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Organization Hierarchy & the Difficulty of Difficult People

In the last several posts, I have reported on an interesting phenomenon I’ve seen in every client workplace I have ever consulted. People at different levels in any organization see very different problems – and very different opportunities. Going back to the 6-part case study (July 31, 2019) that used the Group Assessment survey to identify key workplace issues, Managers see one set of issues but are blind to quite a few things that are creating barriers for Employees and their effectiveness.

My favorite is the problem of “Difficult People” in the workplace. Everybody sees a different side of the problem and can offer different reasons for why it happens. Here are 3 types of Difficult People, each with a note on who sees these people most accurately:

  1. People who don’t do their work, don’t use the processes or technologies that are available, and/or have to be either motivated or managed closely by somebody. Best seen by Employees, who have to pick up the slack or take them by the hand and show them how and why to do the job.
  2. People who are simply crabby or unpleasant at work, such as complainers or people who think they are better/smarter than everyone else. Best seen by Employees, who will be affected every day by those negative attitudes on display in the workplace.
  3. People who stir up problems by gossiping or blaming others. Best seen by Employees, who will be distracted by the loss of trust within their work group and the futility of correcting it. A peer stepping in to correct this will probably just aggravate the situation.

Why don’t Managers see these problems? They do, but they usually prefer to keep their distance from them. Why step into a “people problem”? That is the world of psychology and sociology, and they have more worthwhile work to do. Many also know they lack the expertise to “fix” a Difficult Person. Managers put up with these people, and even if they see it, they don’t rank it high on their list of workplace problems. As one Manager said, “That guy isn’t a very smart worker, and he isn’t real friendly, either. Maybe he needs coaching, but that’s not my job – I’m a manager and have a lot of responsibilities. He is not one of them.”

For the most part, Employees will not report these problems. Why not? Because that could make them seem like a complainer or a gossip, and they don’t want to be the one giving a Manager another problem to solve. And, in many cases, an Employee who addresses the problem by speaking directly to someone who is “difficult” will likely just aggravate the situation.

The only thing we have found to solve the problem is a Manager who is willing to practice using the four productive conversations with each individual(s) who is causing one (or more) of the 3 problems identified above. Most important is the “Closure Conversation”, which includes being specific about the behaviors that are causing problems, and acknowledging one or more things that are positive about the person’s behaviors or results (several videos are available here on Closure Conversations). But all four productive conversations are needed, perhaps with some follow-up to validate the importance of the message and any progress observed.

So, those Difficult People problems can be resolved – relatively easily – but it also requires what may be a new kind of communication between Managers and Employees to find out what the problem really is. The Group Workplace Assessment points out the problems that Employees see, but doesn’t give names to those Difficult People, nor does it give specifics about when, where, and how the problem shows up. When a Manager is serious about improving performance, morale, and teamwork on the job, a few communication upgrades will improve the work environment. Admittedly, dealing with Difficult People can be difficult – and delicate. But the payoff is worth the investment.

 

Supervisors See Four Kinds of Personnel

Best Employee. Supervisor gives work orders and turns job over to worker. Worker requires only recognition.

  1. Accurate and complete work; Good results.
  2. Accomplishes more jobs; Productive and efficient.
  3. Organized; Knows where things are.
  4. Can do all assignments; No hand-holding needed.
  5. Looks ahead; Thinks how to help; Has good ideas.
  6. Good attitude; Courteous to all.
  7. Volunteers to help team members; Gets involved.

Good Worker. Supervisor recognizes good performance and points out problems. Worker requires support for teamwork.

  1. Willing to learn; Wants to do better and improve skills; Interested in the job.
  2. Takes on any job and does what is asked.
  3. Hard working; Skilled; Paying attention.
  4. On time with results and finishing jobs.
  5. Careful worker; Does complete work.
  6. Keeps work environment in good order, equipment and supplies organized.
  7. Often helps others on the team.

Improving Worker – Supervisor is clear on details and gives encouragement. Worker requires instruction and appreciation.

  1. Doesn’t know all aspects of the job; needs guidance.
  2. Afraid to make decisions without asking what to do.
  3. Results sometimes good, sometimes not.
  4. Willing to learn with supervisor encouragement.
  5. Sometimes doesn’t see to do more than necessary.
  6. Capable, could do more with better results.
  7. Requires attention dealing with sensitivities.

High Maintenance Employee – Supervisor points out everything to do. Worker requires attention.

  1. Late to work or has to be told to do jobs.
  2. Works slowly; Inefficient. Makes small jobs big.
  3. Moody or argumentative; Complains to co-workers.
  4. Messy work area; doesn’t take care of equipment.
  5. Watches others at work; Sometimes distracts them.
  6. Takes easy jobs or waits to be told what to do.
  7. Often turns in work results that require more work or cleanup from others.

Getting Clear about “Difficult People” – Don’t Make it Personal

There is a LinkedIn post about “Difficult People”, which was really about difficult relationships – and how to deal with them ever so gently. Yipes! My clients had very specific examples of what they mean by “difficult people”, and weren’t interested in being gentle! The gentle example suggested saying, ‘I don’t like your approach’, ‘Your style doesn’t fit here’, or ‘I’m aware that we seem a bit stuck. What are you noticing?’. Soft stuff.

My notes from clients say that difficult people are the people who:

  1. Must be continually reminded or “micromanaged” to get their work properly or on time;
  2. Are argumentative, unfriendly, or otherwise disagreeable, causing trouble at work;
  3. Resist using new methods and procedures in their work;
  4. Gossip and make others look bad, or blame others for their problems, and being unpleasant to work with;
  5. Are chronic complainers, taking up the time, attention, and energy of others;
  6. Do only the minimum work necessary, or don’t do their assigned work, making it hard for others to get their work done; or
  7. Expect someone else to motivate them or tell them what to do, which slows things down and makes it harder to get work done.

