How does one deal with obstreperous people and employees? Ray Zinn and his wife DeLona chat about how people who like breaking rules benefit companies and society, and how to keep them from running amok.
Guy Smith: Well, good morning everyone in podcast land. My name is Guy Smith, I’m your guest host for today’s episode of the ‘Tough Things First’ podcast. This is a special, special edition. Not only do we have our perpetual guest, Ray Zinn, with us, but we have his delightful wife Delona, as well. We’re going to be talking about obstreperous people, especially obstreperous employees. If you hear a little giggle in my voice, it’s because I spent most of my youth as an obstreperous person. My first promotion in life came from completely breaking the rules entirely, with inside of a work environment, and so I’ve seen it from both sides, having been the obstreperous employee, and also being a manager, and having obstreperous employees working for me.
I really want to pick Ray’s brain, and Delona’s brain, because they’ve probably seen many, many more obstreperous folks than I have and they probably have better ways of handling them than I do.
First thing, good morning to both of you, Ray and Delona.
Delona Zinn: Good morning, Guy!
Ray Zinn: Well thanks, Guy, for inviting us back.
Guy Smith: Hey, thank you for letting me be the guest host again. Let’s jump right into it. Before we talk about managing obstreperous people, what is it about their personality types that actually make them obstreperous?
Ray Zinn: Let’s talk about what the definition of obstreperous is.
Guy Smith: Well, obstreperous people are people who tend to buck the rules. They tend to want to do things their way. They tend to not see the sense behind the various rules, and thus are overtly willing to go around them.
Ray Zinn: But there’s another characteristic that they have, they tend to be loud, whining, okay, and difficult to manage because they want, they’re always out there in front. So it’s kind of like the guy that want to star on the basketball court. You know, you’ve seen those guys they’re on the football field or whatever. They’re the one that are doing the high fives and slamming the football down or doing the smack talk and stuff like that. And those individuals tend not to want to follow the rules. They will sneak around, they will try to take advantage every angle that they can. We call them bending the rules I guess is referred to it sometime. So when you’re obstreperous, you’re one that you want to be recognized, you’re the one that wants be out there, the star you would. Or you’re the whiner, you’re the one that complains a lot. So obstreperous means you’re loud, whiny, you’re out there trying to promote yourself. It’s not a matter of them it’s a matter of me. What do I want and how do I want to look at things. So and they just can’t play by the rules.
We have this recent thing with the issues with the ex-director of the FBI who’s published a book, or has recently published a book and he’s going after the president of the United States, the sitting president. He’s obstreperous, in other words he has his view of how he wants to see things and he wants to be out there in front. He wants to be, he’s trying to create an aura, so that’s the difficult one to manage and control.
Guy Smith: So, there is almost kind of two flavors of it. The common theme is that they want to do things their way, they would prefer to do that as opposed to any particular set of rules. Some of them are also then glory seekers on top of that, they like the attention. I know about being the former type and got way too many stories about that.
Delona, and you have had to have run into a couple of obstreperous people, especially up at the ranch. People who, you know despite the fact that there’s some mission with inside the family, inside the ranch, whatnot, they’re going to go off on their own vector. Are you seeing the same traits that Ray sees in them?
Delona Zinn: For the most part, yeah. We’ve even had it even within our own children as they were growing up. There was some that no matter what the rule was they always were willing to bend or break the rule and a lot of them, there was one that wanted to take it right to the very edge as far as he could go. But there was a certain point where he would not go beyond but he always stretched everything right to the very end as far as he could go and as a parent it was very frustrating to see that because we had others that were more willing to live by the rules and everything. But-
Ray Zinn: But he was the more creative one-
Delona Zinn: He was, he was more, [crosstalk 00:05:41] he had very smart-
Ray Zinn: -music and-
Delona Zinn: Very very smart, intelligent-wise and a quick learner, very quick learner-
Ray Zinn: Very articulate.
Delona Zinn: -was very bored with school because he was, they didn’t challenge him enough. There wasn’t enough challenge there.
Guy Smith: Are you sure you didn’t adopt my missing brother here? Because he sounds a lot like me.
Ray Zinn: Well the whole purpose of this podcast though is how do you deal with that obstreperous personality. Because on the one hand they’re very creative but on the other hand they like to bend the rules, they like to operate outside the box as you would and so they don’t like to be confined. In other words, don’t tell me what I can’t do, tell me what I can do. They just go beyond, which is good, I mean, we want to test the waters as you would, want to make sure that we have examined all aspects of it but not to the point where it’s deleterious, where it damages the company or damages the organization. As long as you, as you’re dealing with obstreperous people, employees or family or whatever, as long as you treat them with respect and show understanding and willingness to work with them you can keep them within the rules and the bounds of the family or the organization as long as you don’t become their enemy.
You recognize them for who they are, they tend to be quite creative, quite innovative, but again they’re gonna want to push the envelope, they’re gonna want to go outside the current rules that you have. And so what I tried to do when I was running Micrel for 37 years was make sure that the rules were flexible, that they were kind of more general as opposed to being so tight that you couldn’t maneuver within that. I found that people tend to bring the rules where they used to work back to their current company ’cause that’s what they’re used to. You have to make it flexible enough that allows their understanding and what makes sense to operate within the bounds that you want within your company.
I’d say that probably daily I was dealing with issues where people would come in and say, “well he, or he or she, is doing this or that you know and that’s not according to company policy” and so forth and I was always doing, well I said, “Well, what policy is it you’re referring to?” Well, they couldn’t re-tell me. They would just make up their own policy saying, “well I thought this was the policy” or “I thought that was the rule” and I say, “Well, show me.” Then they find out that they made up their own rule or policy that this person was violating or not following in their mind.
