Management Myth #3: We Must Treat Everyone the Same Way

One of the biggest management myths is, “I must treat everyone the same way.” In our organizations, we have career ladders that try to fit us into “ticky-tacky” boxes for promotion, assume that everyone brainstorms the same way, and that everyone likes the same kind of projects. Nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone has different goals for their career, and those change over the course of a career.

Watch as Susan, a manager, discusses career development during staff one-on-ones.

Two weeks ago, Susan asked Karen, a senior developer, what she wanted for the next step in her career development plan.

“Hi, Karen. Have you thought about your career development plan?”

“Yes, I have. I want to continue the book allowance. And, I want to modify it a little. Instead of just a book allowance for me, I want you to extend the allowance for the entire team. I was reading about a new way to do a reading group, and I think it will work this time. Last time, I couldn’t get anyone to read with me.

“I have an idea about how to encourage people to read in time. Instead of just reading a chapter a week, I have exercises and games for each chapter. I want to do those instead of just discussions. I think that will work. And, since I’m working on my facilitation skills, that will play really nicely into developing those skills.”

“What a great idea!” Susan agreed. “How much money do you think you need for the first month? We can assess how things have gone after the group has read the first book and you’ve developed the first set of exercises.”

“I might need to go to a local conference, too,” Karen said. “And, I really want to go to that national conference in November.”

“OK,” Karen said. “Now that I have the whole plan, I can add the expenses and see what I can shake loose. Give me a couple of days and I’ll let you know.”

Later that day, Susan met with David, another senior developer. He ambled into Susan’s office and sat down. He grinned his deceptively lazy grin.

“Susan, what’s shakin’?”

“Dave, I’m supposed to ask you that! Tell me, have you thought about your career development plan?”

“I have, and I have a little problem. I don’t want to go anywhere for training. I just want to stay here and work, and drive the kids and do that soccer-dad thing. I really like the fact I get to leave early a couple of days a week and coach Little League for Little-Dave and take Jenny and Barbara to gymnastics and dance. I never would have pegged myself for the minivan-dad kind of guy, but I’m loving it. The kids say so much when I’m driving them. In a couple of years, Jenny will be able to drive, but until then, I really don’t want to travel.”

Susan smiled. “I suspect that’s not a problem; I bet you don’t have to go anywhere. What makes you think that’s a problem?”

“Well, I need to work on my people skills. I’m fine here in the team—I can pair with anyone; I can interview anyone technical—but whenever I want to find out what’s going on with the stories from sales to get a better idea of what they really want for the acceptance criteria, I ask them questions and they look at me as if I’m from outer space. You know, that Mars and Venus thing?”

“Is it just you, or do other people have the same problem? Should I look into bringing in training?”

“I don’t know,” Dave said. “I’ll have to check with other people.” He made some notes in his notebook.

“I’ll gather some data, too,” Susan said. “What else did you want to work on?”

“Well, this is going to sound a little strange, but I want to start a more formal lunch-and-learn series about the guts of our system. The system is getting bigger. We’ve been hiring more people—we’re up to three teams now. We’re managing our technical debt, and I want to make sure we keep managing it. So I want to make sure everyone understands what’s going on. I don’t want the testers out of sync with the developers or the senior developers out of sync with the junior developers. I don’t know if this is career development for me or for everyone else, but I see a need and I want to make sure it happens.”

“Dave, that’s not strange—that’s a great idea. How often will it be? You’ll take responsibility for setting up the lunch-and-learn series? You’ll get the people and help them craft their talks? Do you want me to pay for the lunches, or will people bring their own?” Susan had lots of questions.

Dave grinned. “I’d like it to be biweekly—once every two weeks. How about if you supply drinks and maybe sandwiches? If I eat pizza every two weeks, I’ll gain weight and then my wife will not be happy. When she’s not happy, no one is happy.” He paused and thought. “I’ll do the first talk so people can see how it’s done. Then I’ll let people know I want more talks and line up more speakers. You want to be a speaker?”

“Sure, but what do you want me to talk about?”

Dave got serious. “How agile allows us to make promises to our clients that we couldn’t otherwise. How the roadmap and the backlog allow us to see business value and to stop doing work that doesn’t matter. Some of the younger guys don’t know we used to work differently and that we have a real business advantage now.”

Susan agreed and Dave left.

A few minutes later, Brian arrived. Brian is a tester in his early 20s. He’s new to the organization, and no manager has ever asked him to define his career development plan before. He plopped down in Susan’s visitor chair. Then his right leg started to jump up and down a hundred times a minute.

“Hi, Susan. I think I did what you want. I’m a little confused.”

“Well, that’s why we talk about it. What do you want to learn about?”

“Well, I want to learn more about the system, that’s for sure. I don’t think I know nearly enough. And, I’ve been pair testing with Dale and Liza. I’d like to know more about the database, so I think I’d like to pair test with Michelle, our DBA, or even have her train me in DBA-ness, if that’s even a word.”

“It’s enough of a word for me. Have you asked her?”

“I can do that?” Brian seemed surprised.

“You don’t have to wait for my permission,” Susan said. “You are on the team with her. If she picks up a story, you say something like, ‘I’d like to work on that with you.’ And if she says no, and no one on the team helps you, then ask me and I’ll show you how to help  her say yes. But she will most likely say yes the first time.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize that. OK, I’ll talk to Michelle at lunch and tell her I want to work with her.”

Brian’s leg was still going a mile a minute. Susan waited a few seconds and asked, “Brian, is there something else you want to ask me?”

“Um, yes. It’s not really about career development, but I don’t know when the right time is.”

“Well, ask away.”

“I want to take a big bicycling trip this summer, four weeks worth. That’s not career development, that’s sort of personal development. I don’t care if I take two weeks without pay or something like that. But I don’t know when to ask. Is that possible?” Brian’s leg was threatening lift-off from his body.

“Sure it is. I’m really glad you told me now, so we can plan for that much time off.” Susan smiled and Brian’s leg stopped.

Susan had similar conversations with a similar structure with each staff member, because she treats people fairly, not equally. That’s because each person is unique. But in one way she does treat each person exactly the same—with respect.

What makes one person happy might make another person miserable. Most people want a challenging job; a job they can make their own decisions about. Susan’s team members make their own decisions about their career development. Susan facilitates their decisions and obtains the funds—she does not decide for the individual. How could she? She doesn’t know what each person wants or needs. Susan is not a mind reader.

People want a fair working environment. They want regular feedback about their performance, meaning when they do something good or not so good. They don’t want feedback once a year—that’s too late. When people are ready for more responsibility, they want to be able to stop working on tasks that are no longer challenging, and they want to start working on tasks that are challenging, regardless of where the challenge is. Sometimes, that challenge is in understanding the acceptance criteria for stories. Sometimes, the challenge is in facilitation. Sometimes, it’s pairing with the DBA.

People want fair compensation. And, in return, they will work at a sustainable pace, providing the best work they can for the organization.

That’s what people want from work.

You can’t provide that if you treat people equally, because people are not equal. We are unique individuals. As long as we have to treat people equally, we will end up with unequal situations. As long as we treat people fairly, we will end up with a fair workplace. And that creates a wonderful place in which to work.

So, forget the myth of treating every person precisely the same way. Be transparent and tell people you will treat them fairly.

© 2012 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published on Like the series? Want to read Management Myth #4: I Don’t Need One-on-Ones.

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