Laura enjoyed managing her team but she had two employees who spent an inordinate amount of time complaining; they fed into each other, and they drained her to the point where she noticed herself avoiding them. This made the dynamic worse, because her avoidance seemed to fuel their complaints. However, when she scheduled one on one meetings and gave them extra support, she found herself resenting the time spent with them, and her resentment was coming through in the form of impatience, anger, and a dismissive tone of voice.
If work performance had been low, Laura would not have had an issue letting these team members go, but they produced what was asked of them, and often did a better than average job. Laura came to our group looking for tools and a process to protect her sanity.
Laura followed a process that seems simple on the surface, but was actually quite powerful in terms of her own personal growth and her overall effectiveness as a leader:
- Manage Yourself First: Pay attention to your own reactions; discover what is being triggered and identify what you need to move your emotional reaction from angry and irritated to detached and peaceful.
- Separate Behaviors from Characteristics: Get clear on what the employees are doing that is ineffective. This means separating attributed characteristics from actual behaviors.
- Discover a Positive Intention: Identify what is behind the ineffective behavior; in other words, what are the team members trying to accomplish by complaining?
- Provide Clear Feedback: Have a conversation that includes clear feedback on the behaviors that aren’t working, acknowledgment of the positive intentions behind the behavior, and a plan to achieve those intentions in a more effective manner.
- Observe and Support: Continue to check in with almost daily feedback that is personalized, relevant, and facilitates the process of change.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the 5 steps:
Manage Yourself First
In Laura’s case, she discovered that she has a strong work ethic and values independence. She had always taken complete ownership of her career and never expected her superiors to solve her problems. She went to them for support, but only for input, after she had already figured out several potential courses of action.
Given her own style, Laura expected her team to take the initiative, think creatively and bring her solutions to the problems they experienced. When team members came to her with a complaint and what appeared to be an expectation that she “fix” the issue for them, she immediately felt a sense of disdain at their lack of initiative and characterized them as “whiners”. Unfortunately, her team experienced her frustration as lack of support, and her disdain as criticism, which led them to complain more.
In order for Laura to prevent her emotional reaction from taking over and exacerbating the situation, she had to reconsider her judgments. In this case it helped Laura to imagine that some people may have been brought up with a different paradigm, assuming that “the job” of a manager is to solve problems and seeing it as their duty to bring issues to her. It isn’t as if she had clearly explained her expectations to her team or coached them on how to handle problems – she had simply lived in her own assumption that the best employees shared her values and would take it upon themselves to handle issues like she had.
Separate Behaviors from Characteristics
It’s common for us to attribute negative characteristics to people when they behave in a way that impacts us negatively. We call people “rude”, “inconsiderate”, “disrespectful”, or “whiny”. However, characteristics are personal. They tell us who we are. If you try to give someone feedback on “being” a certain way, it will feel like a hit below the belt, no matter how gently you communicate.
This is why it’s important to distinguish between characteristics and behaviors.
Imagine being told that you are “a complainer” and you need to be more of a “self-starter”. Compare that to being told that you “often come into the office with a problem and no potential solutions” and you need to “think through the problem in advance and come into the office with two potential solutions for us to discuss”. The second piece of feedback is much easier to receive, because it isn’t personal. It doesn’t say you are a bad person, or a stupid person, or an inconsiderate or lazy person. It simply clarifies what behaviors you are exhibiting and how you can make adjustments to get better results.
The only way to give effective feedback is to give behavior-based feedback. But before you can effectively give behavior-based feedback, you need to train your brain to see the behaviors and not jump to characteristics. In Laura’s case we had her write a brainstormed list of ineffective behaviors. She came up with: coming into the office with problems and no solutions, having discussions with other peers complaining about lack of direction, lack of appreciation, and other issues but not having those conversations with the actual people involved, and expressions of anger and frustration such as throwing completed work on the desk and commenting that “after all that no-one will pay attention to it anyway”.
It took her awhile to come up with her list, but when she did, she felt a stronger sense of clarity, and it made the prospect of having a conversation with her employees seem much more feasible.
Discover a Positive Intention
One of the easiest ways to get yourself to a calmer place when someone behaves in a way that impacts you negatively is to try to figure out a positive intention behind the negative behavior. At first it seems impossible – that the person did whatever it was “on purpose”, or “just to push your buttons”.
However, 95% of employees, no matter how negative their behavior is, don’t usually wake up in the morning thinking, “Hmmm… how can I push my boss’s buttons today? Who can I annoy or make angry with me? How can I pull out the rug from under someone, throw someone under the bus, or embarrass them in a meeting?”
Usually, when people engage in behavior that impacts others negatively they are completely self-absorbed, focusing on protecting themselves or getting something done they care about, or are caught up in their own stress reaction, and are oblivious to how others are experiencing them.
The goal is to imagine yourself in their shoes and consider what they might be trying to accomplish through their behavior, even if their actual behavior does a poor job of accomplishing it. In Laura’s case she guessed that her employees were trying to get problems solved, and also trying to get acknowledgment, feedback, and appreciation for their efforts.
We never know for sure what someone’s intention is, and it doesn’t matter if we get it right. Just considering some possibilities will move you to a place of less stress and make it easier for you to have a conversation with them without reacting, so that you can actually find out their true motives.
Provide Clear Feedback
At Nahid Coaching and Mentoring, we have a very specific feedback model that you can use to prepare for a feedback discussion. Laura used this tool, and you can also download the tool as well as a 24-minute audio class that explains it, to help you prepare to give feedback to anyone about anything.
In Laura’s case she sat each employee down individually. She acknowledged her own impatience and dismissiveness and committed to understanding their needs more clearly. In both cases, the employees felt unsupported, so the conversation itself was a good start in turning things around. Laura also explained what had been triggering her and set the expectation that when they come to her with solutions, she will gladly spend time supporting them.
Observe and Support
It would be great if one conversation could change someone’s behavior, but habits are habits, and many people are completely unaware of how often they engage in automatic behaviors. Laura used the feedback tool on a daily basis to “catch” the employees in positive behaviors, so that they would become more aware experientially of what she was looking for.
She also caught them whenever they complained and addressed it immediately, asking them to rethink what they were trying to communicate, and try again. She often gave them examples of what they could say instead, to show how they could get better results and still express a concern without coming across negatively.
This ongoing observation and support were the key to Laura’s success with her two team-members, and it wasn’t anywhere near as draining as she thought it would be. One, because she wasn’t triggered as much, knowing that the negative behaviors weren’t so much a sign of sloth, but more a lack of training. And two, she realized that it was part of her job to coach her team, and she now had the clarity she needed to actually get the changes she wanted to see.
Laura found that it took a consistent effort on her part over a period of six to nine months to completely eradicate the negative behaviors that had drained her so much. However, just by engaging and dealing with the issue clearly and directly, she was able to see initial improvement right away and that kept her encouraged.
Continue the Conversation
The biggest mistake I have seen leaders make when these behavioral issues come up is wanting to address them in one conversation and be done with it. One conversation is never enough to change a long-term pattern of automatic behavior. In Laura’s case, she was able to get results by making it a habit to notice and provide feedback daily. Giving feedback got so easy for her that it became automatic and she barely noticed it after the first few weeks of conscious effort.
If you have employees that are driving you nuts, feel free to schedule a consultation, and we can get you some clarity on what is behind the behavior pattern, and a plan to change the behaviors permanently.