Steve Buttry has been posting a series of articles at The Buttry Diary offering advice to top editors. All are instructive, but the latest, on dealing firmly with staff problems, is particularly valuable. If you are a manager at any level, you would do well to examine how he lays out various situations and how he suggests dealing with them.

I append a few comments of my own.

In journalism, most managers, regrettably, fall into two categories: bullies and cowards. This I have seen at two newspapers myself, and have heard reports from colleagues at scores of others. Effective managers are a slender minority, perhaps not statistically significant.*

Bullies are easily dismissed, because there appear to be fewer of them in the business than formerly. They are easily identified by the deference to their superiors and their habit of hectoring their subordinates. Bullying can be counted on to produce three consequences: resentment, resistance, and subversion. You will notice that better work is not among the prime effects.

Cowards, however, have been and remain legion. This is not hard to understand. Confronting people about deficiencies in their performance or behavior is unpleasant. One shies away from it. I once administered a performance review to a veteran editor many years my senior that drew attention to some negative elements. It took me some time to nerve myself for the encounter, in the course of which he bellowed at me from a distance of two and a half feet that I was an incompetent surrounded by sycophants. Not an experience that anyone would be keen to repeat, though I have since had to go through far worse.

So, most managers avoid confrontation. They hope that problems will just go away. They neglect to do evaluations at all, or write reviews that are the equivalent of social promotion in the schools. When a situation becomes intolerable, they go to the classic solution: shifting the problem elsewhere. The unsatisfactory employee is shuttled from one position to another until he lands in his final resting place, which is either a place in which the damage he can do to the overall operation is minimal, or he has a supervisor with too little power to get rid of him.

There was a major American newspaper that once had a corridor lined with offices in which employees who had botched every previous assignment were given a high-sounding title and negligible duties to keep them out of the way. Among the staff, this corridor was referred to sardonically as the Hall of the Immortals. This is hearsay, mind you, from a third-hand report some years ago, but it rings true.

Now if you happen to be a manager and aspire to be neither a bully nor a coward, Mr. Buttry has some suggestions for you.

 

*If you have reason to extrapolate from the newspaper industry to American corporations at large, speculate away.