Liz has a vision of pragmatic collaboration: people getting things done together in a real and humane way. Her goal is for people to do better and feel better at work so they and their organizations can accomplish more.
An up-and-coming manager at one of my client companies asked for help with a longstanding employee. Over time, his behavior had become problematic for other employees — and sometimes for customers as well.
In addition to making more and more mistakes and creating conflict with co-workers, he had begun ignoring his manager’s feedback and doing juvenile things like claiming he didn’t have time to get his work done while blatantly engaging in social media and other online diversions during work hours.
The manager and I talked about the typical approaches: finding out what was going on with him, including whether something had changed in his life, setting clear parameters for both work delivery and conduct, and how to involve HR. But the manager was hesitant to apply consequences. This was less the result of being conflict averse, and more due to a sense of community gone awry, because the organization’s culture espouses “taking care of our team, working to make everyone successful here, and everyone moving forward together.”
In cultures that pride themselves on promoting from within, advocating a kind of family feeling, or putting a premium on loyalty, it can be tough to discipline (or eventually terminate) staff — even when employees have stopped performing or just aren’t working out. This tension is exacerbated if the employee has personal problems, or their close friends or family members are also employees, or they improve their performance just a little but not enough.
Most employment is based on a premise of satisfactory performance for satisfactory compensation. If the organization is delivering on its half of the deal, it has both a right and responsibility to expect the employee to deliver on their half.
But sometimes leadership will confuse these premises and create a kind of psychological imperative to keep the team together, as if it would be wrong to ever separate anyone from the team. Certainly it’s beneficial to have a strongly bonded team. But keeping everyone together may be detrimental to the actual mission, because regular employment is not like being a member of the Navy SEALs.
Sometimes Teamwork Means No Weak Links
Navy SEALs are elite, special-operations warriors. They’re known for such sayings as “The only easy day was yesterday” and “You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” But the SEALs are perhaps best known for their commitment to “leave no man behind,” a premise that was tested recently by aerial drone footage showing that a SEAL who had been presumed dead in fact remained alive long enough to continue the mission before succumbing to his wounds.
But while regular employment often embraces team commitment, especially among founding teams and family businesses, it often neglects some of the other required aspects of SEALdom. For instance, SEALs are only selected after exacting physical and mental testing. Their stringent training is meant to develop them both individually and as a team, and is specifically engineered to ensure that anyone who can’t sustain the rigors of training, and therefore the eventual missions, will wash out.
Most employers are nowhere near as discerning as the SEALs, or nearly as clear about the need to wash people out. Once we’ve selected our employees, it’s all too common for us civilians to do almost everything in our power to keep them on the team, even if we wind up limping along because they’re not that great at their jobs.
Taking One for the Team Can Mean Terminating
It’s very hard to give up on an employee you’ve worked to train, manage, and when necessary, salvage. But if employees do not perform to standard after receiving appropriate support — and if they turn away customers and alienate colleagues — it becomes a leadership responsibility to make the hard choice: to impose discipline and, when necessary, terminate an employee. Sometimes this must be done not in spite of the team ethos, but for the sake of it.
The needs of every growing business will vary, but after working with privately held and family-owned businesses for 30 years, I’ve seen certain patterns come up again and again. If your employees aren’t also growing, your business may start to suffer from operational bottlenecks, cross-functional conflicts and repeated mistakes or bad decisions, even from smart, committed people.
Recognizing these danger signs will help you know when you need to provide skill training and development for your current employees, work on reengaging them in the requirements of your growing business or whether it’s time to consider adding new roles and expertise to the mix. Here are seven developments that should trigger your special attention:
You wonder why you’re the only one who seems to be looking outward.
You’re still excited by learning, ideating and doing blue-sky thinking, but the others are mostly concerned about getting their work done. Team members seem less aware of what’s going on with specific competitors or the marketplace in general. As the number of transactions or accounts increases, employees can start to feel ground down by volume, and no longer have the emotional energy or drive to do more thoughtful, creative work.
