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A leadership lesson from a baseball gaffe

Last October, the Boston Red Sox were a few innings away from a trip to the World Series when it came time for then-Manager Grady Little to pull his superstar pitcher, Pedro Martinez, in favor of a fresh relief pitcher who could have finished off the rival New York Yankees in the deciding Game 7 of the American League baseball playoffs. But at a couple of crucial junctures, Little managed with his heart instead of his head. He left Martinez in, Boston's big lead evaporated, and the Yankees won.

Martinez had told the manager that he wanted to stay in the game. Little listened and obliged, and a few weeks later he was fired. Bruce Katcher, Ph.D., an industrial/organizational psychologist and president of The Discovery Group in Sharon, Mass., says the managerial meltdown offers valuable lessons:

  • Understand that the goals of the organization and the goals of your staff members are not always the same. Martinez's pride was likely a factor in his insistence that he could stay in the game and preserve his team's lead, but the team's key goal at that time was using the most-effective pitcher.
  • Know where to draw the line. Some day-to-day decisions can be made by workers. But leaders must make tough decisions based on what they think is best, sometimes over the strenuous objections of employees. Katcher notes that only 50 percent of employees say that management makes good decisions.
  • Consult with senior advisers. Little had a capable pitching coach and other close advisers on the bench with him. No doubt they would have advised him to change pitchers.
  • Base decisions on logic rather than emotion. Boston fans would have cheered if Martinez saved the day, but not calling for a relief pitcher was an unnecessary risk. In such situations, a leader needs "to be as open as you can be about the criteria" for a decision, says Katcher. "It's not a personal thing. It's not an emotional decision" when you are forced to go against the wishes of your employee-even one as popular as Pedro Martinez.

Listen up, managers: Let workers do the talking

Listening is a useful and active leadership tool in the hands of the patient executive, says John Baldoni, an author, speaker and communications consultant based in Ann Arbor, Mich., whose advice was published recently in the electronic leadership digest of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management of the University of Pennsylvania.

"Good leaders are good listeners," says Baldoni. "It is an easy thing to state but very often hard to put into practice. Leaders give listening short shrift because they have so many other things to do. The trick is to turn listening into an action step, one that can help the leader ensure organizational understanding and ultimately drive for results."

Baldoni offers the following tips for managers hoping to improve their listening skills:

  • Implement the "brief-back." Make sure people understand what you say. "Ask your listeners to tell you what you have just told them."
  • Designate an information source. Leaders need to deliver a message repeatedly, but they can delegate others to speak for them at times. This frees the executive to focus on other issues and "shares the ownership" of the information being delivered.
  • Invent communication loops. Open the channels of feedback by "thinking out of the office," such as by inviting workers to breakfast or meeting them for coffee. Refrain from talking too much, thereby prompting employees to speak.
  • Stay in the loop. Mingle with people at all levels of the organization and ask questions regularly.

"Listening is by nature a passive activity, but when transformed into an active process it may be one of the most important actions a leader can perform," says Baldoni.

References for Managers

Constructive feedback, mentoring, coaching and performance assessment are key to helping employees reach their potential, say Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith in The Art of Waking People Up (Jossey-Bass, 2003). But that doesn't mean that managers must force employees into one mold. Instead, the authors believe managers need to help their employees become more fully themselves at work, bringing all their ideas to the table, not just the ones they think management wants to hear. The book offers a detailed path to providing better feedback, including:

  • Steps to cultivate trust at work, including defining clear boundaries, offering sincere apologies and empowering others to make decisions.
  • An examination of how family backgrounds affect employees' work relationships.
  • A feedback plan that shows how to give informal responses as events occur, tips on delivering and receiving feedback constructively and a script for managers seeking feedback about themselves.
  • Coaching tools, including self-assessment quizzes for the coach.
  • Mentoring tools, including a discussion of how mentoring differs from coaching by focusing on attitudes and ideas to help employees respond to the anxieties of work.
  • A primer on supportive confrontation, including tips on agreeing on ground rules and having participants write out what they contributed to the problem.
  • Techniques for conflict resolution, such as having participants list their wants and identify what they would be willing to do to settle the dispute.
A "manager of choice" is "one chosen by employees who can work elsewhere and for other managers," says author Nancy Alrichs, SPHR, author of Manager of Choice (SHRM/Davies-Black Publishing, 2003).

These kinds of managers have developed five competencies to attract and keep top performers:
  • They're talent scouts, who partner with HR and push for updated job descriptions, the latest technologies and a specific skills-verification process. They've also sharpened their interviewing skills to hone in on savvy candidates.
  • They build relationships by managing employees individually and learning what motivates each employee.
  • They build trust by owning up to their mistakes, asking for advice and trusting employees to use flex-time programs.
  • They build skills through specific programs, such as lunchtime learning sessions, job shadowing, cross-training and online learning.
  • They build a personal brand by getting publicity for employees' achievements and urging employees to join professional groups.
This book can be purchased through the SHRMStore online. Members receive a discount off the list price. Visit and search for item number 61.13502.

Packed with real-life examples of employers' legal headaches—and a few nightmares—A Manager's Guide to Employment Law (Jossey-Bass, 2003) by Dana M. Muir is designed to help managers be more confident about managing risk when hiring, firing or dealing with potential legal problems. The book explains "employment at will," the cornerstone of U.S. employment, which allows employers to fire anyone for any legal reason. Then Muir delves into the exceptions to employment at will that can make employers question their own decisions, particularly in common problem areas:

  • Evaluation. Muir gives tips on keeping evaluations objective, to stave off accusations of bias, but adds that "the mere possibility of a lawsuit … should not discourage you" from giving a deservedly negative appraisal. She also discusses the legalities of giving references.
  • Discrimination. Managers must remember that nondiscrimination laws apply not only to hiring and firing but also to any "terms, conditions and privileges of employment." Muir tells readers how to defend against discrimination claims, deal with harassment charges and accommodate employees' religious
  • Disabilities and lost work time. The complex interactions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family and Medical Leave Act and employers' own policies require careful navigation for any manager wanting to avoid violations. The book gives ADA basics, defines "reasonable accommodations" for disabled employees and discusses alcohol and drug abuse as disabilities.
  • Firings. The book discusses firing cases covering misuse of e-mail, unionizing activities and liability for employees who harm non-employees in traffic accidents or altercations on work time.

Terms of Use: Advice for Supervisors from the Society for Human Resource Management © 2004 Society for Human Resource Management. Members of SHRM are authorized to distribute copies, excerpts or e-mails of this information for educational purposes internally within their organizations. No other republication or external use is allowed without permission of SHRM. The information is not intended to serve as a substitute for legal advice.

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