We all have those people in our lives that we would rather avoid. There is the guy who only talks about how awesome he is. The lady with the nasally voice that says, “mm-hmm” every 3-5 seconds to let you know she is listening and snorts when laughing. For Raymond*, it was Lilith, the office manager and his personal assistant. Lilith was hired years before Raymond was promoted to executive director. She was a fixture of the office, like the watercooler with the noisy fan that doesn’t cool water. Lilith made a decent first impression. She was cordial and efficient. She could talk about the weather or suggest a good restaurant in town. She was good at processing the mail and answering the phone.
However, she drove Raymond and the rest of the office staff crazy. For example, for multiple days after each staff meeting, Lilith would saunter down to Raymond’s office to express her concerns about this idea or to clarify the implications of that change. There was no such thing as giving Lilith a direction to run with where she would just “figure it out.” Every detail needed to be outlined in triplicate. In response, Raymond took the path of least resistance and cancelled all staff meetings. Forever. It saved him the emotional energy—and perhaps even time–to simply meet with each staff member individually while skipping Lilith.
To make matters worse, she had a tendency to hover, loom, and snoop. She would insert herself into other staff members’ conversations to offer her negative opinion of how things were falling apart (they weren’t). She would offer her looks of disapproval as she walked by offices. It got bad enough that Raymond changed the lock on his door to deny her access. He even admitted to sneaking in the backdoor, slithering into his office, and locking himself in—all to avoid HIS personal assistant and office manager!
Clearly, things had gotten out of hand. Raymond wasn’t oblivious to the fact that he was presiding over a hot mess. Instead, he was trying to keep the peace at all costs. He was so afraid to hurt Lilith’s feelings that he sacrificed the effectiveness of his agency. Lilith “meant well” and “tried hard.” Thus, everyone tipped toed around her.
I have worked with over 70 nonprofit agencies in my tenure as a consultant. Sadly, the story of Raymond and Lilth is not an outlier. A surprising number of clients have a “Lilith” on their team. Now, staff positions and the issues may have been different, but the core challenge was the same: a problem member of the board, staff (even CEO), or volunteer team was allowed to fester unchecked. This core issue is a desire to “Be Nice.”
Being Nice is all about a selfish desire to save face and avoid conflict at all cost. Being Nice is all about you at the expense of you, the person you are nice too, your colleagues, and the mission you serve. The root of Being Nice is fear. Fear of offending or hurting. Fear of conflict. Fear of retribution. Fear of discomfort.
The antidote is to “Be Kind.” Kindness is about the greater good. It considers what is best for the team, the mission, the “Liliths” of the world, and even you. Frankly, it was not kind to Lilith to shut her out and ignore her. It was not kind to her to allow her to struggle in a position that she was ill suited for all while others resented her for it. It was also not kind to the staff to allow such a problem team member to pull the office down. Finally, Raymond was not kind to himself in exerting significant wasted energy in avoiding her. On the surface, he was nice, but deep down, he was not kind.
With a little encouragement, Raymond finally worked up the nerve to suggest and support Lilith’s retirement. He offered her an honorable way to exit stage left. Lilith was replaced by, April who was truly a breath of fresh air! Entering the office is now a different experience. With just a few weeks on the job, staff appear much more relaxed in April’s presence. Raymond has even re-instituted monthly staff meetings, and they are going well.
It can be hard to know when and how to address a staff member like Lilith. However, left unchecked, issues can compound. Dysfunction can become normal. Effectiveness can flounder. As with many things, acceptance that there is a problem is the first step. At that point, you may need reach out mentors, colleagues, or advisors to seek counsel on the severity of the problem and how to proceed. What you shouldn’t do is ignore the problem. Doing so may well leave you locked in your office trying to escape your assistant.
So how are things really? Is your team struggling with a Lilith or two?
DB&A’s Strategy Consulting Team partners with nonprofit leaders to help them navigate challenging waters. It takes time, but we can help. Call us today to learn more about building a culture of kindness in your agency.
* All names in this article have been changed to protect the innocent (and guilty!).