You have an employee who loves stepping up to the plate. He analyzes situations and always has ideas for next steps.
It sounds pretty ideal—and it is—unless your employee’s approach regularly requires some (major) tweaking.
In a prior role, I was responsible for managing volunteers—including someone who, despite the best intentions, frequently suggested cringe-worthy plans for action. Julia (not her real name) would argue that we should keep at failing strategies to see if the tide would turn; apply the same idea across a varied slate of situations, because it worked once; or confront someone who responded better to diplomacy, for the sake of being straightforward. And because she cared about the work, she felt strongly about following her instincts.
The unique thing about being a volunteer manager is that you can’t simply say, “That’s not the way it’s done around here.” After all, you’re working with people who are donating their time. So, you have to find a way to guide them toward a successful result, without be a taskmaster.
Based on that experience, here’s a three-step plan for anyone who has to manage a motivated person who wants to take initiative, but could use some (or a lot of) redirection:
Step 1: Check Yourself
One of the keys to successful delegation is knowing that a different way isn’t necessarily a worse way. Similarly, when you’re responding to your employees’ suggestions, remember that thinking, “Hmm, that’s not how I’d handle it,” is not the same as, “That definitely won’t work.”
Management expert Jack Welch wrote a great article about times when it’s really useful for a supervisor to be hyper-involved —like when he has a preexisting client relationship or is the only person who has previously encountered a similar situation. So, if you’ve been working with Matthew for years and you know he’s the kind of client who doesn’t take well to changing direction, then you’re right to worry about (and push back on) your employee’s plan to shift gears midway through a project.
However, if her instinct to try a new platform is based on extensive research, and your hesitation is that you’re not as familiar with it, take a moment to really hear her out. If you resist everything she brings to the table, your employee will think you’re hard-wired not to support any of her suggestions. If you let her follow her instincts some of the time, it won’t seem as harsh when you shut down ideas that you know won’t work.
Step 2: Help Her Separate Motivation From Goals
When Julia’s plans were way off base, it was often because she was focused on what was driving her, as opposed to what she wanted to achieve. For example, maybe a strategy had worked for someone else, and she was focused on a desire to feel equally as successful (as opposed to the unique constraints of the project at hand).
Letting her voice her feelings (and sometimes, frustrations) about the work was a big part of disentangling them from the plan moving forward. When I’d say, “I can tell you really poured a lot of time and effort into [approach A],” or “I can hear that you’re eager to achieve the success of [another team],” she’d use that as a jumping off point to discuss why she was approaching a project a certain way.
If you skip over this step, your employee may resist redirection, because while you’re addressing outcomes, you’re not addressing his particular concerns. Give him a few minutes to share why he’s fighting for one approach. That way, he knows his work to date isn’t going unnoticed—and he’ll be more willing to let go if need be.
Next, pivot the discussion by asking a question that works backward from your goals. (It sounds like this: “Our target launch date is X, which means we’ll need stage one completed by Y. How can we make that happen?”) If you tell him to expedite stage one, the redirect comes entirely from you. If you help him refocus on results and let him brainstorm with the goals on top of his mind, he may be able to see what needs to change for himself.
Step 3: Explain How You’re Choosing the Path to Move Forward
Sometimes, you and your employee still won’t see eye-to-eye. She’ll still be convinced her approach makes perfect sense, and you’ll still see red flags and think it’s important she do it your way instead.
At this point, it’s helpful to share some concrete reasons why you’d like her to change strategies. Sure, it might not make sense to let her in on every reason why, but surely you can tell her something. Why do you think your approach will work better? Why do you think it’s important she take your suggestions? This is a great time to include numbers, statistics, and anecdotes from previous experiences (it’s a classic “show, don’t tell” opportunity).
When you respond to her analysis of the situation by letting her in on your thinking, you’re building mutual trust. You’re also reinforcing the idea that you’re advocating a different way because you want to see her succeed—and not because you’re on a power trip. Not to mention, sharing how you arrived at your assessment can help inform future conversations, so you two will (hopefully) be on a more similar page the next time around.
It’s good that your employees have different ideas and perspectives: It’ll keep your department from stagnating. But if someone is having an off week (or quarter), try the tips above to realign him with organizational goals and help him get back on track.
Photo of people smiling courtesy of Shutterstock .
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author