Talk with a difficult manager

I once had a talk with a manager that was very difficult. The talk, and the manager, I mean. Both were difficult. She’d been psychologically abusive the entire time I was there. It wasn’t just me that she was abusive to – she was abusive to everybody. I like to joke that she alternated between being a bully and a tyrant. Upper administration knew about her, or suspected quite a bit, but felt powerless to do anything because of her race. She would have threatened to sue if she had been disciplined or fired. It wasn’t her race that was the issue, but she would have made it one.

I didn’t say anything to her for years. I didn’t say anything in part because I didn’t often have to deal with her directly. There was a manager between her and me, and that manager caught most of it. I also didn’t say much because I grew up in an abusive home, with a pushy and manipulative brother and compliant parents. Being pushed around and not treated well was my normal. It was only in my 40s that I started doing my boundary work.

When the bad manager finally decided to retire, I knew I had to say something. I steeled myself up and prayed quite a bit. I sat, in her cramped office, lights and furniture angled to make everyone visiting in it feel like they were being interrogated (this was intentional on her part). I reminded her of the sentence she’d said at the announcement of her retirement. She’d said that she’d “been hard on us all this time because it was for our own good”. She meant that she was abusive because it would help us, she thought – spur us on to be better employees. She nodded, she remembered saying that. I asked her “Would it have hurt you to say ‘thanks for the good work’ every now and then?”

She didn’t reply. She was stunned. In 12 years she’d never said that, and she knew it. She recovered, and turned it around so that it was all my fault. This is her way. Leopards don’t change their spots, you know.

I didn’t do it for her. I didn’t expect her to change. I did it for me, because I’d changed. I wasn’t seeking revenge, just reconciliation. I had to speak up, even if it was just a little, even if it was at the end of our relationship. Late is better than never. I didn’t want to push her or abuse her – then I would have been the same as her. I just wanted to speak up, to let her know that things weren’t what she thought they were.

I left her office, holding myself together. I went into the bathroom and cried. I cried hard, not caring if anybody heard me, not really. I knew she wouldn’t. She rarely ventured out of her office. I didn’t want to cry in front of her – I didn’t want her to get the satisfaction of pushing another person around.

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Management style from Jesus

If you ever want to know how to deal with people at work, you can’t go wrong with seeing what Jesus has to say about it.

Matthew 18:15-17 (ASV)
15 And if thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone: if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
16 But if he hear thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established.
17 And if he refuse to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican.

Let’s translate this for the workplace. If your employee is doing something wrong, talk to him privately. Tell him in person what the issue is so that he can fix it.

Don’t send him an email. Don’t chastise him in front of coworkers or customers. Don’t start off by calling a meeting with him, you, and upper management. Do it privately.

Don’t threaten to fire him or write him up or any other form of punishment at this time. This is a time to let him know that his actions are not in line with what is expected by company policy.

Then wait. See how he responds.

If he fails to comply and put his actions in line with company policy, then it is time to call for a meeting with him, you, and upper management.

If that still doesn’t work, get your Human Resources department in, or even hire a professional non-violent conflict resolution expert.

If that still doesn’t achieve the desired result, then take appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including firing him.

The worst thing you can do is have issue with an employee’s behavior or actions and start talking to upper management first, skipping the employee in the discussion, and documenting his actions. The employee does not know that he is doing anything wrong, so he does not have any awareness that he needs to correct it. Meanwhile, he is silently being punished and tracked for his every action. This is unfair, unkind, and unwise. It is, simply, a sign of bad management, but worse, it is the sign of a bad human being on the part of management.

This also works for interoffice conflicts. If you have issue with a coworker, tell them privately. Don’t get your boss involved. Talk to your coworker privately about how their actions affect the workflow. Tell them how you feel when they shirk their responsibility. If they don’t change their ways, then talk to the boss.

People aren’t pieces – on management

Don’t ask an employee an opinion if they can’t say no. It is a waste of time and fools them into thinking that management cares. When they realize that their answer meant nothing and wasn’t considered, they will feel betrayed. Then they won’t trust anything else that comes from management, and the team isn’t a team anymore.

Sometimes the employee realizes that the only answer that is acceptable is “Yes, that is a great idea!” even if they know it is a terrible one. Sometimes it is simpler to go along and pretend that it is going to work out even if you know from years of experience that it is not. If you argue, you are the squeaky wheel, and you won’t get grease, you’ll get the axe.

Now, nobody wants a curmudgeon. Management doesn’t like an employee who fights against change just because it is change. But we all hate “Yes-men” as well. We hate people who agree to anything just to suck up. So there has to be a middle ground.

Working together on a project as a group is important. We all have to be rowing in the same direction if we want the boat to go straight. We’ll be dead in the water if the people doing the rowing (the workers, not the management) don’t know where they are going. If they feel betrayed and lost enough, they might be actively working against the change. It is up to the leader to earn the trust of the team, rather than just crack the whip.

