Thursday, March 03, 2016

When Persuading, Shout "Fire" Instead of "Police"

[I wrote this post in 2007.]

It's a common problem: a supervisor has an employee who is an obnoxious, arrogant, saboteur whose technical abilities may be strong but whose people skills are an F Minus.

Members of upper management, however, do not have to deal with the character on a daily basis. Their exposure, in fact, has probably been filtered by the supervisor in an effort to keep the troll from causing embarrassment or insult. The supervisor may also be operating with the assumption that he or she must "handle" the situation without burdening anyone upstairs. This reluctance may be tripled if the supervisor hired the problem employee and fears any review of that poor decision.

If the supervisor tries the following arguments to persuade upper management to support disciplinary action against the saboteur, here's how management may respond:

"The employee is rude and disrespectful." He's never been rude to me. Are you doing something to trigger this?

"The employee is incompetent." That's not what you indicated when you gave him "Meets Standards" performance evaluations. You deal with him.
A flaw in the above approach is the supervisor is calling "Help, Police!" when the better cry is "Help, Fire!"

For years, security professionals have noted that you are more likely to get prompt assistance if you shout "Help! Fire!" instead of "Help! Police!" A cry for the police causes many people to hunker down, hide, and hope that someone else will solve a problem that may endanger them if they give assistance. A cry for assistance with a fire causes concern that the problem faced by the crier may spread to the listeners. Self-interest argues in favor of intervention. That's why the following arguments have a greater chance of getting management to help the supervisor:

"This employee's disruptive conduct is going to trigger a bunch of grievances from the co-workers." Hmm. If that occurs, it will land on my desk and the question will arise of how we backed up our supervisor.

"The law department believes that we must take action to correct or remove this employee." If the lawyers are involved, I can't fob this off on the supervisor.

"The employee is bringing down the team." That may affect productivity. My numbers won't look good.

In short, the supervisor will be more effective if he or she can show how upper management will be affected and that it is in upper management's best interest to back up supervision.

This doesn't discount the impact of idealistic arguments. I've seen plenty of times when those have carried the day. They should be accompanied, however, by points that show how the audience will be directly harmed if this or that course is not adopted.

Think Fire, not Police.

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