The Single Most Poisonous Factor in the Workplace Today

The most important commodity at any work environment is the people.  Without a motivated, well trained and talented team behind it, even the best technology will falter and fail.  Companies such as Google, Facebook and Netflix have pushed the boundaries on working conditions to attract new employees, with impressive catering, unlimited holidays and funky office space, a trend many smaller companies are trying to replicate.  Unfortunately however, just by looking at company review websites such as Glassdoor.com, it is evident that companies of all sizes are falling into the same pitfall, one proving to be poisonous to a company’s workforce, culture and eventually, their bottom line.

The meritocracy – being promoted on one’s deeds, rather than the length of time an employee has remained at the company – is used by companies to show fairness and encourage each member of staff to give their all rather than sitting back and waiting for advancements to come to them.  Without a doubt, a meritocracy is better than the aforementioned alternative of time-based promotions, but company executives should be thinking of the type of promotion, rather than the method.

Entry level positions become executives, executives become managers, and managers become directors – this is the status quo, and it is a poison slowly killing companies, large and small, in all sectors. Mastering one’s craft must be key to a person’s growth at a company, but the reward should not necessarily be promotion out of that specific skill-set, and especially not to team management.   A master programmer should not be elevated to a position where they are no longer programming, but managing others – likewise a master copywriter should not start leading a team at the opportunity cost of writing themselves.  Skills must be passed on to new blood, and mentorship programs, peer training, and good, solid teamwork are all constructive mediums to do so, however elevating someone to the position of manager without proper training, experience and the right personality is toxic to a team.

If employees are the lifeblood of an organization, the managers are surely its heart – they are responsible for getting the right person to the right place at the right time.  Almost every process in an employee’s lifecycle in a company is depended on their manager, from onboarding to setting goals, achieving targets to reviews, promotions to dismissals – the management is central.  Management skills are not something that can be ‘picked up on the job’ and though leadership and management are two skills that can be learned, though it is very difficult to teach.  It is an ongoing process rather than a lightbulb moment, and one which the best and brightest say is a skill to be honed and refined every day.

Thought leaders in the field of leadership and management have produced excellent resources for developing one’s skills, such as Simon Sinek (check out his YouTube video Why Leaders Eat Last – also his book of the same title), Andrew Gove’s glorious “High Output Management”, Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” and of course, Dale Carnegie’s masterpiece “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.  Reading and absorbing resources such as these can go a long way to opening a person’s thinking to be more ‘managerial’, but it must be practiced over time.

Glassdoor shows that one of the most common complaints from employees is bad managers.  People get over lower pay, fewer office comforts and even longer working hours, but as Victor Lipman puts it, “People Leave Managers, Not Companies”.  A trend that starts a downward spiral that is difficult to break out of.  One of the biggest struggles for most companies is hiring the best talent, this in-turn helps create the best product or service, which attracts the best or more clients, turning over higher income for the company.  When top talent starts to leave, the product suffers as does the customer experience, leading to falling income, this then causes companies to squeeze out some of the staff benefits, causing more staff to leave, and so on.

Big data analytics company Palantir have been experiencing exactly this problem – originally seen as the place to be, it has been receiving lots of bad press and has experienced staff turnover of around 20% in 2016, twice as much as the last three years.   According to an article in BuzzFeed, this spike happened at the same time as three major clients have seemingly left – Coca-Cola, American Express, and Nasdaq.  Seemingly to stem the exodus of staff the company raised salaries 20% for employees who had been there for over 18 months – but as mentioned earlier, pay isn’t everything.  Recent reviews on company evaluation sites have commented that managers just don’t possess the right skills for the job.

Employees want this promotion to management predominantly because they don’t understand it, and because companies have yet to work out how to promote to maintain top talent, without changing the role to management.  Employees often see managing others as a badge of pride, not realizing the immense responsibility that comes along with it – managers work harder, have higher pressure and often get less recognition than staff not holding these management roles.

Marketing agencies use a model for their creative teams where salaries are increased, as is flexibility, autonomy and prominence in the company, all as methods for keeping staff happy and loyal.  Granted, teams usually operate as silos, separate from other similar teams, however, this model could work for other organizations.  With the proper company culture, managers can be “in charge of” people more experienced than them, getting higher quality work done at faster paces, providing that the goal of everyone at the company is pulling towards the same goal.

Until companies can adequately compensate well-performing staff, promote the right candidates with the proper training to management positions and create a culture that supports a clear objective rather than the politics of self-promotion, this poison will continue to spread throughout businesses around the world.

NOTE: I have been fortunate enough to work with some phenomenal managers in the past – people who have been truly formative in building me into the person I am today, investing time and energy into instilling company values, good work practice, and continued professional development. This article is by no means, a comment on my own experience, but rather my take on what I see as an issue with the industry standard today.

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