The fine line between an ambitious employee and a presumptuous one

The manager has to establish boundaries when an employee ignores important responsibilities and pursues a personal interest not related to their position

Dear Bob ...

One of my employees is driving me nuts. It isn't that he's a bad employee or has limited potential. Quite the opposite -- he's very smart and ambitious, and he does a lot on his own initiative.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Employees come in all stripes, and Bob has some suggestions for managing those who are not "executive material" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

That's the problem, in fact: He spends far too much time in what I consider to be irrelevant distractions. Just the other day, for example, I found out that without even consulting me. he arranged a meeting with the marketing director to discuss the company's failure to make proper use of Twitter in its marketing efforts.

Luckily, the marketing director found this to be more amusing than annoying, but she still made it clear to me that she doesn't consider a DBA to be qualified to assess the company's marketing strategy and priorities.

Meanwhile, we have undiagnosed database slowdowns, which my DBA is supposed to be researching as the holiday season is approaching, which for us means the highest demand on our database servers.

How can I reign this guy in without demoralizing him?

- Frazzled

Dear Frazzled ...

Have you considered a whip and a chair?

I don't see your DBA's behavior as showing initiative. It looks to me to be more like arrogant presumption, coupled with a desire to pursue personal hobbies on company time.

Which doesn't mean you should whack him upside the back of the head and berate him. Among the drawbacks: (1) It wouldn't help; and (2) HR tends to frown on such tactics, prefering such namby-pamby measures as verbal warnings.

Ah, well. Since you can't use violence, and an official verbal warning seems like overkill, let's figure out what will work instead.

I'm guessing you're dealing with the sort of person who is accustomed to being the only smart person in the room. That means that wherever he sees a gap between the way things are and his notion of how they ought to be, he'll be certain he has an obligation to share his brilliance with whoever needs it to close the gap.

Sure, it's arrogant. In its own way, it's also well-intentioned. You won't cure his arrogance and don't want to criticize his good intentions. That's what causes your dilemma.

I suggest a three-fold approach: Coach him on how to be more effective, while also offering your help with his career advancement. And make his priorities clear. This should be a single conversation, by the way, not three separate ones, except for the coaching part, which might well be ongoing and not a one-time event.

The coaching is where you let him know that no matter how smart and insightful he is, he's unlikely to gain anyone's interest and support by sharing ideas that have nothing to do with any of his demonstrable areas of expertise. Marketing is an excellent example: Ask him how much research he conducted into the company's marketing strategy and media plans before he decided to meet with the marketing director. Then point out how much he'd enjoy a visit from the marketing director to give him some thoughts on how to track down the random database slowdowns -- which is to say, he'd consider it a waste of his time.

Drive the point home that while he does benefit from gaining a reputation for initiative, he's unlikely to benefit from gaining a reputation for wasting executives' time with uninformed opinions, which is how they'll judge his behavior no matter what the truth of the situation is.

Career advancement: Point out that his behavior is leading you to an unavoidable conclusion, which is that he isn't content being a DBA anymore. Ask him what he sees as his next career step and offer him help getting there. I doubt anything will come of it -- it sounds to me as if he's more indulging himself on company time than he is truly trying to accomplish anything important -- but by offering your help you call the question. And if he does confirm that he's no longer happy in his role, you're better off helping him do something else and finding a replacement who enjoys database work.

That leave the priority discussion. Point out that while you don't want to discourage his extracurricular activities, they can't come at the expense of the work he's being paid to perform. Right now, that work includes an urgent situation, which, until it's fixed, will weigh negatively on your assessment of his performance.

Be clear and direct about this, but not angry (which weakens any leadership message): Database performance is one of his core responsibilities. From your perspective, this means poor database performance constitutes poor performance on his part. Even worse, spending time outside his responsibilities to discuss marketing with the marketing director while this problem is unresolved also means he is showing poor judgment with respect to his priorities.

Finish by expressing confidence in his ability to track down and fix the problem, and explain that it's your confidence in his ability that makes you so disappointed in the judgment he has been showing. Let him know he still has your full support, and schedule a brief daily meeting for him to report his progress on the slowdowns -- not because you want to micromanage but because you're hearing a lot of concern from throughout the business on this subject and need to know the prognosis.

- Bob

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