Crucial Accountability QA

Overly Zealous Employee

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’ve recently promoted a person to be my assistant who is a very capable, gung-ho type. He has plunged himself into his new responsibilities with an inordinate zeal and is now micromanaging folks who are not his direct reports. He has an advisory role with them but no line authority. He also has a habit of moving ahead on things without informing me, sometimes in areas that I would prefer that we do nothing.

I know he is doing all this to please me. I’m sure that in his own mind he is doing everything he can to be helpful and make my life easier. Unfortunately, it is making me uneasy about several things. I feel as if he is exercising prerogatives that belong to me. I’d like to get him to defer to me more, but I do not want to dampen his enthusiasm or make him feel that he is not appreciated. He does bring a dimension to our work that makes us all better. What do you recommend?

Too Much of a Good Thing

Dear Too Much,

Congratulations on having such a lovely problem. Working with a person who is trying his best, taking initiative, anxious to please, and inclined to take action is a pleasant break from the traditional challenge of getting people to embrace any one of these desirable characteristics. Of course, what has you worried is that your direct report often demonstrates too much of a good thing. Showing concern, when taken to the extreme, transmutes into micromanaging. Taking initiative mutates into overstepping his bounds. Taking charge ends up feeling like stealing away important parts of your job. So, as you rightfully ask, how do you have him demonstrate the “right amount” of each of these positive qualities? Equally important, how to you talk to him without killing his enthusiasm?

First, don’t take an indirect route.

You’ll be tempted to start your conversation with a big “Yeah but.” “I love your enthusiasm, but it’s not working for me.” “I’m glad you’re taking initiative, but you’re showing too much.” When you take this two-step approach you first give (love the . . .) and then immediately take away (hate the . . .). This technique can feel too much like “sandwiching”: “That’s a cool new tie, but did you have to embezzle from the company? Nice shoes.” People hate this thinly-veiled technique.

So, don’t mix praise with problem solving. When you mix the good and the bad, people never hear the praise. Besides, sandwiching kills subsequent instances of genuine praise as people wait for the other shoe to drop. Go strait for the problem. People appreciate a direct approach.

Don’t succumb to your temptation to talk about “too much of a good thing.”

You have a number of different challenges here and you might want to discuss them all. Worse still, you might want to sneak them all under the single title of: “You’re trying too hard” or “You’re too enthusiastic.” This approach rarely works. First, there are too many separate problems in your example to put them under a single banner. Second, you can’t talk about “too much of a good thing” without either discouraging or insulting the other person. Everyone knows that too much of any thing is bad. That’s why it’s too much. What the other person needs is advice on recognizing the boundaries. What is the right amount of the specific quality and when do you know you’ve stepped over the line?

Besides, telling people, “I appreciate _______, but it’s too much,” often comes across as patronizing. Beneath the surface of a “too much” message lies the hidden statement: “Yeah, you’re enthusiastic, but so is a puppy dog.” Nobody likes to be told that they’re a naive rookie who is trying too hard. It’s humiliating.

Do pick one problem and focus on it alone.

To avoid sneaking up on the problem or piling on too much material, pick one specific problem at a time and talk about it and nothing more. As I suggested earlier, all of the elements you identified don’t fall under a single category. For instance, micromanaging people who don’t report to him and taking too much responsibility himself are likely to be very different problems that stem from very different root causes.

So, take a look at your list of laments, and pick the one area that has you concerned the most. Then identify the last incident or two where this problem came to your attention and focus on these incidents. To quote from a friend who I once worked with on a massive and wide-sweeping problem: “The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.” So start small. For example, consider the problem with your direct report making decisions and implementing them without conferring with you. Point out the last time this happened. Explain that you would prefer to have been involved and why.

Remember, the biggest key to handling your problem is to work on the instances early on and use them as opportunities to clarify roles and responsibilities. Also, take time to praise the person when he does demonstrate a quality without crossing some line. This helps clarify the lines as well. In fact, try to offer up far more praise than anything.

Finally, as you do work your way into healthy discussions where you’re outlining exactly what you expect, as your direct report asks for more clarity, feel free to answer questions by explaining both what you do and don’t want. Take care to describe specific behaviors that are both recognizable and replicable. But remember, don’t pile too much on all at once and don’t unilaterally step up to a discussion with a big list in hand. It’ll be both overwhelming and discouraging.

Good Luck!