Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bonus Blog: How do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

Nothing like a "Sound of Music" reference to get you in the managerial mood.

In a previous post I mentioned one of my favorite managerial axioms: Praise in public, punish in private. I also said I'd get to the "punish in private" part in a later blog post. This is that post.

First, "punish" is kind of a misnomer. One adult punishing another adult in a workplace environment in any other manner beyond passive aggressive is rare. No one wants their manager or co-worker to act like a parent who punishes them, and no one wants their co-worker or manager to be a child that they have to parent. I have a friend who is a pre-school teacher, so, in some ways she is effectively expected to parent during the normal course of her duties, but, by the same token, she doesn't actually consider any of the 3-year-olds her co-workers (or peers).

In a work environment, your co-workers might ACT like 3-year-olds, but parenting is still not the expected or appropriate behavior.

Note, I did call out the "passive aggressive" type of punishment that happens pretty freaking regularly in the workplace. As a manager, I try to stamp that stuff out as fast I see it. Like a wildfire, it can rip apart a functioning organization and cause damage. While the damage is not irreparable, trust broken takes a long time to rebuild.

People behave in a passive aggressive manner (or act out in other ways) because they cannot get their needs met (or what they think their needs are, met), they do not feel comfortable communicating that fact in a direct way, and what they need is to fix their issue. Maybe they are conflict averse, maybe no one hugged them enough as a child...whatever the reason, they're striking out at people with whom they should be bonding. Further, they're doing it covertly.This makes the group in which you operate suddenly not a safe place, which is the death knell of productivity. Here that tense silence? Yeah, that's a cry for help. A team without trust is a team that doesn't do much and isn't very happy.

As a manager, passive aggressive behavior is not really a tool you should ever use. Ever. A lot about your gig--being a project manager, QA manager, developer manager, etc.--is about trust. People trusting your judgment, people believing you will protect and take care of them, people trusting you will kick their asses and get them going as needed...the list goes on. Be passive aggressive and you forfeit the trust you've earned.

So, how do you lay down the hurt on someone who is making waves inside (or outside) your team when you need a behavior correction?

First, let's talk about the standard ways you can punish someone. I mentioned in an earlier post that you have a standard tool kit as a manager, full of carrots and sticks that everyone knows about. Forgetting the carrots a moment, let's talk sticks. You can give someone work that may not be their first preference, you can demote someone, you can (sometimes) dock their pay, you can put them on a "performance" plan (usually the last step before you fire someone) that requires specific goal compliance, and you can fire someone. There are variants of this at most positions based on HR and the HR handbook, but that's a summary of the most common options.

In each of the above cases, you, as the manager, are wielding the stick. If you've ever been corrected by anyone, yourself, the person wielding the stick rarely gets a fair shake from the person being hit by it. Anger clouds judgment. As the stick wielder and not as the person doing the behavior, you usually see a narrower band of what is happening without any context. Even a good manager, attempting to gather such context before laying down the law with his/her stick, rarely gets the story from inside the mind of the person causing the ruckus. In effect, you have lots and lots of room to punish someone without all the facts or mitigating factors, which destroys their trust in you (and may erode trust with the rest of the team) and creates damage in overall group relations.

But what if you have no stick to wield? Maybe this person is managed by someone other than you. You always have the option to talk to their manager, but escalating like that can cause problems that aren't always solved by the escalation.

Assuming we reject the normal manager's toolbox of punishments, how do you punish behavior you don't like/that isn't productive?

First, despite how trippingly "Praise in public, punish in private" trips off the tongue, let's dispense with the word "punish." As we noted earlier, you're not the parent of any person on your team, and as adults we sort of assume that we won't be punished, we'll be talked to like adults. Let's keep that dream alive as managers. So let's call it a correction.

So, let's look at the facts we have on hand; this will dictate how we approach the correction. Is the experience of the problem only your own? If so, as a manager, you can talk to other people about their experiences, good and bad, on the entire team (or interacting with the team where this person is) and ask if everything is ok; you can tell them you've come to understand that there might have been some friction, but do not name names.

This leaves them open to telling you if they are having problems with ANYONE (which is valuable). Sometimes Person A seems like the troublemaker, until you realize that three other people have had issues and Person B was there every time. Then you talk to Person A, and yep, Person B suggested the disruptive behavior.

Now that you anecdotal evidence, you can question these folks, again (if they provided any), and ask if they have any documented instances or additional witnesses to what upset them, so you can fully investigate the matter. Some people are going to clam up, because , in their minds, venting =! getting other people in trouble, and we've clearly moved into the "getting other people in trouble" portion of the discussion. For those people, assurance that you are only gathering information and will not be doing anything to the individual involved until you've talked to him or her will a) make this person feel like they are less likely to be fired/punished out of the blue and b) make them more likely to provide you the information.

Once you've reviewed the witnesses and the evidence, calm the hell down.

Yep. A step in this is "calm down." As a manager, if someone is disturbing your group, a bunch of emotions come into play: everything from "kill the infidel" to "oh my god, I hope the person responsible is ok in their personal life" and many less PG thoughts. You can only provide a correction if you are not emotionally charged. So, go to lunch, take a walk, and/or wait a few hours.

Next, schedule a formal meeting time in a private place with the person involved. If there are more than one persons involved, a separate meeting for each is required, one right after the other and a request not to discuss with each other, if necessary. This assumes one person, which is the most common scenario.

Know what you're going to talk about. Create an agenda for the meeting. It should look something like:

1) There's a problem
2) I think you're part of the problem, and here's why (cite evidence, examples, without using team names, if possible)
3) Please tell me your side of the story
4) Let me repeat your side of the story to you so you can tell I absorbed it
5) Please help me stop the behavior that has caused the problem
6) What are our next steps to doing this/help this situation?

Extra credit: When sitting down to talk to the person, do not talk ACROSS the table. If its your desk, put the chair on the side closest to you, rather than across from you. If its a meeting room, sit next to the person on their side of the table. This is an exercise in "you are not alone, I'm here to help" not "baby did a bad, bad thing."

Follow your agenda. This agenda should work if you manage the person or not. In agenda item 6, you are committing to help solve the problem with the person. Both of you have next steps to follow.

For 60% of troublemaking, this usually works. People don't want to cause waves in the office. Often they don't know they are causing problems. I'll go more in depth on next steps in a later blog, in the event this relatively friendly sit down did not set the stage for success.

1 comment:

  1. I'm TOTALLY a "Kill the Infidel" type of person. this often causes other issues. I need to follow the "calm the hell down" step more often than I do