What Traffic Cops Can Teach Us About Management

Managers monitor employees' performance much in the way that cops police traffic.

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Yesterday I had the, ummm, experience of driving to the Newark, N.J., airport. For those of you who are  unfamiliar with the path to get there--suffice it to say that you are fortunate if you can keep in that state of being for the rest of your lives. It is, shall we say, unpleasant.

On my trip I ran across three different police cars. I watched how they approached their responsibilities and I realized it was a good analogy for managing people. I assume (and I realize this is a big assumption) that their goals were to make the roadways safer by enforcing the speed limit (65 mph). Now, don't get into a snit because this assumption is undoubtedly simplistic, just hold on with me for the management analogy.

The first police officer drove an unmarked black car with a "For Sale By Owner" sign in the back window. (Complete with phone number.) I only knew he existed because he pulled some poor person over. Until that point, people had been sailing by at a good 75 mph. (Not that I was doing that. I don't speed. Cross my heart.)

The second was in a traditional looking, Crown Victoria-style police car, with the familiar roof lights. He was parked in a very visible spot with a radar gun in hand. Traffic around him slowed to 45 mph and caused numerous people to slam on their brakes to avoid hitting the cars in front of them, whose drivers had just slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting the cars in front of them.

The third was also a traditional looking police car. But this one was driving down the road at about 68 mph. Traffic was flowing smoothly around him. No brake slamming or panicked looks at the speedometer.

How does this compare to managing? The first officer didn't get traffic going at a desired speed. He just picked one person out of the group to "punish" for behavior that everyone else was doing. People get resentful at this type of punishment. It's like the manager that never follows up on goals; never provides feedback along the way, but slams you with a poor performance appraisal and lousy bonus when you never realized you were doing anything different from the rest of your co-workers. It's an ineffective way to achieve results and it builds resentment. Even though you may not get caught the first time, you feel like the playing ground is unfair and you are in danger at any moment.

The second officer was sure to let you know he was there. But the result wasn't better performance (which would be determined by people going the actual speed limit). The result was such paranoia that people slowed down to 20 mph below the speed limit. This is dangerous and unproductive. This is like those micromanagers who hover and demand documentation and explanations for every phone call, E-mail and PowerPoint slide, and then wonder why progress is so slow and inefficient. The manager isn't doing any real work, just causing others to second guess themselves.

The third officer was as visible as the second, yet traffic around him flowed smoothly and at as close to the speed limit as you're likely to see on the NJ Turnpike. He lead by example. No one was afraid they were going to be punished. He gave clear feedback by showing what was acceptable.

As I said, the analogy isn't perfect. Clearly the police have more responsibilities than to pull speeders over. And the "unlucky" driver that was pulled over by the unmarked car could have been picked at random from among the speeders, or it could have been a stolen car, for all I know. But, when you are managing others, think--are you avoiding feedback and waiting for the big knockdown appraisal? Are you micromanaging, causing more problems than you solve? Or, are you leading by example, providing feedback and clear expectations?

One of those will result in smooth travel. The others, not so much.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human r esources experience, most of which has been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.

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