The Teapot Technique of Management

Have you ever used an old-fashioned teapot to make tea? You put water in the pot, turn on the stove, and put the pot on the burner. When the water comes to a boil, the pot “whistles” as the steam comes out through a narrow opening in the spout. (Think back to the childhood song, “I’m a Little Teapot.”) While this is a good way to make tea, it’s a terrible way to manage people. What do I mean? Far too often when we notice a performance issue, we don’t address it immediately. For example, a staff member was assigned to create a presentation, and it has several mistakes in it. This annoys you and causes some inconvenience (time spent correcting the mistakes), but you decide that it’s not worth the time or the drama to talk to the staff member. Instead, you just hope that the problem will magically correct itself. And in that moment, you put your “teapot” on the burner.

Over the coming months, there are several similar incidents – a poorly written email is sent to a large audience, some important details are overlooked for a major event, the person isn’t prepared for staff meetings. And each time, you decide to “wait until next time” before having the performance conversation. The temperature in the teapot continues to climb.

Until the day when the staff member makes one more mistake, and you reach the boiling point. Except your “boil” doesn’t come out as a nice “whistle” from the teapot – it erupts in a way that seems completely out of proportion for the specific incident. And just like mis-pouring the hot water from the teapot, one or more people will probably get scalded.

What’s the alternative? Obviously, don’t wait for things to reach the boiling point, but what does that mean in practice?

  • Some issues are truly minor, and don’t need to be addressed. In those cases, you need to let them go rather than putting them in a mental file of grievances against a staff member.
  • When something truly is a problem, address it as soon as possible. Then you can deal with the specific concern in a meaningful way, long before the boiling point is reached. This practice of “real time coaching” is lacking in most organizations.
  • Be aware when your internal temperature is rising. If you feel that happening, take the time to assess why you’re upset and find ways to release the “steam” that you’re feeling.
  • Learn how to have these conversations. It is possible to redirect performance in ways that are non-threatening and productive.

So be honest, at least with yourself: Is the teapot technique part of your management style? If so, how is that working for you?