Why Is It Getting So Much Harder to Manage People?


During the boom, business leaders began to notice a new attitude emerging among employees. It came to be known as the “free agent” mindset—the idea that no matter where you work or what you do, you are in business for yourself. With the economic downturn, some people have expected the free agent mindset to go away. But it has only grown deeper and stronger in the last two years. Why?

The free agent mindset was never about disloyal job hoppers in the midst of a never-ending sea of good news. Rather, this new attitude grew out of the death of job security—the myth that if you pay your dues and climb the traditional career ladder, you will be rewarded with long-term job security with one employer.

Two years ago, people were chanting from the rooftops, “I’m going to go wherever opportunity takes me.” Today, people are murmuring into their sleeves, “I’d better go wherever opportunity takes me.” Still, the result is the same. Few employees expect anymore to have a traditional long-term career in one company. Most have accepted that they must take responsibility for their own success and fend for themselves as best they can. With the long-term so uncertain, most individuals focus on getting their needs met in the workplace, one day at a time.

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As a result, managers in every workplace today are engaged in a tug-of-war. On one side, employers are demanding more and better work out of people–often out of fewer people, with fewer resources. On the other, employees are feeling pressured, overworked, and in need of some relief in the form of flexible working conditions, or at least some incentives for all their hard work. Stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate these competing needs, is every single person with supervisory authority. How can managers reconcile these opposite forces? How can they possibly win the game? What can they do every day to get more and better work out of each person and at the same time give people more of the flexibility they need?

Just What Is HOT Management?

Based on ongoing research with employees, business leaders, and managers around the world, I coined the term HOT Management™ to describe the highly engaged management style used by the most effective managers in today’s demanding workplace. HOT stands for Hands-On and Transactional.

HOT managers are hands-on, which means they spend time regularly with the people they are managing to help them think through assignments up front, anticipate resource needs, avoid potential problems, and create realistic timetables for results. They also provide regular, constructive feedback and coaching to get people on track and keep them there.

HOT managers are also transactional, which means they drive performance through negotiation, rather than just relying on being the boss. They find and leverage the “needles in a haystack” that are each employee’s unique needs and wants—whether it is a choice assignment, Thursdays off, the corner cubicle, or bringing the dog to work. They know they can’t give everything to everybody, but they try to do as much as they can for every employee, making a custom deal for every person to give him or her more of what he or she needs or wants. In exchange, HOT managers hold each employee accountable for meeting ambitious goals and deadlines.

In other words, HOT managers engage in an ongoing dialogue with each person they manage. That dialogue basically sounds like this: “What do you want from me? Good. Here’s what I need from you.” And conversely, “Here’s what I need from you. What do you want from me in return?”

Does This Approach Offer Easy Solutions?

This approach sounds simple, but it’s not. HOT Management may be the most difficult and, ultimately, the most rewarding way to build day-to-day relationships with your people and motivate them to higher performance. Managing people is going to take more of your time, energy, and skill than it ever has. High performance requires high maintenance, and HOT Management provides you with the tools to keep your team in top form. The results are well worth the effort.

However, HOT Management isn’t a pat answer to every challenge that managers face. There will be obstacles. There will be problems. HOT Management is not a 100-percent solution. There are no 100-percent solutions to managing your people. But HOT Management will help you move toward high productivity on your team, no matter how partially you are able to practice it.

As you implement HOT Management on your team, there will be many things you’ll find that you cannot do. That’s okay. There’s plenty still that you can do: Take responsibility for managing your people, work harder at managing your people, and get better at managing your people. The bottom line is that even if your company doesn’t embrace HOT Management, even if your boss doesn’t embrace HOT Management, even if your peers don’t embrace HOT Management, you can make it work at least partially for your team.

So what can you do? For one thing, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to supervisory skills. But learning one more skill, taking one more class, introducing one more management “flavor of the day” isn’t the solution. Rather, the solution lies in knowing which skills to master—

  • Those that help you drive each person toward high performance
  • Those that help you facilitate difficult  conversations with people who are off track
  • Those that help you diagnose and correct performance problems quickly
  • Those that enable you to remove low performers from the team when they won’t improve
  • These are the keys to creating and maintaining a high-performance team and they’re also the essential skills of HOT Management.

You’ve got to find a way to make high performance a nonnegotiable condition of employment. If you’re being pressured to do more with less, and to do that “more” smarter, faster, and better, then you need a team filled with people who rise to the challenge. And you need to be a manager who responds to what those people need and want in return. When you make every person an offer they can’t refuse, you add a new and dynamic leverage to your management relationships—a custom deal in return for ambitious goals and deadlines.

