Don't Play the Office Cop

It's a losing battle to confront a troublemaker at work if you're not in authority

What can you do about a peer who persistently disrupts work? This person is no problem for the bosses but butts heads with practically every "lateral" member of the team. -- Ashley Prisant, Cambridge, Mass.You've got a real problem--a brutal and all-too-familiar one--but unfortunately one you probably can't solve. Peers don't manage peers; they have some influence, but no power. So understand that if you try to take on this disrupter on your own, you enter the fight unarmed.

Yes, you can pull disrupters aside for a conference room chat, take them out for a long lunch, or write a thoughtful letter. But no matter what evenhanded approach you use, the response will probably be in the same vein. "You don't understand," disrupters will tell you, "I'm trying to save the business." Or, "if you had my experience you'd see why I'm right." Or, "why are you so competitive with me?"

Now, we're not talking here about good, old-fashioned skeptics, who actually play an important role by prodding the organization to challenge itself at every turn. While sometimes cranky and unpleasant, many do care about the company. They don't pick fights for sport; they're just slow to persuade, and they're that way with everyone, bosses included.

Disrupters, by contrast, cannot be convinced about anything, or be reasoned with, for that matter. There's something else going on in their psyche, something that does not allow them, for lack of a better phrase, to play nicely with others. Therefore, unless you're a psychiatrist, your best bet is just to keep as much distance as possible.

Just as important, keep your mouth shut and your head down. Wait for your boss or HR to identify and fix the problem, which will eventually happen if you picked your company right. Indeed, given that you have some level of respect for management, if there was any time to trust the organization, it is now.

Incidentally, this advice has already been met with disagreement. When this question was asked of one of us (Jack) during a class session at MIT's Sloan School of Management, a group of students strongly advocated the "long lunch" approach mentioned above. They made the case that peers have a responsibility to the team to work out their own problematic dynamics. They shouldn't wait for a "white knight" from upstairs to save them from themselves.

We'd say this view is commendable. But in our experience, it's an unlikely fix. Peers are up against a lot when trying to police peers, especially when one's an outlaw.

With today's increasingly mobile workforce, what's a manager to do to retain employees? -- Claudia Stowers, Philadelphia

You are so right. Gone are the days when companies had employees who signed up at 21 and marked time until retirement. Back then, people wanted to stay put. They bought homes with the proverbial white picket fence, had kids, and joined a few community clubs. An uninterrupted career with one company completed the picture.

That lifestyle has been eroding for decades now. Two or three job changes in one decade are not unusual. That may be good for a person's career building, but it's not particularly good for companies. Every time talented, productive employees walk out the door, they take with them training and experience. They're investments with unrealized returns.

Given that, companies must have powerful retention mechanisms in place. Unfortunately, too many don't, and we're not talking about competitive compensation programs. Money is Basic Retention 101.

No, retention starts with senior management's giving the matter real bite. It has to be an organizational sin to lose a top-20 performer. It just cannot happen without repercussions. That makes it imperative for companies to have rigorous appraisal systems in place, so they know exactly who their best are and can manage and reward them accordingly. It also demands that leaders at every level constantly create excitement in their groups. They need to be aspirational, explaining why the team's mission is important, and inspirational, talking frequently and personally with top performers about their individual routes to success.

The ultimate retention tool, though, is success--profitability, growth, and opportunity. Those three "little" reasons are why great people didn't leave IBM (IBM) in the '70s or Microsoft (MSFT) in the '80s. And they're why high performers aren't leaving Google (GOOG) now. Your company may not be as successful as Google, but every time you give it some sizzle, your increasingly mobile workforce will stop running for the train.