How to manage a needy direct report

blahblahblahSometimes dysfunction comes in the form of a Trojan horse. It doesn’t come straight at you like an abusive boss or nasty coworker. It sneaks in through the backdoor and once in, it rears its ugly head. Remember the story of the infamous Trojan horse (and no, I’m not talking about an e-mail virus)? As the story goes, after nearly 10 years of trying to break the Trojans and get into the city of Troy, the Greeks came up empty (personally, I can’t imagine failing for 10 straight years. I can’t decide if that’s crazy or persistent.). In a last-ditch effort, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, decisively ending the war.

Needy direct reports are Trojan horses. They are friendly, ask our opinions, crave our feedback, and hang on our every word.  We welcome them with open arms.  The problem is that once they are inside our walls, all hell breaks loose.

How do you know you have a needy direct report?

Are you currently under siege by a needy direct report? Consider the following signs of truly needy directs:

  • They always want your time. You find yourself trying to sneak into your office without being noticed. You know that if they see you, you have just lost several hours of your life never to be returned.
  • They always need reassurance. Needy direct reports value your opinion so much that they need your approval and reassurance on everything. Everything. #Everything. Ex: “Yes, I think the sandwich platter you ordered for our next lunch meeting will be fine. Yes, I think you did a good job of ordering just enough turkey sandwiches. No, I don’t think Rebecca will care if her veggie sandwich has tomatoes. No, I don’t think it matters what kind of cookies you get. Etc…”
  • They always need feedback. I’m not talking about the simple and healthy process of asking for feedback. No. I’m talking about you dying under the crushing weight of constant prodding for feedback. Ex: “No, we can not meet every week for the next year to discuss your most recent performance review and to review your current progress.”
  • They always need to know where they stand. These folks take the phrase “in absence of communication, people always assume the worst” to a whole new level. They need to not only know where they stand with you, but they often want to know when they are going to get promoted… even right after they have accepted a promotion. Ex: “Our general philosophy around here is that one stays in a job for at least 6 months before another promotion. You know… Enough time to sufficiently do the job they are currently in.”

Notice the consistent word in the attributes above – always. Needy direct reports are managerial dream-killers. Anyone who ever wanted to be a manager soon finds the idea as painful as plucking nose hairs after having a needy direct report (you can thank me for that image).

How to manage a needy direct report

There are a few simple tactics to manage a needy direct report and keep those Greeks at bay. The key in all of these is being “proactive” and on the offensive rather than on the defensive. Our needy direct reports are continually on the offensive, assailing us at every turn. Defense won’t work.  You need to fight back with the following:

  1. Schedule time with them weekly (ideally at the same time on the same day each week). This replaces any impromptu meetings they try to thrust on you.  Stick to your schedule and don’t let them hijack you in the hallway.
  2. Require them to send an agenda ahead of time. This serves two important purposes. First, it puts the ownership on them. Second, it allows you to prepare for the conversation without being blindsided by a “so what did you think of my TPS reports yesterday?”
  3. Give them as close to 5 positive pieces of feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback. This may be difficult for you on many levels, but it is necessary if you want to keep their anxiety and insecurity under control.
  4. Tell them where they stand and where they are going. If you can, try to provide them a clear road map in the organization for the foreseeable future.
  5. Maintain strong boundaries. “No” needs to become your friend. Go ahead. Say it. “No.” Nada. Zilch. #No.
  6. Finally, have them read my posts on “I thought I was a Rock Star until they let me go.” Here’s the link.

Now that I think about it, I’m sure a needy direct report would have no problem harassing you for 10 years or more.

Maybe the Greeks were just looking for feedback…


How to fix an incompetent direct report

direct-report-1Dave was a small business owner.  His business, like many, had been hit hard by the recession.  Doing business the way it had been done before just wasn’t going to work anymore.  He needed to change his business model, how he approached his customers, his processes, etc…   And with that, his people needed to change.  The problem?  Dave has had his business for over 30 years and many of his employees have been with him since the beginning.  They were like family.  No one represented this better than Wanda.  She had been an office manager for Dave for the past 20 years and had somehow managed to function without ever learning how to use a computer.  She had resisted any form of technology.  Unless the whole world loses electrical power (making Wanda a tribal queen overnight), the days of avoiding technology were coming to an end and Dave knew it.  Wanda was no longer competent to do her job and her time was running out.

One morning as I visited Dave and we were discussing Wanda, he said to me the following in a smooth southern accent:

“I don’t want to have to take the family cocker spaniel out back and shoot it, but I know that might be what I have to do.” 


What is incompetence?