You notice that there are more mistakes being made.
They could be errors in customer service or bobbles in managing supplier relationships, but they seem to be more frequent. Even worse, from time to time team members seem to be making the same mistakes over again or violating the same standards more than once. Verify whether your quality controls are in place and being used, or whether they’re being ignored or downplayed because people feel they just don’t have time anymore.
You hear that employees are feeling stressed out and anxious.
Some employees seem more short-tempered, and others seem to almost be in hiding. Apparently, some feel like they’ve given too much and don’t have any more to give; they’re going through the motions but their negativity is starting to affect the environment.
You worry that new initiatives and processes aren’t taking hold quickly enough.
Everyone agrees that there are new things that need to get done, like cost accounting, content marketing or benefits administration, but no one on staff has specific experience in the area. The people who try to figure out these functions may be making good efforts, but they make a lot of rookie mistakes and also keep putting the new thing aside to tend to their regular function.
You see evidence of both overperforming and underperforming.
It’s not surprising if some people settle into a comfortable kind of rut, doing — and expecting — the same thing every day and not looking for more. But, in addition to those folks, you’re aware of others who perform “heroics,” going above and beyond, struggling to make things work, almost dragging other people along because they’re desperately trying to cover too many business needs and don’t want to look like slackers or ask for help.
You observe that some employees are jockeying for status instead of looking for the next big accomplishment.
They’re trying to impress you and win you over, not just with their innovations or results, but with stories and explanations that are meant to show you how much they contribute and why they deserve extra attention. Notice whether they’re concerned that others have more skill in necessary areas than they do, or whether they’re trying to stay close to you as you start to add more team members.
You realize that conflicts are proliferating and persisting.
What used to feel like a healthy give and take that faded quickly now seems to recur more frequently and involve the same people and issues with regularity. Check to see if the conflicts arise because people are being stretched beyond their actual knowledge and capacities.
If you’ve already been aware of more than a couple of these problems, it’s probably time to take stock and do a thoughtful assessment of your staff’s strengths and lacks — and make some decisions about what you need to change so you can move forward successfully.
Twice in the past month I’ve stayed at hotels that asked me to participate in new, eco-friendly programs with names like “A Green Choice.” And twice, I agreed to do it, because of the promised savings of 37.2 gallons of water, 25,000 BTU of natural gas, 0.19kWh of electricity, and 7 oz. of cleaning-product chemicals “for each night you forgo full housekeeping.”
But I won’t be doing it again.
For many years now, almost all but the most luxurious hotels have been asking guests, in tones from pleading to peremptory, to reuse towels and linens in the name of environmental savings. Of course, going green helps the hotel save money on laundry, but guests can feel like model citizens and still return to a tidy room.
What’s the Right Choice for You?
In my case, things are even tidier in my hotel room than they are at home. I’ve always felt that one of the few advantages of being on the road so much — besides the personal and financial reward of the work itself, of course — is that someone else makes the bed and takes out the trash.
Frequent travel takes discipline, and my daily diligence on the road includes putting the toothpaste and skin-care containers back in my kit, placing every single article of clothing away in drawers and closet, and even arranging my work materials, protein bars, and vitamins in a single pile or a neat row. The reduced clutter helps me focus for early-morning and after-hours work. Plus, it helps me maintain the impression of being a professional guest, which is important when you think about the fact that the hotel staff are all strangers who have access to your room and your stuff.
Some people might experience a bit of internal conflict when they think about the trade-off of doing their own housekeeping to “help the environment,” so hotels offer a sweetener of points or coupons to encourage guests to make the “right” choice. But for me, those added bonuses barely factor in — I don’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to help the environment or to “promote sustainability,” as one hotel’s thank-you letter, slipped under my door one night, put it.
