Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Herding Cats 4: "Wally" & Prima Donna

This blog post is the fourth in my continuing “Herding Cats” series (see also Herding Cats: The Art of “Managing” Knowledge Workers, Herding Cats 2: Problem Child & Elitist Bastard, and Herding Cats 3: Boss Wannabe & Social Butterfly) (see also Herding Cats 5 and Herding Cats 6) that addresses some management challenges in the form of specific knowledge worker (see Knowledge Is Power!) personality types, and approaches that may be helpful in “managing” them. Clearly, every knowledge worker is an individual, with characteristics that are unique. The personality types that are 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 his or her own approach, and what I describe is just one person’s view, mine.

The “Wally”:
The Challenge:  “Wally” is a character from the Dilbert® comic strip by Scott Adams. Many (most?) companies have a “Wally” (who can be a he or a she, but I will refer to “Wally” here as a he). “Wally” makes every effort (in fact he works very hard at it) to do as little as is humanly possible while trying to disguise the fact that he’s not doing anything useful. He’s full of meaningless buzzwords that he can string together into impressive sounding, but actually meaningless phrases that can mislead a less-than-savvy manager (think “Pointy-Haired Boss”) into thinking that "Wally" knows what he’s doing and is doing “good work”. “Wally” often does this at meetings, wasting significant time, but contributing nothing.  He wanders around the workplace, coffee cup in hand, striking up meaningless conversations with others, and distracts them from doing their work. For “Wally”, no job is hard for he who doesn’t have to do it (see No Job Is Hard for the Person Who Doesn't Have to Do It!), so he’ll often suggest “improvements” and “changes” for others to do that make “Wally” look good and involved, but that make the jobs of those who will actually have to implement these “improvements” and “changes” all that much harder. “Wally” will then stand around and critique the work of others, often suggesting yet more “improvements” and “changes”“Wally” is a drain on the entire organization, and requires others to both pick up the slack work that "Wally" is not doing, and to do the extra work that he has forced on others with his suggested “improvements” and “changes”.  

The Management Approach:  The most critical thing to be done here is to recognize that you’ve got a “Wally”. “Wally” is a disease in the organization that must be treated and eliminated quickly and completely. You will need to immediately hold a private discussion with “Wally”, and tell him he must immediately shape up or ship out. He must understand that his behavior cannot and will not be tolerated. If “Wally” can’t contribute meaningfully to the group, then he has no place in it. You should lay out a recovery plan with specific near-term milestones and dates where “Wally” must demonstrate solid, real performance, with no excuses, no buzzwords, no fooling. Following this recovery plan and within its timeframe, “Wally” must either fix his behavior, leave on his own, or be fired for cause. “Wally” may be funny as a character in Dilbert, but he is not funny at all in real life. 

The Prima Donna: 
The Challenge: The Prima Donna thinks he/she is better than everyone else, and everyone else should cater to his/her every whim. His/her excrement doesn’t stink. Nothing you do is ever enough for the Prima Donna; there is always more that should be done simply because he/she deserves it. The Prima Donna can do no wrong. In some ways, the Prima Donna is similar to the Elitist Bastard (see Herding Cats 2), but the EB views those he respects differently from those he doesn’t; the Prima Donna looks down on everyone. The EB is viewed favorably by some in the organization, and is respected by many for his technical skills and savvy; the Prima Donna is viewed favorably by very few, and has little respect from others. When a Prima Donna is involved in a project you’re working on, you try to stay as far away as possible and minimize your involvement with him/her. This has an adverse impact on the work and the morale of the group. 

The Management Approach:  You need to sit down privately with the Prima Donna, and make sure he/she is aware of this behavior; often he/she is not (is too much of a Prima Donna to even recognize it!). You should present clear and real examples of unacceptable Prima Donna behavior. You must make it clear that such behavior must change, as no one in the group wants to work with him/her. You should explain to the Prima Donna that this behavior is destructive to the organization as a whole. You should then lay out steps that must be taken for the Prima Donna to modify this behavior. Let this person know you will call them on any such behavior (privately) immediately after it is observed. If such behavior can be corrected, then that will solve the problem. If it cannot, then more serious action, up to and including dismissal, may be required. The Prima Donna must understand that you won’t have the performance of the entire group undermined by such Prima Donna behavior. 

These are just two more of many personality types that you will come across in knowledge worker-based (and other) organizations. I will get into more in subsequent 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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