The Over-Optimistic Subordinate

Optimism is usually a virtue—except when it is so excessive it blinds the individual to the facts or reality of a situation. For some people, optimism is an escape hatch from failure. Errors are shrugged off, not mended. “Things could be worse,” he points out. Behind over-optimism may be a considerable degree of irresponsibility and immaturity. In attempting to modify his viewpoint, plan a continuing campaign:

  1. Start by putting solid ground underfoot. Stress the importance of each of his assignments at the outset—plus the necessity for success.
  2. Tighten up on the reins in the course of his work. Have him report back to you on progress. And introduce intermediate deadlines.
  3. Bring other members of your group into the act. When his slap-happiness interferes with their work, stand back; let them tell him the score.
  4. Take your final leaf out of his book. Show him that you, too, can be optimistic: “O.K., let’s look at the bright side—by making sure there is a bright side, next time.” And then go on to suggestions that will assure success.

Dealing With The Also-Rans

For every promotion you make, there may be one or two people who have been left standing by the roadside. For every person who merits praise for outstanding performance, there are those who may have tried and failed. These people who never quite make it, these failures in the competitive race that marks the typical work scene, deserve attention because they can be helped to succeed. Of course, some people may lack the innate ability or skill to per-form at outstanding levels. But before you conclude that personal deficiencies explain their failure, look into these factors:

1. Did you motivate the employee sufficiently?

Almost everybody would like to be promoted—but not everybody is willing to work for it. Many people don’t know what possibilities of self-betterment exist in the company. If your people are to improve, they have to see what specific goals are within their reach. Don’t assume that the average employee knows the line of promotion. Tell him.

2. Did you define clearly the standards you use in deciding on promotion?

In addition to knowing what the next higher job is, the employee must understand what qualifications he needs. This factor is important, both in preparing people for possible pro-motion, and in explaining to the also-ran why he didn’t get the job. If you’ve never told him the standards, his disappointment at not making the grade can turn into anger at you, for not giving him guidance.

3. Have you suggested to your employees study possibilities that would qualify them for advancement?

A highly-skilled subordinate may put himself in line for promotion simply by spending a few evenings a week at a vocational school. Your people may look to you as the one with the experience and judgment to make such recommendations.

4. Have you taken steps to give your people additional training on the job?

A Grade B mechanic might need just a half-hour’s instruction a week from an old-timer, over a period of several months, to put himself in line for promotion to Grade A mechanic.

Handling the “john Alden syndrome”

You may have an employee like the historical John Alden, who hesitates to speak for himself or on his own behalf. Instead, he’ll tell you, “Bill Jones thinks thus and so, .. . or Tom Blakely says we ought to. . . ” His failure to advance his own views or interests can cost you information, ideas, and a valuable point of view. In addition, it creates a communications barrier between him and others. To get him to speak for himself:

1. Tell him why you want his opinions. “It’s important for me to get everyone’s views, John. That’s the only way I can get a complete picture.”

2. Coax him along. Frequently, he holds back because he’s not sure of himself. Good antidote is to start by asking him questions to which he’s likely to know the answer. Note his relative strengths and weaknesses in these areas:

  • Facts. Giving information about his work usually finds him on firmest ground.
  • Opinions. Making comments about other people’s ideas for work situations is next easiest for him.
  • Ideas. Here’s where he needs most encouragement. Show him you like people who voice their views—gripes or otherwise; that you applaud suggestions, even if they don’t pan out.

The Lone Wolf

The loner may be a productive employee. Or he could be one you are just about ready to fire. Either way, remedial steps might save a potentially good employee, or improve present performance. Many different factors can turn a man into a lone wolf. To start the de-isolating process answer these questions:

1. Is his loner tendency creating a problem?

The answer may be no. If so, no action is called for. Or it may be yes: he’s not cooperating with people he must work with, or he is not communicating sufficiently with you. If this latter is the case, you must probe further.

2. Was he always a lone wolf?

Just check your memory; perhaps a comparatively recent development, such as difficulties at home, problems in his personal life, cause his craving for solitude. In some instances, a special competence may mean that his boss left him alone because he could go it alone. However, instead of building self-reliance, this move may have further built up his need for a protective shell. At any rate, further your understanding of the situation by trying to pin down the reason for his behavior.

3. Can he be given assignments that minimize the effects of his tendency?

If in your opinion, the lone wolf, because of his personality makeup, really prefers isolation, your most effective move may be to give him assignments where he will be operating independently. For example, it can be an advantage to you if a subordinate with this preference took on assignments at remote places, after hours, and so on.

