Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Cardinals' Lesson in Finding the Right Enforcement Balance  

At work, we managers have in our heads an "ideal" set of behaviors we seek in the staff and peers we work with. And more often than not, some of our roster misses that ideal in a way or five.

When team-members' effectiveness is the key determinant of organizational success, that is, when the organization is in a very competitive arena or The Talent Is The Product (or like Baseball, both of those) we have to trade off their high individual performance against the way their missing our definition of ideal undermines the team's ability to perform at a high level.

If the part of our ideal they're failing to meet is cosmetic, and if the individual truly is a high-performer, then it's an easy call -- you let it go and let the player find her own way as long as she can do it without degrading the belief other team members have about the desirability of people achieving the ideal. It's an easy call if it's a critical shortcoming and the player is a marginal performer -- you know what I'm going to say. The in-betweens are tough, but I'll tell you you're likely to have the best overall performance if you keep communicating (a) what the ideal is, (b) why it's important and (c) how to achieve it.

But no matter how much you'd like to, you can't effectively police every behavior every team member has. And insofar as your players have issues that seem more personal than workplace-related, you'll undermine yourself more than you'll burnish your productivity if you invest too much energy in policing. And if you don't find a way to contain that more-personal behavior, you risk some serious consequences. There's the management challenge, one the St. Louis Cardinals ran into when their relief pitcher Josh Hancock died in an ugly SUV-wreck while driving while talking on a cell phone while drunk a week ago.

The Cards, like 28 of the 29 other major league teams served (past tense: they changed that policy) post-game beer in their clubhouse. And allegedly Hancock was known as a late-night party fellow, and they'd reprimanded him just a few days before the wreck for oversleeping and being late as the result of a hangover. But clubhouse beer wasn't in his system when he met his death six hours after he left the stadium; it was apparently vodka served at a restaurant. And from a workplace management point of view, it's important to note he wasn't noticed by management on that day or any others as being drunk at his job. So on the one hand, the team coulda/shoulda had hints of his off-workhours behavior, and they had definite knowledge of a single off-work incident which did affect his work.

¿What should they have done?

Back when I managed a test lab, I had a pair of employees who came in early and stayed late and took long lunches. A co-worker of theirs reported to me they were using their midday meal break to drive over to a park a mile or so away and there smoke funny cigarettes (if you know what I mean and I think you do). The company we worked for had a rudimentary form of employee assistance program, a service people with personal life issues (such as mental health challenges or substance abuse problems); on the other hand, my boss liked to screw with people for fun (he'd fired a top contributor for not figuring out a way to get dismissed from jury duty).

 The "evidence" was a rumor. One of the two was a very-high productivity contributor, virtually irreplaceable. The other was good not great, a bit abrasive, but always willing to help out a peer and had some skills we didn't have elsewhere on the team. Neither had what a high-expectation manager like I am would call a performance problem.

I started trying to track their time and determine if their afternoon/evening productivity was lower than their morning. I was able to determine there was little difference in output and yes, they did take really long lunches though, yes, each did work well over 40 hours a week. I couldn't smell any telltale incense on them (for reasons you'd never guess, I knew what funny cigarette smoke smelled like).

My basic operational belief, and what I try to make clear to my workgroup is this:

  1. Each person is responsible for self-discipline,
  2. Whenever a staffer notices another worker's non work-affecting problem, it's best to deal with it directly; if it's a work-affecting problem talk to the person with the problem before taking it upstairs...after all if it's affecting the team's performance, it's affecting all the team members' worklife.
  3. If the problem persists, take it upstairs.

In that case, I decided not to intervene personally. I asked the co-worker to talk to them about it to salve her concern and to urge them to keep any recreational substances off-premises. But I realized that neither was a performance problem, and if they were doing it on work hours, it wasn't at work or on our time. I had no evidence. And having the boss breathing down your neck for non work-related issues, especially when you're producing, is a booger.

It became a worse booger when in the year after I left the lab, the good not great staffer had a serious nervous breakdown at work, allegedly triggered by some hard drugs. If I had interceded against my better judgement, would it have changed the trajectory of his work life?

In the end, I'm culturally too American to easily meddle in the personal lives of better-than-adequate level staff or peers I work with, and Cardinal GM Walt Jocketty was quoted in a way that it sounds like he shares my management tendency.

According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story,

"There's a lot of guys who like to have a cocktail now and then, and maybe some
more than others," Jocketty said. "But unless you go out and socialize with the
guys, which I don't, how are you going to know? … It's not like we police these
guys away from the ballpark," Jocketty said. "It's up to them to police

{SNIP} Jocketty said he has inquired further about Hancock's habits since Sunday's

"I've now talked to two guys who said they talked to him about (his drinking)
from time to time, but I don't know how much they knew," Jocketty said. " …
These guys are grown men. They have to know how to conduct themselves."

{SNIP} Jocketty said the club may further address the issue after attending a Thursday memorial for Hancock in Tupelo, Miss. "I've talked individually to guys about making sure they don't have any more problems," Jocketty said Tuesday.

When people have personal demons that don't seem to affect their work life, the most effective policing system is team-mates' intervention. They have a stake in the outcome, and they have leverage "the bosses" don't (see Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, Stage Three).

As managers though, that doesn't free us from responsibility or action. If Hancock did have persistent enough problems that, as Jocketty heard, some teammates were talking with him about it, teammates should have brought it to the GM's attention earlier, and it would have been his burden to carry, his mandate to try to get the player some help. It's our job to not make staffers lives worse, but we're management, not parents and there's no perfect always-right answer for most organizations.

There's only finding a right enforcement balance and hoping it works.

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