Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Friday, February 1, 2013

Geezers in Management

A while back,  I  promoted a young woman from a rank-and-file position into one with low-to-midlevel managerial responsibilty. She now supervised three others with functions similar to her own.

I hold weekly one-on-one meetings with my direct reports, and at the most recent meeting I asked this new manager how things were going and if there were any notable problems. She signed and leaned back heavily in her chair. "Managing the processes and the work flow is a breeze," she said. "But I had no idea that managing personalities was going to be so damned hard."

Any geezer in a position of business management will smile in sympathy.  This is exactly the issue in corporate management: navigating the strange and unpredictable personality conflicts and emotional baggage that otherwise competent workers bring to the workplace.

A friend of mine, an affliliate geezer, points out that as a species we have only come down out of the trees about a month ago. What he means is that we all still labor under a huge burden of fairly primitive fearful and hostile biological instincts, and that we are by no means all that civilized yet as a primate species.  (If you want proof of this, just attend a professional hocky or football game, or go to a rock concert, and watch the behavior of the performers and audience very carefully.)

Nowhere is this more true than in the workplace, where apparently normal people can behave in paranoid, unconscious ways that bedevil a manager.

Here are some stereotypes that most managerial geezers will be familiar  with:

• The Entitled Youngster
It's not entirely fair to say that this is a stereotype confined to young workers, though I will say you see more or it here then in other demographic groups. This is the worker who expects to succeed, or even receive praise, for almost everything he or she does. One young editor I managed, after having the same marketing piece sent back for revision several times and then finally earning praise for an adequate result,  said blankly, "I had no idea it was hard to do a good job."

• The Sandbagger
This can be a worker who is otherwise smart and talented, but whom has decided to put the bulk of their effort into doing the bare minimum to get by. He will routinely arrive 30 minutes late and leave 30 minutes early, and take extra long lunches just as long as he can get away with it. If you point out to him that a particular task could have been done more completely, better, he will say: "Well, you didn't tell me exactly what you wanted."  This becomes something of a mantra for this guy, as he will always say that he was lacking the full perspective on what is required—even after a decade in the job. With this guy, I give him a performance review that includes about two sentences. When he complains, I ask him to enumerate in writing all the performance standards he'd like feedback on.

• The Saboteur
This is a truly creepy character who actively seeks to undermine your company's success. It's hard to know what drives these characters, and fortunately I've known only a few over the course of 30 years.  This is the one who you worry might be erasing a company file server is he's given access to it. I had an art director once who spent hours trying to get coworkers to sign a petition arguing that the color monitors being used produced harmful radiation. It was purely an effort to cause trouble. If you even suspect you've got one of these, fire them post-haste.

• The Ledbetter Paranoid
This is somebody who sees gender or age discrimination behind almost every shrub. As a manager, you very much want people who'll remind you if there are instances of unequal pay for equal work, but there are also those that see such discrimination everywhere. At one point, I used to start staff meetings with the phrase "Okay kids, let's get started."  Mind you, some of these folks in attendance were even older than me.  Months later, when I let an incompetent worker go, he filed a grievance arguing that my calling everybody "kids" was evidence of age discrimination on my part.

• The Procrastinator
A worker who will never, ever change. These are the folks who are just plain wired to always put things off until the last moment. There is no amount of personal coaching or career education that will create the proper habits in this guy. They never, ever, will get anything done on time. With one of these folks, I lock the door to the conference room 30 seconds after a meeting is due to start. And then yell about them missing the meeting.

• He (She) Who Is Without Sin
Occasionally you'll run into the worker who is genuinely talented at making you believe that the fault for every problem lies with someone else rather than himself.  Oddly enough, this often is not a terribly conniving or deliberate act—often this fellow is really wired so as to be completely unable to recognize his own mistakes. Proper approach: continue to smilingly point out his or her mistakes, and accept no passing of the buck. Once in a great while, this type will have an epiphany and grow up.

• "Mea Culpa"
Less common, and also less problematic than "he who is without sin" is this worker, who really insists on accepting blame for almost anything. Sometimes this is simply a worker who is terribly uncomfortable "ratting out" a fellow worker who has screwed up,  though occasionally you might find an example of someone who really wants scolding and discipline for some perverse reason. Usually, this is not a difficult problem to overcome, though.

• Malingerer
Very common: the guy who seems to be sick constantly. I personally don't have a problem with somebody taking a mental health day occasionally to play hooky, but there are some of these folks  who treat sick leave as vacation days, and are tardy or leave early whenever they have a headache,  or do all their doctor appointments on company time.  Almost everybody deals with these folks, so there's no point in discussing it.

• The Control Freak
The worker who insists on having his or her hands on all reins, and who really can't trust anyone enough to delegate even the smallest detail. Seems to be more prevalent in positions of authority; in fact, you may well have been managed by this person yourself. If you manage a control freak in a mid-level position, it will take a lot of coaching to get them to loosen the reins. It can be done, though.

• Disciple of The Word
A very annoying one for me: the worker who insists that if it isn't in his job description, he can't be expected to do it. I've had some workers who really believe that before tackling anything new, they require an entirely new job description that adds a new bullet point articulating the new task. One asked me to add "sending faxes" to his job description. To which I responded "Please fax in your resignation."

• The Child of Dysfunction
Here's the worker who is quite vocal about their private misfortune, and will not only tell you about their miserable childhood or recently failed marriage, but will blame virtually every work-related problem on this fact. There's nothing wrong with having colleagues on your own level with whom you share friendly confidences on personal time,  but at the point where a worker wants you to excuse their poor performance because his wife drinks too much and he never gets enough sleep, you've got a serious problem. The proper response: "Everybody has problems. Suck it up. "

—this viewpoint offered by Mercurious—