I could use some advice when it comes to boundaries in small businesses.
I work for a small (~15 people) business in a small town. The company is run by a husband and wife, and kept afloat by the (unrelated to them) COO. He’s a very good manager–level-headed, understanding, results-oriented but patient and compassionate, takes a lot of classes to learn more about leadership–but we had an incident yesterday that raised the hair on the back of my neck.
I’m in a quasi-leadership role; sort of team lead. I control scheduling for all of our technicians, so there are certain standards and policies in place to make sure I have the information I need when I need it. This requires reciprocal communication with each technician, which hasn’t been a problem, except for with Lester.
Lester is a good guy, but nonconfrontational to the point of shutting down. I move and talk quickly and have been called intense frequently, though never rude, curt, or unkind with the technicians or our clients.
Lester and I have butted heads over and over again over the last eight months. He misses appointments entirely or is late to them, I get the complaints from the clients and have to field them, he doesn’t communicate with me so it’s news to me, I get frustrated and start filtering what I assign him to avoid handing him anything high-priority, or start anticipating stonewalling when I go to talk to him about something–which he sees as a threat. so he stonewalls.
Really awesome vicious cycle.
This reached a fever pitch yesterday morning. I spoke to him the evening prior about a job that had been poorly handled while I was out, had never been scheduled despite promising a time to the client, and now we absolutely needed to get someone to a site–that requires 3 hours of driving round-trip.
When I brought it up, he asked for a preliminary call with the client to pinpoint the issue. Point is, he and I had a long dialogue about this, and I followed up with him via Slack later on.
Cut to yesterday morning. I’m running our very quick morning scheduling meeting, and I’m running down his calendar items. I get to the long-distance job, and he says (IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE TECHNICAL STAFF) “I’m not going to do that.”
I’m not proud of this, but my verbatim response was (while turning around slowly): “I’m sorry, what?” in a pretty cold voice.
This cued a short, very tense conversation in the meeting, wherein I said “why didn’t you tell me this earlier” and “who is going to go, then?”, he talked about project work that he needed to finish (which he absolutely was aware of the night before), he stonewalled, and I moved on with the meeting.
There were a lot of other extenuating factors that provide context for why I went from 0-10. The COO spoke to me, and then Lester, at length about this, and in the end, came to us separately and told us that the only way we were going to solve this was going to be to sit down in a room with each other (with the COO mediating) and be “brutally, soul-suckingly honest.”.
This horrified me. Outside of the fact that I have a psychiatric disability, which affects every single challenge I face, and is not something I want to talk about with someone I don’t trust, I thought it was an overstep.
I told the COO as much. I told him that it’s not management’s place to meddle in private relationships, that this was way too involved, that it was his responsibility as management to expect both of us to do our jobs and enforce that expectation. He pushed for it, and I acquiesced in the end, after an hour of patient listening to my concerns and pointing out why he thought it was the only option. (Anything else would be a bandaid fix, this is the only way to get to the root of the problem, etc.)
So we had the conversation, I actually got something useful out of it–Lester much, MUCH prefers to be communicated with slowly, whereas I idle at 30mph. So I bring questions or asks to him, and give him five or ten minutes to think it over before I ask for his thoughts. Simple enough.
This organization struggles with accountability. Lester has already been spoken to about his tardiness and lack of communication. I’m not privy to those conversations, so I don’t know if anything is being enforced. this company is very small and very close-knit, so interpersonal relationships are important, but outside of yesterday’s outburst, Lester and I are perfectly capable of being civil and working together. There are just critical communication breakdowns on his end, and he feels disrespected when I come to him and am talking quickly, with a lot of intense energy, and occasionally interrupt him. Every time we conflict, we find each other outside of work or send messages on slack with apologies.
My question is this:
What are your thoughts on how our COO handled this? Knowing that Lester and I, while tense with each other at times, were very civil, often friendly, with each other at work, but that this type of communication breakdown has happened four or five times over the last eight months, that he and I both have grievances we hadn’t aired with each other, and that the cycle was likely to repeat if drastic action wasn’t taken–but also knowing what reasonable small-business boundaries look like, and that it was affecting our ability to complete our work, but not our conduct or our coworkers…
Am I right to feel that it was, while well-intentioned, an invasive thing to ask of us? The COO emphasized that he was not requiring this, but he was asking us to trust him. (you should also know that all three of us are very close in age, and the COO and I are friends outside of work, so I didn’t feel pressure from his authority.)
My brain’s a mess. I barely know what to think about this.