Do you have to be liked at work?

As a manager writing this and possibly as managers reading this, your answer to this question may be no. As a young person or graduate in their first role, the answer may just be the opposite. As for people who need to be needed, or need to be liked, I think we can guess what they would opt for.

But is it necessary to be liked at work? I think maybe only sociopaths and psychopaths are comfortable not being liked. That probably puts me closer to that end of the spectrum than I prefer.

Could it be I say that, because no-one likes me? (I don’t think that is the case, but you never can be sure can you?). Traditionally, HR people don’t fall into the category of people to like at work. We seem to be the department that people are scared of. The ones who wave the rule book, the ones who keep everyone in place.  (If anyone can tell me how we break that cycle, I’d be eternally grateful.)

I much prefer to be respected at work than liked. Liked is something I save for my friends and hopefully my family. Working in HR has taught me there will always be times when we need to appear as the enforcers of rules. Mostly that is because we are (or should be) about the needs of the business. The needs of the business dictate that you must perform well at what you do and must not perpetuate bad behaviour. That’s why they call it work. I would rather be known and respected as someone who has the guts to make a difficult decision or have a difficult conversation, than someone who has no credibility because they find these situations too difficult. I have been both intensely disliked and extremely well respected for the same decision. I have been respected by people who don’t like me – and I choose the respect every time.

I did a straw poll before writing this post asking the question of being liked at work and a few people mentioned that being liked can make your way in the office smoother. It is much easier when people co-operate with you because they like you. It means you are more likely to get a quick response or a little favour that makes your job easier or your day more pleasant. But why should this rely on being liked?

Are we, as adults, not evolved enough to make this happen regardless of whether we like someone or not? I worked for over 3 years for a man I disliked intensely. I didn’t respect him, but I respected the position he held; the one that managed me. Ultimately that meant, I reported to him and I did what he asked of me. Again, another definition of work. I’m not sure whether he liked me or not, I dare say he didn’t, as I challenged him in many ways – but we managed to get our respective jobs done in a way that complemented what we wanted to achieve in the business.

I do admit that some of the best relationships in my life have come out of meeting people I have worked with, including my wonderful un-marriage. Some friendships I have which have passed the test of time are with people I once worked with.  Most of those friends were colleagues, some worked for me and one was my boss.

I have a rule not to be friends with anyone I manage directly at work. Why? Trust me, it’s not because I am mean and nasty…. (There is a theme developing though). It is that I learned that it is much harder to manage someone you are friends with than someone you don’t know that well personally. In a work environment, we need objectivity. Making friends with and liking people who report to you, makes all of that subjective. When it comes to managing the poor performance of a friend, there is no greater ground fraught with large unexploded landmines. Not only will the business relationship be put under pressure, the friendship probably won’t last.

By the same token, managing people who are your friends or people you do like, may create an environment of complacency. If you are liked by your boss, do you really need to try that hard?

Like most people, I have worked in all kinds of organisations, some where the people are mostly friendly and some where the word friendly has never been uttered. The friendly workplaces can quite easily translate into situations that reflect family dynamics. People learn about basic concepts of fairness, equity and resource allocation in their families, and these are crucial issues in the workplace. These basic concepts in families may be very different from the ones we find ourselves in at work. Familiarity in a workplace can cause as many conflicts as family situations do.

It takes a mature person to see past the likes and dislikes of our managers or our teams and just see the forest through the trees. If we can compartmentalise the relationships in the office and keep focused on the outcomes we will be measured on, maybe we will have more time and energy to pursue relationships that are lasting outside of the work environment.

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Have you got the guts to have the tough conversations?

It has been a year now since I had any staff to manage. If you listen closely, you can hear the angels sing. Whilst I did enjoy it and all the challenges it threw my way, it was nothing short of the most difficult thing I ever did. I chose not to have children, so I managed people instead. God works in mysterious ways.

It is true that I will have stories to dine out on for the rest of my days.

Anyone who knows me lived this example of managing poor performance, painstakingly! One of my staff used to take the company car to drive to the shop to get coffee for everyone (of course he walked around the building and took orders before he left). He returned, delivered said coffees, chatting to all along the way, then took time to drink his own coffee and eventually got back to work. He thought this took 15 minutes; his tea break. In fact it took 40 minutes, on a good day. He conveniently forgot that he traded off that tea break when he signed the last Enterprise Agreement giving him a 13% pay increase over three years. Not entirely his fault, no one had the guts to tell him that he couldn’t do that anymore.

If you are let get away with something for long enough, it can become the norm.

This very same guy did a less than sterling performance for 27 years. He was an absolute under-achiever of the highest order. When challenged on his work ethic, his work contribution and his general performance, he quite rightly produced his HR file and showed me that no one had ever challenged him on this before. That meant it must be me, the new Bossy Bitch who had a problem with him and the way he worked.

Well hidden potential

That was without doubt one of the toughest challenges of my career. It took me a year of setting targets, measuring performance, reviewing targets, adjusting targets, sending him on more learning and development than was good for him and basically devising every strategy I could find to get him to reach his potential. He had the most well hidden potential of anyone I had ever met.

