A few months after I wrote the original Sick Systems essay, I walked straight into a new job that was a permanent, festering, inground sick system. This advice bears no relationship to my experiences there.
How to Be a Perfect Manager
So you're a manager, and you're doing a good job. A great job. A perfect job, actually, but so few people notice. In fact, some of your employees keep trying to make it look like some of the mistakes they make might be attributable to you, that their petty maladjustments to work life are the result of your policies. Don't let them drag you under. Here are a few tips for fighting back when your employees try to pin their mistakes on you:
Remember that if it doesn't make sense to you, it's not true. Your employees tell you that a new policy is making their work much harder. But the policy doesn't make your work harder, and when you imagine yourself in their shoes, you don't see why they couldn't work just like you do. Question them about why they don't work like you do. Remember to throw in little hints that if they don't have your work habits, they're careless and lazy. If your work style is currently different from theirs—for instance, you have an assistant who does all your paperwork—then remind them that you used to be in their position, so you know what it's like. If their answers continue to not make any sense, drop some subtle hints that they're lazy (and liars), then get out of the conversation as fast as you can. You can't reason with the irrational.
Control the flow of conversation. Employees will often try to tell you things in their own way—their own rambling, disorganized, ignorant way. For instance, Gregory might tell you that Bob did this thing, then Judy did this thing, then Bob did this thing in response—and completely fail to notice that he's just told you that Bob handled the late-night filing completely wrong. You need to stop him and get all the details of this error. He may persist in trying to tell you the next step of the story, but he doesn't understand where the conversation needs to go. You must understand Bob's filing issues right now, in as much detail as possible. When you've fully explored the problem, then Gregory can go on with whatever he feels he needs to say.
When he does go on, you may find that the story is disjointed, that parts are missing. Make Gregory collect his thoughts and start over. He'll tell you that Bob did this thing, then Judy did that thing, then Bob fouled up the late-night filing—so you'll need to stop and explore the filing error again. Then Gregory can finish his story. Which, again, is likely to make no sense, like he's forgotten to tell you what led up to it. Ask him to tell you again.
Eventually, Gregory may realize that his storytelling skills aren't up to standards, and skip to what he thinks the point of his little story is: “Judy is embezzling.” Embezzling?! Your best friend Judy!?! That can't be! What's the proof? He'll try to explain. But his story will be impossible to follow. Clearly he's inventing accusations. You'll need to give him a talking-to, and you certainly aren't going to listen to him again.
Have a pet rant. Let's say you work at a store with a ridiculously strict dress code that the head office backs up with surprise inspections and heavy penalties for infractions. When issues come up—and they will—you have two options:
Option 1: “Yes, the dress code is way too stringent. We keep talking to Corporate about it, but the founder has a bee in his bonnet about formal dress in the workplace, so we haven't been able to do anything. Please try to grin and bear it a while longer while we work on him, and I'll make sure that writeup for wearing white shoes after Labor Day doesn't affect your chances for promotion.”
Option 2: “We're all affected by it. It doesn't affect just you. Did you know that I was put on probation for two weeks for having a crooked cummerbund when I was pregnant? That wasn't fair, was it? We all have to deal with it. And I was pregnant at the time, so it was even harder for me. You're not pregnant, are you? So you don't have an excuse for not keeping your cummerbund straight. This is what you have to be willing to do in this business. If you think you can wear ripped miniskirts and halter tops to work, you're in the wrong business. If you want to dress that way, you need to consider a career somewhere else. Right? Well? [Ignore anything the employee says at this point about not wanting to dress like a hooker at work; they want to loosen up the dress code, therefore they secretly want to go to the other extreme. Also ignore anything the employee says about the issue not being her cummerbund.] Okay, then. Remember that. Make sure your cummerbund is straight. I'll be watching.”
The correct option is obvious.
Now that you have your pet rant, trot it out often. Bring it up whenever the dress code comes up. Bring it up whenever anything slightly related to the dress code comes up. Bring it up whenever clothes come up, even if they're not work-related. By this point you'll be repeating it several times daily, which means your employees' reactions to the dress code are a huge problem, which means that most of the problems in your workplace must be dress code-related, which means that even if a problem looks unrelated, it must be related, and therefore you need to bring up the rant as soon as the employee gives you the slightest pretext.
Each time you deliver the rant to an employee, put a mental black mark by his or her name. The more black marks an employee has, the sooner you should haul out the rant when you talk to them. Eventually some employees will have scores of black marks; you'll have to give them the rant every single time you talk to them. You may even have to hunt them down just to give them the rant. Eventually you'll need to fire them for the good of the team. You can't have people at work dressed like hookers, no matter how straight their cummerbunds are.
You may consider varying the wording of your pet rant. This would be a mistake. Have a few sentences at the beginning and end that you can alter so you don't sound like a robot, but keep the middle as intact as your memory will allow you to. You want to make your employees understand: “You don't argue with a broken record, and you don't argue with me.”
This method may seem oblique, but it works brilliantly. Over time you'll notice that your employees come to you with fewer and fewer issues. Your ranting has fixed all the other problems in your store, too!
Be proactive with warnings. You care about your employees. You don't want them to make mistakes that will damage their careers. Make sure they're aware of the dangers that lie ahead, and help them to steer clear.
You: Pippa, in recognition of your outstanding work, we're promoting you to assistant manager.
Pippa: Oh my god! Thank you!
You: Just remember, if the work's too much for you, there are four other associates in line for your position.
Gregory: Oh wow, this new office is sweet. Look at this view! Look at this flat-screen TV! It's the third biggest in the building!
You: I hope you like the office, because if you don't, there are a dozen other people who would kill for it, small TV and all.
Don't save your warnings for the big moments in your employees' lives, either. Slipping a little gentle puncturing into any conversation will keep your employees alert to trouble.
Be efficient. If an employee comes to you to talk about an issue they're having, take the opportunity to bring up any issues you've been having with them. You want your employees to know that you're on top of all the problems in the office, that you're proactively looking for solutions and willing to communicate. It makes them feel secure.
Follow the script. Great managers, like great performers, follow scripts. Your employees may not be as great as you. They may not have the script. That's okay. Keep on following the script, and the people who are keeping track will know that you've done the right thing. For example, one of your employees made a mistake on a report that wouldn't have happened if she'd checked the database:
You: Do you check the database every time you write a report?
Her: Normally I do, but this time I got distracted and forgot.
HER CORRECT LINE IS: Yes, every single time!
You: Well, I don't buy that, because you wouldn't have made this mistake if you had checked the database.
You see? Follow the script. The script will lead you to the right.
If you follow these simple tips, you'll—but of course, you're already following the tips. In fact, you've been following them all for years, even the ones you just read about. That's what it's like, being perfect. So enjoy your progress up the career ladder, and may all your employees learn to be as perfect as you!