Over the past six-ish years, I have been responsible for managing a team of people who I have often considered unmanageable. Not because of who they are, or what they’re about, but because the way they need to be managed is completely contrary to pretty much anything anyone has ever known about managing people. (That’s a slight exaggeration.)
Think about many of the rules that are (likely) in place at your place of employment, and then assume that about 50% of them don’t apply to the people I manage. Then try to imagine keeping everyone together in a functional team. And then assume you’re me – a person who has (mostly) high standards for how work gets done and who gets cranky otherwise.
The place where I work has (as far as I’m aware) a pretty solid reputation as being a good place – and I very regularly hear, “I’d LOVE to work for you guys!” Like anywhere else, though, someone really wanting it doesn’t mean they’re a good fit. (That took me a while to figure out.)
The very thing that makes someone a good fit for working on the team is often the thing that makes the entire process challenging.
Over the years, I have fired a total of 3 people. I’ve had 4 or 5 people disappear after I put some restrictions on them (they didn’t quit, but they stopped showing up). I have had several people do a weird lingering thing where they couldn’t quite commit to working but also couldn’t commit to quitting. I’ve had one or two leave for other positions, doing other things.
Currently, the group of people I manage is the best it has ever been. Hands down – they are (generally) quite motivated, keen on what we do, fairly good at adhering to the rules, responsive to my texts, show up to meetings.. it’s absolutely amazing.
It’s still a huge challenge because, like I said, the rules are different – and I have had to accept that the value of these particular team members (in the sense of what they bring to the job, not their worth as human beings) can’t be gauged in the same way that someone might judge other team members.
Lately, I find myself delighted when I realize that I don’t have to worry that someone won’t show up to a shift – it happens, but not often. I am not worried that someone is breaking the few (big) rules in place – I have warning when someone’s getting near that. In many ways I have been able to simply let things happen – with minimal interventions on my side. It’s a lovely feeling.
It is not perfect, but it’s damned good at the moment. I am not spending much time with my head down on my desk, muttering to myself.
I do spend a not-insignificant amount of time talking to team members about their personal lives (which is a weird thing for a manager to do, generally) and trying to provide support. I often ‘refer’ them to another team member who can challenge them and question them and delve deeper into what’s happening – which is nice, because that allows me to simply go with the flow. The only time I push someone on an issue is if it’s going to impact on their ability to work. I have to foster a good connection, built on acceptance and openness, in order to keep them connected.
So, I take the team members out for lunch – where we chat about random things that are most-often completely unrelated to work. I text them randomly to check in. I provide reassurances. I spend a lot of time messaging one on Facebook (we’re not friends on FB, just messages). I swing by the location where they’re working just to watch the goings-on. I hug them. I send them birthday cards.
If I don’t do those things, I can literally go months without seeing their faces or hearing from them.. and that’s not a good thing.
I worry about their well being in ways that I don’t worry about my coworkers – because I know my coworkers have solid supports in their lives. Most of my team doesn’t. My coworkers do the same with my team members – try to provide support and encouragement and be flexible and accommodating. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. There is often an intensity that doesn’t happen in a ‘normal’ workplace.
For the first time, I can say that I honestly like all of the team members in various ways. I care about their well-being the same way I care about my coworkers – I consider them a sort of friend. It’s nice to not dread seeing their name on my cellphone call display.
I’m enjoying the stability of things at the moment, while very much aware that everything could absolutely tank at the drop of a hat. All it takes is one team member going off the rails to throw everything off kilter. That sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not – any one person has the ability to mess up the entire team’s balance and make me want to put my head back down on my desk and mutter again.
I am going to enjoy the peacefulness while I can, though, and not think too much about that..