November 24, 2011

The No Whining Rule for Managers

One of my senior clients used to keep a "no whining" sign in her office. It seemed odd to have the sign so prominently displayed at a senior executive level. After all, the managers that walked into that office were not children, but mature adults with collective responsibility for thousands of employees. Why would they whine instead of just solving problems?

The reality is that all of us whine, complain, blame others, and try to avoid responsibility. It's part of the human condition. Nobody likes to clean up problems caused by others — or admit that they've created problems themselves. We also try to preserve a positive self-image and we go to great lengths to get others to perceive us positively as well. Given these basic human dynamics, most of which are unconscious, it's often easier to talk to colleagues about what somebody else is doing wrong. At worst we'll get sympathy. At best, we'll convince someone else to take care of the problem.

In my client's case, she had inherited a group of "technicians" — managers with years of experience in their functional areas. However, a number of these managers lacked the capability to work sideways: Their horizons extended only to the boundaries of their own units. So, when solving problems they defaulted to fixing everything under their direct control and complaining to my client about the rest — with the assumption that she would force others to do what was needed.

Fortunately my client was smart enough to realize that her managers needed to work together to generate effective solutions. So she pushed back against what she dubbed as "whining." The sign (and the dialogue that went with it) made her managers more aware of their unproductive patterns and over time helped her create an effective culture of accountability and proactive problem solving. 

Yet most managers don't utilize the "no whining" rule. Today it's easy to whine and deflect responsibility, because so much seems out of our control — the economy, regulatory requirements, technological changes, costs of raw materials, and many others. Even inside organizations many managers feel disempowered by the complexity of matrix structures, slow decision-making, and extra layers of reporting. The bottom line is that it's tough to get things done — which leaves people feeling frustrated and in need of a sympathetic ear. In other words, the combination of human nature and a tough environment makes a "no whining" rule more important than ever.

If you want to institute a "no whining" rule in your organization, here are two mindsets to encourage in your people:

Accountability: First, do not allow your people to present problems without attempting to solve them on their own. If appropriate, they should inform you about what they are doing to avoid any surprises. But the basic idea is that they should do what think necessary to achieve results. There will be times where they may not have the authority or resources to execute the solution — and in those cases they should propose a solution along with their request for help.

Positivity: Constantly remind your team to assume positive intent about others. As described above, it's always easier to blame another function, customer, supplier, colleague — anyone but yourself — for a problem. To counter this inclination, remind your managers that most people don't wake up in the morning with the goal of making their lives difficult. They are probably just doing their job in the best way they know — and no amount of whining will change that. A more productive path would be to better understand the nature of the problem and move towards creating a joint solution.

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