Managing To The Bottom

Every leader has undoubtedly encountered that one aggravating team member who is always pushing the limits. Perhaps they’ve turned leaving early into a habit, or they over surf the internet on the company clock, or spend hours talking to their family instead of doing their work. This violates the leader’s beliefs and values so to circumvent this bad behavior, the leader or the company puts rules in place. Then so as not to single anybody out, the leader or the company applies the new rules to everybody including the good performers (good guys). Everybody gets penalized because of the actions of a few. Repeat multiple times for multiple infractions and the organization starts to revolve itself around the bad guys. We call this managing to the bottom. Now a good guy who has to pick up their child from school early can’t because of a new rule they had nothing to do with. The result, the bad guys don’t change and the good guys are demoralized because they have a new rule and haven’t done anything wrong.

Managing to the bottom shows up in several ways but no matter how it shows up, it can be a huge leadership mistake. As discussed, the excessive rules intended to contain the bad guys but applied to everybody is the number one violator. Managing to the bottom also shows up when a good performer makes a mistake, and now that one mistake defines them. Employees have to think critically all day long. They catch errors, they avoid safety violations, they think ahead and communicate with all the right people. But that one time when a detail got passed them send the leader over the edge. The leader manages to the bottom (that one mistake) and now feels they have to micro manage because that person misses details. No, they just miss occasional details but then again, who doesn’t.

Another version of managing to the bottom is when a leader was in a difficult meeting, and then brings their anger and frustration to the next meeting because all meetings are now like the last bad one. To avoid back to back bad meetings, the leader walks into the next meeting with a tense voice, a bad attitude, and a whole set of new meeting norms and expectations, along with an impromptu agenda. The people in the next meeting aren’t the bad guys from the last meeting so don’t act as though they are. Sure, there are legal reasons for rules and company policy handbooks. The point is don’t manage to the bottom and demoralize the good guys because of the poor performance of the bad guys.

The solution is for leaders to adopt the mindset to always honor the good guys. Treat good people like good people. Next is to manage people individually, and for organizations to rely on their leaders to take care of problems at the individual level. Above all, don’t manage to the bottom and treat everybody like the bad guys.