Getting More and Better Work from Your Employees

The best way for any manager to get more and better work out of employees, and give them what they need in return, is to use two interrelated strategies. First, challenge your team to work faster, smarter, and better; and second, become a HOT Manager who motivates them to do so. Challenging your team to work faster, smarter, and better involves identifying areas of work that are obstacles to the team’s ability to make the best use of its time and talent, and determining which areas can be eliminated, streamlined, outsourced, or reallocated.

The second strategy for getting more and better work out of employees, while still giving them what they need in return, has everything to do with managing and motivating your people to do better, faster, smarter work. This means becoming both “hands-on” and “transactional.”

Why hands-on? Leaving employees to sink or swim–assigning work with little support, training, or guidance–might have suited another historical era, but it’s counterproductive today. Employees are no longer willing to stick around until they figure things out by themselves. They need just-in-time leaders who can coach them to success. Today’s workplace is one of constant change, where even the most experienced employee is perpetually inexperienced. Employees need  managers to get them up to speed and keep them there. Downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering has made it imperative to continually seek faster, smarter, and better ways of getting more and better work done with fewer people, and employees need the guidance and support of managers to do this. In such an environment, relying on hands-off management won’t get the results you need.

Why transactional? Just being the boss no longer carries weight with workers in today’s workplace. People don’t think of their relationships with employers in the old-fashioned hierarchical terms anymore. The old myth of job security is dead and buried, and many people don’t even trust employers to deliver on short-term promises. Today’s free-agent workforce is no longer responsive to command/control management and is no longer motivated by fear, or even by rewards years down the road. Downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering put employees in charge of their own success.

For that reason, employees no longer just do as they are told, pay their dues, try to climb the mythic corporate ladder, and wait for their just rewards. Nowadays, employees are much more assertive about making sure they are fairly treated and get what they feel they deserve. It seems that employees are prepared to push back on almost every issue. So trying to pull rank with them, or assert your authority because you have a title, no longer holds water.

As a result, the employer-employee relationship has become less paternal and increasingly more transactional, giving employees bargaining power in the free market for talent. Employers who aren’t willing to come to the table and negotiate, who aren’t able to capitalize on the transactional nature of today’s employer-employee relationship, will ultimately lose. A new kind of management model is needed in order to manage this new relationship, and that management model is the “hands-on/transactional” coaching style of management we call HOT Management.

What Exactly Is It That HOT Managers Do?

Our research has shown that the most effective hands-on transactional managers exhibit seven essential behaviors.

1. They do the hard work of managing people. 

They abandon the “hands-off, sink-or-swim” model of managing people and commit to rolling up their sleeves, getting in there, and doing the hard work of managing people every day. They don’t micromanage—far from it. They coach their people to do their best work, pushing them beyond what they think they can produce, and rewarding them appropriately in return.

2. They don’t hide behind rules and red tape.

They don’t hide behind the excuse, “Oh, I can’t do that. Not at this company. My hands are tied.” HOT Managers go to bat for their people. They focus on what they can do to drive performance in their team members, and leverage it for all it’s worth. Whenever they run up against things that they can’t do, they take on the role of change leaders in their organizations, finding and winning allies for their cause.

3. They talk with their employees about the work.

They engage employees in tackling ambitious goals and providing them with the resources they need to pull them off. They do this by helping employees think through assignments up front, so that they can anticipate resource needs, avoid potential problems, and create realistic timetables for results.

4. They send the message that high performance is the only option on their team.

They know that no one likes to work with slackers, with people who only show up and do half a job. So they set high standards for performance and hold their people accountable for achieving those standards.

5. They find the “needle in the haystack” that motivates each team player.

They find what uniquely motivates each person and uses it to drive high performance. In their interactions with their more outspoken employees, they listen for specific requests and use these as motivators. But they don’t just motivate the “squeaky wheels” on their team. They also draw out their less outspoken employees and ask them what motivates them. They may even probe deeper in search of their employees’ hidden wants and needs–their unspoken or unrecognized motivators. In all cases, they seek out the most effective motivator for each team member.

6. They negotiate custom deals in exchange for high performance.

They engage in an ongoing dialogue: “What do you want from me? Good. Here’s what I need from you.” Then they spell out all the conditions of the custom deal, and keep that deal on the table all the time. They negotiate more and better deals for more and better work. But they also hold employees accountable for keeping their end of the deal, and call the deal off when employees fail to keep it.

