“We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us”
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
When you’re searching for solutions to personnel problems in the office, take steps to make sure you have accurately identified the source of the problem.You need to uncover obstacles to good performance by your office staff by being sure they have the necessary training, optimal equipment and clear instructions.
What if you’ve done all of these things, but you’re still getting poor performance? Is it time to terminate him? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Have you had difficulty finding anyone who could perform these job responsibilities well? Have you had trouble keeping the talent who did perform well? You might first verify that you are paying a competitive salary. If you are underpaying the market, talented personnel may not be attracted to the position, or they may parlay the experience and training they get in your office to a higher paying job.
Once you have verified that you’re paying market rates, however, you have to face the possibility that the problem could be a management issue. That’s right. You could be the problem.
As Walt Kelly says in his Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Could any of these management styles describe you? Are you confident enough to show this article to others in the office to ask their opinion? Are you reading this because it mysteriously appeared on your desk?
The micromanager. He believes there is only one right way to accomplish the goal. He gives too many instructions. Although he is not in the trenches himself, and perhaps has never been there, he assumes he knows the issues and decisions to be faced there. He checks back frequently and makes a lot of mid-stream corrections. There is no room for the subordinate to make judgments or to capitalize on her natural talents. She begins to shrink and contract. She doesn’t think things through on her own, for fear of being corrected again. She loses the agility to respond in the moment to whatever develops. I hear the same manager complain that his people don’t show any initiative.
The deluger. This lawyer relies too heavily on the strong performer, and doesn’t balance the workload. Strong performers learn that the reward for working efficiently and well is getting more and more work dumped on them. Weak performers get weaker because they get fewer developmental opportunities. Strong performers burn out, or resent the easier life of the slow or sloppy worker. They join their ranks or move on to another job.
The efficient commander. She interrupts. She speaks in curt bullet points. She discourages questions with her impatience. She is already working as she walks into the office in the morning and doesn’t bother to say hello as she passes. She is so focused on the target that she doesn’t notice the people in between. They get the message that they don’t count and she doesn’t care about them. So they stop caring about the job.
The disrespecter. This “professional” behaves unprofessionally toward his subordinates. He does not control his temper and gets frustrated easily. He may or may not recognize that he is actually angry at opposing counsel or stressing about a deadline. His subordinates just know they feel disrespected and abused. He may be a “screamer and a thrower” or he may just speak with irritation, condescension or sarcasm in his voice. Dogs who have been abused tend to cower and have “accidents,” or growl and attack. People respond similarly, but if they need the job, they may hide their mistakes or hide their sabotage until the damage can’t be undone.
The nice guy. This lawyer has a hard time giving negative feedback to subordinates. The feedback he gives may be so vague, muted or off target that the subordinate may not even understand that he has been reprimanded or his work criticized. This manager tends to be overworked and stressed from doing work he should have been able to delegate or redoing work he did delegate. I know of associates who got “shape up or ship out” talks who didn’t grasp that their job was in jeopardy, and people who actually got fired, but didn’t know it.
The blamer. She is disorganized and procrastinates. She creates crisis and chaos wherever she goes, but when she misses a deadline, loses something, or sends out a sloppy document, it is someone else’s fault. Her staff learns never to give her the original of anything, and they spend time daily helping her find something. She complains about their low productivity or their backlog. No one is fooled by the “computer errors” and “admin mistakes” but herself.
Support staff will attest that these are not imaginary characters. Even if you only engage in some of this behavior some of the time, you may not benefit by discharging your poorly performing subordinate. You may just train the new hire to cause similar problems. If you just can’t find good help these days, you might need to stop looking at resumes and start looking in the mirror. At least that would be a personnel problem that is in your control!