The unmanageable

Posted by jlubans on September 28, 2011

The Unruly Calf (1875?) oil painting by Homer Winslow (1836 – 1910).

Beatrice Coron, after reading my “Teaching self management
asked me What about those who can’t or won’t be managed – the unmanageable?
Since Beatrice is an artist, I expect questions like that from her; she takes ideas and turns them inside out, literally and figuratively, and in the process reveals that which is largely invisible to the rest of us.
Well, her question induced an imaginary passing parade of some of the people I have supervised – not always all that successfully. As I thought about it, I broke the “unmanageables” parade into two lines: Assets and Liabilities. First, I’ll review two assets named “B” & “S”. And then “O” from the liabilities marching past.
“B” could be maddening and yet his ideas saved us countless dollars and oodles of time. I once led a team building retreat for his department. I gave them an exercise – draw the ideal team and put yourself in the drawing. Each did and talked about what they drew. B drew a circle – often the most common representation of a team. Most who draw a circle team put themselves along the perimeter with other team members. Not B. He was in the middle, the sun around which the other team members revolved.
When I asked him to redraw his team, it became a triangle and he was at the top of the triangle. I gave up after the third attempt, a bubble drawing, with each member of the group floating around in a bubble. Guess who had the biggest bubble?
Still, B had an unerring knack for taking procedures, untangling and streamlining or eliminating. He created macros (now called apps, I think) and used them for shortcuts. He asked unsettling questions like “Why do we do this?” “What would happen if we did this?” Most disquieting to the “Manageables” was his asking “What would happen if we stopped doing this?”
I encouraged him to find answers and then to go ahead. We made some large gains. I was happy to support B, and I was able to do so because of my boss and because of the innovative and questioning environment in that organization. Unfortunately (for us), with a leadership change B knew he had to leave or else suffer being corralled and led by the nose. He found a private sector employer, a highly innovative enterprise that appreciated his unconventional ways.

“S” was a different unmanageable asset. To be fair, he was highly manageable as an individual worker – I supervised him when he ran a branch and then when he became part of another unit, I stayed in touch as a friend. When I was his direct supervisor, he was open to my ideas and he did a very good job; there was no resentment or question about the boss/worker relationship. But, S shied from any group work, especially when he was transferred to a larger unit in which he was one of several workers. We were trying to make this group into more of team and S would have none of it. He simply wanted to be left alone to do his work. The work he did put him among the most productive in the organization.
S gave more to the organization than most. I realized it was best to let S do his job and not force him into teamwork. I realized from S that when a highly productive person does not want to be part of a team, then don’t force it.

Now for the Unmanageables as Liabilities.
“O” was a self-declared polymath. Unlike B & S, he appeared to be confused as to his contributing role in the organization that was paying him. Was he there to help the organization or was the organization a mechanism to help him? The latter; O did not appear to think he owed anything much to his employer. It was as if O’s personal reasons and interests were superior to organizational needs. (Keep in mind that the example is drawn from a campus, not a corporation.) O was most successful in creating arcane research projects that took him away – at full pay – and often for months at a time. Because he had tenure and sources of private funding he was masterful at manipulating things to his personal advantage. He was resented by many staff, rightly so, but a few of those that resented him, were not really upset about his maneuvering of resources – they’d do the same if they had the opportunity – but O had so bruised their feelings theirs was a festering resentment.

For a spell, I supervised O. Could I have done it better? No doubt. I could have had a heart to heart with O and maybe we would have gotten some concessions, but I do not want to kid myself. O was egotistical to an extreme. I recall trying to place him in another unit – one for which he was eminently suited, as they say. I had my fingers crossed that the first meeting between O and the supervisor would go well. That meeting lasted less than 30 minutes before bursting into a shouting match. The two personalities were like a burning match next to a gas soaked rag. So, when the boss said how it was going to be, O’s response resulted in what became a mutually embarrassing failed “conversation”. Did O get what he was after? Well, he was pretty much left alone and spent his last years doing project work – largely by himself. A very disappointing waste of resources.

My point is there is the unmanageable, like O, who need to be closely supervised – even hounded – until they come around or leave or by organizational consent are “left” alone. But, then there are those unmanageable “creators” – artists, if you will - whom you need to encourage in their anarchous ways. You will have to defend them, and, if lacking support from the top, you’ll be tagged a bad supervisor, someone reluctant to rein in a cowboy riding roughshod over the corporate rules. Regardless of the excellent work the unmanageable does, you will be at risk. If the boss does not trust you or lends his ear to gossip or is tradition-bound, you have few options.

There is a book: Managing the Unmanageable. (See book cover below.)
The book seems more about problem employees than what I describe in this post. Still I am sure it offers many good ideas on dealing with the UE = “Unmanageable Employee”
The authors state: , “there’s a world of difference between someone who’s acting unmanageable, and someone who can’t [won’t] act any other way. There’s a world of difference between someone who’s become unmanageable in response to a particular set of circumstances (that can, at least theoretically, be changed) and someone who’s just like that.”
The authors do offer a formula to follow when confronted with the UE: “The 5-C Model: Commit or Quit – (make the decision to change the employee or to get rid of the employee or leave him or her alone), Communicate, Clarify Goals and Roles, Coach, and Create Accountability.”
No doubt, each of us could find something of value in this book when we are faced with our next “Unmanageable!”

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