New managers would do well to take time to get to know the rhythms and patterns of the departments they are assigned to lead. If they have never done the job that their team does, they need to do it. They need to see for themselves what works and what doesn’t. They also need to show the team that they know what they are talking about. No team member trusts a manager who gives directions who doesn’t know how to do their job.

If the manager has done the job that their underlings are doing, but at another building, she needs to come at it with fresh eyes. Different franchises do things different ways, even if they are supposed to do them the same. Sometimes the different ways are better. Sometimes they make more sense for that location. Saying “But we did it this way at my old place” will only get more pushback, because you aren’t there anymore.

One of the fastest ways to ruin trust is to start making big changes right away without consulting the people who have been there a long time. They know from experience what will work and what won’t. They are also the people who are going to have to implement those changes, so they need to be in agreement with them or they won’t get done. If they can’t understand them, they will be unable to do them. If the new changes are impossible to do then they won’t happen either. Management can’t know what won’t work if they don’t allow employees to be honest, or do the same job as the employee. You can’t change a boat’s direction midstream without people falling into the water and drowning.

It is important to remember that people spend more time at work than they do at home. Most of the hours spent at home are asleep, so they don’t count. 40 hours a week with people you didn’t choose to be with is hard. Changes made to the workflow, environment, or polices at the workplace are far-reaching. They affect the morale and psyche of the employees, especially if they have been there a long time. It is the same as going into a person’s house and redecorating without their permission. They won’t know where anything is. They won’t feel settled. They won’t know their place. Then, instead of improving workflow, you’ve just halted it.

Big changes can result in trauma. Trauma occurs when something huge and unexpected happens that feels unfair and unjust. Everything that you knew to be true is now up for grabs. Nothing makes sense. There is a sense of betrayal and loss of trust. People who are experiencing trauma feel like ships lost at sea, with no guidance and no security.

A good manager, like a good captain of a ship, gets everybody working together and in the same direction. It takes time to build up that level of trust. People don’t respect the title or the position. They respect the person – and they can’t respect what they don’t know. They need to know that you are fair, you can be trusted, and you know what you are asking them to do. They need to know that the changes you are asking them to implement are necessary and helpful and not arbitrary. They need to know that their opinion, experience, and input matters. Mostly, they need to be treated as unique and important people, and not cogs in a machine. People aren’t pieces.

Focus – on management and praise

Oprah Winfrey says that what you focus on expands, and this is extremely important to appreciate when it comes to dealing with people. Whether you are a teacher or a manager, this approach can make all the difference.

One of the best things you can do is praise someone when they are doing something good. Even if what they are doing is their everyday task, praise them. If you are a manager, you could tell them you appreciate that they make it a priority to come in on time, use their time well, are polite to the customers. Don’t wait to praise them for extraordinary acts. If the only time you speak to them is to tell them what to do and when they have done it wrong, you won’t ever see exceptional work.

Praise costs nothing, and reaps huge dividends.

Consider dog training. If you only give attention and energy to the dog when it is making a mistake or performing an undesirable action, that is all you will see. Not just because that is where your attention is, but also because that is where he is getting your energy. Dogs, like people, want energy. If they can’t get it in a positive way, they will seek it in a negative way. Being yelled at for doing something wrong is still better than being ignored for doing something right.

You may think “Why should I praise someone for doing their job?” Because that is your job. That is what a manager is supposed to do. Managers aren’t just there to direct traffic – they are there to make sure things go smoothly. Praise is the grease that oils the wheels.

One of the worst things you can do is tell your staff you are going to send “mystery shoppers”. This makes them feel threatened. It encourages them to act better only out of fear. Fear is a terrible motivator. If you have to use mystery shoppers, have them only report when a staff member is doing a good job. It doesn’t have to be exceptional. It just has to be good. If you do that, it will encourage them to be good for the sake of getting caught being good. There will be a benefit, a payoff, a reward for doing good work.

Singling out one or two people for praise out of a large group is great for those few people and terrible for the rest of the team. If ten people out of three hundred get awards or recognition, then what does that do to the morale of the rest of the group? Consider what they do in Special Olympics. Everybody gets an award.

Make awards and recognition meaningful and specific. If everybody gets the same award, then it becomes meaningless. People like to be noticed for their differences and individuality. If you pay attention to how they are special, they will feel appreciated and noticed. They will cease being a cog in the machine.

Cornered – physical boundaries and confrontational conversation styles.

One of the worst things you can do is make someone feel threatened when you talk with them. It is important to be mindful of the physical space between you and another person. A safe rule is to put out your arm, fingers extended, at a 90 degree angle away from your body. Don’t stand any closer than that to a person you don’t know unless they have given you permission. If you want to make them feel even more comfortable, stand even further away.

