Companies & Industries

Five Management Traps


Is your organization really equipped to deal with knowledge workers? Make sure you're not hung up on outmoded concepts that don't serve today's workforce

Remember the phrase "Atomic Age?" Sounded so modern and zippy at the time—and sounds so hopelessly retro now. With the workplace becoming more global and more virtual by the femtosecond, atoms are out and electrons are in. As every working person knows, we can create more value electronically in a few minutes now than our grandparents' generation of workers could do in a week. But organizations haven't caught up to the knowledge-worker reality. Way too many employers still manage their troops as though it's 1945. Is your organization clinging to any of these leftover Atomic Age leadership mechanisms? Ditch them now. They're slowing you down, and you won't get access to your most talented team members' gray matter by managing them like old-fashioned worker bees.

Atomic Age Vacation Rules

It made perfect sense in 1950, when my dad was hired straight out of Georgetown, to give each newbie two weeks of vacation and let him work his way up to three and four weeks' vacation. But today, when the War for Talent is in full swing, how can a hiring manager offer a talented midcareer pro two weeks of vacation with a straight face? We should key vacation allotments to years in the workforce, not to years spent within our walls.

When I think about Atomic Age vacation rules, I think of those electric fences people plant in the ground to keep their dogs in the yard. Here's the problem: When Fido jumps the fence and gets a shock, the last thing he wants to do is jump back into the yard and get another one. So he runs away. When we offer prospective team members with 10 or 15 years of experience a measly two-week vacation package, we're making it mighty unappealing for them to jump over the fence into our yard.

Chain-of-Command Mentality

The chain of command—the notion that you report to your boss, she reports to her boss, and so on—is the basis of military leadership, the Catholic Church, and most other hierarchies we know. And for sure, if you're asking for a raise or announcing that you're expecting twins, your boss is the go-to person. But for questions about work requirements, how-to inquiries, information on a customer's history, or a million other topics, it's ineffective and slow to be bound to a system where the boss must be consulted. Surveys say most workers get 70% to 80% of their on-the-job instruction from other workers. Thank goodness! How could a manager manage if he had to answer questions all day? Save the chain-of-command mentality for administrative and career-development topics and empower employees to help one another get the work done.

Management by Policy

Supposedly, when Moses walked down the Mount with those two tablets, it was the first incidence of written law. Today, we're drowning in it—from ISO 9000 documentation to elaborate do's and don'ts on everything from business travel to escorting a visitor to the Customer Briefing Center. Enough, already. Companies that manage by policy slow their knowledge workers down by requiring them to check the book before making a move too many times a day. The rule, "use your good judgment, and ask if you're not sure," could eliminate half the policies in Corporate America today.

Classroom Training

If you're conducting CPR training, I'll concede that you have to have people in the room. But the millions of person-hours spent in classroom training cost our organizations a bundle while limiting our learning to what's on the class agenda. And then there's the question of how does that knowledge get integrated into our daily lives back at the desk. Peer-to-peer mentoring is faster, stickier, and more customizable than traditional classroom instruction. Plus, it keeps people on the job, where we want them.

Face-Time Addiction

Possibly the most pervasive and destructive artifact of Atomic Age business management is the fixation with hours in the office, when much if not most of our work could be done from the car, the playground, or Starbucks (SBUX). Smart companies are establishing core hours—say, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.—when everyone's expected to be in the office so meetings and face-to-face check-in can happen. Apart from that, the mantra is "do your job."

Too many managers can't identify their own staff members' deliverables, leaving only the face-time metric as a way to evaluate whatever they value, be it performance or docility. Companies that persist in exalting face time will bleed talent as their brightest stars go to organizations where knowledge is the operative word, leaving the worker bees behind.

Liz Ryan writes her "Career Insight" column and answers readers' questions every week at businessweek.com/managing. She is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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