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).