Just because you work with someone doesn’t mean you have permission. The boundaries are even more important if you are a manager, or of the opposite gender. Physical space is the same as people’s homes. In the same way that you wouldn’t invite yourself over to someone’s home you don’t know, you shouldn’t stand right next to someone you don’t know.

Cornering is another thing to think about. You may not be close to them, but they may not be able to leave. Your conversation will go much more smoothly if you pay attention to their physical comfort. If you are mindful of their physical comfort, they will mentally feel more comfortable as well. A simple conversation can become a confrontation if someone feels physically threatened.

Consider whether they are literally up against the wall. Are they able to physically back away from where you are when you’re having a conversation? Even if they’re not up against the wall are you blocking their method of escape? They may not want to escape but if you physically block them then they will feel like they need too. If you are essentially trapping them in a room it is very threatening.

If you need to talk to a person who is sitting in a chair at a desk, be mindful of cornering them there. They are blocked on their front and back, and depending on the chair they are blocked on their sides as well. If you are within an arm’s length of them at the same time, you’ve just doubled their discomfort. If they have to look up into a light to talk to you, and at an angle, you’ve achieved the trifecta of terrible communication styles.

Having a conversation while standing up is also a bad idea. It will make the conversation more confrontational. Sit down if at all possible, and make sure you are both at eye level. Having a table between you can make the other person feel more comfortable. Be mindful though that it might establish a sense of hierarchy. If you are a manager and the conversation is at your desk, it will not be an equal conversation.

Also it is important for you to consider your body posture. Is it open or closed? Do you have your arms crossed in front of you? Do you have your legs crossed? Are you looking away from them? All of these are “closed” body postures and indicate to the listener that you aren’t listening to them. Do the opposite to let them know you are fully present.

If you want them to listen to you, then you have to make it look like you are listening to them by altering your body posture. But you have to get some sort of middle ground. It is important not to fling your arms around a lot. It is important not to open your legs up wide and scoot your pelvis towards them. Both of those are very aggressive moves. They are too open. Look for a balance and remain neutral, not too forward, not too far back.

New Year’s reflections for the library.

It is a new year. What will this mean for the library?

It is looking good for the employees. Everything looks stable. Our jobs are affected by the economy, but it is all balancing out. We are slated to get a raise soon, after five years of hiring and wage freezes.

There is a new branch manager. She in one day has already impressed me. She wrote us all a thank you note after her first day saying that she is grateful to be working with us. She has shown appreciation for the innovations we have taken. She has worked in many departments of the system and actually knows how to do everything that everyone does.

This is already more impressive than the last branch manager who only managed to stay hired because the administration was afraid of her hitting them with a racial discrimination lawsuit if she got fired. We all still have a lot of resentment over that. We were abused by an incompetent bully for 12 years and they knew it all along. And when I say incompetent bully, please understand that she was both incompetent and a bully. As for being a bully she was a master.

Our circulation manager is leaving. She is moving to the Main library. This is a promotion for her, and a relief for us. Five years ago I would not have thought this. Five years ago I would have been terrified at the idea of her leaving.

Not now. Now we are all celebrating it.

She has changed. Or I have changed, and I can now see her for who she is. She was never empathetic. She is more interested in getting the job done than getting people to go along with her. People get in the way. She doesn’t understand that if she is going to get something to happen, she has to get all of the staff behind it. She doesn’t get that part of being a manager is actually dealing with people. She has said many times that she doesn’t like dealing with people, so it amazes me that she got a customer service job.

I’m sure a lot of how she thinks has to do with her upbringing. She didn’t really have a childhood. Her parents weren’t really parent material and she had to do a lot of the work. But she is in her mid 40s now, and it is time to unlearn a lot of bad habits. Not listening to your staff when they work up the courage to tell you that something is wrong is a good thing to unlearn, especially when you’ve asked them to give them feedback.

We are all glad she is going. We have noticed in the time she has been working at another branch to fill in that we are all more relaxed. I’m a little concerned now that she is going to spread her negativity not only there but also to the rest of the system. But then, that was their choice. She was hired for that job, so that is what they wanted. Perhaps they can’t see her the way we can. Yet.

As for the patrons, who knows? I suspect there won’t be a lot of change. I suspect we will still have the patrons who come in all day, every day, and play games on Facebook rather than deal with their problems. I suspect we will still have patrons who come in reeking of alcohol who check out the limit on DVDs for the same reason.

Plenty of people use the library to escape. The funny part is that escape works different ways. You can escape your problems by playing games or watching movies or reading the same fluffy fiction over and over. You can also escape them by self educating. With the first, you aren’t fixing the problem. You are just putting it on hold. With the second you are doing something about it.

Both are running away from your problems. It is just that the second one is running toward something.

So it will be a new year at the library. There will be some welcome changes. There will be some predictable consistency. But most of all there will be stories. And thus there will be things to write about. Sometimes I think that is why I stay here.

That, and the fact that I’m not sure what other marketable skills I have.