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I am a line manager for a group of 8 software developers. Our team is great, and everybody is usually very happy and cheerful.

A couple times a month, my boss (the VP) comes into the office to check in on things and mingle with the team. When this happens, the team's demeanor visibly changes. They go from being cheerful and funny to being serious and nervous. Output goes down considerably, and a lot of people figure out they are "sick" at lunchtime, and need to go home.

Now, I have nothing against my boss. He's a good guy, and he means well, but definitely has a knack for making people feel uncomfortable. For instance, last week he came in and showed up at a developer's desk. He proceeded to say: "Nice sweater, I like the color. What fabric is that? Do you have a favorite shade of red? Do you like any other colors better? Where did you get it from? The Target on the corner of 1st and Main? How much did it cost? Did you use any coupons? Does Target even do coupons? Do you like coupons?"

He's just trying to be friendly, but it definitely leads for some awkward conversations. Personally, I don't mind, but it does concern me that my team is so bothered by his presence. Is this something I should bring up with my manager, and is there a polite way to do this? Or is it best to try to coach my team on being more friendly to my boss? Any advice or insight would be greatly appreciated.

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    Have you talked to your team about why they are so visibly uncomfortable with the VP? No-one is obligated to be anything other than civil with a work colleague. If multiple people are taking sick leave to avoid him, maybe he's not the good guy you think he is.
    – ColleenV
    Nov 17 at 18:41
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    Is the VP the only outside person that they interact with? If not, how do they react to other outsiders?
    – sf02
    Nov 17 at 19:30
  • Do you think he doesn't know this? Management is very aware that a rare visit isn't great, but it really is better than nothing.
    – keshlam
    Nov 17 at 20:15

5 Answers 5

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Here's how I would approach it:

I think your VP is wanting to show face, check up on the team and generally be seen. This is a good thing, it should happen more often with people in senior positions checking in with the Rank-and-file employees.

So I wouldn't discourage that. What I would say to the VP is something like this:

"Our Dev team often struggles with being interrupted whilst working, the issues we deal with are long and complex and often require significant focus. It's good that you pop in to check in with us, but perhaps it would be better to do it off-site at say a Pub/cafe/midday food place over a Lunch - so it's a bit more informal and they don't feel like they letting their work output drop due to chatting."

And to your Team, I'd say something like this:

"Humouring the Bosses' Boss is always a good, long-term work strategy, I've asked him to catch-up outside of the office, so he isn't interrupting your work - but please try and engage, this is a good forum to have 1-on-1 time with the VP and if you have any concerns that need to be raised to the executive suite, then do so - and if he asks bad questions - try and roll with it"

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    Mandating a lunchtime meeting with a VP who already makes them nervous sounds like a good way to make sure they go home sick before lunch.
    – Theodore
    Nov 17 at 18:51
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    Also some people consider lunch time not time to talk about work. Employers would be on the right to not relinquish that free time.
    – LoremIpsum
    Nov 17 at 19:44
  • This is a good idea because it doesn't interrupt work, and it puts a hard cap on the duration of the visit. It's a good idea to make the conversation 2 way, with the VP answering questions, but the OP may have to lead that and be the asker. Maybe gather questions in advance. By asking questions, the lunch can be turned into an opportunity to gather information instead of an inquisition.
    – DaveG
    Nov 17 at 20:14
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    If you're dealing with engineers, just having the boss offer to pay for lunch will generally convince most to attend. Can't vouch for other groups.
    – keshlam
    Nov 18 at 22:10
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    @LoremIpsum - although not the person you asked, I'm an Engineer and a Free Lunch is a Free Lunch. Nov 21 at 5:41
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Sort of the opposite of @TheDemonLord, I would try to resolve this with more formality rather than less. If it's true the VP is nice but has trouble with unstructured conversation then make the conversation structured.

You could propose to the team that everyone gathers and gives a brief and informal update or, if it's gotten so uncomfortable that even that stokes anxiety, you could give the update and ask the VP to bring information about the state of the company and the new directions leadership is considering. Those who are comfortable could give their input.

Another option, if you are feeling slightly bolder, is to attempt to start a conversation with the VP about interpersonal/communication skills (for instance talking about your own development). If he goes for it, that would be a good time to provide some gentle feedback on this issue.

But the key here is not to throw any team member under the bus. I would avoid doing this immediately after an incident of the behavior where it might look like you are passing along a complaint.

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    How dare you good Sir! Besmirching my good name! I jest - I did consider the more formal route, but it was the OP's comment that he likes to 'check in on things and mingle' - which suggests to me that the VP doesn't want more formality, so would likely not go along with the idea. As it's not really 'mingling' - but obviously the OP knows both his VP and his workplace (heh) better so can decide which approach is more likely to be successful. Otherwise, nice answer :D Nov 17 at 21:26
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It's normal to feel uncomfortable and under increased scrutiny when senior management shows up and looks over your shoulder.

Yes, people will be on edge because here's the person who can at his whim get them fired and even the entire team shut down for the slightest transgression.

That's the sad reality of dealing with senior management as a line worker, even in a small company. Best you can do is that you do NOT change your demeanor towards your team members when the boss is in the room, lead by example. Of course that's assuming that the stuff going on in your team when the boss isn't there isn't stuff that's going against company policy. E.g. (and that's just a random example for illustration purposes) sexist and racy jokes aren't allowed where I work. I've not heard any yet, but I'm sure that on occasion something that's said skirts the line and people know that and will be extra careful about what they say when there's a senior manager around. On a previous job a senior manager saw me browsing stackoverflow (researching something, but he didn't recognise the site or its significance) and called me out for doing private stuff in company time. He was fine after he got explained what I was doing, but it put everyone on edge for a while. Another way management can make staff uncomfortable, without even intending to.

And then there's the "mandatory voluntary" Friday drinks session many companies have. In theory you're not required to show up and have a beer, in reality if you don't you're noticed and recorded as "not being a team player" and it'll reflect on your next performance review.

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Once, as an employee, our team had a manager (M) and her boss (B). Every now and then, one senior manager (SM) would come around. They want to see and be seen.

Of course, everybody was more careful (talking and doing), as it could be badly seen and fall back on the team or M or B or both. Even though SM was often a nice person, they're the one that can cut many things, fire people and so on; so, people behave and don't feel comfortable while they sneak around.

B had a very simple and effective method to release some stress from her teams: she would endorse it. Used to these people and visits, she would have a few things ready: a formal meeting, with managers; a tour, accompanying the VP around, shaking a few hands, but moving quickly; an informal meeting by the coffe machine, during a team break (ours was 10 mn every 2 hours). She would offer half a round of coffee, while VP was paying for the second half. And we just had to listen to a few chiy-chat, with the excuse to go back to work right after that. It was also a time where VP would ask some questions "out of the job range": anything you need? Some better coffe at the machine? More comfortable chairs in the relaxing room? stuff like that...

B never had to explain anything, but she was able to deflect and guide, so that SM would be happy and less annoying. All we had to do was, after reading the email informing us that SM pressure. I'm pretty sure you can do something like that to help your team, according to company culture and SM attitude.

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Don't take it to the VP. Nerves are natural, VPs trying to interact on a normal level are normal. They would have the same awkward feeling if they had to present in front on him and he chatted after. Try and learn why they shut down when he is there. Perhaps they have an unreal view of VPs and feel if you even breathe funny its immediate fire time.

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