4. Can a low-pressure program of interpersonal contacts improve the situation?

You may decide that your problem child is a shy sheep in lone wolf’s clothing. Accordingly, he would like to mix with the others, but finds this difficult to do. You can help by establishing a bridge to others on your staff; or in arranging at first, minimum contacts with some of your friendly nonaggressive people, then building the contacts when you see he’s beginning to respond.

5. Should you consider a transfer?

It’s seldom that even the worst, the most extreme representative of this type is fired. But where the loner’s tendencies are a definite handicap to job achievement and all your efforts are in vain, you may be able to do both yourself and another executive a good turn by arranging a transfer to another department, where his behavior will not represent a handicap.

The Snooper

This individual is a problem because he goes to ridiculous lengths to get into the act. Anytime something is going on, he feels he must thrust himself into it—whether advisable or not. He may have a neurotic need for recognition, and may be more sinned against than sinning. Consider:

1. What makes him run? Ambition?

Does he barge in to get the chance to show how much he knows? Here your problem is to learn why he takes this particular tack. Has he been denied opportunities otherwise open to the rest of the group? Been brought into group decision-making as much as the rest?

  • Exclusion? His workplace may be the answer. Or it may be the nature of his work. He may, for example, perform a task that’s finished later than the rest. Does this put him out in the cold? Relocating him may be the answer. If his ostracism is a “personal” matter, you have a tougher nut to crack. But whatever the cause, you’ll want to make certain that the group isn’t withholding information or work that prevents the problem child from doing his job properly.
2. Does he crave recognition?

In many cases this person needs the feeling that he is important—at least as important as other people around. The more you can do to build his self-image, the more you make him feel that he’s a respected member of the work group, the more you can ease his compulsion to barge in. Accordingly, recognize his performance; show him that you approve of his accomplishments. Praise his outstanding achievements.

The Irresponsible Employee

Often he’s a youngster, new to the world of work. But he also may be an older, but immature person. Because of his attitude, a situation that seems obvious to you may be obscure to him. He may become involved in important matters, without realizing the consequences. The typical job, with requirements for promptness, conformity with working rules and policies, obedience to instructions, may seem unnecessarily confining and “an establishment approach” that demands to be flouted. If the problem of his irresponsibility is not too extreme-

1. Give him the big picture.

As clearly as possible, preferably in the early days of induction, acquaint him with the history, traditions, objectives of the company, the department, his job. The older, mature worker understands the general pattern of his job life. But the youngster often has no experience on which to draw. Perhaps curiosity may bridge the gap. At any rate, encourage questions about company operation, product, marketing, and so on.

2. Go out of your way to give the reason why.

That goes for whatever comes up: work, instructions, pay rates, inspection procedures, schedules, and so on. Keep your explanations clear and non-technical. Don’t hesitate to repeat them at a later date, if you are not sure he has grasped the point. Assign an experienced dependable worker as an official or unofficial “buddy.”

A friendly relationship with a fellow employee can help eliminate a certain amount of the immature employee’s recalcitrance, and a well-informed sidekick can answer the many small questions that may arise. The individual can pick up a good deal from such a buddy in terms of facts and attitude. Use care in selecting the partner. He should have understanding and tolerance.

3. Treat him as an adult.

Particularly in the presence of others, don’t talk down, show any impatience you may feel. They may take their cue from you and begin making life unbearable for the individual. Even when you deal with him in private, don’t let your interest in his life appear patronizing.

4. Give him responsibilities and hold him to them.

Do this gradually. Don’t overburden him with responsibility. He may seem to be eager to take on big assignments; but in part the explanation may be his intention not to take them too seriously. Test him out step by step. Check up regularly on the assignments that you give him. See that he follows instructions closely.

5. Keep his achievements and goals constantly before him.

This individual is likely to be easily discouraged by failures. Emphasize what he has accomplished, and show him how he can turn his abilities to further self-improvement or advancement.

6. Utilize his energy.

Suiting the challenge to his capacities is an important aspect of developing this individual. It can be particularly effective to use his energy capabilities for the benefit of the group as a whole. Success here can make him both a hero and a permanent member of the group. Keep him occupied. Help him to continue to learn. Use his curiosity and maintain his interest in a variety of assignments. This will also help him develop a broader understanding of his job responsibilities as a whole.

Certified Leadership Skills Professional