Management Speak: People are our greatest asset.
Translation: People are our biggest expense item.
The anonymous IS Survivalist who provided this week’s linguistic asset wants to keep on being an expense item

I hate making dumb mistakes in this column, but make ’em I do. In a recent column on technical architecture, I described LU2 as IBM’s peer-to-peer protocol and LU6.2 as handling 3270 terminal sessions.

That is, of course, exactly backward, as a few of you kindly pointed out. The good news is that nobody yells at me when I make mistakes like this. The bad news is that far too many people, faced with a choice between owning up to a mistake and burying it deep, will choose burial in an unmarked grave rather than dealing with a bullying boss.

Following my recent column on bosses who rule by fear, lots of you wrote to ask how I learned the innermost details of your situations. Don’t worry — I don’t have a platoon of secret Ninja informants faithfully reporting to me. Having seen a few organizations run by bully bosses, I’ve seen them all.

Although my advice — find a better job — was just fine for someone on the receiving end of a bullying boss, it didn’t do much to help you prevent the problem in your own organization or to catch and fix it when it happens.

So here’s a practical program to keep fear out of your organization. It will work, so long as you sincerely want to create a great workplace:

1. Set the right tone: Model good leadership. Your leadership team will, for the most part, mimic your style.

2. Training: Hold regular one-day off-site sessions. Work through real-world scenarios, perhaps with role-playing exercises. Explore each scenario in depth. If you think your team ends up with the wrong conclusion, let them know your expectations. That’s called leadership. Disagreeing with your initial conclusion doesn’t make your team wrong, though. Learn from your team while you’re leading it.

3. Create communication channels: Make it easy for employees to tell you about problem managers. Establish an open-door policy. Meet employees for off-site breakfasts if they seem concerned over repercussions. Be open, friendly, casual, and available — don’t hide behind an imposing office and a big desk. Set up a Suggestion Box. Discourage anonymous messages — it’s too easy to stuff a ballot box — but treat signed messages as confidential whenever an employee requests it. Make sure employees can go to your boss if they have complaints about you — you aren’t perfect either, and you have to live under the same rules as the rest of your leadership team. Remind employees of their options frequently — not because “I want to spot bad managers,” but because “We want this to be a great place to work and I want to know where we can improve.”

4. Monitor turnover: Excessive turnover is an obvious warning sign. A manager who explains that “We’re better off without that employee,” is a bigger warning sign. Hold exit interviews. If possible, conduct them yourself; otherwise make sure exit interviews are with a senior member of your leadership team outside the departing employee’s reporting structure. Do not delegate this to HR — this is your job.

5. Give bad managers a chance to improve: A chance, not lots of chances. Let the problem manager know, in clear and precise terms, that you won’t put up with dysfunctional leadership behavior and that unemployment is the most likely outcome. Provide training if it’s needed, too.

When you’ve identified a bad manager, you need to take corrective action and monitor progress. This is the trickiest part, because the manager’s team must be told something, but not something that undermines the manager’s authority. That would eliminate any chance of success.

You’re best off if your manager describes a new approach to leadership to his or her team without having to acknowledge and apologize for past behavior. He or she is trying something different and has asked you to personally help monitor progress, explaining why you’ll be personally meeting with each team member periodically for a while.

You won’t satisfy employees who want retribution through this process. Retribution, though, is simply another layer of fear.

That’s what you’re trying to get rid of, remember?