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.
Maybe the Greeks were just looking for feedback…