Your teenage daughter walks in to the house after school looking sullen and without her characteristic after school greeting. You ask, “How was school?” “Fine” is the answer. But a few seconds later the slam of a bedroom door indicates to you that everything, indeed, is not fine. The silent treatment continues into dinner despite your efforts to find out what the problem is. Thank goodness at work you get to deal with mature adults where nothing like this ever happens, right? Right.
You’ve noticed that Bill, one of your team members, isn’t his usual self. In fact, it seems like he is being downright rude. He’s doing the work, mostly, but he’s not being as punctual and you are finding more than the usual number of errors in his stuff. He also has been kind of sarcastic in meetings. Not to the point of open insubordination, but still, it’s getting annoying. You finally ask, “Bill, everything OK?” “It’s fine.” Sound familiar?
You catch a break with your daughter later that evening when she finally opens up about what’s bothering her. Come to find out, when you dropped her off at school that morning some of her friends saw the hug and ritual “I love you” and gave her grief the rest of the day. Seems the problem wasn’t with her after all, it was with you. Kids, what can you do, right? Why didn’t she just talk to you about it sooner?
Meanwhile, back to Bill. He is having a problem alright, and the problem is with you. He’s been seeing more and more work piled on his plate and everything seems to be a number one priority. He’s been missing his son’s after school activities on a regular basis because he’s had to stay late. He isn’t saying anything because he “hates whiners” and besides, nothing is going to change any way. Of course, you don’t know any of this and won’t know unless he tells you. What’s going on?
Both your daughter and Bill are suffering from the same affliction. In fact, the research1 shows that most people have the same affliction, the inability to hold those in authority accountable for their behaviors or to provide meaningful feedback. Both are playing the victim role and both have convinced themselves they are powerless to change anything. Unfortunately, they are both falling prey to another aspect of human nature. Their perceived powerlessness starts to leak out in their behavior. Doors get slammed, conversation gets shortened, report deadlines get missed and sarcastic comments get made.
What’s a leader to do? First, let’s take a look at what often happens. You get angry. You tell yourself your own story to fit the situation and then act on it.
My daughter’s just a moody teenager and I’m not going to put up with it! “Go to your room!”
Bill is a lazy jerk and I’m getting tired of his BS! “Straighten up your act or we can find someone to replace you!”
As satisfying as it might be in the near term to lash out like this, giving in to your dark side is rarely a good choice if you truly want to resolve the issue and improve the relationship or situation. Instead, try what the authors of Crucial Accountability suggest. Take a mental pause and ask yourself “Why would a reasonable, competent and decent person act this way?” When you do, you will likely find that your anger melts away and you will get curious about the reasons. As you start to explore those reasons, start with yourself. “Could I be doing something to cause this behavior? Are they trying to tell me something?”
When our students develop their leadership philosophies, most include a statement soliciting feedback from their followers and ask their followers to hold them accountable to their philosophy. This is a great sentiment. Unfortunately, until you build a completely open and trusting relationship, very few will provide that feedback directly. Instead be on the lookout for those non-verbals. That sudden change in behavior might just be feedback. Are you listening?
1 Crucial Accountability, Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior; Patterson et al, McGraw Hill, 2013