Tell “Trouble” From “Different”

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How can you tell the difference between someone whose unique way of doing things is actually trouble for your team, or is just a new and different (but effective) approach?

As your team grows, you’ll naturally start handing off responsibilities to other people. In most cases, you just explain how you want the thing done, other person says “Aye-aye Cap’n,” and the thing gets done. Sometimes however, it’s not so smooth sailing. Sometimes this other person doesn’t do things the way you think they ought to be done.

Of course, diversity is an important feature on any team, and part of diversity means people doing things differently from each other. But at the same time, you’re smart and you probably figured out a really good way of doing this thing, so when the other person takes it in another direction, isn’t it likely they’re messing it up? A small team like yours can’t afford to spend a bunch of time backing out of a bad decision.

So how do you quickly tell if somebody is causing trouble, or just doing things differently than you would?

Here are a couple of easy tactics and how the “trouble” folks will vary from the “different” folks.

Ask What They’re Doing

It’s entirely possible that they ARE doing the thing the way you want it done, and for whatever reason you haven’t seen that. Activities that look one way from your own desk can look very different from someone else’s, so it’s best to start with a “walk me through how you’re handling this” sort of conversation just to confirm that yes, things have changed since you were in charge.

  • Trouble: A person who’s in trouble will struggle to explain HOW they’re doing things. They might not be able to outline the reasons for their process choices.
  • Different: Someone who knows what they’re doing will be able to explain why. They’ll see risks, and justify their choices.
Fall Back to Outcomes

Clear objectives are ones that carefully delineate the outcome desired, rather than dictating the process. Review the person’s goals and if you believe the outcomes are in jeopardy, sit down with them and have them explain how their path leads to the desired outcome.

You might discover that they know what they’re doing and have a plan. That’s great!

You might also discover that the goals themselves are unclear in some fashion. That’s great, too! This gives you a chance to clarify what the business needs, and perhaps re-state the outcomes so that your report can move in the right direction.

  • Trouble: Someone struggling will try to keep the objectives vague. They’ll probably misunderstand the larger context, or stay focused on activity rather than outcomes.
  • Different: If they’re clear on their outcomes, if they can handle objections that come up, it’s probably best to give them some room to operate.
Time-Box It

Maybe there are good objectives, but they’re more of the “three-month” variety, and you want to make sure things are under control TODAY. Tell your report that you’re concerned about the change in process, but you want to give their idea a chance (don’t do this if that’s not true, okay?). Set a mini-objective with a hard deadline in a much shorter timeframe and ask them if they can hit that with their process.

If they’re confident, and they succeed, then great. Your company’s process has just improved. If they fail, then you haven’t risked the whole objective, and your report has learned that their confidence might need some tempering.

  • Trouble: People unsure of themselves will fight against black-and-white, done or not done type of short-term goals. They’ll resist committing and come up with excuses.
  • Different: Somebody who understands your concern and wants to demonstrate they’ve got it will engage in this process. They may negotiate on what the actual terms should be, but they’ll commit to a goal and a quick time-box.
Just Say No

Finally, if you’re deeply concerned, if you just don’t believe that the new process is going to work, it’s reasonable (sometimes) to insist on a given methodology.

But if you’re going to do this, do it clearly, without pretense. Tell your report that in this case, you simply want things done your way. Of course, with that comes your willingness to take responsibility should things go wrong with the process you’ve insisted on.

And it’s important to understand that every time you do this, you make your company’s culture a bit less empowering and bit less engaging for the people who work there. You are telling your report that you don’t trust their judgement, and that always takes a toll on people.

  • Trouble: People who don’t feel up to the task will often take this as a lack of faith in their judgement. They will project their own inadequacies onto you.
  • Different: Someone who has the job in hand will understand that they need to earn your confidence. They might point out some potential risks in your method, and they might seek to revisit the issue later, but in the short term they’ll take on your process and go for it.
Whatever You Do, Do It Fast

There’s four tactics that can help you make a quick assessment as to whether or not your local iconoclast is an effective weirdo, or a disaster waiting to happen. Find out fast, so you can stop worrying about it and move on.

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