It’s Not That Easy Being Green
But after I automatically said yes for the second time, I noticed a dearth of housekeeping carts in the halls. It struck me that my choice to promote sustainability for the hotels and their shareholders was most likely also putting housekeepers out of work. And surely the housekeepers who were still on staff were getting fewer tips — most people who forgo housekeeping probably assume they can forgo tipping too, despite the fact that someone is still making up the room for their stay and cleaning up after them when they go.
So here’s where I ended up: I’m completely willing not to have my sheets changed more than every three days (as is legally required for health rules) and I always hang and reuse my towels. If there’s a bin for recyclables, I use it; if there isn’t, I put the non-recyclables in the bathroom trash and any recyclables in the room trash, to keep them separated just in case.
But as my hotel room is part of my working conditions, and therefore a factor in my work performance, I prefer to follow the example of The Points Guy, an authority on travel and travel deals. He relies “on daily housekeeping to help me maintain a clean, organized environment” and prefers “the pleasure of returning to and working in a sparkling, orderly room.”
I want a fresh washcloth every day and to have the used one removed (along with whatever I’ve put in the wastebaskets). And I like whatever needs restocking to be restocked without my having to make a special request. So I’ll forgo the profit-generating incentives. Instead I’ll greet every housekeeper I see with respect and gratitude; I’ll also always leave a tip, because hard work should be rewarded and low pay should be supplemented. And I hope that even without making “A Green Choice,” my conscience will be clear and my travels will be successful.
No matter how high our hopes are for a newly promoted manager, things often go remarkably wrong.
Sometimes it’s the new manager’s attitude or belief. For instance, I’ve worked with a previously responsible employee who viewed his promotion as justification to stop handling details, because they’re for “lower-level people.” Another newly promoted employee saw her promotion as validation of her work and herself as she was, and decided she no longer needed to learn new skills.
Promotions can also bring hidden weaknesses to the surface. Another new manager was so conflict averse that she ignored looming problems, and feared her team members’ greater technical expertise so much that she wasn’t intervening when it was necessary.
How to Help a New Manager Get Back on Track
Moving up a level can be tough, so we shouldn’t be too shocked or disappointed when problems occur — and we should be ready to help newly promoted employees get back on a stronger footing. When you’re managing newly promoted people, their performance reflects on you. If they’re not working out in their new jobs, you’ll have to provide corrective action or shift their assignments, and you might as well give it the best shot you can. These five points will help.
Learn why they’re not performing the way you expect. It turned out that the fellow who started dumping his detail work assumed the organization’s higher-ups didn’t bother with mundane tasks, and he wanted to look like he had the appropriate status. I recommended that his manager set him straight on the crucial importance of the details, with the option of handling them himself or delegating them carefully. And I encouraged her to recognize and praise his accomplishments and growth, to resolve his need to feel important and attended to. My client was able to help this manager connect the dots between responsible, accurate implementation and his ongoing success.
Make it a partnership. Rather than reiterating everything a new manager did wrong and must fix, look for ways to team up in their weak areas. In addition to modeling appropriate functional and organizational behaviors, plan together how things should be handled, and afterwards debrief on how they went. When you take personal responsibility for the health of the partnership, you give the new manager a chance to address how they could come up to speed more rapidly. Ask: “Are there ways I didn’t prepare you enough for the new role, which requires A, B, and C? How could I be supporting you more effectively to ensure you’re able to do X, Y, and Z?”
Provide any missing skill development. If you think newly promoted managers have potential, don’t waste your initial investment by treating them as if they’re supposed to have knowledge and experience that it’s turned out they don’t actually have. Whether the missing skill is technical, interpersonal, or business acumen, help them get it, even if that means bringing in outside expertise to teach or coach them. Replacing them would be even more costly and time consuming — without any guarantee of success.
Remind them of their personal motivation to succeed and grow. After the conflict-averse manager and I chatted about her wasted time and effort and the loss of organizational progress, she recognized that her lack of action would eventually make her look weak and ineffectual. Since she wanted to be a good boss and continue to rise in the company, she resolved to turn the situation around in a way that felt consistent with her values and personality.
