Filling out a time sheet takes about five minutes. You can do it while you're downloading the Strokes on iTunes or reheating your leftovers in the microwave. But it's a key task at my marketing firm. Time sheets, after all, are how we keep track of our hours; we need them to bill our clients and get paid. Everyone who works here knows this. So why does getting my employees to complete the monthly chore on time invariably become a soul-stealing process of hectoring, cajoling, and threatening?
Perhaps, I've theorized, such resistance is a Freudian transference of some antiparental hostility onto the company. Perhaps it's a self-defeating gesture of personal control and independence. I've searched for answers in management tomes and on HR websites. Then one night, relaxing in front of the television, I realized I was overthinking the matter.
I was watching Nanny 911. Nanny Stella was working her magic on a dysfunctional household overrun by kids who threw food, refused to clean up their toys, and balked at doing their homework. It had been going on for years, and the parents were impotent, frazzled, resigned. Yet amazingly, by the end of the show, Nanny Stella had put the kids on a schedule and turned a household that had resembled the former Yugoslavia into a smoothly functioning machine.
That's when I had my revelation: I'm not managing a team of highly creative, highly skilled professionals. I'm managing a gang of unruly children. And I need to think less like Jack Welch and more like Nanny Stella.
Fortunately, Nanny 911 has posted its 11 commandments on the show's website, and I've started to employ some of them. Commandment No. 1: "Be consistent." It seems stunningly basic, but it's something every manager could stand to learn over and over again. Sometimes, for example, I run the company as if it's the writers' room (or my fantasy of it) at Saturday Night Live--freewheeling, unstructured, permissive. Then I lose my patience with dialogue and just want it done my way. People aren't sure when to take me seriously. And that only fuels the time sheet problem. It's easy to see that all my e-mails about the issue have had a "I'm not kidding around, this time I really mean it" quality. As any parent knows, that's a nonstarter from the get-go.
I'm also fond of commandment No. 5: "Don't make promises you can't keep." I'd never do this with my own kids, but it occurred to me how often it happens at the office. In retrospect, I've been guilty of the office equivalent of the unconsummated trip to Disney World--promising raises, promotions, and sexy new assignments in the future but continually putting them off. Now I'm trying to deal with issues such as raises and promotions and new assignments in real time.
Study after study suggests that I'm not alone in my need for a corporate nanny. Incivility is epidemic. The journal Organizational Dynamics found that more than one-third of those surveyed said rude behavior in the workplace had led them to decrease their commitment to their jobs. You can speculate as to whether this problem occurs because so many of today's employees were raised in baby boomer households by parents who were more concerned about being cool than teaching discipline and limits. Maybe it's the speed at which business is conducted today. Or maybe it's our general attack-dog culture. Whatever the reason, it seems as if the nanny necessity is everywhere--even in the White House. The commentator Jim Hightower once described Andrew Card as President Bush's corporate nanny. It's not quite a Cabinet-level title, but on some days it probably should be.
Adam Hanft (email@example.com) is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm. For more Grist, visit Inc.com's Marketing Resource Center at inc.com/resources/marketing.