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Fix It Or Forget It?

December 3rd, 2010

I wouldn’t put up with that,” people often respond to a Fix It Or Forget It? column or other difficult work scenario.  This isn’t just insensitive, but each situation is relative, and they could find themselves there more easily than they think.

Most people have heard the story of how placing a frog directly into a pot of boiling water will result in the frog jumping out, to escape.  However, if the frog is placed into lukewarm water and the water is incrementally heated, the frog is likely to stay in the pot, even to the boiling point, since the climate change is virtually undetectable over a period of time.

This is a good analogy for why some workers “put up with” conditions that others deem untenable – and can’t fathom why.  It’s all relative to what one has become accustomed to over time.  Changes in personal circumstances, such as health, death, marriage, children, parents, layoffs, etc., can also affect what positions one will and won’t accept at various points in life.  Everyone’s obligations and conditions regarding employment vary widely.

The type of manager that often exploits the most desperate of these employees is the micromanager.  They seem to find one another.  The manager who desires the chance to control every facet of each worker’s single task will seek (and often destroy) any and all employees that show little or no resistance to this tactic.

Barney* worked as a development officer for a non profit, and as the pressure mounted to make goal during a very difficult year, his micromanaging director responded by hovering over him even more and paying closer attention to details that she previously used to leave to his discretion.

It seemed that every time he tried to tell her, “I’ve got this taken care of,” an argument ensued, and she would tell him how to do it regardless, so he decided to quit debating the matter.  Often, her solution was to do what he was going to do, anyway . . . she just seemed to need for it to be her solution, for some reason.  Barney wondered if this was her last bastion of control, somehow, since she felt so out of control lately.

After the pressure mounted further, though, Barney no longer felt charitable.  He felt criticized and harassed, not to mention being treated in a condescending manner.

This became clear when he submitted a professional publication subscription statement for her signature.  Instead of simply paying it, she insisted that he contact their office for a discount on the rate.  Barney did call and ask, speaking with several people, each of whom told him that they didn’t offer a discount.  As he asked to speak to a successive individual or supervisor (knowing that his director would insist upon it), he finally reached someone who said their referral system would go to an email ticket system, which would have a service person call him back – could they take his information down, please?

Barney’s micromanager came by his desk, monitored just enough of his call to begin lecturing him on how to make a proper phone call, how to get a supervisor on the phone, and how to use the speaker phone while on hold.  Barney tried, in vain, to explain the ticket situation to her.  She expressly forbade him to hang up until he got someone on the phone who would offer him the discount!  Then, she walked away.

Barney spent the next two hours on the phone, either being transferred to different people, or waiting on hold.  Each person told him the same thing:  “We’re not authorized to give discounts.” or  “We don’t give discounts.”

Barney started with, “Could I please speak to someone who could?  My boss said I can’t hang up until . . .”

Later, he began saying, “Of course, if you hang up on me . . .” but nobody took the hint.

Finally, they worked to patch through a call to the person that even they couldn’t reach unless submitting an email ticket!  And what did that person have to say?  “We don’t give discounts.”

Upon hearing Barney’s predicament, she said, “I can give you a free two week subscription (that’s offered to anyone who subscribes), but it has to be added on to the end of the regular bill that you’ll still need to pay.”

After two hours, Barney was thrilled to hear something!  He took it and reported it to his supervisor, whose only response was, “See?  I told you that you could get a discount if you just tried!”

This crucible event was what Barney needed to make him decide to Forget It! and we began working on his resume and job search soon after.  He realized that it was no longer a question of helping his boss through a difficult time, but a matter of his survival and sanity.  She clearly didn’t care about him.

Courtney* worked for a micromanager as well, but luckily, we were able to discern when his tendencies really came to the forefront.  A lot of his stress had to do with deadlines, although it was clear that he just generally had obsessive compulsive tendencies, too, and felt the need to overly-manage every little detail.

We first noticed this with direct mail pieces – or any writing, really – that were drafted.  If it was closer to the deadline, her director would get nervous and feel the need to proof, review, edit and revise the copy multiple times, in an effort to get it “just right,” which would often delay making the deadline.  This was initially a great source of frustration for Courtney.

We discovered that if copy was sent to him well in advance, he seemed to feel more relaxed, offer fewer revisions and move on to the next project in front of him.  It took a while to realize this, but once we did, Courtney made a concerted effort to submit all copy well ahead of time!

We noticed a similar pattern when it came to events.  Although the CEO’s job during events was to greet the speakers and various guests of honor – or to be the opening speaker – he seemed obsessed during the down time prior to these events with such things as table settings, place cards, centerpieces and other minutiae, to the point of endlessly annoying the staff who did have those responsibilities!

We worked to solve this dilemma by Courtney always having (or creating) an important task that needed the CEO’s immediate attention – away from the event’s main staging area – just prior to its beginning.  The task would be something that wasn’t a true emergency, but enough to capture and divert his attention, which was all that was necessary.

By assessing her director’s habits and motives, Courtney was able to Fix It! – no small feat when working with a micromanager.

Do you have a Fix It or Forget It? story to share?  Send it to me, and it might help others.  Identifying features will be altered prior to publishing.

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Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
—  Rita Mae Brown

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