Friday, January 13, 2012

Are You Managing or Just Nagging?

Four universal truths about management:

1. Managers are responsible for the performance of those that report to them.

2. One of the core responsibilities of a manager is to take action when an employee’s performance is not up to par.

3. Confronting an employee performance problem is one of the most difficult (and also the most avoided) discussions a manager can have with an employee.

4. Many employees report that they feel their managers micromanage them, pick on them unfairly, or get all over their case for things that really don’t matter. In other words, they feel their manager is a nag.

Why the big perception gap between a manager doing what a manager is supposed to do and the employee’s reaction?

It’s often because a manager doesn’t know the difference between a legitimate performance issue or work habit and a personal pet peeve.

I’ve found this lack of awareness isn’t just a new manager issue – I’ve run across it just as much with experienced managers that should know better.

The best way to illustrate the difference between a performance issue, work habit, and pet peeve is to give a few examples of each:

1. Performance issue
This is probably the easiest one to get your head around. Performance issues are the results, or outputs of an employee’s work. It’s what an employee gets paid to do. Sometimes it’s measurable, but not always. Some examples:

- Sales units are under quota
- Too many customer complaints
- Too many bugs in the software
- Too many employee complaints (thought I’d throw a manager example in just to be fair)

Although confronting an employee with these kinds of issues can still be challenging, employees are less likely to become defensive or take it personally. After all, the issue is the work – not the person.

2. Work habits
Work habits are the way an employee is doing their job. Although not direct performance outputs, poor work habits will impact performance. Examples include (correlated to the performance list above):

- Not following up on telemarketing leads
- Being rude to customers
- Not testing your code
- Making inappropriate racial slurs

When discussing a work habit, managers need to take the time to make sure the employee understands the clear connection between the behavior and performance and company performance. “Sparky, when you don’t listen to your customers and interrupt them, they feel disrespected, which leads to complaints, which leads to lost revenue”.

3. Pet peeves
Pet peeves are those little things an employee does that irritate a manager. Examples include (using the same performance issue examples):

- A salesperson with a “messy” desk
- Tattoos
- Listening to an IPod while working
- Making dumb jokes that no one really finds funny
- You say tomaytoe, I say tomawtoe

Some of you probably think the pet peeve list sounds very similar to the work habit list. In fact, given the job and context, one manager’s pet peeve may be another manager’s legitimate work habit. So how can you distinguish between the two, so you can be sure you’re doing your job as a manager and not being a nag?

Here are two acid test questions:

1. Can I make a clear connection between the behavior (or lack of) and the performance output?

2. If the behavior doesn’t stop (or start), are you willing to take progressive disciplinary action, up to and including termination?

For example, can you produce a report that shows the error differential between code that was properly tested and code that was not? Probably.

Would you be justified in terminating an employee that refused to follow department testing procedures? You probably could. Could you make the same connection between developers that code with IPods plugged in and those that don’t? Probably not- in fact, there might be an inverse correlation.

However, I know a lot of development managers that ban the use of IPods (or institute clean desk policies, dress codes, etc…) even though these things have no impact on performance. They do it simply because they don’t like it. That’s called nagging at best, or a lack of tolerance. At worst, it’s an obnoxious abuse of power, or discriminatory, that will lead to turnover of talented employees or lawsuits.

Here’s another non-work related, husband and wife example:

Putting the toilet paper on the “wrong” way (facing up or down, whatever your preference is) is a pet peeve. Leaving the toilet seat up is a work habit. It can lead to a soaker in the middle of the night, and ultimately a messy divorce if not corrected.

What about a work habit that’s NOT directly impacting performance? For examples, I’ve written about the “toxic employee” that consistently produces great results but wreaks havoc on the rest of the team. Or the manager that gets outstanding results but violates company values. Again, as long as you can show an indirect connection between the behavior and company performance (in these cases, it may be the performance/morale of others), and you are willing to terminate the employee if it doesn’t stop (assuming you have used a progressive discipline process), then it’s perfectly appropriate. In fact, I’d argue that it takes more courage to take action in these cases.

Managing employee performance isn’t an exact science, but if your follow these guidelines, you stand a better chance of being known as a “firm but fair” manager instead of a Pointy Haired Boss (PHB).


Jennifer V. Miller said...


