Feb 8 2016
Nothing prepared me for managing people more than parenthood. It surprised me…probably as much as it may surprise you. But if you’re not a parent…it doesn’t matter. The concepts are simple, and they’re easy to use – whether you’re dealing with stubborn co-workers, troublesome staff members or bosses who make despots seem docile.
Working from the top down, there are numerous volumes that tackle the problem of working for jerks (and there are probably more titles that deal with subordinates). Plus, there are guides that help you deal with the !#*@¡¶? idiots in the office or in the cubicle next to yours. All of them have something you’ll find useful, I’m sure (assuming you’re a reasonable person yourself). But there are some situations where you’ll just have to punt.
The Listening Lesson
For example, as a manager with a small and very heterogeneous staff, including
- a man who enjoyed beating women
- a married boss who was dating a young lady in my group
- and internal clients who thought we were a post house in Hollywood (the kind of place that handles editing, visual effects and sound mixing while providing a masseuse and an in-house kitchen with a full-time chef)
the juggling was more challenging than the circus acts that throw chainsaws and cats in the air (tied together in some cases). To keep the dynamics in balance took a multi-pronged approach.
Step one involved hearing. Not listening – anyone can listen – but hearing what the words really meant and what the person’s emotions revealed. This is Parent 101 stuff. The only difference is that children – young children – can’t always give you an answer when you ask them, “What’s wrong?”
However (most of the time), adults can explain what’s wrong. They just don’t when the subject is sensitive or they think speaking up will cause more trouble than it’s worth or they have their own secret agenda – the kind that’s usually obvious to anyone who still has a pulse.
If I approached situations obliquely, though, I’d often get insights that helped detect the underlying problem. For the abusive guy, who was dating a girl in the company and seemed especially on guard one Monday morning, I said (having already seen that his “girlfriend” looked battered) that he must have a had a pretty rough weekend.
“Yeah,” he replied, then said nothing.
“How was your date with Elizabeth?”
“Just OK? You seemed pretty excited about it on Friday.”
“Well, I think I had a bit too much to drink.”
From there, we got around to “maybe” he lost control and “maybe” she wasn’t talking to him now. And maybe, I suggested, he just might have a problem and, if he thought he did, the company offered counseling…if he was interested.
He wasn’t. And, within two weeks, with the rest of his colleagues feeling very uneasy, I reminded him that there was a company policy against physical abuse, whether inside or outside the firm. He decided to leave. Granted, it didn’t solve his problem, but it did solve ours.
Top Down, Bottom Up
The boss was a bit more problematic. Even so, Intermediate Parenting 201 came in handy. Since everybody knew about his not-at-all-subtle affair, we could have brought the situation up with HR. But that might have made him suspicious…or vengeful.
So, instead, I asked him what he thought of his girlfriend, and he said she was “a very lovely girl.” I agreed that she was charming and sweet, but I asked if he knew anything about her qualifications, since he’d assigned her to my department…without consulting me. And, when he asked why, I said that, according to the people who worked with her, she didn’t seem particularly good at anything, and she was affecting their productivity.
Having dealt with “bad” boyfriends that my daughter’s siblings couldn’t stand, I’d played this lick before. In that situation, I’d asked if she knew that her sibs felt extremely uncomfortable around him. She thought one of them might but didn’t know the others did, too. “Is there a way to see him…someplace else?” I asked.
“But I live here, too, y’know.”
“Yes…with siblings who can make your life…difficult.”
My daughter started seeing her beau “someplace else” and broke up with him a bit after that. The boss found another position for his lovely girl and, when his shenanigans reached his boss, my boss left the firm.
No Way Out Except Out
And then there are the problems you can’t fix. Like those times when colleagues won’t make minor compromises, the boss won’t intervene, you can’t get your work done and it all becomes your fault. Like living with teenagers…and being one of them. In those cases, it’s either time to ask friends in other departments to recommend you for an opening or to get outta Dodge. Because if everyone’s being a jerk (and you’re sure it’s not you), you don’t have a whole lotta choices.