Don’t wait. Don’t hope new managers will improve, have a change of heart, or suddenly realize that their approach isn’t working. If you get involved promptly and with a light hand, it’s much more likely that they’ll be receptive to input; the longer you wait, the worse the situation may become and the more remedial and punitive your attention will seem. Start out simply and plainly: “I’ve noticed that some of the details of the ABC event weren’t handled accurately/you didn’t take the course I recommended/your subordinates don’t seem to be working collaboratively/you haven’t been holding team meetings. Would you tell me about that?” After acknowledging their response, explain the logical ramifications and ask what support they need to move forward.
You may not be able to salvage every manager who struggles in a new role. You might need to shift responsibilities around, redesign the job, or in the worst-case scenario, let the manager go. But it makes sense to invest in preserving your new managers, and thereby demonstrate fairness and caring, both to the ones who don’t make it and to other potential candidates. At the same time, you’ll learn better what to look for next time.
When you’re lucky enough to employ someone who has the capacity to do superior work and then grow past the job, but you haven’t got an appropriate outlet for them, it can be a challenge to keep them in the company, let alone within your work group.
One of my clients got in touch recently to discuss what to do about two very different team members who’ve told him they are interested in growing beyond their current roles.
Case 1: The Aspiring but Not-Yet-Equipped Employee
The first situation is pretty straightforward. This person is just not ready to move up: He may be ambitious, but he hasn’t developed full functional competence; he’s not always dependable, and he really doesn’t have a good understanding of what the next role requires.
We discussed offering this team member skill training, plus giving him plenty of encouragement, along with clear and concrete feedback about what he needs to do within the parameters of the current job to improve his performance.
If he’s getting the right attention, it’s very likely that he’ll progress and receive the recognition he craves, so he won’t get frustrated and act out or leave, but instead will continue to grow.
Case 2: The Star Employee
The second team member has been doing a standout job. She would be a plus in more demanding roles with greater responsibility, but there just haven’t been any openings available. So I advised my client to look for other opportunities to keep her fully engaged and learning until an appropriate position becomes available.
It’s true that developing an even greater set of skills and responsibilities could make this team member a more attractive candidate for poaching from the outside, but it’s well worth the risk to keep developing her.
Doing so will give her the recognition and acknowledgment that she deserves; show the rest of the team that there is a path for growth; provide a way to expand the team’s portfolio of skills and responsibilities; and offer the future possibility that, should she leave for greener pastures, she might “boomerang” back to the company at some point in the future, bringing her solid skills and great attitude back with her.
Tips for Keeping Team Members Happy While They Wait for Bigger Roles
Here are some of the possibilities that you can pursue for star team members who are waiting for bigger roles to open up:
Create a new set of responsibilities within the work team in an area that you’ve wanted to address but haven’t had the bandwidth to take on. Your team member can focus on new research; formulating and proposing new ideas; implementing new approaches; and working with other team members in new, more cooperative ways.
Provide them with cross-training in other departments or assign them to cross-functional task forces so they can begin to develop collaborative relationships across the organization and see how their role and responsibilities fit into the overall workflows.
Give them exposure to senior executives. Build their profile inside the company by bringing them with you to meetings, letting them participate in presentations, and asking them to offer their own ideas. The increased access and the chance to participate will be stimulating for them and also broaden their outlook.
Offer them outside education or industry involvement that furthers both their internal performance and their personal career goals. Show them that you’re happy to invest in them and think they’re worth it.
Ask them to develop others. Not only is this a new and challenging responsibility that will make them feel proud, but it will help you build bench strength under them, in preparation for the time when they move on to other roles — whether inside or outside the company.
In the meantime, be sure to work with your boss and other colleagues to find additional opportunities for your successful team members. Your organization wouldn’t be the first to add “senior manager” or “senior director” titles as a way to recognize superior performance and extra responsibility.
