Bossy Employee

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an assertive member of a work group dominating the director: She is very excited about the new staff and is promoting “her” group and has put together a draft strategic plan for “her” group that essentially takes away many of the responsibilities that others in my group have had, including me.

I serve two roles in my position. The first role is division director for a large organization. My second role is as a scientist in a district office. I supervise five individuals. Recently my program received a good deal of funding to increase our efforts under two of those individuals, based on the work we have accomplished as a team. We have hired additional staff that is now supervised by those two individuals. One of the individuals has a very strong personality and has put a lot of effort into the development of the project under her. She is very excited about the new staff and is promoting “her” group and has put together a draft strategic plan for “her” group that essentially takes away many of the responsibilities that others in my group have had, including me.

Much of our work responsibilities overlaps and always has.When I discussed with her that our “division” was the team not her “program” and that we needed to clarify roles and responsibilities so that all had satisfying roles, she essentially told me that my vision for the division was not the way it should be done and that she was building a program she was really proud of. How do I get back control of the situation? She has great ideas and tons of energy…but she also completely takes over a room. I have had two recent instances where she intervened on an effort that I was leading because she saw it as now falling under her “program” and I have to ask her to stop. She was mystified that I would not be grateful to embrace her skills and expertise. Help!

Signed, Challenged

Dear Challenged:

If I understand what has happened, it Ms. Assertive has changed your title from District Director to District Bypassed-Director. And when you spoke with her about who does what, she couldn’t understand why you weren’t excited about her taking over projects that were not assigned to her; moreover, she articulated a vision for the program that entails a different configuration. From what you say, I can’t know where you now fit? Do you as a scientist work within one of those groups that are supervised by one of the two individuals that heads up one of the two subgroups?

Possibly my confusion as to your role lays the groundwork that enabled Ms. Assertive to “take over”. It appears you have a wealth of resources; money enough to hire more staff. However, the Assertive Getter Done Gal has so dominant a personality that, if not stopped, will reshape the boundaries of who does what. You have made a start by speaking to her about those boundaries, yet you appear to be overwhelmed by her “tank-like” assertiveness.

Can you re-assert your command? Possibly. From here, it looks like assignments were not clearly defined when you have hired new personnel and named two individuals to supervisory roles. Did you define the scope of those two roles? If so, how? Orally or in writing? Or did you have a series of meetings to decide which projects were under each individual? It is almost inevitable that once your division was subdivided that those in each subgroup will identify with their own unit rather than with the division as a whole.

Let me suggest several overlapping approaches for as you say, “get back control”:

1. Again engage Ms. Assertive: Seek to understand her vision for the agency. Hear her out and together clarify and put in writing where she and you differ about that mission. Seek convergence of these differences. Also frankly talk about talk; hammer out the dos and don’ts of the kind of communication that engages all and doesn’t allow one strong individual to “take over.” Also ask about her career goals and think with her about what she can do to achieve them, and also what you might do to support her dreams. In short, be a coach to her. That means asserting your authority–explaining that her performance evaluation can’t be excellent when she expresses tank-like behavior. Coaches sometimes must pull star player off the floor and force them to sit on the bench.

2. Hold more division-wide meetings. In those meetings, talk TEAM and praise the two subgroups that support the overarching division’s goal. That should help all parties see the “division” as the team and see Ms. Assertive’s work group as only part of the team. Acknowledge that just associating more won’t solve your problem. In addition to meeting frequently as a division, there should be an overarching goal or goals that can only achieved by cooperation rather than competition between the subgroups.

3. Discuss process: Train your two sub group leaders on collaborative problem solving. Teach them processes that enlist input from all coworkers. Consider using a process that minimizes the role of one with a dominant personality. For example, a process known as Nominal Group Technique inhibits one individual from talking over and taking over. The N.G.T. process has several steps, but the key is that each group member participates equally in turn-taking to generate and post her/his ideas, to explain them, and at a later time in their ranking and evaluation–each participant “nominates” his or her issues, and then ranking them on a scale of, say, 1 to 10. (See http://creatingminds.org/tools/ngt.htm)

4. Post project assignments. Create a chart that defines them in terms of who and what must be done on a critical path to completion. Posting them employs a second channel and makes clear boundaries. The problem you have is partly but not wholly the fault of Ms. Assertive. You might have abetted her dominance by not calling an on-the-spot STOP to her speaking too much. For example, as chair of a division meeting, you could have said, “Alice, we hear you, but on this and every other topic, I want to have a “go-around” rule that enlists the opinion of each member of our team. So for now will you back off and listen to others?”

Do any of these thoughts and suggestions make sense? If not, do they prompt you to see this conflict as an opportunity of clarify roles and assert your self? For example, what do you think would happen if a time was set aside for a thorough discussion of my signature sentence: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS? I predict that might be a step in the direction of candidly articulating roles and assignments that create interdependence and its payoff.

William Gorden