I run a small team for a large nonprofit. One long-term member of the team really knows the ins and outs of the organization and can be really helpful.
The problem is, he does a couple of things that drive everybody crazy. He often decides to do things—presentations, publications, project plans—differently from the way the team has decided or I have instructed. He over-focuses on details and tends to go off on tangents that take up valuable time in meetings and add no value.
He doesn’t report to me, but everybody is looking at me to stop his behaviors because his direct boss is a big softie. I don’t feel it’s my place to reign him in or give him feedback. And if I went out on a limb and gave him feedback, I might damage the relationship and lose the value he does bring to the team.
Do you agree?
I understand that you are not this person’s direct boss, but you are his superior and he does in fact create work product for you. Your team members are going to lose respect for you if don’t at least try to change the behavior that is annoying everyone. You need to take control here. Forget his actual boss—you can give him feedback on what you observe and the work he does for you and your team.
Many leaders are skittish about giving feedback. I understand it is uncomfortable, but it is part of the job. There is no shortage of advice out there about how to give feedback—and it is often belabored so I will keep it simple.
- This will help you to cut out unnecessary words and get to the point. Think about the offending behavior, the impact it has on you and the team, and the change you are requesting.
- Be brief, clear and direct. Don’t give vague second-hand feedback such as “People on the team think that…” Take responsibility. Share your own observations and leave everyone else out of it.
- Keep your tone warm, friendly, and neutral. The idea is not to criticize, it is to be clear and increase your chances of catalyzing change.
- Tell the person you are asking for the meeting so that you can give them some feedback and make a request for a change.
- Meet in private. No one wants an audience when being taken to task.
Now for the actual meeting.
- Share that giving feedback makes you uncomfortable, that your intention to is help him be more effective, and that you see it as your job to have the conversation.
- Ask if this is a good time for him to have the conversation. Most people say yes, but if he says no, schedule another time to do it. You never know when someone is having a terrible day, has other things on their mind, or just needs to prepare themselves emotionally. It can really derail the hard conversation when you find out that your direct report’s dog died that morning and they are ready for the teeniest thing to push them off balance and fall apart.
- Share your observation and make a request; e.g., “In the weekly planning meeting you are always well prepared, but often, like yesterday, you go off on a tangent and tell elaborate stories that are not relevant to the task at hand. It is my job to keep the meetings short and efficient, so I must ask you to stop doing that.”
- You may want to limit it to no more than 3 items—presumably, they will all be related. If you see the person getting overwhelmed, tell him you have more feedback but you will save it for another time after he has digested what he has heard.
- Share how you will respond the next time you experience the offending behavior; e.g., “The next time you go off on a tangent in the planning meeting, I will politely ask you to stop and refocus the conversation.”
- Give the person a chance to respond. They may act defensive, hurt, or otherwise emotional. Or they might be perfectly even keeled. They will ask questions and want more information. Do not elaborate—if pressed, repeat what you have already prepared and do not deviate. The more you go off script, the more you may seem to be negotiating the request, which you are not willing to do. This is not a negotiation, so do not let the person think it is. You may be a dotted line, but you are still the boss.
Sound like a lot? It is. Being a manager is hard—I am sorry.
You may lose the relationship. This is always a risk, but frankly it may be worth it to increase the effectiveness of the team. And if you are kind, clear, and direct, the person getting the feedback can choose to get upset and take it personally—but you are just telling the truth, not being a big meanie. Your actual direct reports will know that you give feedback when it is warranted and will trust you more. They will also be grateful, because who wants to be regularly annoyed? Life is hard enough without having to dread the planning meeting because one person is oblivious. So make it stop.
Be strong. You can do it. Or, do nothing and continue to pay the price.
About the author
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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