Browsing the blog archives for December, 2009.

Managing People: Don’t be a Friend

Geek 5, Managing people

In the last few weeks, we’ve talked about how managers should not become therapists for their direct reports and provided some responses to serious issues and less serious issues.

Another unwritten rule is similar to that one – managers should not try to be friends with their direct reports.  I’m not saying that you should not be friendly.  As a matter of fact, it is usually beneficial to create a collegial, comfortable workplace.  People are social creatures and we bring those needs into the workplace.  It’s okay to have non-work conversations, tell appropriate jokes and have fun while working.

But there is another one of those invisible lines that can be easy to cross.  As a manager, you cross the line if you go from being friendly to being friends.  Some people can pull it off, but most of the time it ends poorly.  It’s hard to be friends with your direct reports because:

  • You are the boss and have power over his/ her career and future
  • It can look like and lead to favoritism
  • It’s hard to manage a friend objectively – you’ll tend to be too easy or too hard
  • It’s hard to draw the line between on-the-record work conversations and off-the-record friend conversations
  • You might become privy to information or gossip in after-hours conversations that you are required to act on (such as reporting harassment)
  • You have to watch what you say to the associate – you have access to confidential and sensitive information

I witnessed an example of this recently in my office.  There was a group of five people who all did the same job.  They created a very tight-knit group and spent a lot of time together outside work.  Due to some re-organization, a new leader position was created and several of them competed for it.  The one who got the promotion (we’ll call her Jill) went from being a peer and friend to a boss who was trying to still be a friend.  It was a tough situation – especially with one former peer (we’ll call her Mary).  Mary was disppointed to not get the promotion herself and took some of her frustration out on Jill, her friend and former peer.  Jill was struggling to define a new role and learn to work at a higher level job – on top of it, she had Mary being difficult and disgruntled.  Jill tried to balance being a boss and a friend.  She found that she was frequently harder on Mary than the others, because she was worried about being unfair.  Finally, Mary left the company.  When she left, everyone on the team sighed in relief.  The whole team had been impacted by the dynamic between Jill and Mary.  Their friendship did not survive either.

If you enter a manager role with a new direct report – keep the relationship professional but friendly.  Don’t cross the invisible line.  If you get promoted over a peer, like Jill did, you need to have a very clear conversation to set expectations from the start.  You need to be a manager first and a friend second – otherwise you jeopardize your own career.

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Managing People: Don’t become a therapist (part 3)

Geek 5, Managing people

Last week, we discussed the importance of not becoming a therapist and covered common “therapy” scenarios of medical concerns and family drama.  Those are the heavy hitters.  But there are some other common scenarios that can also be therapy risks, time sucks and just plain annoying. 

3.  Personal disputes at work– Sometimes the workplace starts to feel like junior high.  Cliques get formed, disputes start, petty bickering ensues.  These disputes are usually based on personal conflicts and not work-related issues.  As the boss, you might get pulled in as a referee.  Whatever you do, stay out of it!  Set the expectation that the workplace is a professional environment and civility is expected.  If someone asks you to deal with someone else, send them back to deal with the issue face-to-face like a calm adult.  If it is bickering and not substantive (harassment, etc.) then it is not your problem.  Tell the juveniles to deal with it themselves and then hold them accountable for professional etiquette.

4.  Complaints about work environment– As innocuous as it seems, complaints about the work environment can be really tricky.  About a year ago, my company built some new buildings and everybody moved locations.  Some of the most contentious and complicated meetings I have ever attended revolved around seating arrangements.  Who was near who and who was near the window and which office was biggest?  Yikes!  Other common complaints involve noise, temperature, condition of equipment and location.  Sometimes these kind of disputes don’t have a good solution.  Sometimes you just have to say that it is what is is.  The work buzz has a funny article about power struggles over the thermostat.  It even provides strategies for dealing with it.  But as they remind us, no bathing suits at work!

5.  Just plain weird.  Sometimes as a manager you’ll get requests that are just plain weird.  Some involve drama and some don’t.   Ask Annie at Fortune covered some of these requests recently.  She discussed a CareerBuilders survey of 2,924 managers at U.S. companies that asked them to recall the most memorable perks employees have asked for lately.  Some of these involved tanning beds, jail time requests and clown variances.

