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Managing the blamer, the crier, and the poor listener

Here are three all too common management problems along with their solutions.

They are outlined by Stewart L. Levine, an Oakland, CA, attorney who is also a consultant and trainer in conflict resolution.

It’s not my fault!

Addressing poor performance with the staffer who blames everybody else for it.

“Like a good lawyer, be ready to prove the case,” Levine says. Come in with indisputable facts – a clear description of what the staffer has been doing plus examples with the dates and times.

Hold the discussion in a formal meeting. In an informal atmosphere, people tend to take a cavalier attitude to what’s said. The staffer is apt to throw out a few lame excuses and leave thinking all is well.

“Be clear, strong, and forceful,” Levine says. Once both parties are seated, pause and look the staffer straight in eye. That little pause and look say “this isn’t just a passing conversation.”

The more direct the eye contact and the more serious the tone, the less chance the staffer has “to weasel out of it, because it’s difficult to lie to someone’s face,” he explains.

Lay out the problem and be ready to respond to the blaming with “here’s what happened.”

Also be ready to bring in whoever is being blamed. Suppose the excuse is,”I couldn’t finish because So-and-So didn’t send me the numbers.” Come back with “Let’s call So-and-So. We need to get to the bottom of this.” Then ask that person if the request was made and if the information was actually sent.

Once the case is proved, don’t let the wrongful blaming pass. Address it firmly with “So-and-So didn’t cause your problem. You need to take responsibility for your actions and not blame other people.”

Make it clear that more blaming will bring disciplinary action – and possibly termination.

Oh, boo hoo! boo hoo!

Addressing poor performance with the staffer who’s going to cry.

Never let tears interfere with management.

While there’s nothing wrong with taking a softer approach toward someone who tends to cry, don’t let crying give anybody a way out. Performance is performance.

For the genuinely tear-prone staffer, there are effective tactics for keeping the meeting dry, Levine says.

One is humor. Smile, sigh loudly, and say, “I have a difficult situation to talk about with you, so I’ve brought a box of tissues.”

The best tactic, however, is to state the problem and immediately shift the conversation to how to develop a solution. If the problem is meeting a deadline, for example, shift to “let’s look at your schedule and see what’s going on.” Or if it’s chronic tardiness, “I realize you are emotional, but maybe there’s something going on that keeps you from getting here on time.”

Because the shift is unexpected, it helps the crier get beyond the emotions of the moment.

What about the staffer who can’t help falling apart?

Insensitive as it may seem, uncontrollable crying has to be addressed as a performance issue. Explain that some people “are just wired” so they react with tears, but “it’s just not acceptable behavior at work.”

Put things into perspective: “This problem has nothing to do with you as a person, and your emotions aren’t helping you solve it.”

Then move on to helping the staffer cope with the crying. Explain that in an egregious situation tears can be an acceptable reaction, “but this is not an egregious situation, and some learning needs to happen here. You need to learn how to stave off this behavior.”

Levine notes that some people use tears deliberately to avoid having to deal with issues. If that becomes apparent, the manager simply has to say that deliberate crying won’t be tolerated in the office.

Huh? What did you say?

Giving directions to the staffer who has difficulty paying attention.

It’s not what the manager says that counts; it’s what the staffer hears. And whether there’s an attention difficulty or not, Levine says, the best way to give directions is with what he terms “three-way communicating,” or communication that includes hearing, speaking, and writing.

First, hearing. Give the directive: “Staffer A, I want you to do X, Y, and Z.”

Second, speaking. Ask for a paraphrase. “Tell me in your own words what I’m asking you to do.”

And third, writing. If the understanding is wrong, correct it and ask the staffer to paraphrase the corrected version, but this time in writing.

If there’s still concern, follow up with an email asking for yet another written restatement. Three-way communicating is something a manager should use often, he says, because it ensures people know what to do.

He adds that just as it’s the speaker’s job to make sure the listener hears the message, it’s the manager’s job to make sure staff understand what they are supposed to do.

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