Getting a Grip – The Meddling Employee

Getting a Grip - Personal workplace advice from Handshake 2.0 Dear Getting a Grip:  Every few years I hire an employee who seems like a team player, but ends up challenging my authority.  The most recent one asks questions about my decisions, suggests new projects, and sends e-mails with rewrites of the company’s mission statement.  I find myself wanting to say, “I’m the boss, not you!”  What do I do with this meddling employee?

Dear Authority:  When an employee defies the authority of an employer, what to do is clear.  That’s a mismatch and the employee-employer relationship must terminate.

When employees meddle, or try to insert themselves into the management process, that’s usually another dynamic.  Sadly, much too often, and for a variety of reasons, families from which some employees come have had uncertain structures lacking parental authority.  To keep the family intact, often to survive, the children shifted from being care-receivers to care-givers.  They become expert at serving as pseudo “team players” to preserve the illusion of the parents in charge, yet the children served as the family’s decision-makers, managers, and coaches.

We all tend to bring the pattern we used at home to work.  Employees from challenging homes are used to propping up leadership that has proven unreliable.  They actually had to try to control their family’s leadership.  They may not be conscious of how much they doubt and mistrust authority.

Getting a Grip:  The greatest gift leaders can give their employees is to draw a clear line between employer and employee, designate who’s to do what, and do the leader’s side with authority, credibility, and consistency.  Yes, employees may not like you over there all the time, and, yes, leadership is lonely and crossing the line may be tempting.  But when you have to say, “I’m the boss!”, it’s likely your boss-like actions aren’t speaking loudly enough for themselves.  Find fellow leaders as confidantes, thank meddling employees for their ideas, and lead the company so well that the meddlers can stop worrying about whether they’re the coach or you are, and be the true team players you hired in the first place.

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Need to start “Getting a Grip” on a personal problem at work?  Need workplace advice?  E-mail your question to [email protected].

Getting a Grip, a workplace advice column for Handshake 2.0, is written by Anne Giles Clelland.  Getting a Grip regrets that not all questions can be answered, personal replies are not possible, and questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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Getting a Grip appears monthly in Valley Business FRONT.  A version of this column appeared in the August 2009 issue.

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Comments

  1. Christina Smith says:

    Dear Ms. Clelland —

    I would like to offer a somewhat different take on the “meddling” employee. Assuming this employee has behaved respectfully in the interactions “Authority” describes, I think it’s just as likely this person is looking to be as engaged as possible in his or her job, and wants to feel like he or she can have an impact on the organization. This is not an employee who needs to be kept under the boss’s thumb — this is an employee whose energy needs to be channeled in productive ways. Asking the boss questions about decisions is one way to learn about what factors go into decision making. Suggesting new projects, unless they are frivolous, should be appreciated as a show of initiative. Rewriting the company mission statement might be going a bit far, but again, there is no reason the boss should feel threatened by this — it’s probably just an exercise in exploring the corporate culture.

    When a boss cannot stomach independent thinking by an employee, that boss is often wrestling with insecurity, not asserting leadership. The real “greatest gift” that leaders can offer their hires is to encourage their ideas and help them to develop professionally, while still maintaining appropriate boundaries. True leaders understand that keeping good people down extinguishes motivation and ultimately benefits no one.

    Sincerely,
    Christina Smith, M.Ed.

  2. Interesting article. I’ve had employees like this and ones who simply need room to grow. But, I’ve found there is a big difference between meddlers who are simply unhappy and feel they are always “low man on the totem pole” and those who truly can and want to contribute to the growth and well-being of a company. The former can be very manipulative. The latter, a joy!

  3. Thank you so much, Christina and Gail, for your thoughtful comments.

    Having been both the meddler and the “medlee,” I have found both situations well-served by increasing my self-awareness.

    As the employee who questioned my boss, what were my motivations? Yes, I was full of ideas, eager to engage, and focused on contributing to the mission. Was I trying surreptitiously to urge my boss into doing what I thought would provide the leadership I needed to show how my ideas might be put to use, how to engage in effective ways, and what exactly I could do to contribute to the mission? Was I trying to “make” my boss value me in ways I needed or wanted to be valued?

    As a boss questioned by an employee, I had to ask myself what I thought and felt as a result of being questioned. Was it “all about me”? Did I experience self-doubt or mission-doubt when questioned? Or was it “all about” the employee? Did I sense an attempt to be controlled, manipulated, or forced? And ultimately, was I creating the culture I valued, where both clear leadership and regard for ideas existed together?

    I don’t think answers to relationship questions, either personal or professional, fall easily into yes/no categories. I have found, though, when I examine my motivations, I see a little more “yes” or a little more “no.”

  4. Anne, When I read your article in Valley Business Front, my thoughts immediately went in the same direction as Christina above.

    I’ve posted my thoughts on my blog here: http://jimschweitzer.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/insubordinationorsalvation/

  5. I posted this comment on your blog, Jim!:

    Jim, I so appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary on “the meddling employee” column and the continued informed contemplation by commenters on the challenges of the employer-employee relationship.

    You inspired me to continue to think and reflect as well, and I posted those words here:

    http://annegilesclelland.typepad.com/blog/2009/08/dear-meddling-employee.html

    Thank you again for engaging in this meaningful and important conversation online for all to see and join.

  6. I appreciate your perspective, Jim.

    I think with the scenario you described, your recommended course of action is valid. If the two reasons you cite are why this employee would meddle, then I see no reason why he can’t be engaged. ESPECIALLY with mission statements (that often miss the mark—or—are no longer relevant) I wouldn’t hesitate to entertain input from an employee who takes the initiative to even bring the topic up in the first place. (Who is passionate about mission statements other than someone who feels he is vested?).

    But it is clear to me that Anne’s response considers a THIRD reason for “meddling.” Her employee seems to be the boat-rocker type. And there are indeed employee types who question leadership or ownership for the sole purpose of disruption or in the interest of exposing and stirring up discontent. The parallel example I can think of, Jim, is a sports analogy. “Hey coach, I got an idea how we can win this game,” is much different than “our coach doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s making all the wrong calls.” There are times (and I should have used a military analogy to make a stronger point) where the players or troops or employees must simply follow leadership.

    Perhaps the best solution is to have those “open door” policies where there are CLEARLY defined processes and designated times where employees are encouraged to offer input. This way, legitimate suggestions for organizational or operational improvement can be separated from straightforward antagonism or selfish intentions.

    One last illustration. Have you ever attended a presentation that was all fouled up because the presenter didn’t maintain control or lost momentum? The audience will ask questions or make comments at any time, and you never really get the full presentation. Everyone is engaged and passionate about the topic, but because the presenter keeps an open forum, he is never able to advance through all the points. The best presentations are those where the presenter “holds all questions until the end” not because he’s a ruthless power hungry dictator—but because he knows he will probably show the answers to 90% of the possible questions if the audience will be patient and give him a chance.

    Is that not a weasel-out or political response: saying you’re both right?
    Sorry about that. But I do see validity in both positions.

    Thanks for your posting and for contributing to the discussion, Jim!

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