 Above all, keep your sense of humor.  Focus your time on issues that will move the business the right direction.  Stay out of the petty dramas – your life will be easier if you do!

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Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it.  Happy Kwanzaa and Joyous Festivus and a late Happy Hanukkah to some of the others.  Hopefully everyone is enjoying some time off.  Joy and peace to all!

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Managing People: Don’t become a therapist (Part 2)

Geek 5, Managing people

In the last post, we looked at why it is important not to become a therapist for your direct reports.  Here are some common scenarios you could run into and recommended responses.

1.  Medical concerns

 Some people have legitimate medical concerns and others just like to gripe about every ache and pain.  For the first case, your associate should inform you about any medical concerns that could impact attendance or requires special arrangements.   Don’t ask too many questions unless the information is offered.  If the associate is asking for accommodation (ADA) or time off (FMLA or disability leave), it is time to get HR involved. 

If the associate confesses to a problem (like addiction) and needs help, you should refer them to your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).  Even in the case of someone with a genuine medical concern, your conversations should not be too personal or get too frequent. 

The second case involves an associate who like to gripe and there is not a significant issue.  In these cases I recommend trying to redirect his or her attention to more positive, work-related subjects.  If that fails, then be more direct about stopping the griping.  It is not a good use of your time to listen to personal gripes.  You should also determine if the associate is burdening team members with the same information.  I’ve been amazed at some of the cubical conversations that I have heard – and that everyone around the area has heard!  I’ve heard details about afflictions, symptoms, operations and pus and sores – just plain gross!  Put a stop to it if it is happening.  A coaching conversation about professionalism in the office could be a big help.  You will be a hero to the burdened co-workers who have been distracted by the medical talk.

2.  Family problems

 We all have lives outside of work and sometimes those lives creep into our workplace.  You’ve got your run-of-the-mill concerns with soccer games and doctor appointments and family emergencies.  The thing to watch out for are the situations that turn into epic family dramas.  We all know people who thrive on drama.  They seem to make a series of bad decisions and then despair when things go wrong.  They can never seem to get out of the destructive situation and get back on track.  These can range from unhealthy personal relationships to serious financial issues to trying to save someone else (kid, sibling, friend) from themselves.  These cases become a problem when the associate wants to to lean on you for emotional support or wants you to help or expects you to overlook absences, poor performance and distractions. 

You can listen in order to understand the situation.  But, ultimately, the associate needs to handle the personal drama while maintaining solid work performance.  If the problems are big and the associate wants help, your EAP is a good option.  EAPs usually offer counseling (personal, marital, financial, etc.) and emergency interventions.  If an associate is not getting work done. you need to set expectations very clearly and then hold him or her to the expectations.  Don’t feed the drama and become co-dependent.  Hold the associate accountable for work.

One quick note – especially related to family issues.  We live in troubled times and the level of workplace violence has escalated.  In many of these cases, a family member brings a gun to the workplace and causes havoc.  If you have any concerns about violence from the associate or from a family member, you must get HR and your security team involved.  That is one of your obligations as a leader.  Welcome to the big leagues.

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Managing People: Don’t Become a Therapist (part 1)

Geek 5, Managing people

There are a lot of rules you have to learn when you become a manager of people.  Some of them are legal rules like knowing the proper questions for interviews, the basics of EEOC and FMLA, etc.  If those acronyms don’t mean anything to you, you should sit down with an HR person and get a quick refresher of the basic legal stuff.   Some rules are guidelines or processes for tasks like how to have a difficult conversation or put someone on a corrective action plan.

