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How To Manage -- and Motivate -- Challenging
Key Advice from OfficeMax
Cofounder Michael Feuer.
(July 4, 2011)
If you’ve ever watched NBC's The Office,
you know that the show makes humorous use of business-world
stereotypes. The personalities, quirks, and antics of the employees
of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company are taken to extremes,
but we find them funny largely because they're true. We know that
guy -- the one who cracks terrible joke after terrible joke, unaware
that all he's getting are eye rolls. We've also encountered the
sanctimonious perfectionist, the attention-seeking prima donna, the
unhelpful duty-shirker, and many others.
Sure, it’s funny on TV, but in the real world,
dealing with these characters can make leaders want to pull out
their hair or throw in the towel entirely. Before you resign
yourself to living in your own not-so-amusing TV show, OfficeMax
Cofounder and former CEO Michael Feuer provides some commonsense
"First, know that there is no need for you to
waste your time with poor performers or high maintenance employees
who have an inflated sense of their own importance and ability,"
says Feuer, author of the new book, The Benevolent Dictator:
Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the
"It's best to let them know straightaway that
they aren't a good fit for your organization. The dilemma, though,
occurs when self-appointed superstars or other difficult types
really are terrific and get the job done. And it's even worse when
they believe they're irreplaceable, along with everybody else --
Feuer knows what he's talking about: He has
launched a number of successful business ventures, including
OfficeMax, and his newest business, Max-Wellness is a new and unique
health and wellness retail chain.
The lessons he's learned, as he writes in
The Benevolent Dictator, have convinced him that leaders are
most likely to succeed when their management style mirrors that of a
benevolent dictator: At the end of the day, the "dictator" side of
you calls the shots and makes the difficult decisions, but your
"benevolent" side does so while putting the interests of the
organization, your team, and your customers ahead of your own. And
though it's not easy, this means reining in your hard-to-handle
employees while still developing their talents.
"Once you identify an employee who is good, but
whose personality or habits might present a problem, you have two
choices," Feuer says. "You can simply get rid of the troublesome
employee and risk the consequences of lost productivity. Or you can
take the more profitable route and find a way for peaceful
coexistence by learning how to deal with the performer's
shortcomings while taking advantage of his or her strengths."
If option number two sounds better, then learn
about the three most common types of challenging performers, and how
best to manage them:
1. The Prima Donna Modus Operandi (M.O.):
He might announce a brilliant solution to a longstanding problem, or
he might unfailingly woo the biggest customers. But through it all,
your prima donna wants to be applauded, coddled, admired, and
generally treated like a celebrity. This behavior consumes your
time, disturbs day-to-day operations, and alienates other team
The Live with ’Em Solution: The easiest
solution here is to put your cards on the table. Tell your prima
donna how valuable he is and how grateful you are for his work, but
also let him know that he's a real pain to deal with, and that he's
approaching a crossroads. Ask what you can do to avoid future
problems and stress that your door is always open -- but make it
clear that these behaviors need to change (or else).
"Make him a part of the solution by putting the
onus on him to come up with a fix for a peaceful and productive
coexistence," advises Feuer. "Allow him to win, but on your terms,
not his. Remember that most prima donnas are typically okay people
deep down inside. Usually, their egos have been stroked too much in
the past, or they're hiding a major inferiority complex -- or both.
"Sure, prima donnas require more of your time
and attention, but the alternative is losing a high performer --
potentially forsaking productivity and inciting some major anxiety.
If you figure out what makes your prima donna tick, you'll be a big
step closer to neutralizing the annoyance factor while preserving
2. The Mr. or Ms. “It’s Not My Job” M.O.:
Technically, this person isn't breaking the rules. She does
everything her job description says she should, and she does it very
well. But when she's asked to go above and beyond, expand her role,
or pitch in on another project, she responds with, "It's not my
The Live with ’Em Solution: "Not
everything an employee is asked to do is going to fit comfortably
into their pre-determined job description," notes Feuer. "But the
fact is, a successful organization is a team effort, and sometimes
people need to do more to help out.
"I have come close to firing employees on the
spot for refusing to help on the grounds that the task at hand
wasn't their responsibility," he says. "Now, I make sure that every
member of my team knows that 'whatever it takes' isn't an option –
it's a requirement. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if someone is an
administrative assistant or a vice president – it's all for one and
one for all.
"If you’re a leader, it's your job to make it
clear in no uncertain terms that contributing to success -- in any
way necessary -- is everybody’s job. Oh -- and if you're
interviewing someone from a company that went caput, make sure that
the interviewee's attitude didn't contribute to the downfall."
3. The Perfectionist M.O.: Nobody can
deny that your resident perfectionist is a hard worker. He makes
sure every 'i' is dotted and every 't' is crossed -- every time.
He'll continue to tweak a report or project hours after someone else
would have declared it complete.
The Live with ’Em Solution: Normally, an
employee who thinks that a half-baked effort is unacceptable would
be an asset. The problem is, when it comes to not accepting anything
less than perfection, there can be too much of a good thing. As a
leader, you must make sure that your employees don't sacrifice too
much time -- or end up failing to achieve anything at all -- in a
quest for the best.
"Don’t get me wrong – I'm not saying that you
should encourage lackluster performances or tell your team that they
shouldn't worry about getting it right the first time," Feuer says.
"After all, it can cost your organization quite a bit if time and
energy aren't used wisely. Remember that if you're putting out a
fire in a garbage can, you need only a few gallons of water -- not
an entire water tanker!
"Try to help resident perfectionists
distinguish between tasks that must be done to the letter, and those
that can be done just adequately enough to move on to the next step
or support another initiative. This is often a learned skill that
can be difficult for people -- especially those who are fearful of
making a misstep -- to embrace at first. Therefore, be very clear
and cautious when you're explaining what must be done, and how much
time and energy each task is worth."
"Remember, most major personnel problems within
organizations get that way because leaders have ignored a series of
smaller issues along the way," Feuer concludes. "You should
absolutely deal with your most difficult personality types -- and
watch out for budding prima donnas, perfectionists, and unhelpful
types in the making. And always keep in mind that you aren't
marrying these employees. You just need to be able to occasionally
dance with them.'
(Note: Feuer's new book The Benevolent
Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit
the Competition -- Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-118-00391-6, -- $24.95,
www.benevolentdictator.biz) is available at bookstores
nationwide and from major online booksellers.
(Note: Peter has been in the industry
for many year and worn many hats – retail buyer, manufacturer,