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Sunday, July 12, 2009

manager struggles with overly social staff

A reader writes:

A first-time female manager takes a post over 9 other women. Manager and workers are all fully qualified, trained, and competent. However, the group has a track record of lots of social chit chat, much time on telephone with friends and family, and enjoy a social atmosphere at work that is considerably less than professional. Two are in HR counseling due to talking to each other on the phone at around 11 hours per month. Two others are clearly looking for another job due to warnings regarding similar issues of too many personal calls.

How does the new manager get a handle on this and turn this group around?

So the problem is that the chit chat and phone calls are interfering with the group's productivity, right? I'm asking because you say they're all competent. There are some jobs (probably not most, but certainly some) where people can socialize on the job without it interfering with their performance, but for the sake of answering your question, I'm going to assume that these issues are about productivity. So...

The manager needs to spell out clear expectations, making it clear in what ways this bar is currently not being met and what needs to change. And then she needs to stick to what she says -- meaning that people who don't meet the new standard need to hear that clearly from her and see consequences if the behavior continues after a warning or two.

She should be very clear about what is and isn't okay, since clearly these employees have a different idea about that. So, for instance, she might say something like, "Of course it's fine if you need to make a personal call to deal with an emergency or some quick logistics about something, or to deal with something that can only be dealt with during business hours. But these calls should be exceptions, not a daily or routine happening, and they should be used to accomplish a purpose, not just to check in with family or friends for social reasons. I wouldn't expect anyone to regularly spend more than 5 or 10 minutes a day on personal calls, if that."

She also might say, "I'm glad that that there's a warm, friendly atmosphere here, and I value that too. But for the vast majority of the day, we need to be focused on work. I know there will be occasional times when you'll get into a longer, personal conversation with a coworker, but during the workday, that should be an occasional exception, not the norm. There's too much work to do for it to be otherwise."

Speaking of workload, if a light workload is what's allowing people to spend large amounts of time doing non-work-related things, she should consider that she may be overstaffed. If the workload isn't light, then it becomes a different question: If people have a full day's work to accomplish, how are they spending a good portion of their day doing other things? Is it because they're not held accountable to a certain level of productivity? Is it because the work doesn't have deadlines associated with it? She might want to build more accountability into what people are expected to get done in a given week, which creates a natural pressure against wasting time and will make it clearer when someone hasn't used their time well that week.

I also suggest that she acknowledge that this is different from how things have been previously, and that she be prepared for an adjustment period (of a few weeks, not months). It's also possible that some people will be unwilling/unable to adjust to the change, so she needs to be prepared to enforce consequences if that happens.

And because she's a first-time manager, she needs to make sure that she's comfortable exercising authority appropriately. Here are two previous posts that may help:


Susan Ireland said...

This is a great article and wonderful advise for new managers. Thanks for sharing.


DrJohnDrozdal said...

Talk about a stretch assignment - getting promoted to manager AND having to "fix" an area. As usual, I completely agree with "Ask a Manager" and offer a couple of additional thoughts.

First, having a great work environment where people enjoy working together AND are productive is organizational Nirvana. I have managed work groups where the banter among the team was ongoing AND where those teams were lights-out productive. It is one thing when the warm atmosphere fosters productivity and quite another when the social aspects extend into lengthy OUTSIDE phone calls, text messages etc.

Second, I really believe that there is a distinct possibility that this group will try to negotiate expectations around personal calls, banter, etc. Given the description of this situation, I think that the manager needs to communicate these expectations as non-negotiable and deal swiftly and severely with those who choose to persist in the unacceptable behaviors.