There are also a lot of unwritten rules.  One of those rules is that you should never become a therapist for your direct reports.  Huh?  What does that mean?  It means that you need to know where the line is between helping a direct report with work-related issues and getting sucked into their personal dramas.  The complication is that the line is fuzzy and sometimes hard to see – you need to use your managerial judgment about this.   Why is this important?  Some reasons include:

  • It’s a time suck for you
  • It can be uncomfortable to know personal details about a direct report
  • It can cause you to be too lenient and not hold the person accountable
  • Your other direct reports could see it as favoritism
  • It is distracting for work during work hours
  • You might find yourself too involved in a personal situation

As a manager, you are responsible for helping associates with work-related issues.  One filter for you is to consider whether or not an issue impacts business performance or other associates.  With projects and tasks you might sometimes needs to run interference to get something back on track.  But if an issue is drama-based, you should coach the associate to deal with it or at least set the expectation that work performance needs to stay solid.

Drama can take many forms and is often spun to look like it is job-related.  Drama can be about family – such as an associate coming to you to unload about her divorce proceeding and about how the soon-to-be-ex spouse is evil incarnate.  Drama can be personal – such as the associate who comes to you to complain about his sciatica, corns and acid reflux.  Drama can also be tangentially work-related – such as the long-term associate who feel entitled to a cube by the window due to seniority.

Caring and listening does not have to translate into becoming someone’s therapist.  You can listen compassionately to drama-related issues when needed, but don’t let it become an ongoing role.  You have to draw the line.  As a manager your must also continue to hold them accountable for their work.  If you become a therapist, you might feel compelled to give them too much of a break when they are not performing well.  In today’s workplace, we’re all faced with too little people for too much work.  If you continually excuse one worker due to personal drama, the weight falls on everyone else.  You should expect solid work performance regardless of outside drama.

You need to be fair and balanced in your approach.  It is different to give some a day or two off to care for a parent who just had a heart attack versus dealing with weekly absences due to marital trouble.  As a manager, you are responsible for complaints that cross a legal line such as harassment, hostile workplace, violence, discrimination, etc.  When you encounter these, get HR help.  You are also responsible for the work of your team.  You are not responsible for solving someone’s personal problems.  It is okay to coach your associate about work performance, even if you know there are other issues.

In the next post, we’ll cover some common “therapist” traps and how to respond to them.

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Geek Fun: Computer Geek Quiz

Geek Fun

In the spirit of geek fun, today we will indulge some stereotypes of geekiness – specifically stereotypes of the computer geek.  The website, Nerd Tests has some funny (and completely unscientific) self assessments.  I found one called Are You a Computer Geek?  And I took it…

According to this test, I am “tech support’s worst nightmare – and I have no clue”.  Sigh…  I guess I will never be  computer geek and know how to program in Linux and read binary code.

The test was really quite funny and fun to do.  Just remember, on this blog, the definition is broader and applies to any technical field.  So I’m still a geek, even if I am not a computer geek.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy and your Career


In the last post, I talked about fear and the impact on the workplace.  Today, we’re going to consider fear in psychological terms and think abut how it might be impacting your career. 

You gotta remember I’m a geek psychologist and every once in awhile, I’ll pull out some theory.  Remember back to Psych 101, you probably talked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  In this theory, there are five levels of needs – going from fundamental to more esoteric.  The theory states that if you are threatened at one of the lower levels, you will focus all energy on that level and not at higher levels.  Look at the graphic below which came from Wikipedia

File:Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.svg

This shows the lowest level as being Physiological and the second level being Safety.  People who have been laid off and are in serious financial distress are dealing with those levels.  They are being threatened by hunger and homelessness and unemployement and other basic issues.  All of their energy is focused on reacting to those threats.

From what I have seen, the recession is serious enough that many people who are employed are also focused on basic issues like safety.  If you are working and focused on that level, how is that impacting your work and career?

For the sake of professional development and career advancement, you need to be focused on the higher end of the hierarchy.  Your attention should be on confidence, achievement, problem-solving and adding value.  One common defense mechanism for introverts (applies to many geeks) is to retreat and withdraw when threatened.  In the workplace, this could look like keeping your head down and focused on work.  The hope here is that the introvert/ geek would not be making waves and would stay under the radar and, as such, be less of a layoff target.

The reverse is actually a better strategy.  This is an ideal time to stand up, be noticed and prove how you can provide value in a broader way.  Focus on the achievement end of the hierarchy.  Yes, it is going to feel uncomfotable and feel risky.  Be thoughtful in your approach to minimize risk.  But it is time to take a chance – stand up – be seen – showcase your ability to benefit the company and be a leader.

