Criticizing Staff

Dear Management Doctor:

How should I handle a situation with a Planning Commissioner who publicly criticized a staff member on an error that was made at a previous Planning Commission meeting? He won't let this go and seems to "have it in" for this staff person. I discussed it with the Chairman and he stated that "it will pass" and does not want to confront the Commissioner on this issue. I feel that, as a Planning Director, I need to defend my staff on this.

Frustrated Planning Director

Dear Frustrated,

This is a tough one without knowing the personalities of both the staff person and the Planning Commissioner. In the past I have worked with some very mean-spirited elected officials and planning commissioners who took a delight in being nasty to staff. They don't seem to see that they are part of the government and, like all good management, need to work with employees for the overall success of the effort. A few suggestions:

  1. Did the staff member make an error? If so, make certain that both the staff member and you have acknowledged the error and apologized for it. The best time to do this is right when it happens, i.e., "Commissioner _______, you are right. We inadvertently missed that point and will correct it in any future research."
  2. There is nothing wrong with having the chairman, mayor or city manager try to intervene with these situations. However, in my experience, it seldom does much good.
  3. Give it some time. The Chairman may be right and over time it could pass.
  4. If an error was made, you might want to check staff work more closely for a period of time. It could even be useful to have the staff person take a short break from the Commission to help the healing process.
  5. In some cases, a one-on-one private sit-down with the Commissioner by either you or the staff member may be helpful. The success would likely depend on the style and personality of all involved. Don't do this in a formal threatening atmosphere. For example, this type of conversation may work best at lunch or a similar venue. In my latest book, What Your Planning Professors Forgot To Tell You, I relay a story about a City Councilman who ran a campaign to fire me. After he won, I invited him to lunch in the local restaurant where I knew we would be noticed. This had the desired effect of reducing the tension and allowing us to get on with work.
  6. In extreme cases, behind the scenes work to replace the Commissioner could be used. However, keep in mind, this can be very dangerous. This should be done by others. Stay as far away as possible. I have seen some extreme cases where the Commissioner is not only nasty to staff but even more so to the public. Everyone on the Commission and City Council didn't like it but was reluctant to act, given the political nature of appointments. The apple needs to get really rotten before it is removed.
  7. Examine the personality of both the staff member and the Commissioner. Don't expect the Commissioner to change. However, once you understand the two personalities, it can lead you to how to better work with the Commissioner.
  8. Overall, I think you and your staff simply need to develop a thick skin and let these comments wash over you.

Good luck!

The Management Doctor