How a Management Style Can Disempower Employees
One of the difficulties of being a Peace Corps Volunteer with a Western-style bank such as AccessBank is that you sometimes forget that the organization you are working with is made up of people who are not necessarily familiar with Western-style business and management practices. That may sound harsh, but it’s true and it sometimes hits you with surprising clarity. I am fully aware that there are problems with managers in every country and from people of any background, yet I think this story goes a long way towards understanding some of the glaring shortcomings I see in almost every organization I’ve come across in Azerbaijan when it comes to the management hierarchy.
This story happened a few weeks ago, so I’ve had some time to process it and tell it to a few other folks. At the bank, I had gone in and the branch manager asked me to come chat with him a for a few minutes. He started by asking me a leading question: “Which department of our branch seems to be the weakest?” Now, there aren’t a whole lot of choices here, but if you know my branch manager at all, you know that he’s looking for a specific answer. I could have tried to derail this by giving an answer he wasn’t looking for, but I also wanted to see where it was going: “Customer Service”.
After that was established, we started talking about what we could do to start making some improvements. This is almost exactly what you want to hear as a PCV, my observational skills and previous experience in business, as well as my being an outsider, coming together to help give feedback and generate ideas on how we can improve certain parts of the business. We talked for a few minutes about how to go about talking with the Customer Service Department employees. We decided to have an after-work meeting of the employees that I would lead. Rahman wanted me to focus on how they aren’t doing their jobs well. I, instead, wanted to expand on that a bit. I laid out a basic meeting with three goals: to discuss the department’s strengths, to identify the department’s weaknesses, and to brainstorm some ideas we could implement to remedy these weaknesses.
The meeting started out great. I just facilitated their discussion. I had come up with my own list of their strengths and weaknesses. They hit on almost all of the strengths I had written down. And, with a little coaxing, they identified well their weaknesses (though, at first they decided they had no weaknesses. I then changed the question to “Imagine you are a client; now what would a client say are the weaknesses?” That worked well.) We then moved on to some ideas to make improvements. This is just where I think the disconnect between management and employees comes in. The employees came up with some good ideas, three feasible, effective ideas: putting up signs in the branch to identify the service areas; putting someone at the door as a greeter to help facilitate getting clients to the right place; and rearranging where employees sit to make the processes more efficient. Great, right?
Well, the branch manager was sitting there while this was going on and he said nothing. After a few minutes of discussion, the group moved on to other topics. I tried to bring them back to what we could do to implement their ideas. They told me that they had already figured that they couldn’t actually implement the ideas and started discussing other things. What?! I asked about the specific ideas, and they pulled up and shot down each one. The branch manager continued to say little to nothing at all. The meeting ended with the employees deciding to do nothing. That was a stunning result for me.
What happened? In my opinion, this is where management failed miserably. At any point, the branch manager could have stepped in and said, “Yes, we can try that.” The employees didn’t really even ask him if he would help out. If I had been the manager in that situation, I feel like it would be my job to step up and say, “Okay, you’ve given some ideas, so now I’ll do my job and see if they are feasible.” A manager’s job should be to put his or her employees in the best position possible to succeed, right? Not so, here. After hearing ideas about how to make the customer service employees’ jobs easier, the branch manager did nothing to support them.
This is still a bit stunning to me. Let me clarify: this is not surprising. This is not surprising because I’ve seen enough of Azerbaijani organizations to know that the attitude I would like to see in managers is non-existent. Ideas not put forward by the manager don’t get support. It would almost be like losing face to accept and implement an idea someone else came up with, as though it was embarrassing not to have come up with the idea themselves. The manager in this situation has full power to make any of the three ideas above happen, nearly overnight. Yet, he did not exercise that at all. To be fair, a bit of blame also goes to the employees who are too timid to demand attention from their branch manager, but I still think the majority of the responsibility falls on the manager for allowing a demoralizing office culture like this to persist. After the meeting, all of the employees felt it was a waste of time because their were no tangible results. Instead, they just got another view of how the branch manager will not support them in their jobs.
I’m not so naive as to think we don’t have management issues in America. We all probably have great examples of where management has failed us in our jobs. Yet, the pervasiveness in Azerbaijan of the attitudes described above is almost crippling. It means that the manager must be a master at directing all of the operations, since he won’t rely on others or delegate any responsibilities. It inhibits initiative by employees. I see this as coming from the Azerbaijani culture, itself, where a patriarchal need to control everything within your sphere overrides a lot of the constructive approaches that could be adopted. I know that that’s a harsh evaluation, but in a business setting, that’s the sort of thing that will severely weaken your ability to adapt and improve. Obviously, I can’t fix this problem by myself or in the space of two years. But it also puts me in this odd position of feeling like I have to be an advocate for the employees to the manager. Not exactly a position I relish as a Peace Corps Volunteer.