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Do you have a tattletale on your staff? I'm not referring to those courageous whistleblowers who turn in embezzlers or expose harassment. I am talking about the sticklers who can't wait to rat out a coworker for arriving ten minutes late, or for extending a lunch hour by a few moments. Tattletales want you to know about every shortcut a teammate took, each personal phone call a colleague made, and how many days an associate's lunch was left stinking up the department refrigerator. If you're like most managers, you find the snitcher's behavior unhelpful at best -- and annoying at worst.

In The Art of Ethics, Elizabeth McGrath describes the stages we go through on our way to ethical maturity. Our first ethical lessons involve obedience, she says. Good boys and girls obey their parents; bad kids disobey. While in this stage we learn to view the world in we're-right-and-they're-wrong terms. But as we mature ethically, we experience the consequences of our independent decisions, and we eventually stop looking at actions as right or wrong and begin seeing outcomes as good or bad. Therefore, becoming ethically mature requires leaving the obedience stage behind us.

Unfortunately, some people never advance beyond the point of deferring to someone else's view of right and wrong. Those workers who childishly tattle on colleagues who bend some rules are most likely stalled in the obedience stage. The reasons are probably deep-seated and best left to a trained therapist to resolve. But understanding your tattlers could help you lead them more effectively.

As a manager, I always sensed that my tattlers were seeking personal affirmation rather than trying to get other people in trouble. In other words, I felt snitchers were seeking assurance that they were indeed good boys and girls. Whenever an employee finked about something trivial, I tried to respond with, "I'm glad I can count on you to always follow the rules." It seemed to be the response they needed, and it afforded them a respite from the urge to turn in their friends.

Next time a tattler informs you of an inconsequential breach of the rules, try thanking them for being a "good" corporate citizen.

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