7. They engage in difficult conversations.

It is one of the most painful parts of a manager’s job: Having difficult conversations with people to address performance problems. Since they know what goals, deadlines, and standards people have committed to, they don’t hesitate to coach them back on track when necessary. They’re even adept at the most difficult conversation of all–we call it the “deal breaker” conversation–that may result in someone’s removal from the team. Difficult conversations involve both art and skill, and the hottest managers master them.

Seven Necessary Skill Sets for HOT Managers

Based on these behaviors, we’ve identified seven skill sets that HOT Managers must master.

1. Negotiate custom deals.

HOT Managers use the needs and wants of their employees as levers to drive high performance. This involves good observational skills to help employees identify those wants and needs, good negotiation skills to get more work from employees in exchange for more flexibility, and even some measure of creativity to cut through the red tape to get the best deal for every member of their team.

2. Create HOT teams.

HOT Managers extend custom deals to every member of their team and strive to make their team 100 percent elite. This involves the persuasive skills to position HOT Management to their team as a “more for more” proposition, get all team members on board, and handle the initial push-backs that are inevitable with any major change in the workplace.

3. Manage people every day.

HOT Managers invest time managing each person in proportion to the nature of the work that person is doing, and provide the support and coaching to keep that person on the road to high performance. This involves good delegation skills to assign work effectively, good analytical skills to assess performance and provide effective feedback, and good follow-through skills to hold everyone accountable for their commitments.

4. Deal with low performers immediately.

HOT Managers don’t wait for performance reviews to get people back on track. They immediately seek out the source of problems and take action to solve them. This involves good analytical skills to diagnose the performance problem, good communication skills to handle the performance-improvement conversation, and good coaching skills to get the person refocused on high performance.

5. Conduct deal-breaker conversations.

When HOT Managers have exhausted all ordinary efforts to help low performers get back on track, they conduct “deal-breaker” conversations. This is the most difficult conversation of all because it pushes the employee to make a final decision: “Improve or be removed.” HOT Managers aren’t afraid of these conversations. In fact, they are skilled in them.

6. Cut through the red tape.

HOT Managers know where to go to find people from HR, legal, EEO, or local unions to support them in their efforts to be a HOT Manager. They push back on “We can’t do that.” And they don’t resort to “I can’t do that.” This requires more than just persistence. It requires resourcefulness and even creativity.

7. Maintain the intensity of HOT teams.

HOT Managers keep their team in balance and maintain its enthusiasm, buzz, and intensity with good team-building skills. They realize that the HOT approach is pretty intense, so they employ good observational and analytical skills to diagnose signs of burnout or complacency on their teams. They also keep refreshing their teams with new talent by building their team’s “brand,” selecting the best, and getting newcomers up to speed right away.

Common Objections to HOT Management 

You might be thinking, “Yeah, right. This sounds good, but it’ll never work in my organization or on my team.” Indeed, you could raise dozens of objections to the notion of HOT Management—based on the attitudes of your team members, the bureaucracy of your organization, the culture of your workplace, or even your own abilities as a manager. Allow me to respond to the most common objections we hear from managers.


I don’t have the time for this “hands-on” approach.


How many hours a week do you think it’s costing you to not spend that time managing people? How many fires get started that you could have prevented? How many fires get out of control that could have been put out easily? How many resources are squandered? How many employees work long and hard going in the wrong direction for days or weeks on end before anybody turns them around? How many low performers are hiding out hoping nobody will ever find them? How many of your tasks and responsibilities could be delegated to someone else so you can find more time to manage your people?

Sure, HOT Management requires extra work, especially initially. However, HOT Management will ultimately save time and make the work that you do more effective and productive.


People are going to talk to each other and compare deals. Some people are going to feel like they got a raw deal in comparison to others. They’re going to think it’s unfair. They’re going to complain, and I just don’t want to deal with that.


No doubt some people will compare, and some will complain. You will have difficult conversations along the way. Difficult conversations are a big part of managing people. You’ll have to be clear in your own mind why each person is getting the deal he is getting. And you’ll have to be good at explaining that to every person. But you don’t need to explain one person’s deal to anybody other than the person with whom you’ve made that deal. If a person complains, keep the conversation focused on that person’s deal. Ask that person, “What do you want? What do you need?” Then explain that you are trying to do as much as you can. Explain that you can’t do everything for everybody. Tell the person what you need from him. Tell him exactly what he would have to do in order to get a better deal. That’s all part of the negotiation process.


Some people are just never going to contribute enough to get the deal they want, or the deal they think they deserve. Sometimes people overestimate themselves. They don’t want to admit to themselves that they are not really high performers. It’s very hard to tell somebody that he is not valuable enough to get the deal he wants. People don’t want to hear that. They can get very insulted and feel like the whole thing is totally unfair. It’s very hard to deal with that kind of thing.


