Globe & Mail, August 18, 2009
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
A friend is dreading her return to work from vacation. Although she loves her job as a director of human resources, two of her staffers are driving her crazy.
One she calls "the princess." This employee arrives at precisely 9, leaves at 5 on the dot, and refuses to do anything beyond her job description.
Nonetheless, every week, she lobbies her boss for a promotion. Never mind her company's needs. Her pitch is that she would be "happier" at a more senior level.
The other staffer my friend bluntly refers to as "the idiot." "No matter how simple the task, he makes mistakes," she says.
My friend is at her wit's end. She has repeatedly coached both employees, to no avail. "I can't deal with them anymore," she says. "They just don't get it."
We have all worked with people who "just don't get it." They don't listen or overestimate their worth or have no insight or are just plain thick.
While they are all different, their behaviour provokes a similar reaction: exasperation. We feel helpless because we can't influence them.
But their effect is powerful: They can poison how we feel about our work.
Short of murder or self-medication, what can bosses and co-workers do to deal with "don't get it" types? Here are some of the most common, and some strategies to cope:
The unjustified self-admirer
One client, new to her job, had to conduct annual reviews. To get a picture of her staffers' performance, she asked for names of people they had worked with before she arrived. One employee offered up three, adding, "Oh, these people loved me."
Needless to say, my client was bemused when all three indicated the staffer was one of the worst people they had ever worked with.
This staffer suffers from delusions of self-admiration.
Such people are tricky. Because they think they're so terrific, they're contemptuous of anyone who questions what they are doing or how.
Tread carefully. Their sense of self is so fragile that, if you challenge them, they may lie or attack. They are often not capable of having two dissonant thoughts: I am competent but not perfect.
Be mindful of how you express yourself when giving feedback. Avoid any statement that could be construed as an attack on their competence. Phrase comments in a way that allows them to save face. For example, "I may not have made clear the urgency of this project, so I understand why it is late, but ..."
The insatiable ascender
This person is a top performer - and also so intensely ambitious that as soon as he or she receives one promotion, the lobbying starts for another.
If you're the boss, you want to keep this top talent. But you also have to feed a bottomless hunger for status and recognition. While you have repeatedly counselled him or her to curb ambition in the short term, it falls on deaf ears.
If you're a co-worker, you resent the fact that your colleague can't understand why he or she acts more entitled than you to plum projects and recognition. They also make you feel a bit dim and worthless relative to their star cachet.
So what do you do? If you're the boss, you need to ask: What lengths are you willing to go to keep this person? If the answer is far, then you will need to feed the unquenchable thirst for status with a rich diet of high-profile assignments, large bonuses, constant pats on the back and significant opportunities to interact with senior executives.
But beware: You risk the good will of solid performers who will resent being consistently passed over in favour of the star they call your pet.
You can try to bring the ambitious staffer into line by being clearer about your expectations. Spell out how he or she needs significant accomplishments in his or her current role to move up.
Be blunter than you've been: Tell the employee that constant lobbying for promotion may lead executives to think of him or her as a pain in the butt. The last thing people highly motivated by ambition want to do is to compromise their reputation with top brass.
Co-workers need to understand that overachievers are often unaware of their effect on others. They are not contemptuous of others' feelings; they just don't think of them while so focused on their own ascent.
Often, a private conversation can help. For example, when you miss out on a great opportunity because a career builder has been so aggressive in putting himself or herself forward, you might say something like: "You may not be aware but I am also interested in moving up, and when you constantly pitch yourself as the only person for the assignment, I am missing out. Maybe we can work more collaboratively."
These people are completely impervious: No matter how many times you have given feedback or made requests to do something differently, and no matter how many different ways you have phrased your messages, it's as if those conversations never took place.
You throw up your arms in despair, thinking, "What is wrong with this person? It's like talking to a wall."
This type is frustrating to deal with because of the feelings of helplessness they engender when you try to influence their behaviour. As a result, co-workers and bosses become overwhelmed and irritated by everything The Wall does.
But the problem is not always with them. Sometimes we think someone is not listening when the problem lies in how we are communicating. Maybe what you are asking for is confusing. Or maybe you are asking for it at the wrong time, when their mind is on other tasks. Or maybe, as a result of your frustrations, your list of grievances or requests is so long that it can't be acted on.
Identify what is most important to you. For example, after a meeting when The Wall has agreed to do several things and you are worried none will get done, send a brief e-mail outlining two or three key commitments, and ask the person to confirm when and how they will deliver.
Worst case? If nothing changes, at least you have covered your back and have necessary documentation if you are questioned on your performance or need to make a case for dismissal.
The thick as a brick
For these people, it's not a question of trying to get through to them; they simply don't have the brain power to understand and process what you have said.
Although people are usually correct in their assessments of others' intellectual abilities, there are times when the problem is not on their end but on our failure to communicate clearly. Or maybe what is obvious to us is not so obvious to them because they don't have the underlying knowledge to understand what we're saying.
If either of those are the case, simplify what you need to say down to the basics. Determine whether they are familiar with and understand the concepts you are using, and whether you have a shared understanding of the issues at hand.
If you have exhausted every communication tactic without success, remember that, just like you can't help someone increase their height, you can't help them increase their intelligence.
Your choice: You can try to circumnavigate this person so that the quality of your work doesn't suffer as a result of their lack of competence. Or, if you're truly hitting the wall, you can do what some people I know who have worked with incompetent people have done: They changed jobs.
The entitled lifestyler
Notwithstanding the recession, this person, like my friend's "princess" staffer, follows job requirements to the letter, and no more, puts in exactly 40 hours, no matter what, constantly talks about work-life balance, and acts like there is a labour shortage even while their organization is downsizing.
And then, while you wonder what planet they think they inhabit, they complain about not being promoted.
Work-life balance is one thing, but oblivious feelings of entitlement are another. The dirty truth about contemporary corporate life: Notwithstanding every organization's chatter about work-life balance, if someone wants to get ahead, they need to be seen working. Walking out the door at 5 doesn't cut it.
The other rule: You need to do exceptional work, which goes well beyond job expectations and visibly contributes to team effectiveness.
If you are a boss, you need to spell out those rules of promotion.
If you are a co-worker feeling like you are pulling too much weight to cover for an entitled lifestyler, be respectfully assertive about what you are, and are not, prepared to do.
You also need to understand other people may have personal lives that are much more complicated than yours.
Rather than assume it's up to you to pick up the slack, or attack your co-worker about burdening you with an excessive workload, see if you can help educate or negotiate with the boss about work demands.
So what do you do if you've tried everything, and quitting isn't an option? Hold your nose. Sometimes we just have to live with people who we find problematic.
And remember: If you think someone just doesn't get it, there is a pretty good chance they or someone else you work with is saying the same thing about you.