Are you dealing with a direct report that is incompetent?  Let me call a “time out” and define “incompetence” as it relates to direct reports.  Sometimes incompetence is a temporary condition.  The job has changed and for a short time, the person will be incompetent until he or she learns the skills and competencies necessary to be effective.  Other times, incompetence is a persistent condition.  The person frankly may not have the horsepower to learn what you need him or her to learn and thus, he or she remains incompetent.  Sometimes, fear takes over and the individual resists any efforts to get him or her to change.  Regardless, the goal for us is to quickly determine what kind of incompetence we are dealing with and attempt to enact the “right” change.

How to make a direct report competent (if you can)

So where do you start?  Consider these steps:

  1. Be honest with yourself.  Yeah, I know how much you just love Amy.  She’s just such a nice person.  She bakes fantastic homemade snickerdoodles.  Oh, and she’s the first to volunteer to dog sit when you go out of town.  I get it.  But Amy started as a customer service representative and now her job has changed to become a cross between business analyst, programmer and social media guru. Be honest with yourself.  Are you asking too much of Amy?  Start with the job description and then consider the person.  DON’T create the job description to fit the person.  I rarely see that play well.  When jobs are made to fit the person to force a fit, the individual ends up hobbling along until they eventually leave.  And when they leave, you are left holding this funky job that fits no one, but the person who just left.
  2. Be honest with them.  There is no greater gift than the gift of honesty and directness accompanied with a healthy dose of compassion.  Explain to your direct report what you need.  Tell him or her that you value them and you want them to be part of your team going forward, but if they can’t make the shift they’ll need to find another home.  Be crystal clear in your expectations so it is easy for you to know if progress is being made.  For example, don’t say: “I need you to get up to speed on social media.”  You’ll end up with a direct report inviting you to their snickerdoodle and dog-themed birthday party via Facebook.  Instead, do say: “I need you to be able to monitor customer feedback via social media and post on at least 3 social media outlets daily on our behalf.  In addition, I need you to be able to report quarterly on what trends you are seeing and what you recommend that we do as an organization.”
  3. Start with something easy.  Change is hard, folks.  Don’t believe me?  Try to change your routine for 21 days and you’ll see what I mean.  Not easy.  So help the person out by starting with something easy.  Find the easiest place to start, give them an easy first assignment and check in weekly.  Ex: “The first place I want you to start is by setting up a Twitter account.  Next, I want you to begin to follow individuals and organizations that you believe we should be watching.  When we meet next week, I want you to fill me in on what you’ve done.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to rip off the Band-Aid.  I’m a huge believer in giving people a fighting chance to change.  I’ve also learned (through many cuts, scrapes and bruises), that most people don’t change.  That being said, let them surprise you.  Give them a chance.  There is nothing more beautiful in life than watching someone overcome their fears and surprise you and themselves.  The flip side of that is what most managers do.  There is nothing more painful and cruel than to watch someone flail about, unable to change and neither their manager nor they stop it for months bleeding into years.  The individual suffers, the manager looks pathetic and for the rest of the group, it’s a morale-killer.  Don’t be that person.  Rip the Band-Aid off if change isn’t happening.

A final word

This isn’t rocket science.  That’s the good news.  Unfortunately, there is bad news.  In order to do this well, it requires two things in short supply today:  clarity and courage.  Be clear on what you want so the person has a fighting chance to make the change.  You owe it to them.  Have the courage to end the experiment quickly if it is causing more pain than progress.  You owe that to them as well.  Neither will be easy and it will require effort and intentionality on your part.


Just maybe.

This post wasn’t about your direct report at all.


3 ways to stop a sabotaging direct report

stabbedIf you’ve ever had the unfortunate task of managing a saboteur, you know how tricky and dangerous it can be. “But wait, Brandon,” you say. “What do you mean by ‘saboteur?’ I thought saboteurs cut wires, plant bombs and generally mess up stuff?” Yep, you got it. While a corporate saboteur might not plant the kind of bombs that kill people, they set traps nonetheless. And nothing is more dangerous than a sabotaging direct report. If you are their boss, nothing pleases them more than finding ways for things blow up in your face.

“But I’m a nice person,” you plead. “Why would anyone want to be so mean to such a wonderful beautiful human being like me? I’m so wonderful that I should be on a Hallmark card.” You are beautiful, but I’m sorry to say, a sabotaging direct report doesn’t care. There are several reasons why you might end up stuck with a sabotaging direct report. Here are some of the most common that I see:

Why Would Someone Want to Sabotage You?

You took their job – I hear story after story of bosses who get tapped for a job that someone else wanted and still believes he or she deserves. Maybe they were your peer at one point and now you are their boss or maybe they’ve got you beat on seniority and age. Regardless of the reason, saboteurs can emerge if they think you have something they want. They simply just need to knock you off.

