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Are you acting or just pretending? Interim management appointments can benefit the laboratory when they are used to groom potential promotables.

The designation "acting"--as in acting chairman--is a management prerogative not unique to health care or to any particular level of command. It is used for presidents of major corporations as well as hospital administrators, department heads, and supervisors. By naming someone acting laboratory manager or supervisor, management provides continuity of leadership and buys time until making a permanent decision.

Managers prize this flexibility in decision making, and it can be a useful tool, provided all concerned know the rules of the game and the difference between acting and pretending.

Acting means to play the part of, to behave like, to simulate. Pretending has a different connotation--to claim falsely, to feign, to make believe.

Any interim appointment raises a question: Is the acting title a management procedure or a ploy? In one hospital where I worked, a technologist became acting supervisor on several occasions. Technically competent, though lacking communication and interpersonal skills, he always held the laboratory section somewhat together until a "real" supervisor was selected, usually from the outside. He was paid a little more for his responsibility and grief and when replaced was relegated back to his bench position. It seemed that laboratory management found him temporarily useful but not permanent supervisory material.

In another situation, a pathologist was made acting medical director of the laboratory when his predecessor left under cloudy circumstances. Meanwhile, a search began for a permanent replacement. None was found, but administration forgot to tell the acting director that he had replaced himself and was now the new director. Several months passed before he discovered he was no longer acting.

I have seen individuals in acting positions for as long as a year while more suitable replacements are recruited. It's fascinating to encounter the decision that makes a person okay in a pinch, regardless of the duration, but not suitable for the long haul. When the person knows this up front, he or she seems to be demeaned by management. In addition, if authority is severely limited in such areas as purchasing, hiring, firing, and planning, the appointee is pretending, not acting.

In the case of the technically competent supervisor who lacked the other skills to hold the job permanently, management should have made an investment and groomed him for the position--that is, if he really was interested in the job. One might ask, "Why would anyone in their right mind want to 'act' when they know they will never be selected?" For in such situations, a climate is established that insures mediocre performance. There is no challenge to excel since the outcome is predetermined.

Even decisions to promote from within are often made by default. The default lies in a lack of human resource development and planning designed to recognize the value of the people within an organization and to assess their management potential. Early identification of that potential is required in order to groom and train future supervisors and managers. This front-load cost to the organization has long-term payoffs. Also needed is a communication system that can convey an employee's interest in moving up to those who make the selection decisions.

There are situations where an acting appointee does not want the promotion, but does the decision-makers a favor by consenting to fill the role until the right candidate comes along. Since a management career is not for everyone, and some know it's not for them, this agreement is an honorable one. If may well involve pretending.

On the other hand, the hidden agenda or dishonorable appointment is offensive and also works against the major asset of health services delivery--its human resources. What is the message that management is sending to others? Employees are quick to learn how their department or organization rewards and punishes. When staff members are inappropriately rewarded or punished, productivity suffers throughout the organization. The message reads: "Work hard, do your best, and then be passed over."

One of the major reasons for promoting from within is to negate that message. Conversely, the message rings loud and clear if the organization or any of its subdivisions hires from the outside. A second message is also being given, and that is that management has failed to identify and groom its internal promotables. The absence of a system to do so reinforces an impression that human resource development is often overlooked in health care organizations. In part, this may be due to the high recognition of and need for specialization--technical or clinical. A further underlying assumption is that good technical or clinical. A further underlying assumption is that good technical or clinical skills are a predictor of supervisory or management performance. The reality is that managers require a totally different set of skills and behaviors.

Let's see how well the following acting and pretending scenarios work in the interest of the laboratory and the appointee.

* Scene 1, pretending. Having done an outstanding job of building an accredited medical technology program, education coordinator Carol Creed is asked to be acting laboratory manager. She knows everyone in the lan, is well liked and respected, and is familiar with all the sections.

Carol knows she is not prepared for the job, and while educators share many skills in common with managers, she has other career goals. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to grow and learn. Carol tells management: "I do not want the job on a permanent basis, but will take it on an interim basis as a challenge and to provide continuity for the department." She assumes the position of acting laboratory manager but is given little authority to make staffing or purchasing decisions other than routine scheduling and ordering of disposables.

Here, both Carol and management win. She knows she is a stopgap leader, a pretend manager who has acquired little authority and some responsibility. She works in both her own best interest and that of her department. Her dignity is left intact, and she can return to her former position gracefully.

* Scene 2, pretending. Tom Golightly is asked to fill the suddenly vacant laboratory manager's position. Laboratory administration views Tom as a good supervisor whose personality clashes with pathologists and clinicians. So he is picked only to buy time, but not told that. In fact, he is led to believe this is chance to move permanently from supervisor to manager.

The results: Management wins in the short run; Tom loses in the long run. After being deliberately misled, he decides that he will sabotage management at every opportunity.

Even though Tom has personality problems, a management with foresight could have addressed these problems and groomed a potential promotable. If the grooming failed. Tom would at least have known where he stood and be retained as a productive rather than a subversive employee.

* Scene 3, pretending. Belle Tremor has been assistant laboratory manager for eight years. Upon learning that the laboratory manager is leaving, she lobbies for his job. Management decides not to appoint an acting manager but lets her have the responsibility of both jobs while a new manager is recruited. Belle is dedicated and not one to walk out in a huff. Instead, she makes plans to leave as soon as an orderly succession is arranged.

Management thus loses a valuable employee, and Belle loses a position that has been personally and professionally satisfying. What happened? Belle had received the covert message that she was not wanted, for whatever reasons, in the lab manager's position. Management in essence manipulated her by not making the interim appointment yet asking her to perform the job in addition to her regular duties.

Again, were management involved in human resource development and long-range planning to identify, groom, and promote qualified people. Belle would have been the logical successor. Now management will have to fill two positions and bear recruitment and other costs.

* Scene 4, acting. Steven Spell-right is a bright, ambitious supervisor pursuing a graduate degree in management out of his own pocket. He has let everyone know about his ambitions to move up. Whenever the situation has called for his coverage, Steve has stepped in as acting assistant lab manager. He has the requisite interpersonal and communication skills and has been given the opportunity to use them.

His intermittent turns at managerial assignments are on a trial basis and in open competition with other recruits. He is informed of the selection criteria, and although he does not have the preferred years of experience, he has the advantage of being a known quantity. Whether or not Steve is selected for a permanent management position, he will know that the best person won. If he loses out, his dignity is still intact, and he can try again at another time or another place.

Management wins, and Steve also wins, because both have made all the right moves. Communication is open and honest. Steve is grooming himself with his graduate program, while management recognizes his potential and gives him the chance to exercise his newly acquired knowledge. Management might do well to help Steve with the cost of his education, since it benefits the laboratory as well.

Here's some advice for anyone named to an acting position:

1. Negotiate compensation that takes into account added duties and responsibilities.

2. Make certain that lines of authority and responsibility are clearly defined--what you can and can't do. This is negotiable.

3. Ascertain whether you are in competition to fill the position permanently or out of the running.

4. If you are not going to be considered for a permanent promotion, determine beforehand whether the experience will be to your advantage. When there is no foreseeable gain, the best you can hope for is not to suffer a loss in standing--and you may do worse. Don't commit professional suicide.

5. Have a plan that allows you to resume your former position gracefully.

6. Be alert to possible opportunities for success while weighing the political and professional ramifications of pretending or acting.

7. Analyze whether or not this is a win/win situation, for both you and management, and perform your own cost/benefit analysis.

8. In the words of Shakespeare, remember, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Day, Carmel Marti
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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