Know the difference between complaining and leading in the workplace

A coaching challenge: Your smartest employee is more focused on placing blame than solving problems. What do you do?

Dear Bob ...

"Mark" (not his real name) is my smartest manager. I mean that -- he's a very bright guy who learns quickly and can process information with the best of them. He's reasonably popular with his direct reports, but he drives his peers nuts.

[ Also on InfoWorld: How do you encourage workers to keep contributing to the company? Try nurturing their enthusiasm and inspiration, as Bob suggests. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

I'm siding with his peers -- he drives me nuts too, because when situations arise that in his opinion shouldn't arise, his response is to focus on the wrongness of the situation instead of what to do about it. If he were skiiing and saw an avalanche heading his way, he'd complain that it isn't avalanche season instead of skiing out of the way.

More to the point, if my boss drops a high-priority request on us, Mark won't be the person who says, "Here's how I think we should handle it."

Instead, he'll say, "Your boss shouldn't have dropped this request on us." He might even critique the request, helpfully explaining to me what the request should have been instead.

Mark thinks he's destined for greater things. I think that if he doesn't figure this out, he's destined for career stagnation, and as he's only in his mid-30s, he's going to have a long stagnate in front of him.

Any thoughts on how I might coach a person like this? Or is the situation hopeless?

- Middle Manager

Dear MM ...

Hopeless? No situation is entirely hopeless, so long as everyone involved still has a pulse and functioning central nervous system.

The odds? That's a different matter, and they aren't very good. By now, if Mark was going to figure this out, he'd most likely have pieced it together already. Still, you say he's smart, so there are some possibilities.

My guess is that Mark is a "projective perfectionist" (my term). That is, he projects his perfectionism on the world, and when the world doesn't live up to his expectations of how it ought to behave, he faults the world for not operating properly. For a projective perfectionist, people are the ultimate horror because of everything in the world, they're the component most likely to violate the "rules" as the projective perfectionist envisions them.

Here's what you might try: Inform Mark that from here on in, you'll welcome every observation he makes regarding how the situation ought to be, should snafus arise. You'll welcome them, that is, so long as the next words out of his mouth are, "But since it has happened, here's what I think we should do about it." Make it clear that this is the difference between complaining and leading, and let him know that if he wants his career to progress, complaining won't get him there.

He may still say, "Your boss shouldn't have dropped this request on us."

But the next words have to be: "Here's what I think we should do about it." Any pronoun other than "we" still amounts to complaining.

Mark will backslide, of course. When he does, with good humor prompt him -- this can be in a public setting without doing any damage -- by saying, "But since it has happened ...," and stop. Don't say another word (except, perhaps, to repeat it) until Mark picks up the challenge.

After a while, he might internalize your advice and even eliminate the preamble -- or not. If he doesn't, he's decided on career stasis. It happens sometimes, even under the best of coaches.

- Bob

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