You represent change – Damn the man. Sometimes saboteurs emerge wearing berets, Che Guevara t-shirts and leading rebels against change (not for change ironically). If you have been tasked with leading a big-time change initiative in a traditional workplace, you might end up with a saboteur trying to stop you.

They don’t like you – Its junior high school all over again. Heather has decided you are mean. Miguel doesn’t like your style. Steve thinks you play favorites. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But it does happen. Sometimes you end up with a junior high kid stuck in an adult body working for you, and they do junior high things. They talk bad about you behind your back. They are passive aggressive in meetings. They have parties and invite everyone else in the office except for you (yes, I have seen this happen).

What do you do?

3 Ways to Stop a Sabotaging Direct Report

  1. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Yep, I know. You don’t like this person. You don’t like the way they work. You don’t like the way they act. Heck, you probably don’t like the way they look. Get over it. The worst thing you can do for a saboteur is give them space and darkness in which to work. On top of that, most saboteurs are sabotaging because, deep down, they don’t feel heard or noticed. So, go notice them. Take them out to coffee and listen to their stories and opinions. And not just once. Meet with them at least once a week and help them to feel valued and special. It is difficult to sabotage someone who values you. Be that person.
  2. Isolate them. Saboteurs are never alone. That’s the subtlety of these surface lone wolfs. Underneath the surface, they are always trying to please or impress others. Perhaps they are trying to impress your boss so they can get your job. Or perhaps they are trying to enlist more supporters to their side. Regardless, they need the validation of others to do what they do. Cut off the source. Isolate them so they truly are alone. I’ve seen managers accomplish this by changing the saboteur’s role so they have no “team” to work with. I’ve seen other managers move the saboteur’s office so they sit far away from others (just not too far from you). Just like any spy or saboteur, if you cut off their funding, they are done. Find the source of their motivation and severe the cord.
  3. Fire them. If all else fails, get rid of them. If you’ve tried offering olive branches and you’ve been shunned at every turn, it’s not a good sign. And if you try to isolate them from others and they continue to find creative ways to keep the channels alive (Ex: after hour dinner parties, etc…), you’ve got a real nasty on your hands. Let them go as soon as possible and I promise you’ll see things turn around in no time. Things you didn’t realize they were sabotaging will begin to start working the right way. The skies will part and sun will shine.

Saboteurs are dangerous. Their goal is simple: to take you down. There is one more thing I need to tell you before I send you on your way. You are alone. Alone. “What?” you gasp. “This is not cool. Brandon, you are supposed to be inspirational and this is NOT inspirational. You make me want to crawl under my covers and cry.” I’m sorry. I really am. I don’t want to be a buzz-kill, but I want you to know what you are facing. Others around you are quite clear on what’s going on and they don’t want to be you or anywhere near you. They want to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. So don’t look for other direct reports to come to your side. Don’t count on it.

It’s just you.

And you know what?

That’s all you need.


Signs you’ve got a problem direct report

who-meI’m sure this will come as no surprise, but I hear a lot of stuff. I guess it comes with the profession. Joys, frustrations, worries, opinions, rants, you name it and I’ve probably heard it. When the person across from me happens to be a manager, the conversation almost always finds its way to the topic of direct reports.  Often there is one particular direct report that represents the thorn in the manager’s side. Sometimes, the issue is that the direct report that just can’t seem to “get it.” Other times, the direct report has become the manager’s nemesis. Having done this rodeo a time or two, I can tell you that sometimes the manager has got a real nightmare on their hands. Other times, they are either overreacting or actually creating the problem themselves through poor leadership or bad communication. How do I know? Or better yet, how can you tell the difference yourself?

Signs You’ve Got a Problem Direct Report

There are several signs I look for as the conversation meanders. Read the following and make a mental note on how many times you find yourself nodding your head.

  1. When you are hanging out with family and friends, you spend more time talking about your irritating direct report than any other person in the world.  Not good.
  2. You either have restless nights or actual nightmares starring your direct report and their shenanigans.
  3. The last time you felt this all-consumed and frustrated was that toxic relationship you had back in college (extra points if you stalk your direct report via social media).
  4. You dream of finding ways to get your direct report another job. And if you could convince the competition to higher him or her, that’s a win-win (extra points if you have sent their resume to anyone).
  5. When your direct report is on vacation, people seem to work better (happier, more productive, etc…).  Extra points if you have ever intentionally sent them on vacation to increase productivity (one client of mine actually sent their direct report on a mission trip to Africa for six months).
  6. You’ve met with your direct report at least 3 times to discuss changes in their performance. The result? Nada, nothing, zilch, it’s the same old song and dance (extra points if you’ve exceeded 5 conversations).
  7. In team meetings, your direct report is creatively disruptive (derails conversations, crosses their arms, interrupts or argues with you, plays on their phone, etc…).
  8. You get complaints about your direct report from any of the following people: customers, other departments, other direct reports, your peers, your boss (extra points if you’ve heard complaints from ALL of those groups).

