The workers I supervise are out of control

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, OCT 1, 2007

I am supposed to be managing 15 people, but they are crazy and unmanageable. What am I to do?


Dear Cary,

I supervise about 15 people at my job, 13 of whom are women. I am a man. It is an office environment, not high pressure, with relatively technical work that mostly gets done well and on time. I’ve been in the office for 20 years, rising from the lower ranks to head of the area. My trouble is that I have lost any interest in dealing with the women on the staff.

A couple of them are just not very smart. I can rearrange work to handle that for some, but others are just too aggressively stupid. Most of the others are unbearably irrational. I say, let’s decide between A and B; there are many meetings where A is mutually agreed upon as correct, many documents explaining the whys and hows of A; then comes the time to implement A and there is an outcry that B was not given a fair hearing, that A is hateful and unworkable. There are also constant personality clashes — she said this, so I said that, so she won’t have lunch with her, so I won’t have lunch with them; she does a terrible job and is never reprimanded, while I am working my fingers to the bone with no recognition, and on and on … and on! These people honestly seem to have no lives that do not involve a constant assessment of the faults of their co-workers. If I work at all more closely with or engage in conversation more generally with any of the women who are smart and rational, the others are on the lookout and begin “teacher’s pet” treatment of the offender. I can’t stand them anymore!

The two men and two or three of the women on the staff are not like this, although they are no smarter, harder working or more trainable than the other women. But they are also rational. If I tell them something was wrong, do it this way instead, they say OK, fine. They do not react as if I were condemning them to the eighth circle of hell. They are never in my office crying. They never engage in long, furtive, whispering conversations. They don’t form cliques.

Often I find that something has been brewing for weeks only when it explodes. Since in the past I have always tried to get feuders to sit down and talk to each other or, alternatively, have told them to stop behaving like children, they have stopped coming to me to resolve disputes at the early stages. Either I have an unusually recalcitrant and unmanageable group or I have lost any ability to deal with middle-aged women, and I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t think this long-running situation has made me a misogynist, although it has probably angled me in the direction of misanthropy. Or maybe that is just middle age. I could throw out the redeeming fact that I have a wife I’ve been happily married to for 25 years and three daughters, all of whom I carry on rationally with at least seven-eighths of the time, which seems pretty good compared to my work life.

The obvious answer is to try something new, but there are a number of reasons, financial and familial, that make changing jobs unfeasible for the next decade or so. I could also work to get some of them dismissed, but I spent two and a half years documenting and insisting that we do just that with the worst offender, and it was like a daily trip to the dentist. So here I am, the supervisor of 10 menopausal nut cases who do not respond to carrots or sticks, who resent me for trying to make changes, who resent me when I bring in human resources to help us assess our workplace issues, who resent things in general. Right now I’ve settled on ignoring them as much as possible, but this won’t do forever. Any advice?

Muddled in Massachusetts

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Dear Muddled,

I believe that this kind of group dysfunctionality happens when a group of people is particularly starved of things they need. They feel trapped in a situation in which they cannot get their basic needs met, so they are acting out in strange ways. Their needs differ — some may need power, some solitude, some sociability, some challenging work. But they are trying meet certain needs that have nothing to do with their assigned tasks. And there is a perceived shortage of whatever they need. Perhaps too many of them need power and there is not enough power to go around.

A strictly rational approach might leave one baffled by such a situation. But someone more attuned to emotional and spiritual needs might walk in and immediately see what is going on. I sense that you have abilities in both areas — you would like to approach this rationally, as a grown man, with 20 years’ experience in the business, but your attempts at being rational have been rebuffed. You have some sensitivity as well. It just may not have occurred to you to use it in a consciously structured way.

Basically, I would say open your heart to these people — in a very structured, scientific way.

So I suggest that you conduct a 15-week experiment, one week for each employee. Pick one person each week and study that person. Do not judge or instruct or interrogate. Just seek to understand what that person wants. Look at what she has on her desk. Look at her clothes. Ask yourself, What is important to her? Is security important? Is her family important? Her husband? Entertainment? Gardening? Children? Keep a journal of your observations and thoughts about each employee.

Relate to that person as a person, emotionally. Listen to her or him. Use your instincts for sociability; pretend that individual is a member of your family, or a friend. At the end of each week, ask yourself, What does this person really want? Some answer will come into your mind. It may seem silly. But I suggest you listen to it, strange and nonsensical as it may sound. What comes into your mind? A birthday cake? A trip to Ireland? A diamond ring? To publish a book of poetry? A new car? Some shoes? A new husband?

Write these things down.

At the same time that you are observing individuals, observe how the group behaves. How do they interact with one another? Which ones want to lead? Which ones want to follow? Which ones want predictability and order, and which ones require novelty? Which ones like a quick pace, and which ones like a slow pace? Which ones are morning people, and which ones are afternoon people? Watch to see which ones work hard at which times. When do they make phone calls? What do they like to eat?

As well as studying these people, you must also feed them. They are very hungry. They are spending all day trapped in a place they do not want to be, not getting what they want. Give them encouragement and praise. Give them lots of it. Lavish it on them. Lavish encouragement and praise. Find things they are doing well and praise them openly for it. Start handing out praise all day, every day. Every day walk around and see what they are doing and say, “Nice job.” Say, “Well done.” Say, “I appreciate the effort you put into this.” Say, “I appreciate the long hours you are keeping.” Say, “I appreciate your getting here on time every day.”

You might also pick up some award certificates and start handing them out. Think of things they can receive awards for and give them awards.

Study them and praise them for 15 weeks.

Then use what you have learned.

At the end of this 15 weeks ask yourself a bunch of questions about them as a group. Which ones would work well as subgroups? Which ones work together well, and which ones are in conflict? Can you design tasks so that the ones who work well together can work together? Can you remove joint tasks from those who are in conflict? Who are the leaders? Who are the ones who are most well liked? Who would they listen to in a crisis? What matters to them? Food? The location of desks? Certain assignments? Work hours? What is flexible and amenable to change? Give the leaders some power, however that is done.

This is admittedly experimental. But the way I think about it, you could try all these things, and of all these things, there may be a few things that actually bring some tangible improvement. At the same time, for you personally, there will be a feeling of improvement and accomplishment that comes with simply carrying out a program and acquiring information. You cannot know how it might help you. If you set out systematically to learn about your fellow employees, and to respond to them on an emotional level, you may find out all kinds of things. You may find out that they have skills you were unaware of. You may also find out that they have deficiencies you were unaware of.

Being neither a lawyer nor an employment consultant, I recognize that there may be areas of inquiry you need to stay away from for legal and/or company policy reasons. In fact, this admittedly crazy-sounding idea may fly in the face of everything you believe about how a workplace is supposed to run. But what can be the harm? I cannot imagine there could be anything wrong with simply setting out to learn more about the people you work with and provide them with various kinds of recognition and rewards. It may seem kind of sneaky and cold to “observe them experimentally,” but all I am really trying to say is: Open your heart to these people, in a very concrete way, in order to learn what their needs are and why they are acting out. And then try to satisfy some of their needs.

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