Some years ago, I had a conversation with a potential coaching client. It was the exploratory session, the free one, where I listen to what the other person is telling me they want to work on and gives me some information on their life. I wasn’t sure how or where this person had heard of me, but I knew this person had heard of me somehow, and had read some things I’d written; guess I’m in some odd places on the Internet.

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The conversation was going along pretty well, and then out of left field he said this: “I believe you’re the person to take control of my life and tell me what to do, step by step, so that I can be a better person.”

I paused at that, because I was caught off guard; that doesn’t happen every day. But it has happened many times in my past, in my role as a manager or director.

I tend to generate pretty intense loyalty sometimes, which is a nice thing. During one two year period at one of my positions, I only lost one employee, and that was due to her husband, who was in the military, being transferred to another state. It’s never bad to have people who like working with, and for, you.

But every once in a while, it goes beyond the normal employee-manager relationship. I’m not talking romantic; I’m talking along the lines of idolatry. And trust me, when it gets to that point, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s something you need to try to address as soon as possible.

I had one employee in particular who wasn’t having it. She saw me as her mentor and ultimate protector within two or three weeks of working for me. She was in my office at least once an hour, if not more, talking to me and asking me all sorts of questions that were unrelated to work. I finally had to mention it to her, telling her that she needed to use her time more wisely in trying to learn her job.

I also took what turned out to be a very prudent step; I mentioned it to the director of human resources. As usual, this director thought I was making a mountain out of a molehill; why is it that when certain things are happening, no one else seems to see it? In my case, one of my supervisors did see it, so I had someone to back me up if needed.

She took what I had to say and stopped coming into my office all the time. However, within a week, I started receiving letters from her; long letters. The longest letter I received was 15 pages, hand written, both sides. I kept the letters, made copies of them, and kept the originals in my desk, which was locked every night (along with my office; I hadn’t done that before), gave one copy to the director of human resources, who now realized how serious it was, we shared the information with the vice president of finance, who I reported to, and I took a copy home to my wife.

This last one could have been considered dicey, because I was taking what might be deemed as privileged information out of the workplace. However, I had this sense of protection that I knew I had to uphold, both mine and my wife’s. After all, I had read the letters, and suddenly she was mentioning my wife and using the same kinds of terms she was using for me, and of course they had never met, since I lived over an hour away. I felt my wife had to know, in case one day a strange woman showed up at the door.

I realized I had to have a talk with her, so I had her come into the office, and had one of my supervisors come in as a witness. I truthfully told her that her job performance was subpar, which it was, and that I was going to have to put her on probation for an extra 30 days, as we only had a two month probation period at that time. Though my supervisor knew about the letters, I didn’t want to bring that out into the open with her in my office.


Girish Gopi via Compfight

I then told her that she needed to go to human resources to talk to them, which wasn’t the norm, but she didn’t know that. While in human resources, the director there told her he had copies of the letters, and that she was bordering on harassment and could be subject to immediate dismissal if she continued the behavior.

The letters stopped, and her behavior was more professional in general, but her work performance wasn’t coming close to the level we needed her to be at. I ended up getting lucky; on a fluke, she ended up not showing up for work for a couple of days without calling, and when she did call to try to explain I told her she was terminated.

She never did come back, but she sent me a few letters, which I never responded to, and then she used my name as a reference for other positions for the next four years. Strange as it sounds, I never really felt worried personally by her behavior, which is probably why I acted the way I did, but I always felt that there was a vibe that had changed in the office during the time she was there, and it seemed like the entire area breathed a big sigh of relief when they knew for sure that she wasn’t coming back.

And that brings us back to this person on the phone. This time, I didn’t have someone sitting right in front of me, or someone who knew where I lived (we were in different states) or someone who I had actually met.

So I told him that the business of coaching wasn’t about taking over anyone’s life, and that I wouldn’t be accepting the responsibility. I said that every person was responsible for their own lives, and that, with coaching, he would learn how to find ways to take control of his own life, as well as learn how to work better with others.

I finished by saying that, during the process, we would always be friendly, but we would never be friends. We didn’t end up working with each other, but I gave him some tools that, if he took advantage of them, would help him to learn some things about himself, as well as offer the opportunity to take some steps towards positive change.

Like leadership and management relationships, the roles need to be defined up front, then on a consistent basis. It’s fine when someone feels comfortable enough to confide certain things to you, because that’s going to happen. You can’t work with someone 40 hours a week and not feel some sort of affection with some people.

But one has to always be cautious not to let it go too far, because, at that point, there are way too many things at stake, and, as a manager, you only get one chance to get it right.
 

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