In a recent post on management I said this:
If [your subordinates] don’t like you, they won’t mutiny but they can make your life an awful lot harder (which I’ll write about in another post).
So here goes. Back when I worked in Sakhalin, I had a Russian working for me called Ilya who few people liked. However, I’ve found I sometimes get on okay with people who nobody else likes, probably because I approach them a bit differently. One client I had for the best part of a year was absolutely detested by everyone around him, and mainly for good reasons. But he wasn’t that bad, and I realised that by telling him the truth rather than lying to his face as everyone else had done, I saw a side of him I could work with. He appreciated the honesty, and we got along well enough.
Anyway, nobody liked Ilya but he worked for me and I had no complaints, or at least not serious ones. Now at some point we won a piece of work which involved piping insulation. My business unit used to get all its insulation from the main project down at the LNG site, where they kept all the machinery, inventory, and expertise. This was run by a chap named Rick, who I wrote about here. Rick had known Ilya for a long time and didn’t like him, although this manifested itself in the form of mockery and derision rather than acts of spite and nastiness. Ilya, being project manager, had the task of going to see Rick and ordering the insulation materials. He walked into Rick’s office on the site and said:
“Hi Rick. We need eight-hundred metres of foam glass insulation cut to 256mm inside radius.”
Rick looked at him, deadpan. “No, you don’t,” he said, and went back to whatever he was doing.
“Yes we do,” said llya. “It’s for this new job, we need it.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh c’mon Rick, we’ve been through this, you guys need to supply us with insulation materials.”
Rick leaned back in his chair. “Ilya, who said you needed eight-hundred metres of foam glass insulation cut to 256mm?”
“I did, I measured it.”
“And are you sure that’s correct?”
“Well it’s not,” Rick said and adopted his most patronising voice. “We never cut to 256mm inside radius, that wouldn’t fit any pipe I’ve ever heard of. Now what you’ve done is taken the centre radius, which is the sort of mistake f*ckwits who don’t know what they’re doing make. What I expect you need is an inside diameter of 235mm. Is the pipe 9 inches?”
“Then that’s what you’ll need. I’ll cut the stuff for you by Friday, but next time don’t walk in here with the I’m-a-big-boss attitude.”
I knew about this because Rick told me the story a few days later. He said he would have been quite happy to have cut Ilya 800m metres of utterly useless foam glass insulation and let him embarrass himself on site, but I got on well with Rick and he knew it would ultimately be bad for me. So he put Ilya straight and did the job properly.
Now Rick wasn’t my subordinate, but he might as well have been in the context of that particular task. If I’d taken the approach that everyone must do as I say because I’m in charge, I’d have ended up explaining to a client why I couldn’t fit the insulation I’d just shipped to their site and explaining to my own boss why we were scrapping a few thousand dollars worth of materials. When I was at university a fellow student asked the lecturer why it was necessary to earn the respect of subordinates and contractors if you are the one in charge. The lecturer told a story very similar to the one I’ve just recounted, a situation where a contractor was under no obligation to help their client out of a serious jam but did so out of mutual respect. I forgot a lot of stuff I was taught at university, but I never forgot that.