So there’s no need to be touchy-feely about it. Maybe what’s needed is a conversation about results – meeting deadlines, behaving respectfully, and producing quality work

I heard one manager tell a meeting of his entire staff, “Some of us, perhaps without knowing it, are not operating as part of a team. Sometimes we aren’t always producing what others need from us, or we’re waiting to be told what to do, or being unpleasant to others. I think we can create a better atmosphere here.”

He went on to lead a discussion on the following 3 topics:

  • How can we be more supportive of each other?
  • How can we do our work well, while also being aware of how our work fits in with what others need to reach our goals?
  • What does it mean to be cordial and positive at work?

He wrote people’s answers on a big whiteboard, then asked, “What will make these ideas work?”, writing down their solution ideas. He closed the session by asking them, “Are you – each one of you – willing to make an agreement with me that you will put at least one of these ideas into practice, starting today?”

As his staff members studied the list, hands started going up. Within 2-3 minutes, every hand in the room was in the air. He told them this would be included in their monthly review meetings, to see if their workplace “atmosphere” was improving or needed more work. He transcribed his lists of their best answers to his topic discussion questions and implementation ideas , and posted them – framed – in the rest rooms. They followed up at meetings, but soon didn’t need to do that anymore. The “atmosphere” improved without worrying about anyone’s approach, style, or values. Whew!

 

What’s the Source of the “Productivity Deficit”?

The Marketplace newsletter has an answer for a question I hadn’t thought to ask: “Why are workers less productive?” It seems the output produced for each hour of labor worked (aka non-farm business productivity) dropped in the second quarter of 2015. It’s the third quarter in a row with a decline in US labor productivity. Innovations like smartphones and 3D printing are great, but aren’t doing much for productivity.

Their recommended solutions? More investment in plants, new technology, and training employees to use new technologies. Businesses just aren’t making a lot of those investments these days.

But is that really the problem? My observation is that there is an awful lot of “waiting” going on in organizations. People are doing non-critical work or housekeeping tasks instead of gaining momentum in the “output” they are responsible for producing.

  • Marge, a cost-savings analyst, is waiting for the Maintenance Manager to give her the latest numbers so she can finish her quarterly report.
  • Andrew, an engineer, is waiting for his boss to give him the OK on a project working with the IT team to develop a new application for Engineering and Operations.
  • Chuck, a supervisor, is waiting for the service schedules to be posted so he can give his crew – and their customers – their assignments for the coming week.

I suggest there is a “Communication Deficit”. Each of these people has a “really good reason” for why they can’t make a clear request – and get a good promise – for What they want, When they want it, and Why it matters.

  • Marge can’t get a definite promise from the Maintenance Manager “because he works in a different department and has a boss of his own to satisfy”.
  • Andrew can’t get an OK from his boss because his boss is out of town, not responding to all his email, and doesn’t realize that Andrew can’t move forward without that OK.
  • Chuck says, “I’m a little afraid of Helen. She manages the scheduling and has a nasty temper. My crew understands that I’d rather wait.”

Most people don’t see the need for making agreements to support their work productivity. (Note: Request + Promise = Agreement). But agreements do give us some certainty and that helps us schedule our work more effectively which increases our productive time. Plus, with practice we can increase that certainty and become more reliable in making agreements – and in encouraging others to have conversations that produce agreements with us.

Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I received an email today from an associate, with links to 3 documents, saying “these drafts are pending your review”. She then reported what she was working on, and said, “I should have something for you by Friday.” Did she mean she wanted me to review those 3 drafts by Friday too? If I want more certainty, and productivity, I’ll have to create clearer agreements. Lesson learned.

Un-Productive Communication – Let’s Ditch it for Now

Complaining. Blaming. Gossip. Those conversations are usually unproductive. The word “productive” comes from the ideas of “leading and moving forward”. In that sense, being productive is a good thing.

Unproductive conversations are everywhere – they aren’t wrong, but they don’t produce much value.

  • Complaining could be productive if you are committed to following through to find a resolution. But if you are complaining just because you’re in a bad mood, you’re putting negativity on a loudspeaker.
  • Blaming others for errors or failures might give you some momentary satisfaction. It might even get you out of trouble. But it still can’t be considered productive communication because it creates ill will and avoids responsibility. Neither of those outcomes will advance anything worthwhile.
  • Gossip, revealing personal information or passing along rumors or negative opinions of others, is a popular pastime in the Age of Connectivity. But it’s not productive in the sense of advancing anything and it can cause serious damage, both to the speaker’s reputation and to other people.

So it is unfortunate that we are in the silly season of “politics” – original meaning: “civil government” – has become anything but civil. Five more months to go.

My thought is that our best protection from uncivil, unproductive conversations is not to participate in them. Any dialogue engaging those 3 types of conversation will likely lead to making something – or someone – wrong, or bad, or otherwise disagreeable.

Now I’m developing some skills in shifting toxic talk to other topics – such as the two conferences I’ve been to in the past month (both terrific!), the executive retreats I’m leading this summer (hey, I thought I was retired!), even the weather (at least we can agree it’s getting hot now).

I invite you to join me in staying out of the deep weeds of unproductive conversations.

End of sermon.

Unproductive Talk Is Toxic

The July 10 issue of Dilbert (shown below) provides an excellent example of two types of unproductive talk: gossip and complaining. Disparagingly talk about the work of others is gossip and contributes to animosity, bad feelings, and conflict.  Complaining (also known as BMW = bitching, moaning, and whining) is a morale killer and contributes to dissatisfaction, anger and frustration, and a sense of helplessness.  Dogbert is wrong, we don’t need more practice with either of these.

Dilbert.com