Leaders always have a lot on their minds, so perhaps they can be forgiven if they occasionally mistake a date or time, or don’t remember asking you to stop or start something. But a pattern of repeated or even periodic forgetting can have a negative impact on your work — and on you.
For example, it’s disruptive if you and your boss have agreed to a particular sequence of events or a set of priorities, and you’re tootling along, getting things done, when suddenly she wants to see a report that isn’t due until next week.
Protect Yourself by Taking Notes
Recently a mid-level leader expressed some concern that her boss was forgetful about assignments and commitments. She wasn’t sure how to remind him or correct him without sounding oppositional, but she was worried that her boss would think that she was being forgetful, inattentive, or even incompetent.
I suggested that, in addition to taking detailed notes about whatever she and her boss had agreed to, she should refer to her notes and review the salient points before she left any meeting or conversation, particularly about timing and dates. The goal isto confirm the particulars and demonstrate a practice of taking notes. I told her that she could also offer to send her boss the notes, or automatically generate a follow-up email emphasizing all the important specifics about commitments and timeframes.
This way, when her boss asks for something that isn’t done yet, she could say, casually and without any heat, “Oh, don’t you remember? We said we would send that out on Thursday, after the full report is available.” She could also add, courteously, “You may remember we went over those details and I emailed you about them late last week.”
Be a Stickler Rather than the Weak Link
My client’s natural inclination was to protect her boss’s feelings and say, “Oh, I thought you said we shouldn’t send that out until Thursday,” but I advised her against it quite strongly. It may seem counterintuitive, but for a naturally helpful, non-oppositional person like this mid-level leader, using this approach not only won’t work — it could backfire badly.
While what my client wanted to say was true, and she was avoiding the appearance of being in attack mode by saying it so politely, this generous positioning actually carries the implication that the mistake was the mid-level leader’s, not the boss’s. Ultimately, it would most likely be damaging to her credibility.
If your boss has a habit of forgetting, and each time it happens, your response is to say something that implies that you were the inaccurate party, over time, your boss will come to believe that you’re frequently mistaken. That’s not what you want!
Better to develop a reputation as someone who’s a little bit of a stickler by taking notes, confirming, and following up by email. This set of practices will also position you as reliable and accurate — and ensure that you’re the one making the correction rather than being labeled as someone who gets things wrong.
Early in my career, a senior leader in my firm was a master of “what-if,” “blue-sky” thinking. He would come up with an idea, assign it to whichever staffer happened to be around at the moment, and then, more likely than not, forget about it.
Most of the employees who had experience with this leader’s wild goose chases would wait until he asked for something a second time before investing five minutes or a lick of work. All too often, he’d never ask again, or if you brought him your work, he’d seem confused, or disinterested, and wave it away.
I started waiting for that second request too, until one day when we were in the middle of a meeting with a bunch of senior leaders, an outside consultant, and a supplier about a completely unrelated topic — and I was found out.
Something made him think of one of those “projects” he had assigned to me, and he asked me why he hadn’t received my report. When I told him truthfully that I hadn’t started on it yet, he broke into a string of guilt-laced recriminations. “You knew I wanted that! You knew it was important because…”
Learn Your Lesson
I learned two things from that experience. One, I never wanted to do to anyone else what he had done to me. So ever since then, I’ve tried to be explicit about when I want something, and to create lists or calendar items (or both) to ensure that I follow up at the appropriate interval. And if I’ve forgotten to follow up, and the other party isn’t on top of things, I apologize for not being clearer, and try to establish timing and deliverables at that point.
And two, I knew I never, ever wanted to be put in that position again. So I developed a self-protective approach that felt businesslike and not excessive.
If you tend to find yourself in a similar spot with leaders who have too many ideas or who don’t care at all until they suddenly care very, very much, then my technique may also work for you.
