More advice for managers about communication triangles

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There is a Communications Triangle in most organizations. Once a relationship sails into this danger zone, there’s no guarantee it will ever come back. Ironically, many managers enter the Triangle because they think it’s the right thing to do and they have no idea that the relationship could capsize.

Dear Joan:
I am a manager in a service business and I have ten employees who report to me. For the most part I enjoy my job but one thing about it really drives me nuts. Some of my employees are big tattlers. They come in to my office constantly and fill me in on their coworkers’ activities. Sometimes I wonder how they can get any of their own work done with all the time they spend watching everyone else.

One person in particular really is becoming a problem for me. She comes to me and tells me all about one of her coworkers who she feels isn’t pulling her weight. She complains that this employee is making too many errors and that she is late with one part of a project they have been working on. These two people work closely together and depend on one another to finish some projects.

She insists that I talk with this other employee and correct this behavior. I haven’t been working that closely with either one of them so I really don’t have any firsthand knowledge about this. When I told the complaining employee that I would go talk to her coworker, I informed her that I would have to mention that she had complained. (How else would I be able to explain that I knew anything about this?)

The employee became very upset and said she didn’t want me to use her name. She works closely with the person and doesn’t want to cause any friction. So, what am I to do? If I say nothing, the problem continues and if I say something the friction will get worse.

In the past, I have stepped in when there were problems and I’m not afraid to confront issues. In this case, I know it could become worse if I don’t handle it correctly. Any advice?

Answer:
Can you hear the wind kicking up? This manager is about to get sucked into the Communication Triangle. Fortunately, he is smart enough to know he is heading for dangerous waters.

If a manager has a stream of complainers and tattlers, it can be a sign that he or she has been playing the role of a parent, instead of a manager. And, of course, there is the possibility is that he or she has not been confronting a problem and needs to step in.

Occasionally, all managers are going to hear complaints, but it’s how they handle them that make all the difference. Some managers have the mistaken notion that they are supposed to be the problem solvers for all the people problems in their work group. Like a recess monitor, they keep a sharp eye out for any ruffian behavior and quickly impose judgment and punishment for those who misbehave. No wonder they end up with a long line of victims outside their door.

Smart managers know that their employees are independent adults who know how to raise a family, pay their mortgage and live their life without their managers’ help. They treat their employees like adults and their employees live up to that expectation. Of course, these managers have to step in occasionally and resolve an issue but, for the most part, they help their employees solve their own problems.

Here’s how they do it. When an employee comes to them with an issue, they start asking questions that cause self-discovery and personal responsibility:

"Can you describe exactly what she is doing that is the problem?"
 

"Exactly, how is her behavior hurting you?"
 
"What have you done about it so far?"

"Have you talked to her and told her about how her behavior is affecting you and how you feel?"
 

"What exactly did you say to her?"
 
"What did she say or do then?"
 
“What do you think you should do now?”

Once the manager has a clear picture of the situation, he or she can coach the employee to go back and talk with the coworker. However, in some situations, the manager will be alerted to a problem he or she will need to observe more closely. For example, if an employee is taking long lunch hours or comes in late and leaves early, it’s the manager’s job to monitor this and step in.

But if it is a peer-to-peer problem that is best resolved by the two of them, the manager should explain that the other employee is more likely to get upset if the manager gets involved. To overcome an employee’s reluctance, it will help to role-play the dialogue with the employee until he or she feels comfortable going back and having the conversation.

The manager needs to follow up, so should build in a feedback loop, "I want to know how it goes, so once you have the conversation, come back and we’ll discuss it." This lets the employee know that she isn’t in this alone and that the manager isn’t just blowing her off. It also holds the employee accountable for having the discussion.

Finally, if one or two peer-to-peer conversations don’t do the trick, the manager may have to get involved. But for the smoothest sailing, work with your employees to talk to one another like adults first. 


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 354-9500, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
 
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