Most of us in leadership roles have been there…. that anxious feeling when you know it’s time to address an issue of concern with someone within your team. It’s obvious to you and to others that something is getting in the way of their work and they are becoming increasingly disruptive or disengaged.
You know the situation is not OK, and you need to draw on your moral courage to do something about it.
As a manager, the buck stops with you. You sense a drama looming, one that you are reluctant to unravel, in part because your mental in-tray is already full to overflowing. You have deadlines, targets, shifting priorities and now you find yourself expelling energy and time to address an underlying ‘issue’.
Human beings are hardwired for connection and will choose the path of least resistance.
When is the best time to have the conversation?
When the behaviour happens.
When is the second-best time to have the conversation?
These conversations are difficult, but avoidance is worse.
Research in leadership is unequivocal that a great majority of leaders acknowledge they are anxious of the potential for conflict if they raise a concern. Many feel under-qualified for what may come of the conversation, or cautious about the legal and bureaucratic implications.
It can feel like you are heading into a veritable mine-field. But it doesn’t need to be this way, if we can only gather some of what we have learned from evolutionary biology, neuroscience and behavioural psychology, and transfer that knowledge to relationships at work.
EMOTION BEFORE COGNITION
It’s neither uncommon nor unreasonable for leaders to fall into the trap of being outcome-focussed and sometimes this comes at the expense of being available to offer emotional support for the people around them. The result of this is that relationships can become impersonal and secondary to outcomes because they don’t carry the same sense of urgency, and in some cases, the same sense of importance.
But there is compelling evidence to show that relying on the old paradigm of arms-length leadership is not sustainable.
How do we get better at dealing with the emotion that manifests from addressing concerns around performance?
Leadership theory tells us that teamwork and healthy social networks strengthen connections and promotes trust, harmony and reciprocity. Great, but what else do we need?
There are 3 elements to guide you:
- Mindset shift, then approach
- Name it
- Make a plan
Mindset shift, then approach
Leaders, it starts with you. A shift is needed in your thinking about the potential for conflict. Conflict can be healthy and without it we can’t access creativity or problem solving. This is the distinction between managing people and leading them – your role is to encourage creativity and problem solving in all conditions
Acknowledge that without a conversation all you have is your own perspective based on what you see and hear and on your desired result. Shifting your perspective to theirs happens when you and they patiently engage in conversation to elicit a complete picture of what is happening for them.
Be interested in what their perspective is and try to understand where they are coming from.
When you better understand one another’s perspective, a useful question may be “why do we see this differently?”
It’s very likely that there will be a couple of things going on in response to your enquiry: blame and feelings. It is important that you listen beyond accusations and help them to name the emotion they are feeling. It takes patience and curiosity to find the right questions to avoid what tends to be human nature to bury and ignore feelings. If feelings are ignored, they will escalate emotion and potentially deepen the problem.
Avoid being drawn into blame and instead unpack the emotion behind the behaviour. This is an effective way of moving forward and an opportunity to connect by asking questions to understand the tangled emotion they are experiencing. You will both learn what is really going on; it may be frustration, hurt, fear, anger, betrayal, trepidation, exasperation or apprehension that is influencing how they are working.
We can find out what matters to them and often they can’t unveil it alone. For example, anger may be the emotion, which could be secondary to loyalty or trust. If we don’t address the emotional response, we fail to get to the deeper issue which is impacting their work and engagement. When you connect in this way it’s easier to describe the impact of their behaviour and that it needs to change.
Make a plan
Invite them to think about the options available to them, i.e., what are your options? what could you do first?
Agree on next steps and follow up.
Leaders need a different set of skills to deal with blame and buried emotion along with appreciating that the issue of concern is more often never the real issue.
Listen out for the recurring theme of blame and the emotion hidden within it.
Neuroscience tells us that intuition sends messages to the brain faster than cognitive decision-making which means that despite our best plans, dysfunction becomes inevitable in a culture of imbalance, competition and inequity.
Most of us learn how to relate to others by osmosis and even the most well-intentioned and skilled managers are unsure how to incorporate the welfare of others into their thinking.
It’s not generally something we are taught, and we need to invite leaders to appeal to social and moral sentiments for improved results.
At AltoPEOPLE, we know only too well how consuming this can be, and sometimes it does not go to plan. We work with leaders to foster different thinking and approach so that possibility and optimism untangle that knot in the stomach.
All of this need’s patience, grace and generosity without judgement or working from a conclusion.
Of course, it’s not easy! And with deliberate effort and practice, profound changes are possible.