Workplace Wisdom

Workplace Drama 4: Messenger on a Mission

Many workplaces have a person like Ermengarde, who’s an excellent worker and a dedicated employee in her own right, but often takes it upon herself to bring to management the concerns and complaints of other individuals and groups.

Often someone like Ermengarde gets started down this road because she really does have a good relationship with her boss, and the head of HR, and other execs, all of whom appreciate her intelligence, astuteness, and credibility. Whenever an exec responds positively to her suggestions for areas where she’s noticed something a little out of whack, Ermengarde feels proud to have been a force for good.

Mission of Mercy

When Ermengarde is reporting on structural issues or environmental impacts, her comments are typically pretty balanced and matter-of-fact, so management usually appreciates her input and adjustments often follow. But things can get complicated when Ermengarde starts relaying messages from aggrieved employees or others who are wary about approaching management themselves.

Hearing personal stories secondhand always makes it harder for an executive to know what actions to take, as the filtering can often cloud the issue. Ermengarde herself may not recognize or be aware of all the aspects of a particular problem, and when that happens, her perspectives, recommendations, and even her demeanor may be less balanced than usual.

Mission Impossible

Unfortunately, when Ermengarde doesn’t get the positive reaction she’s come to expect or doesn’t see changes based on her input, she may turn up the level of emotionalism or urgency to get the attention she feels that she — and the issue she represents — deserves. Eventually, some executives may start to avoid her because she feels too much like a perpetual squeaky wheel. Meanwhile, Ermengarde may start taking a more heavy-handed and almost righteous tone, as if to say, “How can you question my veracity/validity/relevance?”

And Ermengarde may sometimes conflate her own needs with those of other people. If she gets too overloaded with her colleagues’ negative issues, she can begin to feel overwhelmed, as if each of their problems is actually hers — and she’s likely to go on to feeling negatively about the company for having so many problems — whether or not the problems are serious, lasting, or relevant to her personally.

If someone like Ermengarde reports to you, then you probably don’t want her in the role of mouthpiece for you or others on your team, as if she’s representing you to others in the organization. And if you or other managers become less eager to interact with her on issues that are not her own, she may actually become strident as she tries to maintain the same level of involvement and to feel the same kind of attention and impact.

Mission Control

Here are some suggestions for helping Ermengarde escape the level of pressure that’s turning her into a nag, scold, or tantrum-thrower:

  • Ask probing questions about Ermengarde’s needs and her stake in the action to help her differentiate between her own issues, and those for which she’s really only the messenger.
  • Encourage her to go back to her more nervous or less engaged peers to coach them on techniques and the merits of approaching management directly themselves. It will help to role-play with her in addition to giving her tips on how to coach her colleagues.

Help her share her positive attitude about getting things handled, so she can continue to experience the pleasure and excitement of personal progress, change-making, and helping others.

Onward and upward,

LK

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