Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

How a Management Style Can Disempower Employees

with 2 comments

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.


2 Responses

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  1. I think you are right to an extent, Aaron. In a previous life I was a senior manager in a large organisation where I tried to do just what you are suggesting; empower my staff my giving them opportunities to say what they thought the problems were, then working with them to develop an action plan to improve current practices. This sort of approach was particularly important to me, as previously I had worked in the field of community development where the watchwords are facilitate, empower and enable… To my mind, the problems in Azerbaijan are severalfold.

    Firstly, the country is very hierarchical. I am at the top of the power pyramid [this is straight out of a C. Wright Mills text book – look it up!], I tell you what to do. You in turn tell your underlings what to do and so forth. Power is structural and it goes one way! To suggest that anyone below you is in a position to amend anything you have decided [and you have decided everything, from the position of the desks to the attitude of the staff to customers] is not only disrespectful, it goes against everything you have ever learnt. To listen to those below you could even be dangerous. Those above you would think you were losing your grip and you could risk dismissal. I kid you not! Comrade Stalin developed the structure in the 1920’s and 30’s and it is still very much alive and kicking today!

    Secondly, Azerbaijan is a “blame” culture. There is no incentive to take what are seen as “risks” i.e. anything outside of the orthodoxy, because should anything go wrong it will be your head on the plate! This prejudice runs deep in the culture. An example would be the attitude traffic police towards drivers who make a minor infringement of the rules-of-the-road. In Baku, they bellow at drivers through their bull-horns things like “you idiot, what do you think you are doing!” Who in their right mind would take on a “responsibility” that is not rightly theirs?

    Thirdly, there is no practical advantage in being innovative. It takes effort that will not be rewarded in a financial or any other way. Where are the “incentives” that you would find in a different culture? Things like performance related pay, bonuses and perks, like a weekend away for the team that brings in the most business over the year? In Azerbaijan, you do your job and get paid. Period.

    To be frank, I am astonished you managed to get through the first half of your session so well. If I were an employee at the bank, I probably would have kept my mouth shut through the entire session and if I were the manager, I would have been seething [or quietly amused].

    Like you say, it is hard being a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country where even the basic principles of common Western-style business practice are not understood. I think though, your contribution is made by just being where you are and doing what you are doing because it provides a counter-example to current practices that need to be challenged.

    I think it was Chairman Mao who once said “even the longest journey begins with the first step”…


    July 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    • Yep–You really hit on all of it here. Right after the meeting, I sat down to think about what had just transpired, and what was going on and this was what I came up with, regarding the outcome of the meeting. It reflects nearly exactly what you said:

      1. They don’t see any opportunity for advancement
      2. They don’t want to take a risk and have it fail
      3. They believe their ideas are all unlikely to be acted on, so why bother?

      As for the manager, I think he was amused, both quietly for some parts and not so quietly for others, all of it the wrong behavior and wrong timing for someone who is supposed to be managing people. The issues at the heart of it are motivation and personal responsibility, both of which are low here, and the management of any organization here has no concept of how to improve that other than by getting angry and trying to scare people into doing their jobs right.


      August 2, 2011 at 7:03 am

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