These are very helpful distinctions. One thing to keep in mind when we coach people about "pet peeves"-- some of those folks won't see it as such. They'll try to fit it into one of your previous categories. In fact, what you've really got going on with a "pet peeve" is a struggle for power. That's a very tough issue to help a manager work through, but if you can help them see that there is no apparent downside to the Pet Peeve, then they may relinquish a bit of control.

Rebecca Curtis said...

Thank you! This was a great blog and has really helped me to distinguish between the different distinctions. It will greatly help me in developing my management style and finding the right balance in managing my employees!

Dan McCarthy said...

Jennifer -
Try the toilet seat analogy, that one ususally works. (-:
Thanks, I agree, it's often a power/comtrol issue.

Rebecca -
you're welcome, and thanks for the comment!

Brent Sprinkle said...

I like the acid test. It's hard enough for most managers to have these discussions, throw in some 'dislikes' and it can really go downhill quick.

I like the 5-5-5 approach to performance discussions. A 15 min talk every quarter discussing what's working and what's not working. 5 minutes on performance wrt core values, 5 min wrt their role/responsibilities, and 5 wrt their rocks (90 day objectives).

It's short, covers all the bases and is grounded around the "seat" not the person. thx.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. Seems a bit rushed to me, but I suppose it depends on the context and individual. And it's much better than NO regular meetings, which unfornunately can be common.

Stephanie Smith said...


This is a really good article that has given me a lot to think about when I coach my employees. It is really going to help me improve the way I handle tough conversations around the topics you covered in your article.


Mike Brown said...


The first acid test is a good one "Can I make a clear connection between the behavior (or lack of) and the performance output?"

Many times, managers get caught up in ego - and forget what the end goal is... yes - there needs to be a culture of respect, but sometimes I see managers just not like someone... It can be because they rub them the wrong way or remind them of a 7th grade math teacher... Whatever the reason - we need to remember that everyone is not going to be like us - and we need to respect that...

It is a good grounding question to challenge ourselves about the performance output...


Dan McCarthy said...

Stephanie -
Thanks, glad it's going to help you!

Mike -
I once had a manager tell me that I reminded her of an old boyfriend....and it ended in a realy nasty break-out, that he was abusive to her, etc.... needless to say, we struggled with building rapport. (-:

Aaron Drake said...

Great article! I particularly like the discussion on pet peeves and nagging. When there is an issue I want to address, I ask myself if changing this behavior will produce the measurable results that I want or just make me feel better. Most of the time it will just make me feel better.

Dan McCarthy said...

Aaron -
Thanks. Good for you that you can tell the difference, a lot of managers can't.

Mary Legakis said...

Well said! These are great examples and very relevant to today's managers. In particular I often come across the situation of managers who tolerate behaviours that are inconsistent with the organization's values simply because they come from high producers of the higher priority corporate objectives... namely, Revenue. The question becomes: what is a manager willing to sacrifice in the interest of money?

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary -
Thanks, I agree, tolerating bad behaviours is a recipe for failure. It will catch up to you sooner or later.

Greg Blencoe said...


This discussion is a reminder that managers earn their pay! It is indeed difficult to navigate through all of these human relations issues.

As with all relationships, I think you just have to let some things go. Pet peeves that don't really matter in most work environments (e.g. messy desks) should be on this list.

Furthermore, if the employee is getting the results that are needed (and still being ethical, following the company's values, etc.), then I think managers should be flexible about the path the employee takes to accomplish the objective.

But I definitely believe that chronic performance issues need to be properly addressed. Like you mentioned, be "firm but fair."

Dan McCarthy said...

Greg -
Thanks. It's never easy, but having these discussions is a BIG part of a manager's job. The tricky part is finding the right balance between avoidance and riding herd. Hmmm, could be the topic of a future post. (-:

Mark said...

Thank you. You provided a very good method to categorize one’s view of an employee’s performance/work habits.
While some manager complaints of employees may be perceived as pet peeves (I know I am guilty of this), it may be that a manager is attempting to reinforce company culture, which has its purpose.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mark -
You're welcome, and thanks for commenting. I see your point about "culture". On the other hand, it's also good to take a step back and question the validity of cultural norms to make sure they are still serving a purpose. This comes from personal experience - I worked at a company that put the "cult" in culture, and I often thought some of the norms the old timers clung to were just plain silly.