Lots of very tough conversations and nine months later, he was dismissed for his consistent abysmal performance, including mistakes costing the company thousands of dollars, ruining our reputation and creating ill will amongst his colleagues (unlike anything I have ever seen.) Dismissing someone in a Government run institution was a tough gig, I give you the drum!

Your staff may just thank you for it.

There are thousands of employees out there just like him. It is tough having to have conversations with people about the way they work, or rather the way they don’t work. I doubt to this day that he thanks me for it, but I have had other staff who have. I have had people return to thank me after I have made them redundant, cancel their contract or just plain old tell them off for bad behaviour. Some of them gloat, and that is OK. Some realise it is the best thing they could have done, or could have had happen to them. To leave an environment that doesn’t stretch you or your creativity and is a lovely deep, well grooved rut can be a liberating experience, regardless of how it happens.

It is never a pleasant job to have to tell someone that they are going to lose theirs. People are human at the core of all that shockingly poor performance. They have lives to lead and children to feed, husbands, wives and parents to entertain and ignore just like the rest of us. Pity they don’t think of them when taking their employer for granted.

I have had to have tough conversations, not just about performance, but about stealing, bullying, racism, sexism and inappropriate swearing. I have had to tell someone it is not appropriate to call the company you work for a euphemism for a female body part. I have had direct and uncomfortable chats with people about bad body odour, inappropriate clothing, smoking in a non-smoking flammable confined space; coming in late, leaving early, excessive private phone calls – you name it. Were any of them nice, NO! Not for me and especially not for the staff concerned.

However, every single one of them knew exactly where they stood after those conversations.

To refuse to tell a person that they are under-performing, is not only poor management practice, it is poor leadership. It’s unfair and in fact, it’s just plain old bad human skills. Most of us just want to do a good job. Some of us think we do, and some of us know it, even though we aren’t always told (when will people get that? Can you just say “thank you for your work”, or “You’re doing a good job”. Is it really that hard!!?). I digress…..and OK, yes I was channelling a few of my previous bosses just then, sorry.

If you don’t provide feedback to people, good or bad, they will keep doing what they have always done, whether it is right or wrong. Having the tough conversations can drive you mad if you are not prepared and if you don’t have the skills to do it well and to protect yourself in the process.

Six tips for having the tough conversation

  1. If you witness the bad behaviour, ask the person into your office. Nicely, quietly and privately.
  2. If you don’t see it for yourself, then ask them to come and see you. Ask them for their version of the story. Perhaps: “I heard something unpleasant about xyz….can you tell me what happened?”
  3. Whatever the situation, start the discussion immediately. Do not make small talk or make them feel like they are going to be having a friendly chat with you. This is business and it is serious.
  4. Address the issue. “I just noticed {or I heard} that you did……(insert appropriate disaster here). I wonder why that happened, can you tell me about it please?”
  5. Give them enough time to provide you with an answer. Let’s be honest here, no excuse is acceptable when someone has used bad behaviour in an office, so the next tip is not negotiable!
  6. Say this, clearly, precisely and succinctly. “I just want to make it clear to you that that type of behaviour is not acceptable here in this office, nor in this business. Do you understand?”

Then stop talking.

My experience is that people listen, tell the truth and respond. They are usually embarrassed to be called on bad behaviour and who isn’t? Ask them if they are clear on it. Never underestimate the power of repeating your point, over and over again if you have to. If they start to give an excuse, remind them in the nicest possible way that they are adults; that they have a responsibility to work well with others and to just do their job.

If there are serious reasons why their job can’t be done, they can be discussed later. Make a note of them, then make another time to review workload, or do whatever you have to do to support them (yep, crap behaviour still requires support…much like parenting!). But make those two meetings separate so they are clear on the performance message, and that they are also clear on who is the leader.

The “…how dare you?” tantrum

Seriously, if ever anyone says those words to me, I walk away. They may as well ask me if I know who they are. As a manager I recover from my shock and then take the person in question for a very strict, very sotto voce conversation (strange phenomenon that, the angrier I get the softer my voice!)  I have had staff attempt to throw a tantrum after they have left my office. I followed them and suggested that they go for a walk, or take a break or go work the guillotine (OK, that was a dream, I was in printing!). Keep your resolve and make sure they are aware that you will not accept that behaviour under any circumstances.

Livestock in your living room?
Livestock in your living room?

Feedback is a wonderful thing and I have been known as the Feedback Queen all my life. I love it. I have learned to accept it and I give both positive and negative feedback graciously. It is difficult to manage people because they are people. Some will hate your guts till the cows come home (but what are you doing with livestock in your living room?) and some will adore you for it.

I know some of you reading this will be wondering if I worked in a prison, or even dealt with small children and farm animals. Not so, just an environment where staff had been let do what they wanted; one with no authority, no leadership and certainly no one there who had the guts to have tough conversations.