Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard

In my consulting practice e-Newsletters I've talked about effective teamwork and “team killers” (see Are You Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?). In the lead-off "Herding Cats" blog post, I raised the topic of “managing” knowledge workers (see Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers). This blog post is the first in a series of "Herding Cats" articles that will address some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. This and each of the subsequent “Herding Cats” blog posts (see Herding Cats 3, Herding Cats 4, Herding Cats 5, and Herding Cats 6) will address two or more different personality types. Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that will be described here are purposely more extreme than will normally be the case, and will emphasize one specific set of characteristics, whereas most people have a variety of personality characteristics. Every situation is unique, and should be treated in a unique fashion. Further, every manager has their own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.


The Problem Child: 
The Challenge: The problem child seems to constantly lurk outside his/her manager’s office, and always has pressing problems that he/she needs to discuss with the manager that are “different” and “more important” than everyone else’s. He/she will ask if you have a moment so that he/she can explain what’s wrong, so you can help. Then, when you say, “Sure, I have a moment”, he/she will suck up your every waking minute, given the chance. Generally, when you get into it, you’ll hear that he/she doesn’t really have a problem; everyone else has a problem. The problem child is generally loaded up with problems, and is looking for other people to dump these problems on to (see Managing "Monkeys"). You almost reach the point where you’re afraid to look up, or where you want to close your door. You have to do something, or the problem child will consume your life.




The Management Approach:  Most often, the problem child isn’t a bad person, and may not even recognize his/her behavior. You must have a private one-on-one discussion and explain that his/her behavior is creating problems, and driving you (and probably others) nuts. He/she is not the only person with problems, and his/her problems are not different from everyone else’s. More importantly, he/she must identify and solve his/her own problems, and not try to pawn them off on others. Knowledge workers have the training and the intelligence to solve problems; after all, that’s really what knowledge workers do. When there is a difficult problem that he/she cannot deal with, it’s OK to bring this to the manager, but this should be the exception and not the rule. It is not acceptable to “lurk” outside the manager's or other's doors waiting to pass off problems or to be told what to do and how to think. Tell him/her that you will monitor his/her behavior with you and others, and will promptly point out when behavior is unacceptable. Further tell him/her that modification of this behavior will be part of what will be measured for improvement as part of the performance review process. If he/she can be put on the right track, the problem child can stop being a problem (and a child).


The Elitist Bastard (EB):
The Challenge:  The EB is typically talented, smart, and often brilliant. He (the EB is most often a he) is critical to getting a project completed efficiently and effectively in a timely fashion. The EB is often able to out-work and out-think many of his coworkers. However, the EB generally looks down with disdain on other mere mortals. He may respect some coworkers, but those who don’t match his brilliance are second-class citizens who really shouldn’t even be allowed to occupy the same space and time. This is particularly true for support people (e.g. testers, writers, etc.) or others who merely observe and react to the EB’s brilliance. The EB can’t be expected to spend time listening to the hoi polloi about problems that are clearly beneath him. The EB doesn’t make errors. If there is something wrong, it’s not the EB’s fault; it’s someone else’s fault. If a bug is found in something the EB did, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature! The EB can have a corrosive affect on a knowledge worker-based organization, and can create chasms between individuals and groups.


The Management Approach:  EB behavior must be addressed directly and early. The EB must learn quickly that while his talents may be valued, his behavior with others is not and is unacceptable. The EB should understand that with his skills, talent, and knowledge, he has an opportunity for a very bright future, but only if he adjusts his attitude. The EB is not “better” than everyone else, and needs to play better with others, rather than alienating everyone around him. Everyone in an organization has their skills and talents, and people need to work closely together as a team. Let him know that he will be monitored, and when he shows EB behavior, he will be called on it. If he can correct it and become a team player, he can thrive, and gain the respect of all; if not, then there may not be a place for him in the organization, even with all of his talent. EB behavior destroys teamwork and will not be tolerated, even if it means losing a talented individual. 


These are just two of many personality types that you will come across in knowledge worker-based (and other) organizations. I will get into many more in subsequent "Herding Cats" blog posts. The key is to recognize the various personality types as early as possible, and work to address the problems or opportunities that they may bring. You don’t want to destroy individuality or mold everyone into an automaton.  At the same time, you don’t want certain individual behaviors to destroy team morale.  You must walk a fine line, and find what works best for your organization using a style that fits you.

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