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Is Management Manipulation?

by Nic Peeling

Adapted from Dr. Peeling's Principles of Management. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

Respect and Trust

An issue that has always troubled me is whether management is a form of manipulation. I would really like to believe that you can be a manager without being manipulative, but it is my opinion that managers have no other option at times. The uncomfortable truth is that when resolving all the different pressures from existing customers, your own organization, bids for new business, and the like, you are inevitably going to have to persuade people to do things that are not entirely in their own interests. It is also an uncomfortable truth that you are not always going to be in a position where you can explain the bigger picture to your staff. All that you can hope to achieve is a level of moral manipulation—that is, to find a situation such as the following:

If your team knew the whole picture, the majority of members would support your actions.

One of the reasons that staff members may not trust a manager is that they know that managers sometimes must have divided loyalties. Managers of teams are truly caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, you as manager will probably be loyal to the team; indeed, you probably like to think you are part of the team. On the other hand, you are a representative of management, albeit possibly the most junior, and so the team will correctly suspect that you are one of "them," and not really one of "us."

Balancing what is best for the organization against the best interests of my team's members is an aspect of management that gives me many sleepless nights. As manager, you must decide in each case where to draw the line. This is an unquestionably difficult task, but I do have a piece of advice:

Members of your team should know exactly where you and they stand.

In other words, a decision that clearly favors either management's or the team's best interest—but not both—is not an issue to fudge. When you have listened and discussed the issue with each person concerned, then you need to tell the whole team what your decision is, and why you have made it. You have to make it clear that your decision is final and that people have to accept it. Too often, I see managers fudging the unpopular decisions, or blaming senior management.

A corollary of this wisdom is

As manager, you cannot be an ordinary member of the team.

Just because you will have to make hard, unpopular decisions does not mean that you are an uncaring person. Going back to the analogy between management and parenting, good parents can say no to their children frequently, while maintaining a loving, caring relationship with them.

One of the reasons for mentioning the issues of manipulation and divided loyalties is that many managers complain that their staff members are suspicious of their motives. It basically comes down to whether your staff respects and trusts you. Staff suspicion is quite natural and you can only create the necessary levels of trust and respect by your openness, honesty, and integrity.

How open should you be?

A good starting point is to be as open and honest as possible. What the clause "as possible" means in practice, however, is difficult to define. I tackle this issue by listing the circumstances in which I believe less-than-total openness can be justified:

  • The effort of communication is not worthwhile. You will never have as much time as you would like to have to communicate with your team. The sad truth is that even if you spent every minute of every day communicating, that would not be enough for some people. You have to view communication as an investment in a healthy team, and decide what level of investment you think you can afford. This means you have to prioritize your communication, and consequently, some issues will drop off the bottom of the list.
  • You need to respect confidentiality. You may be instructed by your organization to keep certain information confidential, or you may not be able to release information that was told to you by someone in confidence.
  • Full disclosure will unnecessarily disrupt or distract your team. A good example of information sometimes better withheld might be the latest initiatives from headquarters. Many of these never actually get implemented in a way that is as threatening as they first appear. My approach to such issues is to openly answer any questions about them. I try to go occasionally to group gatherings, at coffee break for example, so that people can quiz me. In this way, I make it clear that there is no secret about what is going on, but I also demonstrate that I am relaxed about such things and imply that if and when they impinge on the team, I will immediately brief everyone.
  • Full openness would cause unnecessary pain. On occasion, you may need to discuss how a member of your team can improve his or her performance. You may decide to be selective in describing specific failings in order to help the individual handle and respond positively to your criticism.

Whether you are addressing individual team members or entire teams, openness is the underpinning property of all communication.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Dr. Peeling's Principles of Management [ISBN:0-932633-54-4] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2003 by Nic Peeling. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/dp.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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