If you have a managerial position--or run your own company or department--you know that being the boss is more difficult and less fun than most people think. The biggest challenge? The people who work for you. Even if you're a born "people person," being in a position of authority means making tough choices, having tough conversations, and often finding yourself in a tough spot.
In fact, if you're like many entrepreneurs, "people" may just be your least favorite word, according to Mark Goulston, psychiatrist and author of the new book TALKING TO CRAZY: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life. Though most bosses won't admit it, he adds, many see managing people as a frustrating time suck that just gets in the way of whatever strategy they're supposed to be executing. They may even be tempted to delegate people problems to other managers, or perhaps to HR.
If that describes you, don't give in to that temptation, Goulston says. "If you do, you'll be missing an opportunity." For one thing, as the boss you set the example for how people problems are dealt with--or not dealt with--all the way down your organization's hierarchy. That's a core competency for every successful boss so you really should not hand that task off to someone else. Besides, he says, "Handle them well and everyone's respect for you--including your own--will increase exponentially."
To make that difficult task a little easier, here are some of the most common employee behavior problems Goulston has encountered, and how to put a stop to them. As a bonus, these techniques can help you deal with difficult people in your personal life as well:
Do the people who work for you seem reluctant or slow to do what needs to be done? Maybe that shouldn't surprise you. After all, in today's fast-paced business world, and especially in a small company or startup, there's a good chance everyone--including you--has been putting in long hours.
But you need the people who work for you to buckle down and tackle important, difficult, or lengthy tasks. If you're having trouble, Goulston recommends what he calls a "belly roll."
"Try telling them that you need their help, which is absolutely true," he says. "In the wild, animals roll onto their backs, exposing their bellies, to show honest vulnerability, which is exactly what you need to do in order to encourage people to come to your aid."
Your best strategy, he says, is to meet with each of your team members individually, either face to face or virtually. Begin your conversation by acknowledging that you've been pushing them hard and apologizing for that. Then explain to them exactly what the stakes are. "We have a great company with a great opportunity for all of us to share in its growth and success. But one of the realities I deal with every day is the fact that we only have so much money and so much time to execute our strategy."
If appropriate, promise you'll try to do a better job of communicating exactly what you need from each of them, why it's important, and how they'll be held accountable. Offer to support them whatever way you can in their mission to meet those goals and deadlines going forward.
"If you have two people who aren't cooperating with each other, and each is coming to you to complain about the other, you might want to try the fishbowl technique," Goulston says. This consists of bringing both parties together in an enclosed space "like a fishbowl"--in this case your office.
When they're ready to listen, Goulston recommends saying something like this: "We have an opportunity in front of us that requires both of you to cooperate with each other. The opportunity is ours to lose, and if the two of you not cooperating causes us to lose it, I'm going to be one very ticked off boss." Then have each look the other in the eye, apologize for a past transgression, and have each promise the other complete support when help is needed (and to only ask for help when they really need it). That may or may not turn these antagonists into friends, but it will keep their conflict from derailing your whole project.
You want your employees to be emotionally engaged with their work--that's a good thing. But sometimes that emotional engagement turns into an over-emotional reaction when things go wrong, especially under the pressure of long hours, tight deadlines, or interpersonal conflicts.
When someone turns overly emotional, especially if that person appears to be reacting out of all proportion to a problem or slight, your first job is to find out what else is really upsetting that employee, Goulston says. You're looking for the eye of the hurricane, he says--an emotional place where you can listen while someone vents without getting caught up in an emotional reaction yourself.
"Look squarely into people's eyes when they are venting at you, with the intention of finding out what the real issue is," Goulston says. "Let them vent, keep looking into their eyes, and imagine that what they're saying is going over your shoulders instead of hitting you between the eyes."
Once the rant is concluded, don't say anything for two to four seconds, he advises. "This will make them uncomfortable because they will realize they couldn't manipulate you. They may even say, 'What?' meaning what are you looking at, and what are you thinking?"
At that point, tell employees that you can see they are really frustrated and ask, "What is all that about?" Goulston says. It's important to make it very clear that you are sincerely asking them to delve deeper into what is bothering them. "Do not use a condescending tone or show one scintilla of sarcasm," he warns. If they continue to vent, listen and acknowledge what they have to say, but keep gently pushing them to talk about what's really upsetting them. "If you can maintain an unrelenting search for what is going on underneath, they will reveal it to you," Goulston says. "Probably with emotion, but then having gotten it off their chest, it will help clear their mind they'll be better able to have a constructive conversation."
Some employees consistently take credit for things they didn't do and are quick to throw their peers under the bus, Goulston says. "Such people do this as a way to deflect attention away from their shortcomings being exposed." You have to watch closely to spot this behavior from your position as boss, he adds, "because the culprit is usually managing up to you and playing you. That makes other employees lose respect for you."
You may also encounter colleagues or peers who try stealing credit from you. "The best way to disarm them is to sit down with them and help them identify some real skill or ability that adds value to the company," Goulston says. "Most people have at least one thing of value to offer." Brainstorm with them what that might be, help them use that skill in a way that highlights their strengths, and then find a way to compliment them to their boss.
If they're suspicious of your motives for being so helpful, especially when they would never do the same, Goulston recommends saying something like this: "I always try to help other people be more successful because I've known too many negative people. Helping others is the last thing any of them would do and it's a way of making sure I don't become like them."
Besides possibly disarming and educating the credit-grabber, your efforts to be supportive to a difficult person will cast you in a good light, Goulston says. "Your positive feedback will not be lost on their or your boss, unless the boss is truly clueless."