We’ve all dealt with negative tension in the work place and, if you haven’t, here’s a tip: You will! Anyone who’s worked anywhere has encountered at least one person who rubbed them the wrong way, or seemed to wreak havoc wherever they went. Perhaps you ignored them, swept up the shattered china, requested different shifts or played nice, while your latent irritation mounted and inevitably gushed out at the absolute wrong moment. However you did it, there was some escape so, while you seemed to be in a battle, it had its respites. But what if you are managing them and the buck stops with you? And they don’t fall into line? And they have your cell number? Suddenly, it feels like you’ve HALO-jumped into an uphill, all-out assault with nothing but a kitchen knife.
I encountered just this situation when I moved into an upper-management position at my company and was given the reins in my department. First, there was the joy of making my own schedule, working at my own pace and getting better pay. My hard work and being in the right place at the right time had shown fruit. I conveniently forgot that my promotion left a subordinate position open, and that I would be managing an assistant. Helplessly doe-eyed, I was fully unprepared for the next few weeks.
In the offices where I’ve worked, I am the person who–and you may relate–goes about her business, gets things done quickly and enjoys the structured environment. Shorter version? A lone wolf. As reality would have it, this doesn’t work when someone’s looking to you for direction, and certainly not when that person openly admits they want to replace you at some point in the near future. Yikes. Hopefully, you never have to hear those words from an assistant, but I did, and I learned a lot from our rocky relationship.
1) You cannot control them. Initially, this may sound like bad news or an obvious truth, but the more you accept it, the better your life working with them will become. You’ve been placed in a management position, so you might be a bit of a control-freak with your schedule, your time and your productivity. First of all, time being yours goes out the window when you’re managing. And having an attitude of control when dealing with a person is like carrying water in a sieve–once it becomes a battle of wills, they’ll find a way around you. You will spend valuable hours wondering what on earth they could be doing, which cuts down on your efficacy and breeds bitterness. In addition, if you feel like you need to control them, you’re probably talking to them with an authoritative tone, which only fuels their dissent. This isn’t to say they haven’t earned that treatment, but if the project doesn’t get done, your superiors aren’t going to care that they gave you a hard time.
2) Your thoughts matter. Perhaps you fancy yourself an excellent actor or actress, but you’re probably far less mysterious than you think you are and, if you don’t like someone, they’ll see it. You may have heard that words carry a fraction of the weight in human communication, but the scarier reality is that body language–essentially a projection of our subconscious–bears the most responsibility for communication. The famous lyric “my hips don’t lie” is thus true in a much broader sense. If you’re uncomfortable with someone, you’ll avoid touching them, your body will angle differently, your shoulders will be stiff. Whether or not they are aware of the process, their brain will take in the stimulus, read it and understand that you don’t like them. As a manager, you have to realize you can’t fake it, do the hard thing and address your thoughts. In practice, I forced myself to think good things about my assistant’s character on my long commute. Then, after interactions, I would not think of the things done wrong, but about what went well. It made all the difference and, though my words didn’t change, my attitude and our relationship improved–at least, from my perspective!
3) You must set the stage. The less ambiguity at the onset of a conversation, the less room there is for default emotions, such as irritation, confusion and opposition. On most days, to keep us on task and working together, I would email a quick list of what needed to get done, give the assistant time to look it over then do an in-person check in for specifics. This allowed me to set the stage for the discussion, by providing clarity, purpose and open communication immediately. If there’s a clear purpose to a conversation and the work day, plus a little time before meeting to gather your thoughts, both of you will be better off. If the person seems displeased, ask them about it and don’t give yourself time to imagine what they meant. It’s a waste of time and you’re probably way off base in your assumptive conclusions. Some of the phrases I used were the following: “Am I making sense? What do you think? Do you see a better way? You seem [emotion]–was it something I did or said?” If they won’t be honest, there’s not much you can do, but it’s worth a shot and you can rest easy knowing you did all you could.
So there you have it! My opining on managing a person who doesn’t want to be. Obviously, these three principles are simplistic and should be practiced in addition to asking how someone would like to be managed, while honestly trying to incorporate suggestions. I just found these to be helpful when I thought I had done everything, and felt like the war was going to be an 8 – 5 reality. In the end, I discovered that the most important responsibility of being a true leader is not calling shots and not finding fault–it is doing the much harder task of examining oneself and altering thought patterns to get results.
It’s not easy, but if it were, would they be paying you the big bucks? Probably not.