Answering your questions on a manager who wont speak to staff, the importance of computer-literacy, and how to manage business reading

Edited by Christopher S. Frings PhD, CSP

Manager who wont speak to those reporting to him

Q: I am a section supervisor in a large university hospital clinical laboratory. I report to a lab manager who will not speak to me and one of the other supervisors. The other supervisor is leaving to go to another hospital. If I see my lab manager in the elevator, he may nod or smile, but will say nothing. He has me deal with him via e-mail and voice mail. The person I report to answers to the hospital administration, not the pathologists or doctoral laboratory scientists. I have a great working relationship with the pathologists and Ph.D.s. This lab manager has a reputation of not returning calls from employees or meeting with employees. I am very stressed out over this situation. Besides finding a new job elsewhere, what can I do about this?

A: Larry Crolla advises, Why not talk to the head pathologist? He or she may not be the direct boss of the lab manager, but I am sure they have some influence on how this individual conducts business. Maybe the pathologist can intercede and ask why the lab manager uses this style of management and let him know that it is not understood by and causes concern to people who report to him.

Terry Jo Gile asks, Is this a new manager? If so, he may feel intimidated by you and think he cant control you. Is he shy? Again, it is a perception issue, and perhaps he is uncomfortable with a strong supervisor. Does he speak to other supervisors but shut you out? Maybe he is going to have to eliminate your position and is giving you the cold shoulder. Id start looking elsewhere.

According to Alton Sturtevant, Try to schedule a one-on-one meeting with the manager to review your monthly departmental statistics, your current financial information, and yearly goals. If you are granted a meeting, discuss the information listed above and work with the manager to ensure that you are meeting his expectations. Use the discussion as an attempt to interact and develop a communication avenue or approach for the future. At the end of the meeting, schedule another meeting with specific goals and topics to be discussed. If you are unable to schedule a meeting, then you have to ask how he wishes to communicate with you.

Dr. Sturtevant recommends, Consider how he interacts with the pathologists and doctoral scientists. Can you learn anything from those interactions? Is there another person that he interacts with in the laboratory that you have a relationship with and can talk to about the situation? If an answer to any of those questions gives you a clue as how to interact, attempt to use the information to enhance your communication with the manager. If you make no headway, then you can continue doing a good job and communicate with other management personnel while attempting to communicate with the manager, or you can make plans to leave.

Marti Bailey advises, If you dont want to work for a better boss, then you need to learn to work with this dysfunctional one, or at least learn to tolerate him to the degree that he isnt affecting you so negatively. You simply cant be an effective manager if you dont communicate with people. For the most part, this includes face-to-face dialogue. One thing that you can do is to consider him a worst case example of how not to treat people who report to you. I would say that it is highly unlikely that you will see a change, even if you had an opportunity to explain to this person how his behavior makes you feel. Youre stuck then with working with him on his terms – by voice mail and e-mail and apparently with relatively little guidance. This may very well be his way of telling you that hes not really interested in managing you. If this is the case, it seems that you could look to your pathologists and Ph.D.s for some of the guidance you need handling your supervisory responsibilities.

Ms. Bailey adds, Im not suggesting that you go around your manager, but rather that you find other ways to achieve your goals and handle your responsibilities. He essentially has defaulted on his responsibilities to manage you, so you need to handle as much as you can on your own or by getting adequate guidance from other trusted sources. As long as he lets you function pretty much independently, this could be an opportunity for you to grow. Make sure you keep him adequately informed, but perhaps you could be making more decisions on your own. If, on the other hand, he expects you to pass everything through him, but wont speak personally to you, then I find this abusive behavior. If the latter is true, consider taking your case to one of your human resources specialists.

Bottom line. This is a hostile, high-stress work environment. Not all managers are effective and this one has a management style that does not set a good climate for motivation of his team. If your statement is true, this manager should be either retrained with definite time lines for documented changes in behavior or removed from the job due to creation of a hostile work environment. I recommend that you take this up with the director of human resources. There are probably some potential legal ramifications for the hospital.

Wont improve computer skills

Q: What can I do about a lab manager who wont improve his computer skills?

A: Alton Sturtevant points out, Some people are scared of computers, but that is unacceptable in this day and age. This is not a sign of a good leader. If they are unwilling to learn these skills, will they learn other job responsibilities? I would talk to the manager and explain the need to learn the computer skills required to perform the job satisfactorily. Then explain which skills are needed and ensure that they avail themselves of related training. I would then make project assignments that involve the skills and give specific deadline for completing the assignments. Depending on the skill demonstrated in meeting these, I would make more assignments that would ensure use of the skills. As further enforcement, make future promotions/raises dependent in part on the use of computer skills.

Terry Jo Gile, advises, Tie computer classes to his/her evaluation and a pay increase or other perk. Although many workers are reluctant to learn additional computer skills other that what they need to get by, once they see the value of the skill, it becomes easy to keep up. In addition, you must require certain reports be done using the new skill so that once it is learned, it is used frequently enough to allow the manager to feel comfortable and become proficient.