A down time like this can be an opportunity for those who choose to take it.

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Fear in the workplace


2009 is coming to a close.  I don’t think many people will be sorry to see it go.  As we all know and experienced, it was a rough year.  We saw venerable companies go under or go into bankruptcy.  The stock markets tanked and the economy followed.  Almost everyone felt personal impacts such as layoffs, cut wages and hours, foreclosures and bankruptcies.  

Smart Brief on Workforce asked several bloggers to summarize 2009 in terms of workplace issues.  The posts that resonated the most with me talked about fear.  People who have lost their jobs face serious hardships and intense stress.  It is a hard time to be out of work.  Those of us who kept are jobs are grateful for the paycheck – we are definately in better shape than those who were layed off.  Even so, a paycheck does not mean that we are not impacted by fear.  Fear also affects people who are still working (you can sometimes throw survivor guilt in there too). 

HR Bartender wrote about some examples that captured the impact of fear on the workplace – even spilling over into workplace violence.  Fear and frustration and anger can build so intensely that it comes out in violence.  Eileen Habelow, a guest poster at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership Blog, talked about fear creating a survival mentality.  Those who have a job feel fortunate but also threatened.  That results in defensiveness, lower productivity, less focus and lower satisfaction.

The end of the year is always good for reflection.  I encourage you to think about two topics:

1.  How has fear impacted you at work?  Have you changed your behavior?  How do you want to do in 2010?

2.  If you are a leader/ manager or strive to be one, consider how fear has impacted people around you.  What can you do to make your workplace a more secure andless fearful place?

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Geek fun: Think Geek Shopping

Geek Fun

As I looked for new and different gifts this year, I stumbled onto a site called  I was actually looking for sites related to the work I was planning on this blog.  But I’ve been having fun perusing their site.  They sell products for the geek-minded.  Their tag line is “Stuff for Smart Masses”.  Some of it is very cool and a lot of it is very funny.   The site owners have a great sense of humor – I even laugh out loud reading their update emails. 

They have some fun stuff.  I mean who doesn’t need a Lego Head Lamp or a geek t-shirt?   I ordered several Christmas presents from them (shhh…don’t tell my family).  The site was easy to use and the products came fast.

If the products and humor aren’t enough for you, they also sponsor Techie Haiku contests and photo contests.

The site is worth a look.  Remember, I’m not affiliated with them in any way.  I found them by happy accident and I’m pleased to pass along kudos for the site.

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Resistance to a Broader Role

Broader role, Geek 5

In the last post, we discussed how introversion could affect leadership. Introverts sometimes resist moving into broader roles or taking leadership positions. Resistance to a broader role is one of the Geek 5. There are some other geek tendencies that can also get in the way of career advancement.

It is hard to move from a technical role into a broader role.  It is hard to give up the very skillset that has made you successful.  Over your career, you’ve probably been rewarded for technical accomplishments.  You’ve gotten recognition, kudos and monetary rewards.  It is also familiar, and you are almost guaranteed ongoing success.   It’s hard to move from that comfort zone to a stretch role – such as a leadership position.

Another common point of resistance is not wanting to give up the technical work itself. Moving up the ladder frequently means taking on more management duties and doing less of the technical work. Most geeks are in their line of work, because they are fascinated with the technical details of what they do. They often see the technical work (programming, R&D, analytics, medicine, etc.) as a pure scientific pursuit. Management work, on the other hand, is regarded as bureacratic nonsense.

This is a self-limiting and, frankly, disrespectful attitude.  Management is a tough role.  The challenge is less of a technical nature and more of a people and strategic nature.  A good manager and leader has a hard-won skillset that is part science and part art.  We’ve all seen bad managers, so it is easy to see why they sometimes get a bad rap.  Even so, a good manager can have a tremendous impact on the team and productivity and other accomplishments.  So, broaden your world.  Give management a chance and you may find that the challenges are equally thrilling and sometimes even tougher to master.

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