Getting Along in the Office
Two Leadership Ideas
By Ruth Haag

Idea #1: Lead-Weed-Proceed

Creating an atmosphere where employees, even contractors, follow your lead is not an easy task. The difficulty is twofold:

1. The leader must have a clear goal, that everyone agrees to follow

2. The leader must be willing to weed out people who are detracting from the leader’s goal

Setting a Clear Goal

People can get bogged down in creating a hierarchy of goals and objectives. A leader must have a clear, simple message, such as “the best quality,” “on time and under budget,” or “safety first.”

The message must be real. Companies waste time creating a “mission statement” or “vision statement.” These statements normally contain a single, paragraph-long sentence. Vision statements normally don’t do much to convey goals.

The leader must know what she is leading toward, and must be able to convey it to her group simply and repeatedly.

Weeding out Problem People

Many leaders are not confident enough of themselves to weed out problem people. They worry about legal backlash, or even a physical backlash. Sometimes they worry about how the non-performing person will get along if they lose their job.

Problem people can create an atmosphere where the leader’s message is forgotten, and work days are filled with animosity and confusion. When a company weeds out its problem people, they do not have to replace them, because happiness and work productivity dramatically rise in other staff members.

Problem people have a few basic traits in common:

1. They create problems, then are at the center of the turmoil to “solve” the problems

2. They look like they are working, but if the situation is examined carefully, you can see that they aren’t

3. They are nice to their superiors, but very nasty to equals and subordinates

4. They go to their superiors to report problems with their co-workers

5. When put to the test, they don’t actually know how to do the work

6. They take credit for other people’s accomplishments

If your problem person is an employee, you will have to monitor them, give them goals and deadlines, document when they don’t reach the deadlines, threaten to fire them, and then fire them.

If your problem person is a contractor, the task is simpler. You call the head of the company that you are contracting with, and ask to have another person to replace this one. Nearly every time that this approach is taken, the company acknowledges that the person is a problem, and happily gives a better person.

If You Lead and Weed, the Rest is Simple

Once the leader has institutionalized a clear goal, and has weeded out the problem people, the rest is simple, because people actually want to work. If the group is small (fewer than 10 people) the leader has to have meetings that everyone attends, so that she can convey that she is in charge, and can repeat the clear, simple goal message.

If the group is larger and has intermediate supervisors, the leader must attend meetings of the sub-groups, and must convey the clear, simple goal message.

Have a goal, get rid of the problem people, have meetings, and lead your group to success.

Idea #2: Do What Works

People that I classify as Belligerent, are people who believe in following procedures.

In their perfect world, once a system is developed, one needs only to train a technician to follow the procedures, provide them with a checklist, and things will run smoothly. It should work, but it doesn’t.

When we bought our new car a few years ago, the salesman happily showed us a two-page checklist that he had filled out, checking virtually every part of the car before we picked it up. In addition, he showed us a multi-page checklist that the service department had filled out. The checklists said the car was perfect. The car had been driven to the lot, from a lot in a neighboring city.

We happily got into our perfect car, stopped at the entrance to the lot, turned the car to the right, and noticed a big rattling noise, that sounded like a screw loose under the dashboard. When we turned left, it rattled back. We got home and called the salesman. He professed that the car was perfect, and we must have lost a coin, that got under the dashboard. Of course, when we took the car in and they took apart the dashboard, they found a loose screw.

The problem with checklists is that people trust that the checklist has done the thinking. Our car checklist didn’t have a spot that asked, “Is there a screw loose under the dashboard?” Checklists don’t think. If the salesman had just asked the person who drove the car to the lot “How did it drive?” he would have found out about the screw.

As much as Belligerent people like procedures and checklists, they also like the office to run according to the organization chart. They believe passionately that office duties fall into specific categories: administrative assistants answer the telephone, the CEO is, by default, a good leader, or they wouldn’t be in the position that they have.

Belligerent people become uncomfortable if someone suggests the office should follow anything other than the specified routine. The person in charge of Purchasing must have all purchasing requests put through them, and no one else. In a perfect world, this works.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. If you try to tell a belligerent co-worker that the Purchasing Department can’t seem to purchase supplies on time, and the administrative assistant can, they have a hard time accepting it.

So, your choice is to keep following the system, and have some things work and some things not work, or not follow the system. I advocate leaving non-performing systems behind.

Assign Tasks by Ability, Not by Resume

In the more flexible system that I promote, the supervisor finds people who like and want each task. I often do this by stating in meetings: “X-task needs to be done, who wants to do it?”

People Like Different Things

Following this system, I once had an environmental scientist who cleaned the office bathrooms. He really didn’t like the cleaning lady. It turned out that paying an environmental scientist cost slightly less than what the cleaning lady demanded.

Morale Improves When Things Work

If your staff is working on what is comfortable to them, their morale improves. My toilet-cleaning scientist was much happier than he had been when the cleaning lady came. As a result, he was a more productive scientist.

Try Leaving the Organization Chart When You Assign Work

At your next meeting, ask your staff what tasks they like and don’t like. See if that matches what you have assigned to them. Then adapt your assignments.

For the past 9 years, Ruth Haag has been training managers and employees to understand the dynamics of the work environment and smoothly work within it. She is the President/CEO of Haag Environmental Company. She has written a-four book series for supervisors: “Taming Your Inner Supervisor”, “Day to Day Supervising”, “Hiring and Firing”, and “Why Projects Fail.” For more information, visit

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