Great Managers Are Always Nice by Chip Averwater

Chapter 12

Changing Behaviors

Tardiness. Absenteeism. Improper dress. Wasting time. Long smoking or coffee breaks. Disorganization. Procrastination. Failure to prioritize. Safety violations. Non-business internet use. Wasting supplies. Damaging equipment. Distracting coworkers. Excessive personal phone calls or texting. Offensive language. Off-color jokes. Extended lunches. Leaving stations unattended. There are more inappropriate work behaviors than could be listed here.

There is no such thing as a perfect employee (or manager). Our role as managers is to encourage our imperfect but talented and willing team of humans to achieve extraordinary results. We have to expect some behavioral challenges along the way.

Fortunately, not every infraction needs to be addressed. Those with insignificant consequences and that are unlikely to be repeated are often better overlooked. “Running a tight ship” is an admirable goal but not by being “an iron-fisted tyrant.” Better to conserve our influence for more important issues.

Likewise, our long-term employees deserve some latitude. They rarely need us to explain what’s expected, and they’ve proven their commitment to the team and its goals; we can sometimes assume unusual circumstances, at least for the first occurrence.

But most other inappropriate behaviors do need to be addressed, especially since what we choose to ignore often becomes standard practice.

But how do we do it? We sense the conversation will be awkward and embarrassing to the team member. We dread having it and we tend to put it off, hoping the problem will go away on its own.

Some managers procrastinate until they can no longer contain their frustration, finally blurting it out in ugly exasperation. A manager losing his temper is not an inspirational sight. The employee and everyone else who hears the outburst resents it as needlessly harsh. “If that was a concern, why didn’t he just say so?”

 A tempting workaround is a general announcement and reminder to the team. But that unnecessarily subjects the whole team to a negative and undeserved lecture. Most team members know who the message is for and recognize the method as an attempt to avoid a direct discussion—a poor example of the open communication we want to create.

Nor is it effective to joke or tease the employee about the behavior, to try to innocuously slip a recommendation for change into another conversation, or to send a message through other team members.

The only appropriate method for addressing a problem behavior is a private conversation, directly with the employee.

The tone should always be respectful and supportive, not confrontational. Our words and manner should reflect our belief that the employee is a willing team member, eager to do what he can to help the team achieve its goals.

A simple and inoffensive opening is mentioning that we noticed the behavior, asking about it, and allowing the employee to explain.

1st Conversation on Punctuality

Haley, a new employee, shows up for work 30 minutes late. Mike stops by her desk.

M:  Haley, I noticed you were late this morning. Is everything OK?

H:  Yes, I’m sorry. It was.... [traffic, my alarm, car wouldn’t start, etc.]

M:  I see.

Asking sometimes reveals an unexpected reason for the behavior. A late employee might have had an accident, taken a child to the emergency room, or spent the night at the hospital with a sick parent. Expounding on the problem her lateness caused before finding this out would come across as insensitive and uncaring, especially to a team member already coping with a difficult situation.

The fine art of correcting behavior is applying just enough influence to change the behavior without creating resentment or an adversarial relationship. Better to err on the side of understatement than to come on too strong. We can elaborate further when necessary, but we can’t take back the resentment of a perceived heavy hand.

Indicating we noticed the problem is often enough to correct the behavior, especially if the employee is aware of what’s expected. If the employee doesn’t know what’s expected and why it’s important, we can politely explain.

In most cases, nothing else is needed. A good team member will try not to disappoint us again.

If the problem recurs, we can ... 

Great Managers Are Always Nice