“Can I talk to you about Bozo? He gets on people’s nerves. His communication style causes trouble. He’s bringing the whole team down. He’s a freaking clown.” If you’re a manager, you’ve probably heard this before. Every team seems to have its share of Bozos. What do you do about Bozo? Discipline him? Move him to another team? Fire him? No, don’t be a fool.
Bozo needs to reconsider his behavior—no doubt. If you’re Bozo’s manager, you need to evaluate the situation and take appropriate action. But make no mistake, the problem isn’t just Bozo. The problem is with the whole team.
Let me make it perfectly clear. You are a Bozo. We are all Bozos. No one is perfect. Nobody always says the right thing and behaves the right way. Even if you did, someone would take offense.
Bozo the Clown was the host of a famous children’s show when I was young and dinosaurs ruled the earth.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
“Sure, but not all Bozos are created equal. The Bozo on my team is completely useless—a disaster. He’s got to go.” Really? Why was he hired? What is his review history? Has he been a Bozo from the start?
Sometimes we do make bad hiring decisions and need to send our clowns to a new circus. I designate such truly troublesome teammates as “negative headcount.” If you were to remove Bozo from his team and not replace him, how would his team perform long-term with one less person? If you believe productivity would be higher and stay higher, because Bozo just adds work to everyone else, then Bozo is negative headcount—he subtracts instead of adds to his team.
Most of the time, however, Bozo is a good employee who’s made some mistakes. Unfortunately, his coworkers aren’t sufficiently patient, understanding, or accommodating when dealing with him.
“Dynamics of Software Development” is one of my favorite books on its subject. It’s written by Jim McCarthy, a former Microsoft employee. Jim’s “Don’t flip the Bozo bit” essay stresses the importance of giving people a chance. The key is understanding the root cause of the trouble and addressing it with Bozo and the team.
Take all of me
Remember, everyone is a Bozo. We are all package deals. You can’t take the benefits of people without also taking their faults. You can fight this notion at your peril, or you can embrace it and accept people as they are.
Why do people “flip the Bozo bit” on others, instead of accepting them as they are? Because it’s so easy and natural to project your opinion of people onto them, instead of seeing them as complete individuals. You believe a coworker, a lover, or a celebrity is wonderful, and you see that person as wonderful. That is, until she disappoints you. Then the bit is flipped and she is intolerable.
Stop projecting. Take a look in the mirror. You aren’t wonderful and neither is anyone else. You are a real, whole, human being—a marvelous complex package of positives and problems. So is everybody else. Accept it, embrace it, and move on.
I’ll accommodate you
How do you deal with all of life’s imperfections? You make accommodations.
Certainly, you should talk candidly and courteously to your teammates one-on-one about their weaknesses. In response, they should try to improve or at least help you both adapt. Remember, you can’t fix everything about everybody as hard as you might try. Instead, know yourself and know your coworkers—adjust accordingly.
I’ve had inventive teammates who were flakey, brilliant teammates who were arrogant, and insanely productive teammates who were uptight. I could have admonished the flakiness, but then lost the creativity. I could have browbeaten the arrogance, but then lost the brilliance. I could have completely unwound the uptightness, but then lost the productivity. Instead, I provided structure for the inventive flakey folks, tolerance and coaching for the brilliant arrogant folks, and safe places to work and vent for the productive uptight folks.
For myself, I can’t keep any details in my head for long, so I write myself emails and tell others to write me emails. Everyone has a way of working and dealing with his weaknesses. Ask and learn what works well for your teammates and your management. Then get over yourself and accommodate.
As a manager, it’s important to recognize when the best accommodation for an employee is to switch teams. Sometimes you’ve got a good person who fits poorly with the team. That’s not very common, but it happens. Instead of a diversity of ideas, you get a clash of styles. After understanding the root cause, encourage your employee to seek a new role. Help your employee find and attain a happier and more successful future.
We’ve gotta play to your strengths
Why should others compromise and make accommodations for your weaknesses? Let’s say you corrected all your problems, as if that were possible. What would the result be? You’d be ordinary in every area, with no improvement to the strengths that truly differentiate you. You’d certainly get along better with everyone, and that’s quite valuable. However, that’s not why you were chosen for your role. Accommodate and defuse your weaknesses? Absolutely! Focus on weaknesses while starving your strengths? Never!
Your value as an individual rests in your unique strengths. Those are the areas you want to develop and deploy the most. To the extent that your weaknesses inhibit exploiting your strengths, you must correct or accommodate those weaknesses. However, remember who you are and the core of your success. Adapt, and then accelerate your growth by doing what you do best.
Warts and all
Everyone can be a Bozo at times to people in his work life and home life. Give yourself a break. Accept your faults. Do what you can about them, and accommodate the rest. Help your coworkers, your friends, and your family to do the same.
When talking honestly and respectfully to teammates one-on-one about their shortcomings isn’t enough, make accommodations. Tolerate their weaknesses, utilize their strengths, and they’ll likely do the same for you. Yeah, you could argue and complain instead, and sometimes that’s cathartic, but it’s rarely beneficial to anyone.
Swallowing your pride and getting along is healthy for you, your team, and your loved ones. There are always areas where you can’t compromise, but typically they are few. Your life will be less stressful, your relationships will be stronger, and you will be happier and more successful if you embrace others as the whole human beings they are.