In Defense of Your Staff…

Palmer Pearson
Cadence Design Systems, Inc.
palmer@cadence.com

 

It is a cruel world out there and occasionally you need to shelter your staff from the bad guys. Of course, it was so much easier identifying the bad guys when they all wore black hats (or carried red pencils). But times have changed.

Now, one of the bad guys’ weapons of choice comes in the form of sharply pointed emails. Broadcasting to more people than I have met in my entire life, they enjoy exposing some imperfection that could have been handled discreetly. I equate this attitude to a teacher who has the choice of dealing directly with the student or sending that dreaded “note home to the parents.” They instinctively (and some say gleefully) describe in detail, to often unsuspecting parents, why Johnny does not deserve to live.

In the business world, they resemble aggressive “team players” who need to, and will, do anything to get ahead. It is the well worn, “I can look good if everyone else looks bad” technique. This is quite effective if you do not have friends where you work and do not plan on developing any.

Part of my job is to neutralize the negative effects these bad guys can cause. Donning myDefender of the Accused and Abused outfit, I do battle with those who find joy in maligning and torturing the defenseless. (By the way, I also assist widows and orphans on weekends as a way to gratify my ego. What a guy!)

The point is that defensive posturing should come naturally to good managers, or at the very least be taught to them either by a mentor or in Management 101. Shifting blame, grandstanding, and public derision as a means of job preservation are not new. But, in today’s more competitive environment, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are being tossed more often by the creatively challenged.

So what do you do?

A good defense is a strong offense. Do you advise, or allow your staff member to fire off an even more biting email, tapping into all of the power an exceptional communicator has to offer? That would feel good. For five minutes, immediately following the launch of their word missile, they can bask in the glory of the ever popular “take that!” strategy. Then the phone rings. Probably not a good idea…

Do you intercede on their behalf to the perpetrator? “Excuse me. I am Louie’s boss. I think you were unfair to him in your email yesterday. If it is not too much trouble, can you print a retraction? Thanks so much. Have a nice day.” That approach is like bringing your mom to work to fight your battles for you.

There are clearly times when you need to step in and keep your employee out of the fray, limit the damage done, and eliminate further erosion of civil discourse. But ultimately, you control the damage with facts. Standing by your employee is less stressful when they are right and you can prove it. There is a lot more at stake here than the issue at hand. It is the reputation and image of your department, as well as you directly, that are on the line.

While your peers will be glad that they are not on the hot seat, your staff will be watching and grading your performance. You are being judged on how well you stand up for your organization. The rapport you have in a cross-functional environment is at stake—not necessarily overtly, but still in a real way.

What about the other side of the story (every accusation has one)? It is difficult enough to support your troops from unjust attacks, but how do you help them when you agree with their antagonists? This is the hard part.

Maybe your first reaction is “You are on your own, Louie. Fend for yourself.” We all have had a few “Louies.” Well meaning people who either do not understand corporate culture, or who are unaware of how to effectively disagree. There are numerous ways to deal with your own Louie.

The reality is that most people know when they have messed up. A simple conversation along the lines of “What were you thinking?” may be all that is required. This can be followed by a smoothing-over conversation with the concerned parties.

Then there is the public mea culpa—which if presented in a sincere manner goes a long way (of course, you do not actually have to be sincere—just convincing). A humble and contrite heart will endear the guilty party to the accusers. This is known as the “politicians apology.”

The “interpreter method” can also work. This is where you say, “I am fully aware of what Louie did (or said), but I feel it was taken out of context. Of course, we can all agree that his action, taken at face value, is not acceptable. But, I feel a deeper understanding of the issue will reveal that what John is proposing may be the ideal solution. We will take your input—which we truly need and value, refine our plan, and present our original intent in a more acutely defined presentation.” This is the closest anyone comes to admitting failure.

Having Louie team with a more senior member of the staff can also restore confidence in your organization, as well as in Louie. The “big-brother” technique, as it is often called, will shift attention off Louie. Emphasis will be on the solution instead of the complaint. Be sure to provide the big brother with an extra day off or some sort of thank you for remedying the situation.

When all else fails, the ultimate weapon is still available. If you have to defend Louie too often, fire him. Okay, try to transfer him first. Wish him luck in his new endeavor. “You are on your own, Louie. Fend for yourself.”

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