A reader writes:
I work for a software startup, typical “relaxed workplace” vibe. I’ve noticed lately that I suck at managing people who behave in a particular way — presuming that it’s okay to do something without asking me, and where it actually isn’t okay. For example, if someone asks if they can take a break when it’s not appropriate, I can easily correct them and set expectations. But if they announce that they’re taking a break and then walk off, I freeze and have no idea how to respond.
As these are not always situations that I’ve anticipated, I want to make sure I’m addressing them fairly while thinking on my feet. I also don’t want to say something publicly that could be considered passive aggressive. Any tips on how to manage these situations better?
Just be matter-of-fact and assert what you need — which as the manager you have standing to do, so you don’t need to feel weird about it.
If you don’t speak up when something is a problem, you’re not really doing your job. (That doesn’t mean that you always need to get it exactly right in the moment; most normal people can’t do that every time, and it’s fine to address it later if you miss it in the moment, as long as you do it reasonably soon afterwards.)
But the flip side of that is that you don’t want to come down on people inappropriately hard either. What you want is to be comfortable simply stating what you need in a confident, straightforward way.
* If someone announces that they’re taking a break when you can’t actually let them leave exactly then, you just calmly say, “Actually, I need you to finish up X before you go, so maybe in half an hour instead? Thanks!”
* If someone interrupts you in a meeting, you can simply say, “I’d like to finish what I’m saying and then we’ll come back to you.”
* If someone says “I’m letting the printer know we’re going to need an extra day before we send the file” and that will throw you off schedule, you can say, “I’d like to stick to our original mail date. Tell me what hold-up you’re running into, and let’s see if we can solve it in a way that doesn’t delay things.”
The key is to not make your “actually, no” into a big, fraught thing. You’re just calmly asserting appropriate authority. You can be perfectly kind and friendly while doing it, as long as you’re clear (and, if needed, firm).
Also, and this is important: Keep in mind that in many contexts it should be okay for people to simply let their manager know what they’re doing … so be sure that when you object, it’s in cases where you really do need to, and not just because you’re annoyed on principle that they didn’t check with you first. You want to encourage independent judgment and decision-making in your people, and you want them to be autonomous to whatever extent their jobs and their professional maturity allow for — so if by chance you feel yourself wanting to step in just on principle, resist that urge! (I have no reason to believe that you do, but it’s not an uncommon thing.)