Avoid confrontation to break down disguises

We all wear masks on occasion in an effort to conceal our true motivations. As a manager, it helps to probe and see through these disguises.
By Raymond Dreyfack September 1, 1999

We all wear masks on occasion in an effort to conceal our true motivations. As a manager, it helps to probe and see through these disguises. But it can cause more harm than good if, in identifying a subordinate’s motivations, we expose him head-on in direct confrontation.

In an Ohio engineering department, Project Manager Harvey Gault had been waiting for months for George Mellon, a project supervisor in a key spot in the operation, to voluntarily retire and break in a replacement. Again and again, he had expressed his intention to do so. But every time a replacement candidate was proposed, Mellon found some fault with him. Lacks experience, personality problem, doesn’t have the training and background to handle the job. The situation dragged on from month-to-month because Mellon’s cooperation and help in training his eventual replacement were important to the operation.

But the supervisor was becoming a disruptive influence is Gault’s fast-growing group. Younger engineers charged that he kept stalling projects on one ruse or another. He had grown contrary and irritable. One exceptionally bright engineer, well qualified to step into Mellon’s shoes, complained that his career was being dead-ended because of Mellon’s refusal to step down. It had reached a point, Gault decided, where action was called for.

His initial inclination was to confront Mellon directly and bring the matter to a head once and for all. On second thought, he wisely decided to discuss the problem with his boss.

Question: What strategy would you suggest to bring about a harmonious transition in replacing Mellon?

Parker’s solution: “We both know that Mellon’s real reason for clinging to his job has nothing to do with our inability to find a qualified person to replace him,” Plant Engineer Ben Parker told Gault.

The project manager nodded agreement. “I know. It’s his fear of stepping down, letting go, his unwillingness or inability to give up his status and income for an empty and uncertain future.”

“That’s it in a nutshell. It’s a fairly clear and obvious disguise. But confronting him with this reality directly would be counterproductive for both him and the department. However disruptive, Mellon is still productive and a valuable asset. Instead of demanding his immediate retirement I think he would welcome the chance to ease into it gradually. We might utilize his skills in a training or consulting capacity over a period of months while he remains active in coaching and counseling his replacement. Let’s try to approach it that way.”