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Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Most Exciting Words To Hear Are "I Have An Idea"

I love hearing the words, "I have an idea". It means someone has been thinking and all great ideas begin with thinking. So, when I read those words, my eyes perked up and I eagerly read on.

A couple of days ago I got this suggestion for a blog posting and I loved it, so I'm going to start incorporating it into my posts. Here was the idea.

"I have an idea: you should do a business related Q&A... kind of like "Dear Abby" for professionals. I would like to submit the first question..."

So, here is the question and my response:

Dear Matt,
I work in a very small company (under 5 employees), and my boss is extremely chatty. His coffee break usually lasts up to 2 hours, where he stands around and chats about the minutiae of his life, his children's lives, etc., to the smallest detail. I am not opposed to this, as it is his company and he can spend his and our time as he chooses. However, I hate that he pries into my personal life. He asks me on a regular basis, "What did you do last night?" This might seem harmless, but he will literally interrogate me on the details of my life. He just left my office, and he asked me what I did last night (softball game), what was the score, how did I feel about it, did we win, what position does my husband play, is he good, did he have any highlights last night, is this every week, does this interfere with my church meeting schedule (no, we meet on Tuesdays), do we meet every week, etc. I really do not want to share every detail of my life and have come to respond with literally one-word answers, trying to deter him from prying. He doesn't take the hint. It's not that I mind sharing about what I did last night, but on my terms. If I don't want to share, I don't think I should be interrogated. It's too much.Of the other employees, one manages to not say anything (and my boss doesn't ask), and the other shares every little detail of her life. Is there any way that I can approach this and ask him to back off, without being rude or disrespectful? After 3 years on the job, I'm not sure how much more I can take.

No Boundaries in Phoenix

Dear No Boundaries in Phoenix,

What you are dealing with is a how to manage the manager issue. It's actually become a quite common problem within businesses today, as management has become much more flat with more middle managers and starting your own business has become easier and more practical. The consequence of these two things is that people who aren't the best managers get thrust into a position where they are forced to become good managers quickly. As a result, the book shelves at Barnes & Noble are overflowing with books on all kinds of "how to be a better manager" topics.

What your boss is doing, is one of two things. The first, though it's a bit of an overkill, is Managing By Wandering Around or MBWA for short. This technique became popular by Tom Peters' book "In Search of Excellence" and in a nut shell is a technique that HP used to keep a pulse on what was going on by getting up from their desk and going out to see what was going on. Not such a novel idea now, but back in the early 80's this was rocket science to most.

The second thing he might be doing is trying to connect to his employees by making them feel he truly and deeply cares not just about their work performance, but in how they are doing personally. It is important, especially in a small business setting, to keep employee morale high both on and off the job. If problems occur at home, they often bleed into the office, so a boss' involvement into a personal life is becoming more common than it used to, though in this case it might be a bit too zealous.

In either case, the first step in managing a manger is trying to figure out what exactly they want and how can you correct their actions while still providing what they want. In this case I'd suggest that your boss wants more than anything for you to know that he cares about your life outside the office. I'd give him confirmation that you know he cares and you've taken notice how much he cares. In addition, he's obviously one who likes to talk a lot, so I'd give him confirmation verbally instead of an email.

Some things to understand about this are, he probably doesn't know that no one appreciates his interrogation methods, nor does he realize that his attempts to motivate employees is actually back firing.

Imagine a young child wanting approval from her parents because she's cleaned the kitchen table off. The parents didn't ask her to clean the table, and in fact she's probably caused more work by not putting things away in the right spot, spilling the salt shaker on the counter and not washing off the plates in the sink so all the food has dried and made more work for Mom and Dad to do than if she hadn't done anything at all. A crucial moment occurs when the parents react. If the parents recognize the effort given, and the intent behind the effort, and don't blast the kid for the screwed up attempt, then the child's need for approval is met. However, if the parents get angry because now they have to clean up the mess, the child's need isn't met and their self-approval goes down with and she starts looking for attention in different ways, even if it ends up being negative attention in the end.

Your boss is the kid and you are the parent. He wants your approval so bad that he keeps trying harder and harder to get your attention and approval, that he keeps bugging you with things just so he gets some - any attention.

I know this is going to sound counter-intuitive, but give it a try and see what happens. The next time he comes around to give you the "so what did you do this weekend" talk, respond with, "I did (fill in the blank), thanks for asking. You know I've got a ton of work to do and I'm hoping to get it done so I can get out of here on time today, but I want you to know that I appreciate you asking about how things are going. Let me get back to this real quick because I don't want to miss (fill in the blank) tonight, I promise I'll tell you tomorrow how things go tonight."

You've given him the affirmation he wants. You've redirected his attention to tomorrow when you'll give him a 30 second "drive-by" update on what happened last night. And most important, you haven't given him much room to keep taking up your time, because if he truly does care about your life outside the office, then he will respect your time so you can have a life outside the office.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes. Another idea could be to post your report of what great advice I give and how well it worked to solve your problems and make your life better. Even if you have to lie, it's still a good idea!