April 9, 2015 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

I was having lunch with a friend earlier this week, and after catching up with how our kids are doing and our shared interest in music, talk got around to the workplace. Generally things are going well for them, but a few interesting comments were made about one person that works with him. On reflection, I see these as symptoms.

This person, let’s call her Jane, is a mid-level project manager, struggling a bit to fit into the culture that has developed in that shop over the past 10 years or so. Jane seems to need to micromanage the team, and after being away for a few weeks, others are heard lamenting Jane’s imminent return to work. She’s been known to bring up project management tools like Gantt Charts or some of the capabilities of Jira that the team isn’t using yet, things that don’t really mesh well in an organization that is relatively informal and flexible (I’d characterize them as practically, not dogmatically agile). Jane is also exhibiting signs of stress on the job.

I’ve learned over the years that organizations tend to deal with people like Jane in several distinct ways. Most often, unfortunately, the friction generated by Jane’s presence and cultural difference ultimately becomes too much, and Jane or the organization (rarely both at the same time) decide that it’s time to sever ties and move on.

Failing that, in many companies, Jane and the people around her simply make adjustments so that they can work in the same space and minimize the negative impacts of that friction, primarily through the mechanism of avoidance. In a large organization you are bound to find many instances of this, just like those funny little noises in your old car that, while there, are easily drowned out by turning up the radio, and don’t really hinder your getting to your destination. A little friction in a big machine usually doesn’t impact things too much.

In a smaller organization, though, that friction will tend to amplify over time. Even if you can turn your radio up to eleven, the friction is still there, it never really fades into the background. There’s a high likelihood that at some point, the response flips toward severing ties.

I’ve also learned over the years to look at the system as a whole, which helps me see things in a different way. For me, the key thing in the original story here is that Jane’s stressed in the workplace, which opens up a potential plan C for this group. There’s a possibility, given some of Jane’s behaviours, that Jane’s been trained in project management with a ‘hard skills’ leaning and a philosophy that the PM is responsible for the project, that the PM is boss. This is supported by the symptoms of micromanagement and the team’s lamenting her return.

Quite often, people will follow their training and behave in a way suggested by that training, even in a culture where it doesn’t seem to fit. It would be no surprise that stress comes from that sort of arrangement, and one potential path to resolving this story is realignment rather than reassignment.

Now, I don’t have the complete story here, but from what I’ve heard, there’s an alternative path worthy of further investigation. It’s quite possible that simply bringing this cultural gap to the surface has the potential to change things dramatically.

The organization has done well over the years with their flexible and collaborative approach, and Jane can actually benefit from consciously embracing the existing culture, augmenting it with the collaborative use of tools where there is a clear benefit, where there is a gap to be filled (rather than implementing a solution in search of a problem). The key benefit to Jane is that, once she has learned to trust the team to exert their expertise to handle the details (that they have been handling in the past) she can relax a bit and focus more on the big picture.

This isn’t a solution that happens instantaneously. That friction that exists needs to be replaced with trust amongst the team, that will take time, empathy, and authentic engagement. With that, the team can benefit from Jane’s complementary skills and experience, and she can become a valued contributor to the organization rather than a source of friction to be avoided, or someone that needs to be replaced. – JB


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