Many managers believe that treating their team members as responsible adults will assure excellent results. The truth is that while this usually is effective, some people need much firmer limits than others to perform their jobs.

Ellen, the manager of a rehabilitation hospital unit, was discussing her frustration in supervising one of her social workers. Ellen would much rather help Angelique be successful at her job than to fire her, but things have not been going well. “When I give her a direction, she says she understands, but then she acts as if she can do just as she pleases.”

Angelique has been on the unit for a year and a half, but Ellen has only been supervising her directly for a few months. Ellen’s frustration began when she noticed the social worker’s frequent absences.

“She is on a salary, and has some flexibility, but she is expected to be here forty hours a week. She has been coming and going whenever she pleases. Despite my warnings she still refuses to consistently even tell me when she will be gone. When I placed a written reprimand in her file, she cried, and promised to do better, but she hasn’t.

I have even told her that she is inviting me to micro-manage her, but I am reluctant to cause her the embarrassment of having to punch the time clock, when none of the other workers at her level do that.”

As Ellen and I discussed the situation, I learned that Ellen was already micro-managing Angelique. Whenever they had a supervision session, Ellen was taking extra pains to make certain that Angelique understood exactly what hours she was expected to be on the unit. We both laughed at the absurdity of helping someone with a Master’s degree to read a basic time schedule.

When we looked at how Angelique had invited Ellen’s micro-management, it was obvious that Angelique was acting like a child who had not learned to respect limits and boundaries. Ellen was being invited to act as her parent. Ellen kept reminding Angelique about the work requirements and when Angelique did not use this information, Ellen was first surprised and then increasingly frustrated.

When Angelique’s response to discipline (being written up) was tears, Ellen felt an impulse to protect her and not cause her further embarrassment. Instead she tried to be understanding rather than critical. When that didn’t work either, Ellen asked for coaching.

It’s a Power Struggle

It’s not unusual for a manager and an employee to get into a power struggle like Ellen has with Angelique. It is especially common for people who are still in power struggles with their own parents to get into power struggles with authority figures. Managers and supervisors are readily available authority figures.

Instead of seeing the manager as just another person whose job happens to be to give others instructions about how to do their jobs, the Angeliques of the world see managers differently. They see managers as enemies with whom they need to struggle to prove that they are independent and autonomous.

Supervisors at work, and significant others in private life, are the prime targets for their need to establish their independence by repeatedly creating and resolving power struggles.

Creating Appropriate Limits

Angelique had managed to create a power struggle with Ellen; and Ellen, like many forward thinking managers, was confused about what to do. Although she did not want to be Angelique’s parent, she did need to provide firm, matter-of-fact consequences for any team member who ignored important rules.

When Angelique experiences this discipline she can decide whether or not to give up the struggle and act like a mature adult in the workplace. Whether Ellen likes it or not, she probably can’t help Angelique become a productive member of the unit without providing these consequences.

Ellen confirmed that this was probably necessary. She knows that Angelique grew up in a wealthy, overindulgent family and that Angelique’s father purchased a house for her to live in, and she has few financial responsibilities. Ellen noted, “She has trouble setting appropriate limits for some of the patients she works with, too. Is this another sign of her need for limits?”

Once the situation becomes clear, Ellen created a plan. She decided to warn Angelique that if she does not follow the unit’s guidelines about working hours and appropriate notification, this month, she will have to punch the time clock next month, and will have written notice warning her of termination placed in her file. “If she does not follow procedures with the time clock, she will then be terminated.”

Ellen was relieved. “I want to get out of the power struggle and supervise her appropriately. She is certainly intelligent enough to keep her job if she wants it.”

Laurie Weiss, Ph.D., is an internationally known executive coach, psychotherapist, and author.

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Author's Bio: 

Laurie Weiss, Ph.D., is an internationally known executive coach, psychotherapist, and author.