19 Jul 2016 20:00 IST

Paradox in people management

There are a number of dilemmas managers face when managing people. Here are a few.

Leaders have an unenviable task. This is best explained by Lasorda’s Law. Tommy Lasorda, a former major league baseball player who had a long career in sports management, once said: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it. But if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”

Not surprisingly, many managers often face the issue of identifying, and then choosing, the right course of action. The paradox of managing people manifests in almost every aspect of people management. Let us examine some of them.

Developing people

Many managers have reservations about investing in the people they manage. Why? Because of the underlying worry, ‘What if we train people and they leave us for better pastures?’ This seems a logical apprehension.

But not training people isn’t really an option, is it? For managers to get a healthier perspective on developing people, they need to flip the question and ask: ‘What if we do not train people and they stay back?’

It is a no-brainer that the option of not investing in people development is riskier. After all, great organisations are net exporters of talent. They develop more people than they need to meet their growth needs and, in the process, help the talent ecosystem flourish.

Compensating talent

To pay or not to pay top quartile compensation — this is another paradox leaders face.

For decades now, this adage has been oft-repeated: If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

Well if that is so, the question to ask would be: Is there a certainty that if you pay doughnuts (more money), you will necessarily get great talent? If peanuts get you monkeys, doughnuts may attract gorillas, if you do not pay attention to right hiring! Selecting people is both an art and a science.

If you read Dilbert, you know the hilarious situations that crop up during employment interviews. More often than not, interviewers are not trained to assess the fit, either in terms of competence or culture. Hiring mistakes are very expensive in terms of lost opportunity and productivity.

So, there is more than money that attracts, selects and hires great talent.

Rotating for opportunity

Internal job postings are a way to offer career opportunities for long-contributing employees. Managers understand this well, but just when it comes to releasing their best people for what they see as a better career opportunity in another part of the business, the bosses end up doing everything they can to stop such movements.

It sometimes makes me feel as though managers would rather lose their talent to the competition than to their colleagues in other businesses!

The justification often offered by such managers is that they have invested in their employees and they cannot afford to lose them. But frustrated employees end up leaving anyway, making the organisation a loser in the bargain.

Interestingly, great people managers recognise that their very style of letting people go for better opportunities elsewhere in the organisation makes them popular with employees, who would love to come and work for them again. After all, they know their career interests would be best handled by such people.

Dealing with non-performance

From first-line managers all the way to senior leaders, they’re reluctant to bell the cat and call a spade a spade when confronted with marginal performers. The ‘wait and watch’ approach seems to be widespread and they try to postpone the confrontation until it is too late.

The reasons behind active inaction on the part of managers could be many. In my experience, some of the key ones include:

a) Discomfort while delivering bad news.

b) Fear of losing the employee.

c) Inadequate training to handle the process of following through on a performance improvement plan.

Effective managers do something that is fair to both the employee and the organisation. They confront the marginal performer with feedback and need for performance improvement, with an outline of a plan. And the conversation does not stop there — they pull them out of their performance problems.

They assure the employees that they will help them improve by providing coaching, training and mentoring.

Handling voluntary separations

Nothing makes managers lose sleep more than a well-performing employee coming to them with a decision to quit.

However, this is a reality in today’s talent-starved world. The dilemma they face is simple: should they (managers) pretend to put on the hat of the ‘organisational man’ and overdo trying to retain the employee, or wish the employee well and let him or her go?

The answer to this depends on where the manager’s loyalty lies.

The reality is that we live in an age where talented employees will seek out and find better opportunities, irrespective of how good the manager and the organisation are.

Today, managing talent is no longer like storing water in a catchment lake — it is more like managing a flowing river. Trying to artificially contain the flow does not always work. Good managers try and talk employees out of resignation, but don’t overdo it. They are quick to come to terms with the reality and focus on knowledge transfer plans.

The hallmark of these managers is the sincere message they leave with the employee — should they choose to return, they can reach out to him or her without any hesitation so their return can be facilitated.

Managing smart employees is no easy task. Traditional outlook and management approaches seldom help managers do a great job. The approach needed here is not to see them as either-or dilemmas but as opportunities to exercise leadership that is bold, straight-forward and fair.

Management development in organisations needs to focus more on helping leaders come to terms with “Lasorda’s Law” and doing it in style!