The Eye of Sauron: How NOT to Create a Management Culture

Management culture has a huge impact on the success of an organization. Management culture affects morale, productivity, profitability, and informs prospective employees’ opinions of a company even before they consider applying there. Simply put, management culture matters. And every company has a culture whether they are thinking about it or not. Whatever leadership behaviors are valued and encouraged in your organization, that is your management culture.

Toxic culture has just as great an effect on an organization as positive culture. A recent article from The Verge about game studio Telltale Games highlights toxic culture and its consequences. In that article, former Telltale employees drew the connection between toxic management and high rates of turnover:
“Many left — or say others left — because of their frustration or boredom with the company’s unwillingness to innovate, exhaustion at the constant crunch cycle, and [the CEO’s] tendency to cut people down, change objectives on a whim, proclivity to hog credit, or make them feel as though the company had no faith in them.”

Even if you’re not yet convinced that positive management culture boosts profits, the high cost of unplanned turnover due to toxic culture is impossible to deny.

The disconnect between management goals and employee experience at Telltale was obvious. One memorable quote from a former employee compared the studio’s former CEO to Sauron, the villain from Lord of the Rings: “Inevitably, the Eye of Sauron looks at you, and that beam of light just blows everything up and makes it a hellscape where you don’t believe in a thing you’re building anymore.”

On the one hand, this scenario sounds extremely demoralizing: nobody wants to work for someone who inspires fear. But on the other hand, don’t employees today want greater attention from their bosses? Is this attitude actually the result of “entitled” employees who only want to do things their way, without being held accountable by someone in a position of authority? Not exactly.

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How NOT to Create a Management Culture

I have a motto when it comes to performance management: Management should be good news! Employees shouldn’t dread the moment their boss comes to speak with them about their work. Quite the opposite. Employees should view management conversations as positive, ongoing, coaching-style dialogues that help them achieve success. Managers should be course-correcting, offering feedback, assisting in project planning, and providing employees with the resources needed to do their best work every step of the way. These are the fundamentals of management. In other words, if the boss’ attention feels like the Eye of Sauron, there is a problem. It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether the problem is with the employee or the manager.

Whenever managers shine what I call the “bright light of scrutiny” on their direct reports, two things usually occur. High- and mid-level performers start to improve, and low-level performers start to squirm. In today’s work environment of constant, ongoing feedback, it is usually the low performers who would prefer to be left alone. When their performance is under the spotlight, low performers would rather avoid the pressure altogether. Many even “fire” themselves and leave on their own.

But if a manager is claiming to shine the “bright light of scrutiny,” and turnover among superstar talent starts to skyrocket while low performers continue to collect a paycheck, then that’s a likely indicator that the management is toxic. So, what’s the differentiating factor?


Accountability Is a Two-Way Street

Employees today will start thinking about leaving as soon as they suspect that they will not be able to get their needs met at work. This isn’t just about pay or benefits. If someone suspects that their boss doesn’t know, or care, about what they need to get their best work done, they’re probably not going to stick around. The moment someone concludes their boss will not work to help them succeed, they will be halfway out the door.

At the very least, employees need to know that they’re supported by a positive management culture. Employees need to know that their boss isn’t just monitoring them closely for purposes of evaluating performance. They need to know that this is so problems can be solved before spiraling of control, so course-correction can happen earlier in the creative process, and so good employee performance can be sufficiently rewarded. If you are going to hold employees accountable for their performance, then managers must be prepared to be held accountable for their end of the bargain. Managers must set people up for success, and take responsibility when they place undue or unexpected demands on employees. Accountability is a two-way street.

Have you ever had a manager who was like the Eye of Sauron? What about a manager who shined the bright light of scrutiny on your work, and it made your work that much better?

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