Baseball Management under the Hot Lights

Baseball Management under the Hot Lights

Many times bad communication skills get in the way of solving performance problems.The recent public conversation surrounding Jim Riggleman and the Washington Nationals baseball team is a prime example of learning when to have a conversation and when to keep your comments to yourself as a leader of people.

The Baseball facts from both sides

The MLB Washington Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman abruptly resigned before the Chicago series on June 23. He approached General Manager Mike Rizzo and requested to have a conversation about his contract status when the team landed in Chicago on Friday. Rizzo said the timing wasn’t appropriate. So, Riggleman told him if he would not at least discuss his contract, expiring at the end of the season, then he would not board the team bus to the airport and resign following the game. Said Riggleman “I wanted a conversation about it. I didn’t say, “Pick up my option or else. I said I think it’s worthy of a conversation when we get to Chicago. And Mike said we’re not gonna do that.”

Rizzo declined the contract discussion, and Riggleman was true to his word. He resigned immediately following the game to the shock of the Nationals players and fans.

Read any of the sports pages to see that many fans – and Rizzo himself – see Riggleman’s actions as “quitting on the team”. See the WaPo article and comments as an example.

Perhaps he did quit on his team (ie. his employees), but from an employee engagement, performance management and organizational communication perspective, there is another story to be told.

The HR Mistakes

Riggleman signed in 2009, after the ousting of Manny Acta, and had been working on single year contracts. The Nationals held an option for 2012. He was on a very “short leash” as he called it, and voiced concerns that his experience in baseball earned him a long-term contract. While the practices surrounding baseball contracts can be a bit unique – the feeling of “my employer doesn’t trust me” is not. Keeping an employee in the dark when they ask a direct question only enables the employee to fill in the blanks with their own (often incorrect) conclusions, thus eroding morale and engagement.

Its painfully obvious there were communication issues surrounding Riggleman’s contract. Rizzo didn’t or couldn’t talk about the contract with his employee, which led to the employee leaving his job. Riggleman brought his concerns to the attention of his GM – and those concerns apparently were never addressed. This is an example of a manager who either refuses to confront an issue, or doesn’t know how – and highlights the global HR problem of managers who don’t have the skills to manage people. It is always in the best interest of an organization to have open dialogue. When a manager sees fit to shut down that dialogue for any reason, the organization risks losing the employee’s engagement, and at some point, the employee. Riggleman was rather succinct in his parting words. “I’m 58,” said Riggleman. “I’m too old to be disrespected.” While his age probably didn’t have anything to do with the disrespect, the feeling is no less valid, nor is it unusual for an employee to want to leave the employer they feel is causing the disrespect. When an employee reaches this point, it is almost always best for the employee to move on, as gaining that respect back is a very long road. But it certainly seems that ongoing conversation would have kept Riggleman in the organization under contract. Lesson to learn: have the conversation, no matter how painful it might be. You get better employees for it, or the knowledge you need to send the employee on his way.

Performance Management

The annual review that many organizations embrace is a mine field waiting to explode. This topic has been extensively discussed in the HR world. See here, here, and here. In my experience, annual review structures do not accommodate changes in performance goals, market conditions or directly addressing employee concerns in at-will environments, and the annual review can be a total disaster in contract employment environments. Managers cannot afford to wait a year to tell employees there is a problem, and employers are fool-hearty to believe that employees want to wait around to find out they’ve been doing it wrong.

“When is the right time, you know?” Riggleman said. “August? No. Last October is the right time. It’s been festering for me since last October, and I told Mike that when I spoke to him before.” Waiting a full year to know whether you will have a job can be unnerving at best. Particularly when Riggleman’s buyout was $100,000, a relative pittance in the MLB – and if they didn’t trust him to meet the goals they expected, it was not a huge burden to replace him. If there were true concerns about reaching goals, why weren’t those concerns addressed? Riggleman’s performance was not going to be assessed until the end of the year, but in 2009 the Nationals released Acta at the All-Star break. This is a typical move within MLB when a team wants to make a management change. They were not planning to release him in the next few weeks (at least there were no rumors of such action), so why not have a “mid year” conversation and discuss the goals? This conversation didn’t necessarily have to be specific to his contract, but it may have gone a long way to alleviate Riggleman’s obvious concerns.

Organizational Communication

There is no way to look at this and not draw the conclusion: “Bad form.”

This is General Manager Rizzo, during his announcement of Riggleman’s resignation…”We should be celebrating going to Chicago,” Rizzo said. “I’m disappointed that this is a distraction, that this is not thinking of the team first, that it is thinking of personal goals, thinking of personal things first. That’s probably what disappoints me the most.”. Read more Rizzo

This is the age of sound bites and celebrity drama. We all want to know when, where, how, and if there are incriminating youtube videos or tweets. But this comment on the contract discussions is more CYA than “provide the media with management comment on the abrupt departure of the employee”. Riggleman had the right to voice his concerns to his GM about his tenure with the Nationals, and the Nationals (and more particularly, Rizzo) had the right to disagree with his reasons for departure. But you leave that stuff in the office. It doesn’t get aired on national TV. It is personal. And when it comes to Riggleman’s career, his first responsibility is to himself, and his family. He doesn’t owe the Nationals anything if he doesn’t feel they are treating him in the way he deserves to be treated. He didn’t bash the team. He didn’t bash Rizzo. And in a debriefing, this HR professional would have had words with Rizzo on his need to say anything disparaging in regard to a departing employee – no matter the reason. A manager may take an employee’s actions personally. Those actions may in fact be personal. As managers, we want to use the phrase, “It’s not personal, its business” – and we get bent out of shape when it gets used on us. Lesson learned: Dial it back, and realize that it is just business, and business doesn’t stop because of one decision. And your hurt feelings won’t change the situation.

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