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December - 2007 - issue > People Manager
The “My manager did it to me” Syndrome
C Mahalingam (Mali)
Thursday, November 29, 2007
If you have spent a couple of years in the corporate world, you must be familiar with what I am going to talk about here - a sense of being a victim at the hands of one’s manager. I went around checking this out with a whole lot of people whom I met in various forums and the response was invariably the same. For some it was an occasional experience, and for many it was a frequent one. And I call this as ‘my manager did it to me syndrome.’ It is amazing that in almost all aspects of people management, managers could become victims of playing this out on their direct reports. These managers fall victims to the ‘victim syndrome’ of their team members as they unconsciously perpetuate a ‘conspiracy’ against themselves in not getting their teammates motivated and skilled.

The negative spiral
For most managers, although it begins as an easy excuse for not doing something they are expected to do to their team members, over time, it becomes a second nature. ‘Role Modeling’ happens in a negative sense throughout this organization, and so begins the negative spiral of so called ‘legitimized in-action.’ Let us take a look at a couple of examples. When it is time to start the goal-setting as part of the performance appraisal process, it just does not happen to you. And worse still, you hear your manager comment that his manager did not do it to him either! If you are waiting to get a feedback from time to time, it is the same story - his manager did not and so you should not expect it. And turn your attention to training for a moment. You see this syndrome in full swing. You do not get nominated for the training because your manager did not attend this training - and he did not because his manager felt that was unnecessary!

I would like to use a metaphor here to explain the spread of this negative spiral in organizations. Imagine you are traveling in a train with a well-exercised muscle-builder sitting right next to you for hours together. When you both get off the train, it is very unlikely that he would have rubbed off on you any of his strength. Instead, assume that someone suffering from common cold is traveling with you for a couple of hours. You are almost sure to have caught a bit of the cold before you get off the train. In a similar sense, negative role models have serious impact on the morale of employees, especially if they go unchecked and perhaps even get rewarded and raised in stature.

Staying out of the syndrome
If you are a smart manager, you will recognize that what happened to you (particularly if it had hampered your growth) need not change your commitment to your people. You should have a wish to strengthen your will and be determined to deliver a refreshingly different and better experience to your direct reports. You will find this immensely satisfying to yourself and your team members. It is not easy, as negative role modeling deflect the character of even strong-willed people. More so, if it is widespread within the organization and the HR division behaves like a mute and helpless spectator.

Creating a gung ho! atmosphere
It is not too difficult to break out of this negative spiral if you apply what I am inclined to call as ‘Peter Drucker’s prescription.’ In writing about managing subordinates, Drucker has the following two suggestions for managers to reflect on:
* Imagine if your managership is by election each year and your subordinates are the ones to vote you back to this job or vote you out. What do you think would be the likely outcome?
* Ask yourself if you would prefer to have your children work under your current subordinates, and if they did how would they feel treated and guided?

In my view, these are simple questions every people manager must ask himself or herself and it would do a lot of good if this reflection is done once every three or six months. Answers to these reflective questions could actually change your perspective about letting yourself be influenced by a bad role model if your manager had represented one.

Gung ho! atmosphere is all about turning what is seemingly a difficult atmosphere into a pretty positive one by the sheer power of will and determination. After all, that is what good managers are made up of!

The Author is Senior VP and Chief People officer with Symphony Services Corporations. He can be reached at mahalingam.c@symphonysv.com

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