It is true that some people will never be happy with this approach, especially low performers. The good news is that this approach will help you raise the performance level of most of the people on your team so that they can become more valuable contributors to the team. Even better news is that high performers tend to love this approach. But you are absolutely right. You’ll have to endure some difficult conversations. And that is very hard.


I’m really dreading the idea of talking to certain employees about this. There are a few of them I know will give me a really hard time about it, one way or another.


Every employee will react differently to the HOT method, at least initially. Some of your employees, especially your high performers, will take the ball and run with it. Some of your more timid employees will avoid telling you what they really want. Some of your more stubborn employees will refuse to buy into it. Some of your more shady employees will try to figure out a way to cheat the system. Some of your lowest performers will do anything to escape it. To be sure, it will be harder to get some employees on board than others. The thing to remember is that this is negotiation, not confrontation. You’re going to be engaging in an ongoing dialogue: “What do you need from me? Good. Here’s what I need from you in return.”


Everybody has different needs and will want something different. That’s just not the way this organization is run. We don’t make custom deals for anyone. I don’t have the resources to do that. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to give everybody everything they want. I wouldn’t be able to say “yes” to everybody. In the end, some people would be very disappointed and would think it was unfair.


Of course, everybody has different needs and will want something different. And you’re right; you probably wouldn’t be able to do everything for everybody. Still, I’ll bet you could do a lot more for most of the people on your team. You could do at least something for almost everybody. At least you could try. You would have to take each request on a case-by-case basis, focus on what you can do, and leverage that for all it’s  worth.


What if they don’t deliver? Am I supposed to take away their custom deal?


Yes. You would have to be clear with each person up front: if they don’t perform, the deal is off. Flexibility and accountability go hand in hand. You would have to hold every person accountable every day.


I don’t want to have a group of high performers who get whatever they want. That would create a real fissure and I think it would be very damaging.


The key to avoiding that is to focus on each person as an individual. Every person is special. Every person gets a custom deal. Every person has a continuing opportunity to get a better deal by performing better. Just as a person can lose his custom deal by failing to perform, a person can improve his deal by improving his performance. You have to make it clear to every person exactly what he or she needs to do for you in order to get more of what he or she wants. The negotiation is ongoing.


There’s so much red tape and bureaucracy around here. Even if I wanted to take the approach you are talking about, I don’t think I could. My hands are tied.


It is true that HOT Management is especially challenging in an organization with lots of bureaucracy and red tape. But just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Don’t you navigate through the bureaucracy and cut through red tape all the time to do other aspects of your job? Why can’t you navigate through the bureaucracy and cut through the red tape in order to make HOT Management work? What do you think you would have to do to make it work?


It seems like some of this approach would work, but some of it just can’t be done, not in this organization, not on my team. It seems like it causes more problems than it solves.


It is true that HOT Management is not a 100 percent solution. The punch line is that there are no 100 percent solutions. But HOT is a partial solution and if you can move most obstacles at least partly out of the way, then you can partially implement this partial solution. And with this partial solution, of course there are problems. So you work harder to solve them. The difference between the problems you’ll encounter using HOT Management and the problems you encounter already every day is that HOT Management, however problematic, will improve morale, productivity, and retention on your team. So what if you have only a 20 percent improvement in morale, productivity, and retention of high performers? That wouldn’t be 100 percent, but it would be a lot.


We’ve always tried to treat employees equally. With HOT Management, some employees are going to get better deals than others. How can we make it fair for everybody?


You aren’t running a commune. You’re running a company. Custom deals treat employees equitably, not equally. This means that each person gets an equitable deal for the work and performance he or she contributes. Those who contribute more and perform better get more and better in return. When you treat employees equally, not equitably, you reduce performance to the lowest common denominator. You need performance that is high, uncommon, and exponential.

Whatever your objections may be, itis important to distinguish between obstacles that can be surmounted and those that cannot. Some of your objections may be based on obstacles more imagined than real—obstacles based more on your fears than on actual threats. Other objections may involve what seem like organizational obstacles at first glance, but are actually personal obstacles—obstacles that can be surmounted if you work harder at managing people, get better at managing people, and take responsibility for managing people. Still other objections may point to organizational obstacles that need to be addressed within your organization in order to fully and effectively implement HOT Management.

Accept the fact that HOT Management involves working harder at managing people, getting better at managing people, and taking responsibility for managing people. Accept that, yes, there are limitations. Accept that HOT Management doesn’t provide a 100 percent solution, and then focus on the partial solutions that can be implemented to improve productivity, retention, and morale.


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