Touchy situations revisited

Recently I described an applicant for a help desk position who, when I asked what operating systems she knew, withdrew a piece of paper from her purse to read me the answer. Several correspondents asked me what happened next.

Management Speak: Management wants to listen to you.

Translation: Listen carefully to us and paraphrase it back.

-- IS survivalist Mike Miller paraphrases "listening."

A month or so ago, in the context of interviewing techniques, I described an applicant for a help desk position who, when I asked what operating systems she knew, withdrew a piece of paper from her purse to read me the answer.

Several correspondents asked me what happened next. The answer: We hired the applicant. I had delegated the decision to my help desk supervisor, who took the point of view that the applicant's excellent telephone demeanor outweighed her limited technical knowledge.

It was not, to put it mildly, a good hiring decision. Although our new employee "succeeded" at her job, she did so only because she diligently logged each call and passed it along to someone else for resolution. So far as improving the effectiveness of our organisation, her contribution was pretty limited.

Although it wasn't a good hiring decision, my decision to not overrule the help desk manager was the right one.

Lots of otherwise fine managers get this wrong. Faced with a subordinate who's about to make an obvious mistake, they take charge of the situation because of the harm a wrong decision would cause.

(On a side note: Many readers of this column share my discomfort with the term subordinate. Its common usage goes along with the obverse term superior, which is thoroughly distasteful. I welcome any and all suggestions for an alternative. In the meantime, I'm stuck with it as the generic noun for "person who reports to me.")

On the boss' side, it's a tough situation. When you know someone who works for you is about to make a mistake due to inexperience or insufficient expertise, the logic in favor of averting the mistake may seem overwhelming.

The certainty that it is a mistake may be overwhelming, and the potential damage may be so severe that the boss has no choice. What then, Mr. Fancy Schmancy Columnist, hmmm? Ultimately, the boss will be held accountable, so isn't it all right to overrule a subordinate who's about to make a mistake?

The answer is no. The only time you should delegate authority is when you're willing to live with a decision you don't agree with or when you have enough experience with the employee's ability to be confident he or she can handle the situation.

In the case of the help desk analyst we've been talking about, I had no experience with the hiring supervisor and didn't know how she evaluated job applicants.

Letting her decision stand was the right decision. This was, though, a highly visible position on a very new contract, and it was my first hiring experience with the supervisor. Making it her decision in the first place was the mistake.

What I should have done was ask for the supervisor's recommendation. If I'd made it clear up front that, although I valued her opinion, the final decision was mine, then overriding her recommendation would not have been an issue.

(Of course, I would have owed her a discussion about why I made a different decision. Without one, how could she have improved?)

Staff-level employees and supervisors have very little power over their work and figure their authority is fragile.

Their initiative requires faith that you won't abrogate it. Once you do, asking them to waste their time on the next initiative is ... well, it's a waste of your time, because why would they bother? You'd only overrule them again.

Have a different approach? Send e-mail to Bob Lewis. Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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