Insubordiation or Salvation?

August 20, 2009

I recently read an article in the August issue of Valley Business Front by Anne Clelland. Her article deals with the question of what to do with a “meddling” employee who frequently questions management and even goes as far as suggesting changes to the company mission statement. Anne’s advice for this situation is:

The greatest gift leaders can give their employees is to draw a clear line between employer and employee, designate who’s to do what, and do the leader’s side with authority, credibility, and consistency….and lead the company so well that the meddlers can stop worrying about whether they’re the coach or you are, and be the true team players you hired in the first place.

My thoughts immediately went in an opposite direction.

In my mind, there are two likely reasons for an employee to “meddle” – 1) They actually have good ideas and are looking to take ownership in their organization, or 2) Management really has no idea what they are doing or hasn’t clearly communicated the vision. In both cases, the meddler is really an asset. The question is how do you capitalize on it.

In the first case, the employee is an idea factory. The mutual frustration exhibited would stem from a lack of a meaningful outlet . I’m not saying any employee in any company should be allowed a seat at every board meeting, but any employee in any company of any size should have a clearly defined path of influence on their area of responsibility. There are plenty of examples in many industries of this in action – line workers suggesting better locations for tools for increased efficiency, bus boys suggesting new recipes, and so on. If the CEO’s suggestion box is full, it’s probably because the lower level managers aren’t listening to their direct reports.

The second case likely stems from a lack of company identity. Perhaps an employee suggests a new mission statement because they have no connection to the current one. Communication of the mission and vision is much more than simply repeating it in email signatures or putting it on banners. The mission needs to be real. If a manager has to “draw a line” because they are challenged, it’s because the common goal is unclear. In a case where you might be tempted to say the meddling employee simply doesn’t fit and should be removed, you must think of why that employee was hired to begin with. It probably has something to do with an ill-defined culture and corporate mission.

In today’s world, no company, from a mom and pop grocer to a mega-conglomerate, can rest on their laurels that what get them here will be what keeps them in business 2 years from now. Cycles and spin-up time for new technologies are short and getting shorter. Companies can no longer “do one thing and do it well”. The new strategy should be “do one thing, and figure out the next way to do it better before the next guy does”. One of the best chances a company has to adapt and prosper is to act on good ideas. Stifling an enthusiastic employee with an “I’m the boss” defense is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.


5 Responses to “Insubordiation or Salvation?”

  1. JJ Says:

    I’m thinking of the ‘in betweener.’ Not the person who questions the mission statement but the front line employee that questions why something is priced a certain way. To the point where, after you explain it (profitability, expenses you don’t see, etc) they ‘don’t get it’ and keep pushing. They don’t have the peripheral vision like the leader does and never will.

    It also depends on the employees approach. If they present their ideas in a respectful productive way then there is no excuse for the leader drawing a line too soon. If it is done disrespectfully or with unneccessary aggression (complaining instead of being constructive) the leader has a completely differen issue to deal with.

    • jimschweitzer Says:

      JJ, thanks for the comment. I would suggest that leadership try to re-focus the effort from pricing to things that the employee can control – encourage them to look at display patterns, inventory techniques, etc. The enthusiasm is there, it just needs to be channeled.

      In regard to disrespect, my theory is that if it gets to that point, there’s a more fundamental issue at hand. Either it’s a filtering problem with HR to let an unruly individual in the organization or the leader is failing to set the vision.

  2. Well said JIm. In my experience, at least around technology, those “insubordinates” are usually frustrated because they are seeing the world about 1-2 years in advance of where your company is today, and mgm’t is thinking 1-2 quarters in advance. While the “insubordinate” would love to see the company move to that future position now/today, I’ve often found that if you give them a creative outlet to explore what that potential could be (give a funding to create a P.O.C.) that they quickly find the equilibrium between the two viewpoints (near-term vs. long-term) and they become much more friendly about communicating possibilities to mgm’t.

    But your main point is spot on! In today’s world, you can’t ignore passionate ideas. You need to have a company culture that is constantly asking itself if it’s on-track or relevant, and plan to have ways to radically change if the world around you changes.

  3. Chris Says:

    I’m not sure you’re in total disagreement. Anne includes this advice to the Employer:
    “…and lead the company so well that the meddlers can stop worrying about whether they’re the coach or you are.”

    If the mission statement is unclear or doesn’t match what the employee sees in actual practice, that’s a problem. You’re right that management should be listening to the input of staff and have a clear enough vision of the common goal to evaluate that suggestion or steer the employee back to the explicit team goal.

  4. Jim, I so appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking commentary on “the meddling employee” column and the continued informed contemplation by commenters on the challenges of the employer-employee relationship.

    You inspired me to continue to think and reflect as well, and I posted those words here:

    Thank you again for engaging in this meaningful and important conversation online for all to see and join.

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