How to manage: five essential questions to ask yourself

The famous chocolate-factory scene from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy: a classic depiction of mismanagement (lack of training, ineffective supervision etc), leading to chaos in the workplace.

The famous chocolate-factory scene from the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy: a classic depiction of mismanagement (lack of training, ineffective supervision etc), leading to chaos in the workplace.

As we near the end of the working year, I want to reflect on the state of workplace management and how it might be improved.

Current management trends seem to be aimed to alienate, divide and conquer. The saying “don’t take it personally, it’s only business” is the sad motto of these worst-business practices. As I see it, this is an international problem.

I’m not in a supervisory or managerial position at the moment, but I have been employed at many workplaces, mostly in the media and academia, but also in primary (elementary) school education, retailing and food.

Using all my experience of observing managers in action, I’ve compiled a list of five essential questions that a manager interested in running an efficient, fair and profitable workplace should ask herself or himself.

1) Is this fair?

It’s the most important question to ask, yet it is the one that rarely is considered. You can live your life by this question—it will help you in every decision you make and will ensure your best ethical reaction to any problem.

2) Am I informed?

Know your workers’ names; the conditions of their employment, such as grading systems, entitlements and salaries; ask them how they want to develop their career, what their ambitions are and whether you can help them achieve that.

3) Do I care?

To care effectively, you have to be interested—in the staff and in the industry. I don’t agree with management principles that teach you to “manage anything”, that it doesn’t matter what the industry is. Of course it does. Running a university, for example, is not the same as running a pie factory.

4) What are the long-term consequences of this action?

There might be short-term gains—such as immediate cost-cutting—in taking a particular action, but ultimately, these short-sighted cuts may not be good for the company. Here’s an example: a publication I once worked for in the 1990s decided to fire all its photographers and hire them back as freelancers. Management was horrified to discover that the freelance rates were not only much higher than having in-house photographers, but they could no longer call upon them at short notice; they had to be booked ahead of time. This resulted in stories being lost to other publications. Someone hadn’t done the long-term maths on this one. Today, that publication is a shadow of its former self (not only because of the photographic issue, of course).

5) Do I have good communication skills?

This would seem to be obvious, but of all the managers I’ve known, perhaps more than half of them had poor communication skills. This typically manifests in managers and workers speaking to each other at cross-purposes.  It’s worth noting that I have worked mostly in communications industries and education, where you’d think these skills would be paramount!

To conclude: two wise principles for managers

When I was in my early 30s, I was assistant editor of a top-selling national Australian magazine, and as the editor prepared to take a six-week vacation, leaving me in charge, he had two pieces of advice for me:

1) Don’t panic;

2) Have faith in your decisions.

I have used this advice ever since in everything I’ve undertaken.

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