Guy Smith: And this gets to economic theory in kind of a way because these people are motivated by something that typical employees maybe even typical human beings aren’t, and as you say they are creative so you don’t want to de-motivate them. So what is their motivation for breaking the rules and how do you then allow them to stretch the boundaries to avoid becoming de-motivated, knowing that if you put the clamps on them too hard they will become de-motivated and leave and take their creativity with them?
Ray Zinn: That’s always the challenge because you want some structure, you don’t want to have an anarchist organization. So you have to have structure and as long as you give them the courtesy to allow them to be creative and innovative but yet let them operate within the bounds of the company, they’re motivated and they’ll stay productive. It’s when you start telling them no you can’t do that, or no you can’t do that, no you can’t do that, is when they’re either gonna leave or they’re gonna shut down. What you say, when someone does something that is not in accordance with company policy you just say, “Yes I agree with you but here’s what we need to do.” So it starts out with a yes not, “No you can’t do this.” Say, “Yes you can do that, but we need to do this in concert.” I was constantly dealing with people who were wanting to do something that from a policy point of view was not in accordance with what we has as a direction of the company.
And as they say, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.” So what I try to do was be flexible so they didn’t bend everybody out of shape. What I try to do is make sure that the policies we had within the company were flexible.
Guy Smith: You know and occasionally putting the obstreperous person in charge of what they’re breaking works. My first promotion in life was when I worked for McDonnell Douglas in the Kennedy Space Center. I hacked a NASA computer, I reconfigured it to run faster and being of a boy scout mentality I went down the hall and told the NASA administrator what I had done to his computer. And two weeks later McDonnell Douglas sent me to the other side on the river to Canaveral Air Force station and put me in charge of a Tempest Computer [inaudible 00:11:26]. This is a computing facility where all the rooms are lead-lined, you cannot get RF signals in and out and they said, “Look, if this guy really wants to bend around security let’s put him in charge of security, ’cause he’s obviously a little bit interested in it.” And so tapping that creativity and re-channeling it I think is kind of what you just said, you can have the boundaries but if you can focus it then you get someplace else.
Delona Zinn: That’s true.
Guy Smith: Well, children and employees alike, one thing that I’m interested in is bringing up people’s creativity, letting people blossom. Is there value in taking people, encouraging them to be a little bit obstreperous when it’s maybe not their nature? Is that a good tool for expanding their horizons? Developing their personalities? Making them better children, better employees?
Delona Zinn: Well, you can’t make somebody into something that’s not part of them. You can encourage some creativity but each person is unique and individual and it’s like trying to force a left hand-er to write right-handed. You can try to make them do it and they might be a little bit successful at doing it but their handwriting might not be as clear and precise as it would if they had done it with their left hand. So we each have individual strengths and weaknesses and I don’t think you can try to make somebody something that they don’t have in them.
Ray Zinn: We got a son, our oldest son, he was one that tried not to push the envelope. He obeyed all the rules, he was someone who was just reluctant to try anything difficult or new. I’d work with him and try to get him to try different things, to try to break, as you would, break out of this mold of being too worried. He was more pessimistic that way. And now he’s one of the most creative children that we have, it’s because I kept encouraging to push himself, to go outside of his comfort zone. And that’s how I was able to develop his creativity is by getting him to try doing the tough things first, as you would. Trying to go beyond what’s easy and simple, and he did it. I encouraged him to get a double E and he was not, from a scholastic point of view, he was not good in physics or math or anything like that but I encouraged him to do it because I thought he could do it number one but also I felt that this would be good for him, and he did. He got his double E and now he’s extremely creative and innovative.
Guy Smith: So it does work in some regards to encourage people along that way. So I’m wondering if allowing small amounts of rule breaking helps kind of crack that nut, in other words to let people who are a little bit afraid to go out and try new things, gives them the permission then to explore that creativity.
Ray Zinn: I wasn’t encouraging them to break the rules though. I was just encouraging him to go outside of his comfort zone. Not just stick with what was easy and simple and straightforward. And that’s what I meant by getting them to actualize their capability. We’re far more capable that we think we are. I have people that work for me that will try something they have no knowledge or capability of and they screw it up good. But others that are afraid, by just getting the blossom as you said earlier they did try, “Oh yeah I can do that.” Then they become encouraged and they go ahead and succeed. But as Delona said, you can’t get a left-handed person to write right-handed. You gotta kind of work within the skill set that they have. If they don’t have that innate capability, in other words if they’re a lefty and you’re trying to make them throw right-handed you’re probably wasting your time. But for those who are left-handed and you get them to do better left-handed because they think, well lefties can’t do as well as righties, well if you can get them to overcome that fear then they will blossom.
Guy Smith: And I think that’s the message for the managers, the entrepreneurs, the executives listening in on today’s podcast is don’t fear the obstreperous employee, they add value to your organization, you got to accept the fact that they’re always going to challenge you, always gonna bend the rules a little bit. But if they weren’t that kind of personality they probably wouldn’t be bringing the creativity you need in your organization to find the next best thing, to find the new way of doing the process, to improve the entire overall product line or organization or whatever it is that drives your business.
And speaking of driving your business, if you have not read Ray’s first book ‘Tough Things First’ you need to do that right away. Drop what you’re doing, go to amazon.com, buy a copy. It’s Ray’s distillation of his 37 years of founding and leading Micrel, from infancy, through IPO, and creating the most consistently profitable semiconductor company is Silicon Valley. It is required reading not only for you, but it’s becoming require reading on college campuses around the country. Academia is picking up on this book and telling their students, “If you really want the lessons delivered to you fast and hard, this is the right book to be reading.”
So thanks again for tuning into the Tough Things First podcast and tune in next week, we’ve got even more content coming your way then.