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December 09, 2009

Managing OUT Slacker B. Incompetence

Blog cartoon 12-9-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

Slacker B. Incompetence chatting up the boss again, Styrofoam coffee cup in hand, paunchy winter sweater framing him? He’s amiable enough (who wouldn’t be, getting paid for doing little, and getting away with it, thanks to a passive boss?), but for the hard working employee you’re paying less than Slacker, all is not well this holiday season. Your passive manager is kind to Ernest McDoo A. Lot, but Ernest isn’t satisfied.

Ernest wishes he could manage up to his (and Slacker’s) passive boss, informing her of Slacker’s faults, and informing her that he and Slacker shouldn’t be treated as equals when, based on their work performance, they clearly aren’t. But he knows the boss would resent that. What boss wants to be given unasked for advice by an underling?  What’s more, Ernest knows it would seem (as it is) criticism of her management style. So he seethes silently.

What should you teach employees about venting their management complaints with those responsible for the issues upsetting them?  The employees who work under your company’s managers are the ones best equipped to note management flaws, yet there usually is no way for them to safely point out those issues to the boss. One idea that occurs to me is a joint training session for bosses and employees, in which you train them into a culture of mutual assistance, emphasizing their ongoing feedback of the manager (directly to the manager) is a required part of every employee’s job. Of course, like all other attempts to rein in bosses, the effort at direct critiques will be hindered by the employee’s fear of retribution by an offended supervisor, but establishing a culture that encourages such direct criticism is the first step to aiding the silently seething. And it’s the first step to ridding your organization of poor performers.

Now, back to Slacker B. Incompetence. Ernest believes Slacker isn’t such a “nice guy.” He’s taking advantage of the bosses’ passivity. He knows the boss he and Ernest share isn’t likely to put her foot down with him. Instead she loathes confrontation with subordinates so much she would rather take on up to half the work Slacker should be doing himself. Meanwhile Ernest is doing the full load of assignments, and doing a good job at it, and yet, to add insult to injury, has a lower title and is being paid less. And, worse yet, the boss insists on treating the two employees exactly the same, though one is doing right by her, working to the maximum, while the other is taking advantage of her passivity.

In addition to title and pay, the irritation Ernest is experiencing stems from the wrong social cues the boss is sending Slacker. Ernest suspects she isn’t actually thrilled with Slacker’s work output or the quality of what does (miracle of miracles) make it to her desk. But she can’t bring herself to be brusque with him. Here’s a tip to give up-and-coming employees on the managerial track at your company: In addition to formal performance review discussions and reprimands, the boss sends a world of messages to employees about how pleased/displeased she is with subordinates in office social interactions. Not happy with one worker’s performance while thrilled with another’s?  Yet can’t bring yourself to directly (and courageously) confront the errant employee about it?  Try acting cool towards the slacker, rather than chatting him up as you do the high performers under your supervision. How do you think it makes Ernest, working his heart out, to see Slacker receiving the same social cues he receives from the boss?  “Does she really think we should be treated the same?” Old Ernest asks himself.

Besides joint “managing up” training sessions between boss and employee, bosses (perhaps in their own session) need to be taught back-up plans for the times they can’t bring themselves to be direct. You need to teach them how to use nonverbal cues, or their emotional intelligence, to send tacit messages to workers. Some people are so reflexively polite (the dreaded pleaser personality) they need to learn the art of being brusque. It’s OK, and even right, not to encourage the poor performer into thinking he’s doing a good job by chatting him with about his weekend trip to the zoo with the kid and his broken garbage disposal.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need for civility in the workplace. But I see the opposite problem: A need for direct (though civil) confrontation in business. It isn’t good etiquette, after all, to slap the employee in the face who has bent over backwards to do a stellar job for you, taking a sizable workload off your plate, by giving him the same treatment you give the one who manages to show up for work, but manages little else besides.

I have a memo for you to send managers about holiday card messages this year. Please, please don’t thank every employee, deserving or not, “for all your hard work.” Hard work for one employee may mean getting to the office at 8, staying until 6, and making it through seven assignments during that time frame. While for another, “hard work” may mostly refer to consecutive trips to the refrigerator, supplemented by trips to the vending machine, supplemented by trips around the block, supplemented by phone calls and Instant Messaging with the wife, supplemented by…anything except—gasp—meeting his job responsibilities.

What guidance do you give employees on helping their boss become a better manager?  What do employees and their supervisors need to be taught about mutual managing?





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