So, how did you do? If you answered “Yes” to at least half of the signs above, you’ve probably got a problem. If you ended up with a perfect score, congratulations. You have found your nemesis: your Lex Luthor, your Ursula, your Darth Vader, your wicked step sister, you get the idea. Recognizing what you are dealing with is half the battle. The second half is doing something about it. Hold tight. Prescriptions and treatment plans are on their way.


“My direct report is dysfunctional”

direct-reportIt was my fourth call with Theresa in a week and I was beginning to feel like I was in the movie “Groundhog Day.”  Theresa’s direct report, Steven, had been causing her headache after massive headache.  “Steven just doesn’t get it,” she blurted.  “What’s the latest this time?” I asked.  Like each of our recent calls, Theresa would open by rattling off a laundry list of “doesn’t get it” items that would make any manager cry.  From failing to participate during leadership team meetings (Steven preferred to slouch in his chair with his arms crossed) to passive aggressively sabotaging change initiatives, Steven had become Theresa’s nemesis.  And at this stage in the game, “fed up” didn’t do Theresa’s level of frustration justice.  As we neared the end our call, Theresa abruptly stopped talking leaving a prolonged silence in her wake.  Wondering if we had been disconnected, I began to ask if Theresa was still on the line when she broke the silence with one simple and profound statement.  “It’s either him or me,” she said.

Theresa’s story

Over the last three months, Theresa had been growing increasingly frustrated with Steven.  Tasked with changing a struggling business unit’s performance, Theresa had been sent by corporate to lead the turnaround effort.  And as corporate’s reigning change master, this wasn’t Theresa’s first rodeo.   After leading a half dozen turnarounds, Theresa had developed her own playbook for successful change.  Once she arrived and assessed the situation, she consulted her trusty change playbook and began executing step one – getting her team on board.  Over the next several months, she spent time taking members of her leadership team out to lunch, getting to know each of them personally and ultimately moving them to a place of trust and buy-in.  One by one, she was successful in winning over her team, all except for Steven.

Steven’s grudge

Prior to Theresa’s arrival, the business unit had undergone several consecutive years of declining earnings.  The former leader of the unit had been going through a nasty divorce and, as a result, had been consumed with personal problems.  In that vacuum, Steven had emerged as the informal leader of the unit.  As the VP of sales and with a tenure of nearly 30 years in the group, it made perfect sense.  With Theresa’s arrival, however, there was a new sheriff in town.  From the moment the decision was announced that Theresa would be leading the group, Steven began voicing his displeasure.  He thought that should have been his job.  Now, not only was there someone sitting in the seat he wanted, she was making decisions that went counter to what he would do and had been doing.  He wanted Theresa gone.  As a result, he made it his goal to make her as miserable as possible.  To make things more complicated, Steven had been the only shining star in the business.  He and his team brought in tens of millions of dollars in reoccurring revenue annually through his long-term relationships with key clients.  Simply put, if it wasn’t for those long-term relationships that Steven had cultivated, the business would have been shuttered years ago.  Letting him go could pose a risk that Theresa (or corporate) might not be willing to take. 

If this was a Harvard Business School case, Theresa would look out her office window and sip her coffee as she wondered what to do next.  We as the readers would contemplate, discuss and debate.  But this isn’t an HBS case.  This is real-life and Theresa has a major problem facing her each and every day she walks into work.  This problem is rife with emotion, tension, anxiety and anger.  There is no escape and no time to waste.

My direct report is dysfunctional

This month is all about dealing with this very problem: the dysfunctional direct report.  My goal is not to discuss or to debate, but to give you some tangible actions you can take to fix the problem ASAP.  Among other topics, we are going to address:

  • Signs you’ve got a direct report problem.  A real direct report issue can not only cause you sleepless nights, but it can cost you performance and talent on your team.  Is your problem nearing nuclear meltdown or is it a minor blip that you need to manage?
  • Are you the problem?  Sometimes the direct report issue is not a problem with the direct report.  It is a problem with the manager.  I’ll give you the “self-diagnosis” check-up you need to ensure the problem isn’t actually the person staring  in the mirror staring back at you.
  • The nastiest direct report patterns and the corresponding treatment for each.  From the saboteur to the incompetent direct report, there are a handful of common direct report ailments that each require a custom treatment plan.   Using the right approach for the situation is the difference between success and failure.

When it comes to dysfunctional direct reports, time is not in your favor.  The longer you wait, the bigger the cancer grows.  You must move swiftly, precisely and with complete commitment to your plan if you have any hope of turning things around.  And in the end, you may end up facing the same choice as Theresa, “It’s either him or me.”  We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.