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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

10/04/2005

High-Tone Managers

High-Tone Managers

I’ve met a few of them in my time, and one or two of them lately.

What are high-tone managers? They are the relentlessly upbeat, cheerful and smiling managers that perpetually tell a good story, and emphasize the good things that are happening in their business.

They are not unlike those people who in interviews, have trained themselves to respond to questions like “What is your greatest weakness?” with answers like “I work too hard” (without a drop of irony).

Well, OK, Francis, what’s wrong with that? It beats being the opposite, doesn’t it?

At a certain level, we all aspire to be this way – in good spirits in spite of whatever circumstances may surround us. This is a particularly enlightened way to be in life.

My suspicion goes through the roof, however, when the time comes for someone who is “high-tone” to take responsibility for a failure. That’s when it doesn’t seem to be about enlightenment, but about something else.

Once, I observed a manager starting a workshop by defending a programme that had failed miserably. I had trained him to open with an acknowledgment that the program had failed, and that he had played a part in its failure, and that he was sorry about that, and wanted to take responsibility for it.

Instead, what came out of his mouth was a defense of the failed program. He seemed unable to admit to a failure publicly and instead gave his version of “I work too hard.” He was speaking to the issue, but he was taking no responsibility.

This experience has made me think more deeply about these “high-tone managers” who spend a great deal of time and energy trying to look good, and admitting to as few faults and failures as possible. It’s as if faults and failures are forbidden as topics on which to dwell, and both faults and failures must be either turned into positives by quick thinking and talking, or ignored altogether.

High-tone managers are the easiest to promote. They quickly determine what their boss wants to hear, and they thrive on repeating it. They learn just as quickly which topics to avoid, and they make sure to stay away from those, especially if they involve any threat of them looking bad. They are the consummate corporate animals, and get promoted quickly, especially by bosses that welcome their cheerful outlook and hopeful nature.

Unfortunately, the hot-air balloon eventually runs out of gas.

If promoted quickly, there comes a point when the large number of people the high-tone manager has directly or indirectly reporting to him/her her eventually catch on.

In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds” the author, Joseph Surowiecki, describes how groups of people are able to generate a kind of intelligence that a single person or small group is unable to attain.

I think that the same thing happens with managers. Their weaknesses are only amplified when they are promoted, and more people report to them. Over time their employees are able to fit together bits and pieces of their individual understanding, so that a composite is developed that is quite accurate.

For the high-tone manager, it can happen quite quickly. A once friendly crowd turns hostile. A favorite employee turns a cold shoulder. Morale takes a dip.

The high-tone manager responds by turning up the volume, and becoming more upbeat, more positive and more cheerful. The result is a further separation between the manager and his or her people, as they increasingly complain that the manager is “full of bull-shit,” “smoking dope / drinking their own Kool Aid” or “much too in love with themselves.”

If the cycle is not broken, cynicism deepens and every word that is uttered by the managers is met with suspicion. People work to protect themselves from an over-optimism that they fear might leave them dealing with some failure that their boss refused to face. This lack of trust manifests itself most openly when the high-tone manager attempts to “rally the troops,” leaving only one person rallied: themselves.

The cycle only breaks when the high-tone manager starts to demonstrate some recognition of his/her faults and failures, and does so in a way that lets other people know (and not just hear) that there is normal blood flowing through their veins, “just like the rest of us”. This authenticity has a refreshing tone to it that is inspiring and compelling, and can convert even the most hardened cynics. For the high-tone manager, it takes courage and strength of character to give up their natural inclination to do whatever they can to look good. The upside of doing so is that when they return to their natural upbeat selves they can do so knowing that being cheerful and positive is a choice, rather than a habit.

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Afterthought: For the Caribbean business-place, the high-tone manager has a unique challenge. During slavery, the worker that was high-toned was rewarded in physical ways: with better food, lodgings, jobs, treatment from Backra Massah and so forth. They usually would be found working as house-slaves, rather than field-slaves. At times, they would experience hostility from the other slaves as they curried Massah’s favor.

The high-tone manager is working with, and against, this historical legacy and tendency.

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