Reports as Retorts
In the case of my old boss, the best defense was a small and reasonable offense. So whenever he threw out ideas and inspirations — almost as free-associations — and assigned them to me, I would do a minimal amount of thinking or research about them. I’d come up with a few observations or rudimentary alternatives as well as some concrete questions for him, and would write the whole thing up — never more than a page or a page-and-a-half — with an emphasis on what I needed from him before I could continue with the next step.
The fact that I had prepared a brief report on each new idea benefited both me and my boss. Any time he asked what I had done about one of his fancies, I was covered. And because I always did some real exploratory work, he often had enough data to decide if there was actually enough merit to pursue the idea any further.
With a leader who’s somewhat less wild-eyed or more of a stickler than my old boss, you might want to be a little more assiduous and send an additional follow-up note a few days later, asking, “Did you want to touch base on this next week?” Always give the leader the option, without obligation — but with the email trail that shows you’ve been in touch and on the case.
Did you have any embarrassing or frightening experiences early in your career that prepared you to be more successful later on? How did you learn when to step up, rather than to avoid an issue?
When you inherit incumbent staff members, you almost never get all grade-A players. But if you wind up with too many people who are stuck at B+ or lower, it can be tough to achieve all the results you’re responsible for.
I’m currently working with a leader who’s been reassigned — at a higher level — back to her old group. She reviewed her team members’ strengths and weaknesses with me, and identified who needed which kinds of development.
Several times, she mentioned one or another employee’s skill, style, or attitude deficits, and described how she could still make the situation work. In response, I noted that she needs to allocate her limited time and energy to learning her new job, working with her team, building relationships with her new peers, and driving a much larger set of results.
I cautioned her about trying to make up for her team members’ deficits. If she’s simultaneously covering 20 to 40 percent of other people’s jobs, what kind of outcomes is she likely to get?
Can — or Should — You Try to Fix Low-Grade Employees?
When you’re busy repairing too many people, or bridging the distance from what they’re really doing to what they should be doing, it’s hard to stay focused on your vision for the entire team and drive toward all of your goals. It’s also difficult to give your top performers enough of your attention to ensure they’re doing their absolute best and achieving everything possible.
If you have to keep checking on B+ employees instead of doing your own work, you can also create bottlenecks in processing, both up and downstream. And if you have to intervene on their behalf because they can’t manage their own interactions, not only do you wind up using your time, but you also expend your political capital.
So how much risk or exposure is it prudent to accept on behalf of B+ employees? Is it wise to cover for them when you’ll have to answer for whatever messes they make, putting your reputation on the line every time their work or interactions go badly? Are their behaviors or communications merely annoying, or are you afraid that, without your intervention, they might do real damage to customer relationships, colleagues, or the brand itself?
Assess Whether B+ Employees Are Worth the Risk
Developing subordinates is a crucial managerial skill, but developing people because they’re not what they should be carries a big cost, and therefore requires rigorous assessment. If you’re working with any individual whose performance is clearly below par, this checklist will help you decide whether they’re worth risking your own reputation on their behalf:
Identify their upsides, which might include knowing the organization; their technical expertise; their historical knowledge; and/or their interpersonal abilities for keeping the group together.
Assess their downsides. How much of that gap are you likely to need to cover? Are you compensating for relationship quality, technical ability, their ability and willingness to collaborate, and/or business acumen?
Look into the future: Can you see this person in it? If you’re confident that you can work an employee up from B+ to A- within 90 days, then keeping them is probably a decent bargain compared to having to start over with an unknown quantity. But if you think it will take more than six months to get someone up to speed, and you’re already providing the same depth of support for other team members, things become a lot more problematic. If the B+ person needs training, can someone besides you provide it? If B+ team members need coaching, can they get any of it from their peers?
Put Yourself into the Picture
Sometimes leaders don’t have the option to replace incumbents and are forced to support people whose performances are sub par. But when a good manager has the leeway to replace incumbents, the choice can be excruciating. It’s common for leaders who care a lot about other people to be too optimistic about how little energy, time, or other resources it will take to turn someone around.
