'Step Up to Leader' Post > Tangential Question?

Subject: 'Step Up to Leader' Post > Tangential Question?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: Techwriter List <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Agnes Starr <zigrocstarr -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2007 08:39:16 -0400

Agnes Starr wondered: <<What do you do if you ask an employee to do
something and they refuse to do it? Suppose for example you request
an item via email and the subordinate shoots back and email that says
"No, I am not going to do it that way. " - and it happens
repeatedly. Or you make requests and they continually ignore them,
and you know they are doing it intentionally to be defiant.>>

It's always possible you've simply got a bad egg, and the end result
will be that you have to get rid of them. But a wise old manager once
explained to me that employee-supervisor conflicts are never one-
sided, that the manager has to share some of the responsibility, and
that a really good manager can usually find a way to bring an
employee around. (Me? I was always an indifferently good manager, but
I seemed to have a skill for helping other managers solve their
problems. Go figure!)

The first step is to find out why they're resisting. Often, you'll
find out that they have a very good reason you haven't considered,
even if that reason is only "your way is no better than my way". That
latter response is a clue to something important: it means that
you're falling into the control freak trap. Employees are most likely
to resist your requests and grow resentful if they get the perception
you want them to always do things your way, even if their way is

As a manager, you need to learn to recognize when that is happening,
take a step back, and let the employee "win" sometimes. When you show
employees that you respect their intelligence and let them
demonstrate their worth, you establish mutual respect. The end result
may not be as good as it would be if they did things your way, but if
it's good enough, that's sometimes an acceptable situation. Once you
establish the dialogue and respect, you gain leverage to get the
other person to become willing to occasionally try things your way.

Sometimes the problem is neither you nor the employee, but rather a
toxic or difficult work situation. That loads stress on the
employee's back, and makes them much more fragile and resentful: when
you know that you have no power to shape your own actions, you tend
to seize any opportunities for power that you can grasp, no matter
how petty they may be. If you're lucky, you can find ways to relieve
some of that stress, thereby making the employee more willing to work
with you than against you. And sometimes you can't, and all you can
do is remind the person that you're in this bad situation together
and need to work together to avoid making it worse.

<<If you insist, you sound like you are pulling rank like "I am the
boss and you must do what I say.">>

If you're certain you're right, then it really does come down to
that. But always seek a reality check from someone whose opinion you
respect: few of us every truly understand how others see us, and the
emotions raised by a conflict can seriously cloud your judgment. Once
you're sure, act like you're sure: "OK, I've considered your opinion
and discussed it with a few other people. Bottom line: You need to do
it my way this time. If you're not willing to follow my lead, I'll be
happy to help you find a good job elsewhere, but you can't keep
working here."

<<If you go to your boss with the problem - unless it has gone on for
a while, they will say you should handle it before escalating it, or
at least that is what I was told.>>

That's always true. You're employed as a manager because they believe
you can manage your staff. Demonstrate that you cannot manage them,
and they'll eventually lose faith that you belong in that job. You
may end up needing their administrative support (e.g., if you don't
have authority to fire staff), but you should be able to convince
them you've done everything possible before it comes to that.

<<If you ignore it, the message gets out that you are a pushover and
a chicken-little supervisor/manager.>>

Never ignore it. Problems must be solved, not swept under the rug.
And sometimes the problem is you, not the employee, and the only way
you'll know is to look into the problem, possibly with advice from a
friend who's not afraid to tell you the truth about yourself.
Sometimes the problem is the work, and investigating the problem will
help you find ways to mitigate the solution.

<<Writing them up seems too harsh to do so on the first offense, or
even second. If you do write them up, how soon do you do so?>>

If you've done due diligence and are convinced that you're right,
then you sit down with the employee immediately, explain that this
disobedience cannot continue and that you are writing this situation
up and adding it to their permanent file. Give them a copy of what
you've written. Explain that you have a three-strikes rule (or
whatever your policy is), and that if two more such reports end up on
their record, you'll initiate dismissal proceedings*.

* For some more detailed thoughts: http://www.geoff-hart.com/

Then file the report. But don't stop there: if you want to solve a
problem, you need to specify what you're going to do to solve it,
make sure the employee understands this, and begin working to solve
it. With the employee's help, create a list of criteria for the
problems and how you expect to solve them, and make it objective as
possible: you must be able to prove what is going on. Set dates for
reappraisals so you can track progress towards the goals. If the
employee helps create the criteria, you've established a dialogue
again, and given them some empowerment (i.e., the sense that they
have some say in defining their fate). If not, do it anyway and make
it clear that the door is always open to discuss revisions. Then add
your criteria to the personnel file too.

I don't have huge amounts of faith in the Human Resources department
(many bad experiences over the years), but sometimes they really are
experts and can provide a reality check and good advice on how to
proceed. Don't hesitate to ask!

-- Geoff Hart
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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'Step Up to Leader' Post > Tangential Question: From: Agnes Starr

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