Dear Dave: My manager has changed from a very nice and approachable leader to one who's harsh and abusive. She attended a very extensive workshop several weeks ago, and we started seeing the change when she came back. I know she is under a lot of pressure to deliver results, and I also know that her boss is a “by the book” and rigid type of manager. Something has changed, and my co-workers and I think she was told to toughen up and be a more controlling manager. What do you think? — B

Dear B: I think you might be right. I am afraid the workshop was designed to make her — and probably her fellow managers — more rigid and controlling. Sadly, because of the training (that is a kind word), you and your co-workers have gone from team workers and contributors to cogs in a machine. I just hate it when consultants come into a company to see how it works and immediately propose a stiffening up of leadership across the company.

Your manager should not bear all the blame, because she was probably given an ultimatum of “get with the program, or you are out of here.” I am sure there are all kinds of controls and reporting she must adhere to, and your team’s level of performance is being scrutinized constantly and carefully. I am all for plans and measurements, but not at the expense of driving good people out the door.

Step back and take a look at what she is doing and why. Reflect on the changes she was probably told to implement. Be empathetic to the pressure she is under. And, understand how you are expected to act and why. I believe the more you know about this leadership fiasco, the less you will feel like the victim of management abuse — understanding things more may take some of the sting out of your treatment and the questionable rationale for it.

Managing workers by the numbers leaves very little room for creativity and imagination. There are systems and processes you must follow to the letter and “innovation” may not be tolerated. You are expected to do as you are told, and if you don’t like it, the door is open to your exit. It is the creative thinking, different approaches to problem-solving, and the implementation of better ways of doing things that will help a company prosper — not keeping employees in “lock-step” formation and requiring them to stay silent.

Dealing with the change

I would bet anything that your manager’s heart is still in the right place, and she really wants to lead you and your team like she did before. This means that she is probably still approachable and will give you her ear. The trick will be to let her know that you understand and that you want to work within the confines of the “new management style.” There is a great likelihood that she just needs to talk to someone … and soon.

Be careful. You do not want to convince your manager that she must relinquish all of the new management practices and get herself into deep trouble. I think that your conversation with her — if you can get one soon — should be focused on listening, understanding, and letting her know that you will support her in whatever she must do. However, I would check to see what kind of latitude or flexibility she may have in approaching work with some fresh thinking.

If there is no room for your ideas, then you certainly know where you stand. I believe things will run as prescribed until someone in upper leadership has an epiphany and realizes this new, harsher management style just isn’t working. I would tend to believe there must be one or a couple of leaders in your company that believe in motivating and engaging staff with a more humanistic approach. Companies often go through learning and leadership changes that are viewed as “new and improved” when the real answer is right before them — treat people with respect and allow them the privilege of being able to think and create.

There’s a high cost to treating people poorly, and it’s backed by research. A manager’s aggressive behavior triggers team members to feel threatened and intimidated. This causes stress and this is where you are at right now. I always tell my students, “Stress makes a mess.” It is difficult to act admirably when you feel like you are walking on egg shells.

Please talk to your coworkers and help them understand what your manager is going through. Then, as I mentioned, see if you can set up a short and casual discussion with your manager. Show her that your team is in it for the long run and will support her whenever you folks can. Tell her that all of you will strive to take some of the heat off of her by working hard and following rules and policies, but you would like the door to be open for dialogue about what errors you see and what solutions you may have.

When the best people start quitting and the culture is sour, I believe your upper management will see the mistake they made in transitioning from a people-focused environment to a robotic, behavior system. Efficiency and effectiveness does not come from stifling innovation and creative thinking; it comes from leading and developing good people who can think, produce, and feel good about their work.

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