, or your part of the process.

If this is what the team member believes (BAMS), what context has been created by the manager that supports those beliefs?

If you want to change the behavior, the manager has to change the context for the behavior. Gustavo Grodnitsky simply says, “Change the context, behavior follows.”

Step one, for the manager, is to determine the constructive context to gain the appropriate behavior. Then make that context visible, by example, by discussion, by observation, by consequence.
If you are a manager, what is the context to gain constructive contribution from your team?

  • Goal – this is where vision statement, mission statements come in. Most are pabulum that do NOT contribute to context that drives behavior. But try this one from Southwest Airlines – Wheels up. That’s it. That’s the context. Everything a team member does should support getting an aircraft quickly (and safely) into the air. Southwest found they make more money when their planes are in the air than they do when their planes on the ground.
  • Accountability – we normally place accountability one level-of-work too low on the team. In describing level-of-work, Elliott Jaques clearly identified the manager as the person accountable for the output of the team. This one Basic Assumption Mental State, that the manager is accountable for output, is a game-changer.
  • Example – every manager is in a fishbowl and every team member is watching. “Do as I say, not as I do,” creates disaster. Lead by example is not simply a nice leadership principle. Humans are wired to mirror behavior they see. Blaming and punitive behavior by the manager creates acceptable mirroring behavior on the part of the team.
  • Discussion – the manager can talk about context with the team, or the team can talk about context at the water cooler. The manager gets to pick.
  • Observation – the manager is in a position to observe behavior and bring attention to those behaviors that are constructive and point out behaviors that are counterproductive. The manager is in a unique position to breathe life into behavior, for better, or worse. You get the behavior you focus on.
  • Consequences – what happens in the face of underperformance? Is it punishment and blame, or is it learning and improvement?

Context drives behavior. Managers create context or allow team members to make up their own. Change the context, behavior follows.

Feedback Loops

Marion’s bottom lip protruded. If she was eleven years old, I would have sworn she was pouting.

“I think I know who said that,” she announced.

“Is it important?” I asked.

“Well, I think they have a chip on their shoulder and this evaluation was just a chance to vent, to make me look bad.”

“Marion, there are positive things in this evaluation, and there are negative things here. You like the positive stuff, but you don’t believe the negative stuff.”

“Well, I think this person has an agenda. I don’t think it’s me,” she continued to protest.

“Do you think that is part of the problem?”

“I don’t think it’s me,” Marion repeated.

“You are angry at the person who gave you the negative feedback and you would like to ignore the feedback,” I confirmed.

“Besides, even it were true about me, I can’t change, that’s just not me. I couldn’t do it. Out of the question. I don’t see how anyone could do that.”

I looked at Marion. Without a word. Silence.

“But if you could change, what would you do first?”

Fix Accountability, Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You seem to think that when the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, it’s a game-changer. You seem to think this one idea has a significant impact on morale.

Mindset drives behavior. This is a central premise to culture. What we believe, the way we see the world, drives behavior.

When a manager believes the team is accountable for their own output, it creates a punitive, blaming mindset on the part of the manager. I often hear the refrain from one manager to another, “Well, did you hold them accountable?”

And I have to ask, “Accountable for what? And just what managerial behavior is involved in holding them accountable?”

Is it a matter of reprimand, jumping up and down and screaming? Is it a matter of volume, frequency? If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. At that point, I am convinced that I am talking to a manager who has no children.

Managers who engage in this behavior have a direct negative impact on team morale. Response is predictably fight, flight, freeze or appease.

But, when the manager is accountable for the output of the team, everything changes. A manager accountable for the output of the team will –

  • Take extreme care in the selection of who? is assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the training of team members assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the work instructions for the project.
  • Will take care to monitor the progress of work on the project.
  • Will take care in the coaching of team members who may struggle in connection with the project.

Why? Because the manager is accountable for the output of the team. The attitude, the mindset, moves the manager from blaming behavior to caring behavior. If this becomes the mindset of all the managers, the entire organization’s culture changes. We don’t need sensitivity training, or communication seminars. We just need to fix accountability.