I recently received the following question by email:

My manager quit this past year, leaving me to run the marketing department with a young woman we’d just hired. I wasn’t in favor of the hire because I was concerned that she lacks professional maturity, but now she’s my co-director and we’re making do. They’re not replacing my manager, and there’s been no conversation about how our roles have changed or what our strategic direction forward looks like—we’re just barging ahead.  My problem is this:  She’s hardworking, cheerful, and bright—and absolutely incapable of saying “no” to any request. Some of the projects have been great, but most just create huge amounts of work for me, because she doesn’t think about how her “happy to do it” attitude drags me into hours of work for unproven ideas that sound like fun and then backfire in big ways.  Our more boring, but important, work falls by the wayside, and our numbers are suffering because she won’t focus on fundamentals. We now report to someone off-site, and he’s as hands-off as can be.  How can I work with her to make her understand that we need to make decisions as a team, and that her decisions set precedents for expectations we can’t undo?

I can rather picture this person.  She is very idealistic and enthusiastic, but lacks the experience and critical eye to fully understand what’s doable and what isn’t.  Working with her would probably drive me to distraction too.

But that’s not helpful, because your success in your role depends on your ability to get this co-manager to cooperate with you.  So I’d appeal to what seems to matter most to her – that people like her.  I’d take her to lunch and preface the discussion with how happy you are to be working alongside one of the group’s rising stars.  Ask her if she’s amenable to developing a system for vetting projects so that the two of you are perceived as a can-do team, the one with which everyone wants to work.

Then, layout your suggestion.  I recommend that this include meeting semi-weekly to discuss your duo’s priorities and decide what you’re going to move forward on, and in what order.  Neither of you should give other team members definitive answers on their recommendations until the two of you have met.  This will hopefully give you a regular chance to talk her out of ideas that are not feasible, or re-direct her energies into the fundamentals you mention.  Always remain positive when discussing an idea, no matter how wacky.  Say something like:  “That sounds really fun, but given that we’ve already committed to X, I think we should revisit it.”  The less forcefully you shut her down, the more likely she is to comply.

It sounds like you may be a little older than her.   If this is the case, perhaps you can offer yourself as a mentor and she’ll begin to lean on you for more strategic direction.  At that point, you can probably be even more direct with her about the problems that can arise when expectations aren’t managed properly, and your advice will be better received.

Alexandra Levit is a partner at PeopleResults.

Alexandra Levit