Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day? Maybe your stomach was always in knots. Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night. Or maybe your body physically hurt. You just hurt, every day. Simply put, you didn’t feel good. Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy. Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?
You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?” The bottom line is “yes” they are. But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.” Some workplaces are more contagious than others. Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?). The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.
Curious? I hope so. I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end. Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.
At the end of the day, work should not have to suck. Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!
Sometimes 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:
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Maintain strong boundaries. “No” needs to become your friend. Go ahead. Say it. “No.” Nada. Zilch. #No.
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.
It 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.
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.
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.