Your Help is a Hindrance

Have you ever been on a project where it feels as though someone is unwittingly playing defense against a successful outcome.  Either they are doing things that actively run counter to the group or are doing things poorly that require others to pick up their slack.  I do not mean those who are trying to tank a project, I mean those whose incompetence on the project produces a result indistinguishable from sabotage.  What do you do with this member if you are not responsible for assembling the team?

Generally in this situation there are a few basic options:

  1. Advocate for that person to be removed from the team.
    Now there there are different ways to go about this.  I don’t recommend advocating to the whole group in the middle of a meeting in the presence of this individual.  This may produce results, but it also produces the undeniable perception that you are a total douche.  Instead I recommend speaking with whoever was responsible for staffing the project.  Approach them one on one and be fair but straight forward in your words.  Above all make sure it does not come off like you simply don’t like the incompetent individual, even if that happens to be true.
  2. Assign them work of the lowest importance.
    If the above option is unavailable for whatever reason, or if you would rather not pursue it, you can always change the kind of work assigned.  Perhaps this person can schedule and build agendas for meetings.  They can take notes and follow up with people.  Perhaps there are work streams that are “nice to haves” rather than “must haves”.  This requires a bit of the benign deception and people skills that make many managers great, the ability to decrease someone’s importance to a project without them feeling slighted enough to blow up.
  3. Mentor them to bring up their performance.
    I personally feel this is the ideal state, but because of that it of course is the most difficult to bring to fruition.  It would be excellent if you could bring someone from dead weight to contributor while they are on your project.  In order for that to happen three things must be true: the participant must be willing, the mentor must have at least a little skill in teaching others, and there must be enough time.  This is the calculus that you must perform if you want to pursue this option. Is this person willing and do we have anyone able to bring them along in time for the value to be recognized in this project?  That is a tricky and situational decision, but the rewards offered if successful should make this a consideration each time.
  4. Stop assigning them work.
    I personally find this to be a bit passive aggressive, but some may see it as the only possibility in their circumstance.  This is pretty self explanatory, you simply stop assigning work to them, or have someone always paired with them who is actually responsible for the work.  This has a high risk of turning the incompetent member of your team into a disgruntled member of your team.  That can cause friction in the working environment that may spill over, so caution is required if you decide to go with this approach.

Obviously this is not some panacea, but by weighing out the options available you can drive the result that provides the best outcome for a given situation.  Always consider the risks that accompany each solution and take mitigating action at the same time you start to implement your solution.

 

The Demand of the Norm

The Demand of the Norm

In business there is an effect similar to gravity. A business’s history and culture acquires a mass of its own over time. That mass perpetuates the values and norms of the business. In large organizations the mass of its history becomes a monolith by many names “what we’ve always done,” “the right thing,” “what we learned last time,””we decided,” etc.,. Here we call it the Norm. The Norm defends compliance, it draws us in, comforts us, and offers us safety from personal responsibility.

Here are 3 styles of leading within an organization with a powerful Norm, I recommend using all three at different times:

Assimilate- Comply, acknowledge the good and live with the bad. The power of such an organization is in its consistency. The system is far less punishing for compliant members than objecting ones. Absurd duties may need to be accepted and a great deal of mental effort will be expended to avoid offending the Norm. This approach takes advantage of the strength of ongoing currents within the monolith.

Subvert- Live within the system, but do not accept the values it has established. Regularly take the time to challenge the beliefs of the organization in closed-door meetings and side conversations. Be careful, this approach more often ends up being an exercise in gossip and bitter complaints than being an effective program for change.

Break- Invest energy to sustain conscious denial of certain values and take steps to remove yourself from the inner workings of the organization. This move not only requires significant effort, it also paradoxically needs the most acceptance from the organization. The subversive and the assimilated have the luxury of not being seen, but those who break with the Norm must live in view of its judgement.

 

Clap for Me (v.2)

There’s nothing wrong about recognizing hard work and celebrating success. Teams that withhold praise are hard to work with. However, I often feel that there is something disingenuous about leader-led mandatory cheerleading.

I can think of a few explanations for why leaders mandate cheerleading for coworkers:

  1.  You think your team is gullible and you want to pay them with pats on the back and applause from their peers.
  2. You think your team is emotionally needy.
  3. You don’t know what success is, so you reward completion

First Example: A team has executed a really successful action plan and presents their findings to their leader. Their leader asks the team to clap for themselves and then get back to work.

For 1: You need to get real. An encouraging atmosphere is great, but group applause doesn’t last. What’s worse, employees usually know what you are doing and act to that effect. You run the risk of reinforcing externality and fame-seeking, and diluting success with simplicity. A team focused on externality tries to predict and satisfy leader whims, not meet outcomes.

For 2: Even if your team is needy, their desire for cheerleading doesn’t make it any less demeaning when you comply. Reality being reality, you might have to cheer for a demoralized, needy team. While you can’t take personal responsibility for their maturity, you can craft a culture that reinforces or challenges their dependence on cheering. 

At it’s heart, the first two reasons of corporate cheerleading seem to echo belief in the inferiority of the masses. That belief might manifest itself cynically (see 1.), pseudo-empathetically (see 2.), or finally in complicit ignorance where one carries on the traditions of the past.

For 3: Take this example: You’ve just had a tenured employee present on a long-standing problem their unit is facing, concluding with their recommendation to solve it by keeping present course, afterwards the executive of the department stands up and asks the department to applaud the presenter.

If you’re here and you know you’re doing this. Stop it. Talk to your peers and leaders about what goals are worth celebrating if you need perspective. You might decide that the effort to present is worth celebrating, but don’t let your team confuse cheerleading for presentation skills for your recognition of successes.