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Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Art of the Fresh Start

Most employee handbooks define what the organization considers its intolerable violations; those things that, if you do, you're fired. Most offenses fall far short of that, thankfully, and are corrected by coaching or discipline; the offending party goes back to work while everything is kept confidential.

Somewhere between those scenarios is that most difficult situation where everyone knows or thinks they know everything and the offense poisons team cohesion. The choices left at that point are to terminate the offender for a non-terminable offense, which isn't fair, or transfer them somewhere else in the organization.

This can prove to be far trickier than it looks, but it can be done and is often worth the trouble. A great example of how this is being done well is Jeff Fisher's acquisition and management of Randy Moss.

You don't have to be sports fan to get this example. To take the football talk out of the example you just need to know this: Moss is a fabulous performer who has during his employment both exhibited unrivaled performance and conflicts with management. His last manager removed him and the Titans accepted his transfer. The employees and people outside the company (the NFL) are watching to see how he reacts and when he blows up on this manager.

Fisher's management so far has been text book. He's met with Moss privately and nobody knows what that conversation contained, which is as it should be. Most likely there were expectations set for his new employment situation. Publicly Fisher's answers to all the speculation of potential problems has been to accentuate the positive. "He's a smart player", "he's a professional", "we don't believe this is a risk", "we don't expect any problems" are the answers quoted so far. The only conversation between Fisher and Moss that we know for sure is that when Moss asked about his future contract after this season Fisher told him to go have fun, win some games, and they would talk at the end of the season about a contract.

Now let's break down what happened here. Face to face communication was established between supervisor and transferee: no talking through others or listening to the rumor mill. Expectations were established. Next, the new boss becomes the transferee's advocate to all doubters. Finally there are no long-term promises made.

From the transferee's perspective they know they have a fresh start, what's expected, and that they aren't under a watchful and hostile eye from their boss. That gives them the freedom to learn their new job and role without undue stress over making the typical new-guy mistakes. But it also puts the responsibility for good performance and behavior squarely on their shoulders as no long-term commitments are made. They must perform and behave well.

Meanwhile the sports press is all over Moss' every move and waiting for the "big story" of when he blows up on somebody. Similarly, some co-workers often look for the slightest indication of the transferees past problems. This is where the manager's advocacy is critical in beating back public opinion and allowing the transferee a fresh start.

The art of this maneuver is found in manipulating and counteracting social mirror theory; the idea that humans behave over time in a way that they believe that other people expect them to behave. If workforce scorn is allowed to rule the day the transferee is almost certainly doomed to repeat their past problems. Artful management of the fresh start lies in changing or drastically diminishing public opinion, providing encouragement and hope for the transferee, and giving them incentives (i.e. survival) for developing new patterns of behavior.

Oh yeah, and its Christian. I'm not sure which Bible translation you use, but the two or three I have are full of stories of forgiveness and redemption. Some intolerable violations require termination due to business risk: we forgive the person personally but can't let them return to work. Most violations fall far short of that and are opportunities to live out our faith at work by challenging our negative perceptions of people and giving them a second chance.

If they fail to live up to this new opportunity then we can move on with a clear conscience.

1 comment:

davidpleach said...

Jimmy, as always, brilliant, insightful, and helpful. Thanks so much.