Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
I am a Sales Engineer supporting six sales people. We have one individual who has been here for six months. He does not know his products and wants me to do all of his work for him. He has not taken the initiative to learn on his own with the myriad of training materials available and a two week course that he was sent to for training on our products.
He spends most of his time in the office at his desk instant messaging his friends and doing push-ups. He needs me to do his quotes for products and assist with his sales. He recently asked me to fill out a contract for a customer he provided a quote to. The only thing he filled out was the customer name—he wanted me to do the rest. He does not look up his own pricing and expects me to provide this as well. He explained that he does not understand the acronyms or the product set so he feels that it is my job to support him in this way. These things are not in my job description.
He wrote my boss and stated that I will not help or support him. I need advice. He is e-mailing my bosses and making things difficult. How do I address this concern?
As I read your description of the problems you are facing with one of your sales people (let’s call him Buster), I immediately pictured a bowl of spaghetti. You have several problems all wound around each other: negotiating and clarifying roles and responsibilities, setting clear expectations, confronting poor performance and bad behavior, developing and improving your working relationships—and these are just the issues with Buster. You also have some work to do with your bosses to make sure they are aware of the facts concerning the situation and not forming opinions of you based on the complaints Buster sent them. A mess of spaghetti indeed!
Let me give you a caution. If you jab your fork in the spaghetti and then stuff all the hanging pasta and dripping sauce in your mouth, you will make a huge mess. Likewise if you sit down with Buster and begin discussing all the issues you have with him, you are likely to create defensiveness and confusion—and resolve very little.
A powerful principle to help prepare for a crucial confrontation is to write the problem in a single sentence. Ask yourself “What am I expecting?” and “What am I getting?” The gap between your expectations and your actual results is an effective definition of the problem you face. By applying this single sentence principle in your situation, you’ll get clarity and focus about what the real problems are and what problems you are trying to solve. You are teasing out a single spaghetti noodle, resolving that one, and then going after the next one. Let me suggest some single problem sentences you might consider.
1. Buster is unable or unwilling to fulfill his responsibilities and expects me to do them for him. Specific examples include:
a. He cannot fill out a contract.
b. He does not know his products.
c. He does not look up his own pricing.
d. He does not understand the acronyms needed to fill out a contract.
2. Buster e-mails my bosses stating that I will not help or support him—statements which I believe are untrue.
3. Buster spends most of his time in the office at his desk “instant messaging” his friends and doing push-ups. (As I see this problem written out in a single sentence it occurs to me that this is most likely an exaggeration rather than a factual statement. Should you make a statement of this problem to Buster the resulting argument would most likely be about the percentage of his time that is wasted instead of focusing on the problems you care most about. I would not recommend not taking on this issue—at least not as the primary problem).
Having unbundled these issues, there are two crucial conversations I would recommend you focus on: The conversation with Buster and the conversation with your bosses.
With Buster, I have a few suggestions that might be helpful. To reduce Buster’s defensiveness, share your good intentions. Perhaps say something like:
“Hey Buster, I would like to talk with you about how we can work together more effectively.”
Next, set the agenda by factually describing the gap between what you expect and what you are getting.
“There are several aspects of your job like filling out the contract and looking up pricing that you have been asking me to do. I see these as your job not mine. Help me understand what’s going on.”
By listening carefully to Buster’s response you will likely be able to ascertain the cause of the problem. If it’s clear that Buster doesn’t want to do what is required, help him understand the consequences of his behavior (for example, “If I have to do these tasks for you it takes me away from other critical priorities”). If Buster complies, great! If not, you may need to escalate the problem to Buster’s boss. If he disagrees and says these are not part of his job, appeal to official job descriptions or invite Buster’s boss into the conversation. This might also be a necessary step if he claims he is unable to do these things because he doesn’t know how. Encourage his boss to make a development plan that will help Buster acquire the necessary knowledge. It is absolutely essential that you do not conclude without setting clear expectations with Buster and his boss about what you will and will not do to support Buster going forward.
The second crucial conversation must be had with your bosses. It’s entirely possible that their view of the situation, including your performance, is based upon Buster’s e-mails to them. I would recommend seeking the opportunity to meet with them and factually review the situation. Be focused on what you really want. This might include results that are the best for your company and the client, Buster’s success in doing his job, a good working relationship between you and Buster going forward, a good working relationship with your bosses, and good results in your performance. Factually describe the gap you perceive between Buster’s actions and your expectations. Clearly describe your understanding of your job and the things you are and are not doing to support Buster. Then seek an understanding of your bosses’ expectations of you in this situation. Don’t conclude until you have established clear expectations about what you will and will not do to support Buster.
Please be aware that the skills and approach of Crucial Confrontations will not guarantee you all of the outcomes you desire. These are not skills for controlling or manipulating. We have learned however, that this approach dramatically increases the probability of improved relationships and results.
I wish you the best in all of your crucial confrontations.