How would you deal with this management situation?

I work for a small startupy sort of tech company. Our particular branch office has a very loose and almost juvenille culture. Most of the employees are in their early to mid 20s. The dress code is ultra-casual, even by the standards of the rest of the company. Employees play boardgames and “Magic the Gathering” style card games during business hours (some of which have HR questionable content). They have weird “dress up” days since every other day is beyond casual. And for the most part, everyone opperates independently without a lot of management oversight. Other than perhaps responding to requests from account managers who either fit into the same culture or are more or less removed from the day to day of the office.

I’ve now been promoted to the position of manager of this group. The fact of the matter is I know and care nothing about their nerd culture. And HR seems content to let them act this way, so I am inclined to just allow it, even though it flys in the face of everything I know about working for a company.

The issue is, I have one employee who seems so overwhelmed by the actual work that he is almost to the point of tears. He frequently doesn’t follow instructions and when I question him about it, he gets so anxious that I think he’s going to shit himself.

But because I work in this nursery school environment, whenever I need to “coach” this person, it’s perceived as being “harsh” or “authoritative”.
Am I taking crazy pills here?

Crazy pill one: having such contempt for your subordinates. Figure out a way past that.
Crazy pill two: caring about being seen as “harsh” if you’re not being harsh. Your job is to manage them, and if you’ve reflected on your management practices and they’re sound, that’s what matters.

Of course, the folks I manage are literally kids, so take that FWIW.

I’m a little curious as to your background. Is this your first time managing? Have you been part of this group before?
I do think you’re starting off on the wrong foot here. The question you should be focused on is: “Is the work getting done to the standards it needs to.” If it isn’t, and the reason for that is because they’re playing board games all day instead than that needs to change. If it is, then why do you want to change it?
And you need to manage that individual entirely separately from your perceptions of the culture.

You aren’t taking crazy pills, but it doesn’t sound like a good fit for you professionally. I think if you try and change the culture, your 20 something preschoolers are going to rebel.

Can you get a peer coach for your problem child? Someone slightly more grownup that can mentor him through the work without being authoritative and harsh?

And as to the games, I’d go to HR. And I’d say “It has come to my attention that some of the games have questionable sexual content that not everyone is comfortable with (i.e. you don’t think is professional). I’ve been asked to maintain confidentially here (i.e. I don’t want you guys to know I’m manipulating you right now). But how can we go about addressing this without singling out the person who isn’t comfortable?”

Not that I think you think the games are a big deal, but I suspect you think that the lack of discipline is a big deal. And orchestrating at least a small change will start setting up additional changes. Even if its just “hey guys, there are better choices for games.”
(You can come to work for my new company, where emails to coworkers who have known each other a decade are written with a stilted formality that drives me nuts. “I have attached for your consideration the draft of the proposal we discussed Tuesday, March 3. Please review and return to me with any comments by close of business Friday.” I came from “Fred, here’s that thing I spoke to you about. If you can take a look and get it back to me sometime this week, that would be great. Oh, how did the baseball game go.” )

I’ve been in management for about 5 years. Mostly at large, conservative financial institutions and management consulting firms. I’ve been working in this group for over a year, but now I am officially their “boss”.

For the most part, I usually never have to think about it. I just give people projects to do with deadlines and instructions. They do it. If something is wrong, I have them fix it. No big deal.

It’s not so much that stuff I want to change. I just provide that as context as to the sort of culture we have. It’s not really a typical 9-5 corporate environment.

The issue is that I have one employee who isn’t performing to the standards of everyone else. But when I correct his behavior, he freaks out and has basically created this perception of “msmith doesn’t like me”.

I don’t want to be seen as “abusive”. I don’t yell or swear at him. But I frequently have to correct his work. And he is extremely passive and introverted so I need to check on him frequently for updates on where he is or if he needs help.

It’s not like he’s a terrible employee. But he is so anxious and high strung you can’t push him at all.

I’d be really surprised if a “small startupy sort of tech company” had an HR dept. In fact, I’m always amazed at how many people seem to assume that all businesses have one.

I’m closer to retirement age than graduation, and I’ve worked for a lot of companies, ranging from large national retail chains to small one owner businesses. Only one of them, a medical clinic, had an HR dept. The only other place that even came close had a personnel manager, but his duties were more like a third in command assistant manager.

