The case for “close-in” management.
What would you do if you were managing a direct report who complained much of the time? A direct report who “spewed venom” in conversations with other employees, complaining about the company, or about management, or about work conditions, or about work in general? What would you do if this employee went into the offices or cubicles of colleagues and consumed 30 minutes or more at a time, bending the ears of colleagues with rants about how “this isn’t working” or “that’s not working”, or “did you hear about….”?
How would you handle this direct report?
… Would you just ignore him or her?
… Would you talk to them?
… Would you talk to his or her colleagues?
… When this employee’s colleagues complained to you, (some are also your direct reports and some are not) would you tell them to just ignore the tirades?
I’ve had this situation in my management career enough times to loose count. Here is the approach that has worked for me.
I like to use the analogy of a thumbtack, a nail, my thumb, and a hammer. Lets say I’m putting up a picture and I don’t know if I should use a thumbtack or a nail. At the start, I usually assume that a thumbtack will be sufficient. I assume the least “intrusive” approach until and unless I’m shown that a more intense approach is warranted. So I’ll begin with thumbtack and use my thumb to push it into the wall. If that works, fine. I’f not, only then will I get out the nail and the hammer and pound that nail into the wall.
The same holds true for my approach to this management situation. My first approach is to talk to the employee and if that works, great! If not, then we are going to have an intense process indeed. Here are the details.
The Thumbtack and the Thumb Approach
I tell the direct report that I’ve been getting feedback that he/she has been complaining quite a bit about “xyz” and colleagues are not happy about it.
Next I’d ask what is causing the “ranting”. In this way I can find out more about the “map of the world” of the direct report. My goal here, at a minimum, is to understand the motivation of the employee’s complaints as much as possible. Unless I agree there is something legitimate about the complaints, in which case I’d attempt to remedy the situation, I’d tell the direct report that the complaints have to stop. They are distracting, unappreciated by other employees, and they don’t do anything positive for the image of the direct report either in my eyes or in the eyes of fellow employees.
I would get a commitment from the employee to end the complaining and that wold be the end of our discussion.
Then I’d watch and listen.
If the situation improves or corrects, great!
If it doesn’t, then we go to the next level.
This next level gets everyone involved. Here is what I mean.
The Nail and the Hammer Approach
First I would talk to all the colleagues and other employees who have complained to me about this direct report as well as those I believe the direct report has contact with but who have not complained to me. I would tell them that the direct report’s behavior is not acceptable and that I want their help in dealing with this. I would tell them that I would like them to stop the employee “in his/her tracks”, immediately when he/she begins to complain. Just don’t listen to it. Turn your back. Kick them out of your office or cubicle. Don’t do anything to support the ranting. And I would get a commitment from these employees to support my plan. Also, I would ask them to notify me whenever and as soon as he/she attempts to rant or complain.
I would then have another meeting with the complaining employee to express my disappointment with their previous behavior and their lack of adjustment. I would make it clear that their ranting is not acceptable and that I’ve decided to raise the “temperature” around this behavior. I would tell him/her that I’ve talked to all the other employees and they are not longer going to support this behavior and that if I hear of this behavior again I’m going to come down on them like a ton of bricks. I’d make it clear that this has now become very serious and if it continues it will adversely affect this person’s performance review and perhaps their future at the company.
End of discussion!
Then I’d watch and listen. However, this time things would be different. If the direct report complained and I got feedback from anyone that the behavior was continuing, I go right to the complaining employee and tell them that I heard they were ranting again and to stop it. Every time I got word that the employee was behaving in an unacceptable manner (i.e., complaining) from anyone, I’d go right to the employee and tell them that I knew of their unacceptable behavior and they were to stop it. The only way I’d give the employee any “breathing room” was if they stopped the undesirable behavior.
This approach has worked for me over and over again.
Is it micromanagement?….. Some would call it that. I call it “Contextual Management©” which is my idea of picking the best management approach for a given situation.
Does it work?….. You bet! It’s worked for me over and over again.
Is it necessary?….. It seems to be. No other approach has worked as well.
The Real World
I’ve been coaching several managers who have just the situation I’ve described above. The direct reports range all over the map regarding their age, background, discipline, gender, etc. And in most cases my clients (i.e., the managers) have been successful. Sometimes the “thumbtack and thumb” approach works alone and sometimes the “thumbtack and thumb to nail and hammer” approach works. The only managers who have not been successful raining in their complaining employees have been those managers who began their intervention with the “nail and hammer” approach. It seems that the approach that begins “lighter” and then brings in the heavy hammer (the approach that I’ve always used) works better than just beginning with the hammer.