There are also leaders who prefer not to deal with the stress of corrective action, performance improvement plans, or risking having to terminate someone that they and the rest of the team care about. These leaders may not only try too hard to fill in the gaps of their employees’ inadequacies, but also try to save employees who have demonstrated loyalty or potential but haven’t been effective at their jobs. Most of the time, though, leaders are thinking about how to get the work done with the least amount of disruption.
In any case, when you have to make decisions about incumbents, get very concrete about the value and output you expect, based on their upsides, as well as exactly what you’ll need to do to cover their downsides. And then consider how you could build up the entire team’s capacity and drive for excellence — rather than draining your own.
“I won’t oppose you now, but if anything goes wrong, I’ll go toe-to-toe with you.”
My colleague was already standing practically toe-to-toe with me — and besides being much taller and stronger than I, he was leaning forward and speaking in a threatening tone. He disagreed strongly with a decision I was making, but had neither the authority nor the group support to counter it.
If he wasn’t actually going to take a swing at me (and of course he wasn’t), what was the point of his towering over me? Was he trying to frighten me out of my position? To make clear his intention to pile on if, indeed, my solution didn’t work? He was too late anyway: The decision had been made.
What’s Behind That Threat?
People usually behave threateningly as a way to constrain or change others’ behavior. At one client company, a leader used implied threats against colleagues in other departments to try to prevent them from taking actions she didn’t support. She wanted them to second-guess themselves, to fear consequences, or to believe the cost of crossing her was just too high. She actually closed one meeting I observed by saying, “I doubt you’ll be able to see this through. And when the numbers come in, everyone will see that it was your choice.”
Threatening behavior is often a marker for bullying or manipulation, not just a clear statement of a position that’s counter to yours. If a colleague or a client has a pattern of threatening behavior, what practical options do you have to manage the situation?
Take Steps to Counter a Threatening Colleague
Start by checking your decision-making process. If you feel confident that you’re taking the right course, be public about your data, your logic, and your plans for risk mitigation so that everyone understands there’s a real plan, what the next steps are, what part they are each to play, and what will happen to counter any negative outcomes. And if you’re not sure you’re right, consider whether you need more data, scenario-building, or support from your colleagues.
Challenge the action to call out the bully. Say something to expose the fact that this is not a mere difference of opinion, but an inappropriate behavior. Ask directly, “Are you trying to intimidate me?” with a tone of disbelief. You could continue with: “If the numbers don’t pan out, it will be clear we have a problem, right? And everyone knows that it’s my decision. So are you suggesting that instead of trying to help us fix the problem, your plan is to make me look bad?”
Be willing to join forces. If you think your opponent is trying to get you to join them in their fear rather than trying to hurt you, you can be more conciliatory and collaborative. “I understand you’re concerned about the possible bad outcomes. I don’t want them either. I’d be happy to hear more about your concerns and review with you why I think my approach is the best alternative — and then would you please tell me if you think there’s a way we could strengthen our hand further?”
Show how they’ll be held harmless. Research the situation that your opponent dreads, and then work through the details so you can address their worries. “I know you’d prefer Option A because of your concern that Option B will disrupt your team’s work. Why don’t we set up some checkpoints to review status along the way? If you’re seeing any negatives, here’s what we could do…” Just be sure to understand your colleague’s needs well enough to make a compelling case.
Separate Threats from Projected Fears
In the first scenario, I committed to working closely with my threatening colleague even though I found the situation unpleasant. When he saw that I took his concerns seriously and that I kept my word to stay in close touch, he calmed down and actually helped craft an even more robust solution.
But the executive in the second scenario needed to be shown that she could not run her usual racket unopposed, that her colleague was not afraid of her or of failure, and therefore, her ploy of potential shaming was ineffective. Getting that dynamic out on the table reduced the power of the threat.
