Managing the person who can’t say no

imo-blogIf you’re going to be an effective manager, you need to get results from your people. That means knowing them well enough to manage each of them based on what works for them, says leadership expert Tom Cox.

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“Aren’t I coddling her?” asks Sara, my client. I’m coaching her on handling her emotionally explosive subordinate, Joan, who a week earlier had erupted in a fit of yelling, then had dropped her ID card on Sara’s desk and gone home.

The next day, Sara’s boss Dan — and the firm’s CEO Tammy — accepted Joan’s apology and told Sara she’ll have to take Joan back. The following week, I’m helping Sara figure out how to lead someone with an explosive temper who effectively can’t be fired.

“Coddling?” I ask.

Sara shrugs. “Joan blew up when I asked her how she was coming on a task I’d assigned her. I was just following up. Later, she tells Dan and Tammy that I’m pressuring her.”

“Are you on board with letting her come back?” I prompt.

Sara nods decisively.

“What happens if Joan blows up again?” I ask.

“She goes home for the day, without pay,” Sara answers. “And she knows that.”

I nod. “Do you want to know the key to managing Joan?” (I’m surprised how often people don’t want to hear this.) Sara does. I’ve spent weeks getting to know the players, so I already know what’s making Joan tick. Many hot-tempered workers are bullies, but not this one.

“Joan can’t say ‘no’ — she really likes helping people. Customers, coworkers, everybody. That’s why everybody here likes Joan — she puts everybody else first. It’s also why every few months, Joan blows up — unlike others who act out for other reasons, for Joan, it’s the only way she has to control her stress level. It’s all ‘yes yes yes’ until the work overwhelms her,” I explain. Sara is nodding. She has seen all this. “Joan’s feeling bad because she likes delivering, she likes helping, and when she’s overcommitted and overwhelmed, she’s not helping — now she’s disappointing people. And she hates that and beats herself up.” Sara is still nodding.

“Then, when you follow up, she hears it as a criticism, as pressure … ” Sara interrupts me: “How am I supposed to manage her? Do I not follow up? Her reaction is just irrational.”

I shake my head. “No, you have to hold everybody to the same standard of performance, but you also have to pick them up at the bus stop they’re at, not the bus stop you want them to be at.”

And that’s the key point for an effective leader. Nobody’s reaction is ‘irrational’ to them — everybody is always acting from good intentions, and always doing the best they can. (The exceptions, the truly sociopathic, are so rare we can ignore them.) When Joan interprets a follow-up as ‘pressure’ it’s a true interpretation for her. We don’t have to buy it, but we do have to accept that — subjectively — it’s true for Joan.

“To work with Joan, you have to remember, she can’t prioritize effectively,” I explain. “She won’t say ‘no’ to anybody — not yet. If you let her, she’ll just over commit again. So you train her, step by step. You might try, having her list each morning the top 3 things she needs to do that day. Next, when you give her something new, a new priority, you need to take one of the other priorities away, or have her push something else down the list.”

“Once she’s starting to prioritize, you can also get her to estimate her work and realize when she’s signing up for 26 hours of work in one day. You’ll eventually coach her to see that saying ‘no’ is actually more supportive of others, and more sustainable for herself.”

Sara still doesn’t like it. “It seems unfair that I treat everybody else one way, and this one person gets special treatment,” she says.

“Okay, suppose you’re bilingual, and six of your staff speak only English, and the other one only speaks Spanish,” I suggest. “Are you giving your Spanish speaker ‘special treatment’ or are you just speaking to them in the language they know and that works for them? And you still require all of them to behave professionally and to perform to the same standard.”

I press on. “If you’re going to be an effective manager, you need to get results from your people. That means knowing them well enough to manage each of them based on what works for them. You could treat each of your seven people a unique a way, based on their personality and what motivates them,” I say.

“That’s not coddling. That’s leading.”

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.