Are You Managing Someone That Isn’t Responding?

Sometimes we hire or inherit someone that has the right skills but you just don’t click.  Often they are doing the job, the work is ok, but they aren’t connecting with you, as their manager.

The good news is this doesn’t happen very often. The majority of people who report into you will build rapport with you, learn to work in a collaborative way and trust will be built.

But sometimes that doesn’t occur, you may have someone that just isn’t responding to your usual approach.

You’ll sense it in their resistance, maybe they say things are ok to your face, but then confide their misery to someone else on your team.

So what do you do?  How do you shift gears and reset the relationship?

Management issues can be caused by a lot of things so I won’t pretend this post is the solution for everyone.  What it will give you is a couple of tools to think about.

It takes both of you
First, take a step back and look at it less personally.  It takes two people to build a relationship and your staff person needs to meet you part of the way.

If they have cast you as the sole and complete reason they aren’t happy, then they are probably building their own defence mechanism. They’ll use this to justify why they quit that great job they were so excited about and blame it on “the boss.”

You can help reel them back but they have to be willing.

Break it down
Take a moment to figure out their preferences, this can help you manage them differently.  I like using Myers Briggs preferences, as a concept, because it gives us some place to start.

Are they internal thinkers or external thinkers?
Internal thinkers:  Does this person like to think things through before they speak, do they slip off for some quiet time, do they look like a deer in headlights when you grab them in the corridor and say you need an answer Right Now? They are internal thinkers.

External thinkers:  Do they want to chat things through when they get a new assignment, do they love the chance to bounce ideas around, do they find it easy to answer questions on the fly but sometimes give you a whole stream of consciousness?  They are external thinkers.

It may help your relationship if you work to their strengths.

If you are struggling to manage an Internal Thinker, give them time and space to think.  This just requires small changes in your own behaviour.

Send them a note outlining what you want to discuss in your next meeting.  Or swing by their desk to let them know you need an answer on XXX and will be back in 15 minutes to discuss it with them.

Either approach gives them time to think.

Build this in.  If you are giving them an assignment, suggest you discuss it tomorrow.  Alternatively, send the assignment on an email and ask them to pop by when they are ready to talk about it.

Internal thinkers aren’t shy.  They aren’t afraid of social situations.  They just like to get their thoughts in order; to be sure they are giving you the best answer, before they commit to explaining it.

On the other hand, if your challenging staff person is an External thinker, they need some of your time regularly to talk things through.

They may find it difficult to get started on new work without bouncing ideas around to get their thoughts flowing.  Allow time for this when you brief them.  They’ll want time for a discussion, if you don’t give them time, they withdraw.

However, if they are talking your ear off and making you nuts, you’ll need a different approach to get the relationship on track.

Ask them to take a moment, before they get rolling.  Let them know what you are interested in and what isn’t necessary now.  You don’t want to shut them down but do give them perimeters for your discussions, so you both don’t get frustrated.

External thinkers also benefit from thinking things through before they speak– it just doesn’t come as naturally.  When you ask them to gather their thoughts, it gets them focused and out of the habit of sharing everything that is crossing their mind.

Taking in and sharing information
Another set of preferences that can help you manage, focuses on the way we naturally choose to take in or share our information.

If you can figure out the preference of your prickly staff person, it may also ease your relationship.

If they like the real, actual, factual information,  are pragmatic and good with detail, that’s one preference. The other is a preference for the big picture, creative thinking and imaginative insights.

I often use the rungs in a ladder to help explain these two differences.

People who like real, factual, pragmatic information often want to understand the parts (or the rungs of the ladder) to make sense of the whole.

Think of them as wanting to start at the bottom and understand each rung on their way to the top.  That’s what helps them understand “the whole” – the idea or the recommendation you are seeking.

With this group, start at the beginning, tell them what you want them to do, but then give them the first three rungs.  You might explain the project, then say, “I would normally start by talking to research, comparing the data with last year’s and I’d look at what the competition are doing. Why don’t we catch up after that?”

This gives them a start point and some clear steps, but the freedom to go do those things in their own way.

On the flip side of this preference, are the top down group.

These are people who prefer the big picture, they like imaginative insights and possibilities.  They like to start with “the whole” – the goal of the project or what you want them to achieve.  They’d like to be briefed with the project, the context and what success would look like.

They start at the top of the ladder and then work out the parts. If you give them a list of things to do, it will feel bitty and disjointed to them.  Give them the goal, the context and what you are looking to for them to accomplish.

Then let them figure out how they want to go about it.  By all means offer your support to discuss their progress or ask questions.  However, keep an open mind as they may not approach it in a linear way.

If you are struggling to manage someone, work to their preference and see if it changes the dynamic between you.

Two other things that might help
Everyone works well when you give them clear deadlines and what is expected at those check-in points.  It they’ve got both the “what” and the “when” you are less likely to have confusion.

If they ignore your deadline and don’t do the job – that is a good indication that they have disengaged and you aren’t going to manage them back into the fold.

Also, try a coaching approach
This is a wonderful style of management when nothing else seems to be working.  It takes a little time and a quiet place to talk.  Explain that you want to support them and you need them to help you figure out how.

Approach your discussion as curious and not judgemental.  Ask open ended questions and allow them time to answer.  Do your best not to get defensive, this isn’t about you at the moment, it is about them.
Great questions to ask:
Help me understand what I can do to support you?
What would give you more satisfaction in doing this job?
What are you enjoying and what do you find challenging?
What would make our working relationship easier?

You can’t possibly have psychic underwear and understand what every staff member wants from you as a manager.  But you can ask them.

With a coaching approach, you are offering to listen.  Don’t second guess them with a “But don’t you think that…”  Let them figure it out and tell you what they think.

Try your new tools
All these approaches are techniques for your tool box as a manager.  If they respond to your efforts, you will have built a relationship with a valuable team member.  If they don’t respond, you have some tough decision to make but that’s part of your management role too.

Not the right tools?
If you have a management problem you’d like to figure out and these things didn’t help, drop me a line.  I’d be happy to write about it in a future post.

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