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Management Wisdom From SpongeBob SquarePants

Managers struggle with lots of problems during a day, but few headaches reach further down into the belly at night than do employee problems.

Many managers don’t know how to prepare to confront an employee problem, and may go into the meeting primarily mindful of the need to project compassion. Others may feel the need to impress their authority upon the employee.

Some companies turn to personality testing for help, believing effective coaching lies in tailoring a message to a personality type; but this approach often yields unsatisfactory results. One problem is that the conversation becomes not about the employee’s performance, but a test of the manager’s ability to modify her style to the employee’s. And it’s usually the employee who gets to decide how successfully the manager has met his needs when the conversation should be about the employee’s need to perform appropriately.

So to where should a manager turn? Believe it or not, a manager would do well to remember the immortal words of The Yellow One himself, SpongeBob SquarePants.

For viewers of the show (whether by force or by choice), I refer you to the episode in which SpongeBob’s neighbor and co-worker Squidward quits his job following an argument with his boss Mr. Krabs. The kindly SpongeBob takes him in until Squidward can find other employment. SpongeBob’s pity leads him to lavishly pamper his houseguest, and before long Squidward’s initial gratitude degenerates into spoiled freeloading. Recognizing at last that he has to confront the problem, SpongeBob takes to unsubtle hint dropping such as serving his “guest” a bowl of alphabet soup with the letters spelling out “GET A JOB” (this episode was written back when SpongeBob was actually funny). Then when Squidward demands SpongeBob fix the TV, the little guy finally explodes. “I’ve got a better idea!” he exclaims, jumping into Squidward’s face, “Why don’t I call someone whose JOB it is to fix it? You know why? Because when I need a JOB done, I get someone with a JOB to do that JOB!”

Now, this scene takes place in SpongeBob’s house, not the workplace, and SpongeBob is not Squidward’s manager. But before addressing an employee problem, managers should remember that what they’re trying to address is that word that SpongeBob hammered home to Squidward. It’s not about Squidward’s feelings, or about the quality of SpongeBob’s life. Nor is it even about Squidward’s vulgar abuse of his host’s generosity. SpongeBob focuses his message to Squidward on the only thing that should matter to either of them – Squidward getting a JOB.

Very often, when preparing to confront an employee problem or in the actual meeting, managers will allow into their thinking considerations that actually divert focus on the problem that needs corrected – considerations like who gets to leave early because “everyone else does,” or the employee’s need to get to a second job on time, or concerns that the employee can’t be expected to keep his temper at work because he’s going through a divorce. That probably sounds obvious reading an article; but it’s often lost on the managers in the middle of wrestling with an employee problem and trying to do the right thing.

So the next time you’re that struggling manager, remember SpongeBob’s words and start by focusing on the JOB.

Is everyone expected to be at work until 5pm, or are they are not? Are personal calls supposed to be kept to a minimum, or aren’t they? Are employees supposed to treat their co-workers with respect, or doesn’t that really matter? Does corporate expect reports by noon on Thursday or don’t they? Identifying the actual requirements of the JOB makes clear in your mind what you have to address in the actual coaching or disciplinary session.

Clarity about the performance problems also makes it much easier to deal with the attempts by the wayward employee to shift the responsibility away from her failure to perform to basically anything else. Of course you should take into account a personal hardship when confronting an employee problem – and where protections such as FMLA or ADA are present, you have to. Absent that, you can tell him you’re sure that (insert problem here) is a challenge, and you’re happy to refer him to any resources you can to help. But the unavoidable truth is that everyone has real challenges in life. And corporate still expects the reports by noon Thursday.

If you think this sounds mean, consider what gives rise to a lot of employment-related litigation. Discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims are what employers get when managers concern themselves with things that aren’t part of anybody’s JOB description.

So when you’re preparing that conversation about an employee’s performance problem, and when you find yourself actually in it, remember how SpongeBob addressed his problem and keep the conversation focused on the JOB.

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