According to Marti Bailey, When professionals are reluctant to learn to use the computer, it will probably take more than gentle suggestion to fix the problem. Youre going to need to be clear on what you expect, support any effort, and also be clear on the consequences if expectations arent met. It sounds like youve tried in the past with little success, so you know how hard a nut you have to crack. Since your chances of success at this point are not great, before you go at it again be certain that you are ready and willing to follow through with the consequences if no improvement is made. If you find that you are unwilling to initiate disciplinary action or other negative consequences for lack of progress, then let it drop.

Ms. Bailey adds, Some professionals get by without using a computer by surrounding themselves with people who can use them, so it is possible to survive, I suppose. However, its getting harder and harder to function with computer illiteracy. I feel that the same type of approach used to solve reading illiteracy has the best shot teaming up a sensitive teacher and a student one-on-one. This person is probably not going to be successful in a computer class setting. This means that youll need to support training financially. The teaching plan should be closely aligned with your expectations, which might be something like you expect the manager to be able to read and write e-mails within one month, be able to prepare a simple spreadsheet within six weeks, and so on. It certainly is a reasonable goal to have this person become computer literate, but youll need to be quite certain before you commit to requiring correction that you will not consider failure to achieve this goal as an acceptable alternative.

Bottom line. Explain the importance of having appropriate computer skills in his specific job. Set up a specific written plan (and put a copy that he signs in his personal file) and review his progress at least every two months until the goals are met. Explain what will happen if these specific computer skills are not learned and used effectively.

Managing your reading

Q: The volume of reading that is necessary to keep up is overloading me. Any suggestions?

A: Alton Sturtevants approach is, I rank the sources of information based on what seems to provide me with the most helpful and concise information. I then focus on reading only that material on a routine basis. I skim other sources and article titles to evaluate what I will spend my time on. Plan lunch and break time (or other time during the work day if available) in a quiet place to read the material that you deem important to current projects, maintaining, or advancing your skills. I find monthly association newsletters very helpful in identifying and defining topics that are of a current and hot nature. Association material also tends to address issues that need current attention. I subscribe to management condensed books on tape. In this way I read two books a month during my commute time or when I am traveling on company business. I also like to listen to other fiction and nonfiction best sellers that I get from the library when I am driving.

Larry Crolla says, I like to do audiotapes while traveling to or from work. If they are not available for the material you need, then you must set aside an hour a day just like an appointment put it in your calendar reading time. Another way to get new material is to attend seminars. Also, you must screen what you need to read. This is the age of data; however, you cant absorb all the data out there. Decide what information you need and select only that data to absorb. Remember, if you are not current, you are not of value to the organization, and you become less marketable as an individual.

Terry Jo Gile recommends, I scan magazines and e-zines and newsletters by title, subtitle and opening sentence to see if I need to read further. If so, I mark it with a sticky note and put it in a pile. On Friday evening I take the reading stack and save it for quiet time on Sunday that I set aside for reading. If the weather is nice, I do it on my sun porch. I am more focused then. 

Marti Bailey adds, Im sure that almost all of us can relate to your predicament. Not only is the volume of reading overwhelming, but retaining the information in some type of retrievable manner seems equally daunting. Time spent reading needs to be as value-laden as any other task you perform. This means that you have to focus on reading material that provides the most benefit to your job. Reading to broaden your general knowledge is great if you have the time. Since most of us dont, concentrate on reading that has the potential to improve your effectiveness in carrying out the responsibilities of your job. Suggestions to help you achieve this include the following:

  • Consider yourself the gatekeeper of your professional reading. You need to be the one who makes the choices regarding which sources of information have the potential to be of value, and then screen these sources on a regular basis. You could assign someone else to do the screening for you, but I think its preferable to do this yourself. Learn to be a good scanner, so that you can rapidly decide if an article is worth your time or not. Remember that the value of the information should be in direct proportion to the time that you spend on it.
  • Set aside at least 20 minutes a day for reading. Add it to your daily task list and check it off when youre done. This might best be handled first thing in the day, at the end of your day, or over your lunch break, but try to get it on a regular schedule.
  • Designate a specific area in your office for your reading material. This should be clearly visible and easy to reach, not stored in a file folder somewhere. A tray or wall holder makes sense. Watch that the backlog doesnt increase precipitously. If it does, youre either earmarking too much or not spending enough time reading.
  • Enlist the help of others on the management staff in identifying must read articles/documents. Make sure to let others know on a regular basis that you need their input in helping to identify important reading. Be sure to reciprocate. This will help to keep everyone on his or her toes.
  • Start a voluntary weekly lunch-hour journal club. Participants take turns making five to 10 minute presentations of articles theyve read that they feel are worth sharing. This is a great way to encourage professional reading and to benefit everyone who attends, including yourself.

Bottom line. If you are not current, you are not of value to the organization and you become less marketable as an individual. Keeping up is a personal development and time management challenge for all professionals. Always have some reading material with you when you are waiting for a plane, to see your CPA, your doctor, etc. Set aside one to two hours a week for keeping up with your reading, and also listen to tapes and books while driving.

Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

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