If you’re being appropriately collaborative and thoughtful, and have fully assessed the situation, you should be able to shake off excessive, inappropriate control. Differentiating between an opponent’s actual fears and attempts to overpower the situation should help you provide mitigation and reassurance for worries and stand your ground against intentional threats.
The bottom line is to know what needs to happen, and not to be intimidated. Anyone who tries to make a colleague feel afraid to do their job will ultimately make the problem worse by creating a negative, constrained work environment in which only the bully gets to call the shots.
In organizations where employees generally trust their management and each other, you don’t hear many complaints about lack of transparency. But in other places, demands for transparency can take an ugly tone, and even become so entrenched that it seems as if everything would be all right if only the other side finally showed “what they were up to,” as one of my clients put it.
When colleagues agree to provide transparency but don’t deliver on their commitment, the normal conclusion is that they’re doing something bad — and hiding it. But there’s another possibility: Maybe they don’t actually know how to deliver or report performance that meets expectations.
Skills Make a Difference
Here’s an example. At one of my client companies, the board had repeatedly asked the management for greater financial transparency. The CEO promised more transparency, and the finance staff prepared a number of new reports, but none of the data seemed to do the job of showing how the expenses really occurred. So the board’s complaints continued, and the CEO’s credibility began to suffer.
It wasn’t until almost a year later, after the CFO had been replaced, that the board’s complaints about transparency stopped. What changed?
It wasn’t that the new CFO was transparent and the old CFO hadn’t been, or that the CEO was actually giving the new CFO different direction. It turned out that the new CFO was fully skilled and competent in ways that the old one was not — and suddenly everything just started making more sense.
Interdepartmental Conflict Clouds Transparency
But skill deficits aren’t the only reasons people get criticized for lack of transparency. Organizational roles and structures can also prevent the open candor and completeness that many people ask for — or claim to deliver themselves.
If two parties are entrenched in a conflict, for example, negotiating for collaboration is not likely to be successful. When the leaders are fighting, it’s particularly tough for midlevel interdepartmental staff to be transparent because they could get hit by crossfire from their own bosses.
The parties may start off by trying to be transparent, but they can become resentful and implosive when others keep asking them for transparency and they believe they’ve already provided it. You may want people to show the cards in their hand, but the truth is, they may not even be playing with a deck you recognize.
Here’s a snippet of real dialog from an interdepartmental conflict I recently witnessed:
Director 1: Why won’t you be fully transparent about what you’re doing?
Director 2: But we are.
Director 1: No, you’re not!
Director 2: All you do is pick on us when we show you what we’re doing.
Director 1: That’s because what you’re doing doesn’t work!
In fact, after significant dialog, and following facilitation, it turned out that Director 2’s group didn’t really understand the requirements of Director 1’s group, which they were supposed to be serving.
Establish Transparency Through Competence and Trust
It’s not enough just to be clear and show your cards. You also need to meet some less obvious baseline requirements around competence and trust. How can you support effective information sharing that builds trust? There are three main approaches:
Make sure all of the participants understand your business. If necessary, consider teaching them whatever skills they lack but are already supposed to have. Or replace them with people who have the right skills (and if you can, provide remedial training or find them a job that fits them better). But no matter what, ensure that you’re dealing with people who have sufficient functional competence.
Explain your expectations, starting from the absolute basics. Many of these are cultural norms: “This is how we do it here. We weigh these factors, with the following priorities.” Teach the history of the organization and share the context so that your expectations seem grounded — not arbitrary or based on personal preference.
Treat the participants with respect and congeniality all the way through so that they’ll be open about what their assumptions are and what they understand — or don’t understand.
Demanding transparency is like an accusation of bad intent. Don’t get sucked into that bottomless pit. Instead, establish competence and build trust. The need for transparency will diminish as collaboration, collegiality, and confidence increase.
Onward and upward,
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