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Three diagnostic clues to management problems.

Three diagnostic clues to management problems

Management experts love quick, memorable phrases that help explain how organizations function. We're especially fond of analyzing the workplace with simple formulas like "roles, responsibilities, and relationships,' or "methods, materials, manpower, and money.' I'd like to offer my own variation: people, policies, and procedures. When analyzed in light of these three categories, many tough management problems will appear in a new perspective.

In my several years on MLO's Management Q & A panel, I've struggled with some thorny issues. A pattern has emerged from the dozens of questions I have attempted to answer. Some lab management problems appear to be matters of policy--or the lack of it. For others, the answer lies in following correct procedures. Since health care in general and the laboratory in particular are highly labor-intensive environments, many queries revolve around people, their personalities, and their idiosyncrasies.

The advice columnist's challenge, of course, is to provide worthwhile answers based on limited information. Often, I wish I could ask more questions of the question writer: Does your lab have a written policy or procedure that covers this problem? Or, if the advice seeker is describing an employee's troublesome personal trait: Does it affect the employee's performance? If not, does it affect the performance of others? If the answer to both questions is "no,' there may not be a problem.

People, policies, and procedures form a handy frame of reference for diagnosing workplace woes. Let's take a look at the kind of problem that falls into each category.

We'll start with the hardest kind: people problems. Supervisors and managers often fall into the trap of trying to perform amateur psychoanalysis when an employee appears to experience personal difficulties. In some organizations, official policies, such as employee assistance programs, may dictate a somewhat deeper level of involvement in staff members' personal concerns. But when the problem is one of "bad attitude,' how far should a manager go in trying to turn the employee around?

Basic management precepts tell us that when a manager wishes to alter behavior, he or she has three choices. These are, in order of preference: to change the organizational structure; to change the process involved; and, only as a last resort, to attempt to change the employee.

Structural changes may sound like the most drastic option, but they can actually be the easiest way to circumvent people problems. For instance, if the microbiology staff is constantly annoyed by phlebotomists taking a shortcut through their section, it may be easier to simply block the disruptive traffic flow with a desk or table than to nag others into changing the habit. Altering a process or procedure is another way we can change behavior or performance --again, without tackling the unrewarding task of changing people themselves.

Trying to change people or their attitudes should be a manager's last resort. It's a difficult task with a low success rate, and it may not even be necessary. Many managers complain, for example, of employee attitude problems. If a highly positive attitude is essential to good job performance-- say, for a receptionist--then the employee's job description should spell out the desired behavior as clearly as possible, and performance should be evaluated accordingly.

However, if the employee is a mycologist whose daily workload demands little interaction with others, how productive will it be to struggle over personality traits? As in all management decisions, it all depends on the specific situation. In reality, changing people usually means changing performance. By focusing on performance, and not personality, we can avoid countless accusations of unfairness, discrimination, and other grievances.

As a manager, you are on firmer ground by focusing on policy and procedure--that is, if the laboratory makes an effort to turn both into workable management tools. Rules, regulations, standards, and laws chart our course toward any achievement; they can provide guidelines of varying intensity and rigor for our professional and personal lives.

Policies and procedures are two words that, like goals and objectives, are used almost interchangeably despite the fact that they mean different things. The difference is important.

Policies are generally broad statements of goals, guiding what should be done; procedures describe how those goals may be accomplished. The hospital's board of directors may set a policy mandating free care for those in the community unable to pay; but the supervisors of various departments must work out procedures to handle the policy's logistical impact. In another example, a laboratory's disciplinary policy describes various offenses and their consequences; the accompanying procedure determines how those consequences are put into effect.

The laboratory stops functioning smoothly when actual practices stray too far from either policy or procedure, or when practices turn into unwritten policy. Managers victimize themselves by using practices that deviate from policy; organizations have lost lawsuits involving employee termination for just this reason.

In addition to the legal hazards involved, lax adherence to policy and procedure also endanger staff morale. Employees soon become wise to incongruent management practices, and will quickly turn them to their advantage. They will judge management by actions, not words, and respond in kind.

How would you answer the following questions?

"How can I fire an incompetent employee who has been here longer than anyone else?'

"How shall I handle requests for three simultaneous leaves of absence?'

"Should I pay the bachelor-degreed technologist more than the associate-degreed employee doing the same work?'

"How can I justify letting just one technologist attend a seminar and still keep peace in the lab?'

My response to each of these questions would be, "What is your lab's written policy, and what are your established procedures for carrying it out?' I would also suspect that, in each case, no appropriate policy exists, or the question wouldn't arise in the first place.

Of course, the symptoms of a troubled laboratory usually involve more than one of our three diagnostic categories. Take these situations, for example:

A pathologist continues to exempt one of the female technologists from the rules that are strictly enforced for others in the lab. The staff isn't sure why, but many have their suspicions.

One very capable medical technologist has an exasperating flaw: She is constantly mothering her co-workers. Overly solicitous, she meddles in others' affairs.

A technologist seems to miss a lot of Mondays, and some staff members claim that he seems to have been drinking heavily. On the job, however, his performance is satisfactory.

Each of these cases is primarily a people problem. The first--the suspect pathologist--is not worth the risk of a manager's or supervisor's involvement, unless he or she is willing and able to seek work elsewhere. The motherly meddler presents a counseling situation; she may simply be bored and underchallenged. If so, procedures could be changed and her responsibilities enlarged in order to modify her behavior toward the staff. Dealing with the suspected alcoholic calls for a sound policy on performance appraisal and absenteeism, and possibly for recourse to further counseling.

In each of these instances, managers would do well to find out facts before jumping to conclusions. Never act on your assumptions until you have verified them, because all of us color our perceptions with our own unique world view. If we tell employees that their performance or behavior is not satisfactory, we must also tell them how to make the needed changes. Managers should also put a time frame on counseling efforts, to give employees a sense of closure for their efforts.

Performance standards themselves involve troublesome aspects of both policy and procedure. How can we expect people to perform when they don't know exactly what we expect of them? When laboratory policy is weak, people problems take shape in the form of rumors, dissatisfaction, and declining morale.

The Management Q & A panel often hears this question: "How can I motivate the technologist who is just doing his or her job-- no more, no less?' This people problem is also a question of policy. What is the laboratory's management philosophy? Not everyone needs extraordinary motivation, and some perfectly adequate laboratory workers need only the recognition that they are performing a valuable service by "just' doing their job.

Motivational policy--or the lack of it--extends into procedure as well. Many performance appraisal formats have five rankings, from excellent to substandard. This structure sets up supervisors and staff in a no-win situation, since not everyone can be excellent 100 per cent of the time. An unattainable goal is demoralizing, not encouraging. Ideally, performance reviews should consist of three levels: meets standards; exceeds standards; and falls below standards. This appraisal concept places on management the responsibility of developing and communicating standards to the entire staff.

Of course, like any of those alliterative formulas, my three-word memory device for diagnosing management problems isn't foolproof. As we've seen, most situations involve a complex interaction of people, policies, and procedures. And, until we have all written down a policy and a procedure for every situation that could conceivably arise in the laboratory, MLO's Management Q & A column is assured of its status as the Dear Abby of the clinical laboratory.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:need people, policies, procedures, for successful personnel management
Author:Day, Carmel Marti
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Aug 1, 1987
Previous Article:For your next career move, why not infection control?
Next Article:Cut costs, not quality.

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