OK, I think the culture issue is a bit of a red herring (or at least in my mind). From what I see you have an employee who isn’t performing and isn’t taking feedback well.
Are you documenting this? Have you laid out a performance improvement plan?
Cause you need to. Basically you need to list specifically what he needs to do and then measure those specific things. It needs to be objective. And you need to go over it with him regularly and consistently.
He may still blame it all on you hating him - and loudly. There’s nothing you can do about that. But in the long run if you treat everyone fairly the rest of the group will see that.

“Go to HR” seems to be a common piece of advice on the boards and I always chuckle at. In my experience and in those of my friends, that is never a suitable option if there even is an “HR department.”

I think you are assuming the culture is causing the behaviour, but it isn’t. I’ve managed staff in many different workplace cultures and have encountered Mr FraidyCat on several different occassions.

Have you had the introductory chat with this guy, in terms of ‘hey, I’m your new boss, tell me about your job, tell me what you like doing, tell me what you don’t like doing, tell me how you liked to be managed’?

Dear colleague:

The recent sporting contest in your referenced e-mail ran rather long, 10 innings to be precise, but resulted in a satisfactory denouement, when the home establishment scored two runs more than the visiting team achieved. I have attached complete box scores from two reputable sporting websites for your consideration.

Have you made it clear that your goal is not to punish and/or berate the employee but to help them suceed and do their job? (this is in fact your job as a manager - not only to squeeze work product out of your drones on schedule but to develop your employees). Are you brusque and/or dramatic in discussing the problem? Basically are you saying “This is wrong again sigh” or are you saying “I noticed your work had some errors in the widget-accumulation matrix. We just talked about widget calculation last week. What’s going on?”

More questions:
Have you asked them what they think would help them, or if there is a resource they need that they don’t have access to?
Are the errors always of the same type (lack of skills) or do they show general carelessness?
Does the employee acknowledge that their work product is below standard?

Agreed, the corp culture has nothing to do with it.

This sounds like an excellent suggestion.

I agree with Jones. I work for a company where the culture is fairly laid-back – not quite as much as at the OP’s company, but it is certainly not frowned upon to play basketball or games during a (long) lunch hour. As long as you get your work done. if you don’t, everyone is going to be frustrated with you because other people depend on your work.

Who perceives you as autocratic? This one guy or all of them? I’d be willing to bet that the other people in the branch are relieved that you are trying to impose some discipline on this guy. And who cares what the one guy thinks, he’s the one who has to improve.

Is there anyone else, say, a tech guy who’s been there somewhat longer, who could act as a technical mentor? Who could sit down with you and craft a plan for this employee that involves getting him to work to the standards of the group without stepping on any of the workplace culture? With this kind of tech culture, you really have to work with them and not do anything that is seen as irrational (which taking the games to HR certainly would be perceived as, unless people have complained), otherwise they will close ranks against you, but there are ways to fix an underperforming employee that don’t involve doing those kinds of things.

ETA: I see several people have mentioned the peer coach. Sorry, I read the thread too quickly first time around.

Constructive feedback is a form of respect for your employees. Without it, they can’t improve their performance. We all need constructive feedback. We all need challenge and input from our supervisors, peers, and even subordinates. That’s how we make sure that the organization is making the best decisions.

If your team doesn’t understand this, they should.

He mentions hr in his first post. And while hr is not always helpful, if one is going to need an ally for inappropriate work behavior, cover your butt and talk to hr. don’t tackle that one without them. Speaking as a manager. As a manager, hr needs to be involved.

I would say that you’re going to sit down with this employee at their desk and watch them work for a couple hours a day. Maybe you’ll be able to catch mistakes, show ways to improve his process, and build a bit of self-esteem. Or, you know, fire him for not being able to properly perform his job.

Whatever you do, please don’t take this advice. I can’t tell whether it was meant tongue-in-cheek or not, but I bloody hope so.

Part of the issue is our HR director is very new and she mostly seems to care that the employees are happy in our goofy culture, not whether they are doing their job properly. She is part of the problem IMHO. Part of our conversation:
“So and so feels that when you insist on reviewing his work before it goes out to clients, it’s a bit controlling.”
“I was told by my boss the VP of my group, the CTO and the CEO of the company, that part of my responsibility is checking the work of people on my team.”
“We have a flat organization where we like our people to feel empowered.”

Ok…then why have a manager?
I’m not looking to “fire” anyone. I’m more trying to figure out how to motivate and direct people without coming across as a tyrant. Unfortunately, I don’t have too many role models as bosses as most of mine have been total shitheads.

Hand out business cards and then go to the gym for a good flogging.

Why cant you just DTMFA?