How To Handle A Subordinate

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about a subordinate who doesn’t listen:

Being a newly appointed Manager or Team Lead, how would you handle a subordinate who doesn’t listen to you?

Signed, Doesn’t Listen To Me

Dear Doesn’t Listen To Me:

An answer to your question is a matter of combining authority with communication. These two words have a world of theory and site-specific meaning, and you will need to weigh if the thoughts I present apply to your situation. Although your short question provides little or no detail, my answer will not be so brief as to say, “Yell and pound your fist” or “Speak softly and be a nice guy or gal.” Rather what I say must be general rather than specific, and it is not brief.

I partition my discussion under these two words, but first let me recommend that our best advice comes from situation-specific Q&As, several thousand that can be accessed in our Archives. Especially study the answers of my associate Workplace Doctor, Tina Lewis Rowe, who provides the most detailed and savvy advice of anyone I know, such as she gives to a recent question: “How to Tell And Employee Her Clothes are R-Rated Also scan two others of her Q&As, Lacking Supervisory Experience and Supervising An Employee With Poor Judgment! One of the best ways to learn about managing and leading is to read the many Q&As that our Archives house that come from subordinates who are not happy with their bosses, in the section on Bad/Weak Bosses and to examine those in the section on Teams and Group Work.Now let’s consider separately each of those two overlapping elements–authority and communication:

Authority? You set forth the situation of being “newly appointed Manager or Team Lead.” I assume that you are one who has been appointed. Someone made that appointment and with the appointment came with, either clearly stated or implied, responsibilities and accountability. What are those responsibilities? Can you list them? What do you have to do, when, and where? Accountability means to whom do you report to inform or get approval. That is what it means to be appointed with responsibilities and accountability.

In some work settings all this comes in detailed job description; in others it is implied. Whether specified or implied, you need to confer with whomever appointed you to understand what is expected of you and to come to an understanding of what you think is reasonable and something you can do.

Can you learn all these matters in one single meeting with the one who appointed you? Probably not. Rather you will come to know what are your responsibilities and accountability (R&A) gradually over the new several weeks and months. Learning this is an ongoing, trial and error process.You already have some understanding of R&A derived from observations that are stamped in your head from seeing/feeling/experiencing the way you were managed or led; first by your parents or guardian, teachers, and bosses you worked under. In addition to this, perhaps you have had course work and training. There are hundreds of books on managing and leading. Do you have some that you think makes sense?

Many years ago I found a book that combined both theory and practical advice by Theodore Caplow, a sociologist professor who wrote to show his wife how to manage an job she was in. He titled it How to Run Any Organization. Or you can find current suggestions from unusual sources, such as that of Rob Redmond, employed in the information technology division of a large communications company, who has a site on Karate. Redmond advises be tough: “If someone isn’t working out, you have to have the guts to fire them. To keep them around can be poisonous for the morale of the overall organization.”

That is to say you have in your mind and are gathering theories about how to manage and how authority should be communicated. Of crucial importance is; What have you have observed and experienced about authority in your particular workplace? How are assignments given? Are they discussed/negotiated as to how, when, and load with those who must do them or are they simply ordered? Are they all oral or also written? What is expected and how closely are those involved monitored? Is feedback solicited to make sure they are understood? And how effectively is compliance? A careful analysis of how assignments are given and done/not done should enable you to answer your main question: how would you handle a subordinate who doesn’t listen to you?”

Also what does your policy book say about an employee who fails to carry out assignments? What does your superior suggest you do when a subordinate does not listen?What you do hinges both on the specific instance a subordinate does not listen and on how you see your authority. Do you see yourself as boss? As instructor-trainer? As coach? As sure you are right? As might possibly be unclear or wrong? How you see your role determines on how you react when you think a subordinate did not listen. If you see yourself as boss, you can tough and demanding. Subordinates who fear a boss’ wrath usually do what they are told and/or do it right the next time. If you see yourself as coach, you rather might inquire what was understood or not understood and you enlist cooperation by joining rather than judging.

Studies have shown authority expressed as managers/superiors/leads that at one extreme are assertive/aggressive/hardnosed/blunt and at the other extreme as passive/wishy-washy/submissive/person to have a drink with. In short task-focused vs. person-focused. Which is most appropriate and effective depends on the difficulty of the assignment, experience and skills of those assigned, and history and accepted practices of a particular work setting.

Authority, making rules, policies and practices as a newly appointed superior are not always understood until she/he tries to apply them. If you are appointed to manage certain operations, that means you must arrange and see that the supplies, tools, and way of production are in sync. That entails communication! And communication is not talking to oneself, and that is hard enough. It is taking with people. Communication? Communication is not a one way telling; giving orders. Of course that is one side of communication; encoding words that are read or heard by those who are essential to getting a job done.

Communication is two-way. To learn if instructions are clearly understood, especially if they are complex, they should both oral and written, and it is essential that feedback be welcome in the form of phrasing, such as: What did you hear? A question that invites a Yes or No is a poor way to learn if instructions are understood, such as “Do you understand?” Those given an assignment should be encouraged to ask What, When, How, and Why questions. And to be treated as equals in the sense that they who are expected to comply are also the ones who can have a real say in what is entailed in getting a job done and done well.

Clarity has much to do with compliance. Getting compliance is not just a matter of making one’s instructions clear. Rather it is creating a communication climate that enlists conversation about meaning and value of what is assigned. It also hinges on coming to an agreement on what might be thought of the rules of communication between/among superiors and subordinates.

I suggest that several time out sessions should be scheduled for a work group to hammer out: How assignments should be given and accepted/rejected.”Ownership” in the value of an assignment is equally important to clarity and how assignments are presented, and that comes about by identification with the significance of a task. The significance of a task obviously relates to what one is paid, but it also hinges on seeing the larger purpose of a task. Unfortunately, most jobs are so segmented that workers get little or no sense of how what they do is related to where their product or service goes and to whom it is important.

Few of us raise the wheat, grind the grain, bake the bread and deliver it to the one who will eat it. Listening and not listening can stem from little ownership in the process and end product. Helping subordinates acquire identity with and psychological ownership in a process does not come by authoritatively preaching, telling or selling, but by engaging those who the work in discussing, debating, disputing and brainstorming/innovating. And that is what team leading is all about. Much more could be said; however, saying more likely will be valued less. So I sign off baiting you to keep us posted and to reflect on this final bit of advice: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.

William Gorden