“Michi’s Minions” – On Respecting Co-workers

In my relatively short, but unusual, career I’ve heard the phrase “Michi’s minions” a number of times. People use it to jokingly refer to my staff.¬†They say it in private, so I think some people might conclude it’s just a crass joke. Perhaps. For people that know my crude sense of humor, my offense to this joke probably takes you by surprise. Every time I hear that phrase, I immediately conclude the other person is not somebody I want to work for and that they have a naive understanding of professional relationships. History usually proved that conclusion correct.

To me, it indicates a certain condescending/naive attitude that the person has toward employees that is absolutely unacceptable. I once heard the analogy that management is like a rowing team. You’re the coxwain that helps keep the rowboat straight. Yet, when you think about it, you don’t lift a finger to help the results get done. If somebody gets tired or wants to quit, you can’t take out a whip and start cracking. At the same time, without the coxwain, the team will never make it to the finish line. You both need each other. All of my greatest accomplishments as a leader in an organization were because of the hard work the team put in. To forget that your staff were the ones furiously rowing is ignorant if not insulting.

When somebody thinks that “managing” equates to “having minions,” it’s not pretty to watch them get a little power. I’ve seen this a few times now and it had disturbing results every time. The usual trend is:

  1. They give their staff all the boring, dirty work
  2. They scold in public and praise in private (if at all)
  3. They say, “I don’t need to be liked as long as work is getting done”
  4. People start quitting

I want to address #3 really quickly. “Being liked” and “getting things done” are not mutually exclusive. A good leader will get both done together, every time. If you can’t create a work environment where people are happy, you aren’t qualified to be a leader. Think about the last job where you constantly went above and beyond. Did you like your boss? I bet you did. I am very confident in the importance of having a good relationship with those you work with.

This post isn’t about watching your language. It’s about watching your attitude.

You need your staff more than they need you.

Incentives and the Related Dangers

Incentives are just as dangerous as they are powerful. I have the running theory that most incentives can actually do the exact opposite of the intended goal when executed wrong.

Let’s start with an example to illustrate. You’re in charge of a small company that picks up garbage after events like street fairs and parades. However, you just got an angry call from your customer (the city) that your company has been doing an increasingly poor job and they are threatening to cut your contract.

You can fire and hire people, but ultimately, you or some new manager will need to fix the culture of the team. Aside from the obvious choice of talking to your staff about goals and values, let’s assume that incentivizing performance ends up being the option you go with. It’s time to play with fire.

What are some obvious ways to incentivize good cleaning efforts? There are many, but I’ll focus on a really obvious one for this post: Tie bonuses to volume/weight of trash picked up.

Is this a bad incentive? Not necessarily. But if executed poorly, it can be disasterous.

Which is more important to pick up? The pile of 50 napkins or the four empty soda bottles? Under this solution, people would be incentivized to ignore napkins, ciggarettes, and plastic bags while encouraged to chase after bottles (bonus points for liquid content) and discarded food. In fact, once employees start realizing this, they might even start picking up rocks and dirt instead of actually cleaning — in effect making the situation worse.

The situation above is universal across all industries. In software, the oft cited “Dilbert” situation is when performance gets tied to lines of code written. The point is, any system introduced that attempts to incentivize a certain type of behavior can cause employees to focus on the wrong thing. If you tell your staff that closing bug tickets is tied to bonuses, your entire team will focus on that metric like a laser. This will be good at first until you realize that everybody is spam-fixing the “mispelled text” bug tickets and nobody is bothering with the REAL problems.