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Out of the Blue: The Secret to Managing Difficult Behaviors (Start with Your Own)

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There are things I believe not because I know with absolute certainty that they are true, but because life is much easier and works better when I behave as if they are. For example:

The meaning of a communication is in the response it elicits. This belief is based in personal accountability and the desire to bring precision and clarity to all my interactions. If I believe this axiom is true, anytime I am misunderstood or receive a response that is inconsistent with the intent of my communication, I have an opportunity to examine the content and delivery of my message to see how they can be improved. That, I find, is far more useful than blaming someone for my lack of precision.

I have a similarly unprovable yet constructive belief about IS management. It is a postulate that will be immediately embraced by employees but will, I fear, be met with some protest from those in the management ranks:

There are no resistant employees, just inflexible managers. Before rushing to dismiss or applaud this notion, just notice your initial reaction. If you’re a manager and your first response was to do a scornful mental inventory of all the employees whom you’ve personally experienced to be resistant, uncooperative, immovable, witless, or downright lazy, thank you—you’ve proven my point. The more people you find it difficult to deal with, the more likely that your management style is inflexible.

On the other hand, if you’re an employee tired of being treated as if you really were resistant, uncooperative, immovable, witless, or downright lazy, it might be useful to examine how you contribute to that dynamic. Odds are you’re living proof of another of my pet beliefs:

We train people to treat us as they do. Since our experience is decoded through the filter of our beliefs, if your beliefs are primarily negative, your experience will also be negative. The degree to which managers believe there are resistant employees is the degree to which they are invested in failure.

Simply put: What you focus on determines what you get. Focusing primarily on the flaw serves to anchor it in the mind of both the employee and the manager. A manager with a low opinion of his people will have employees who plummet to his expectations. For business leaders, it is far more productive to think of people as the only resource that a competitor cannot duplicate. Employees thus become the paints on a manager’s palette—each unique with different skills, and each necessary to complete the overall picture. Managing, then, is the art of blending colors, not avoiding the ocher.

In the workplace, whatever personnel problems do occur are inevitably behavioral (tardiness, excessive socializing, substandard work, broken agreements, interpersonal conflict, etc.). For managers navigating the behavioral minefield, the key is to remember that behaviors, whatever their expression, are simply strategies for getting what we want. Just as infants may learn to cry when they want attention, so adults adopt indirect behaviors to secure what they believe is missing in their lives. It is a peculiarity of human nature, however, that such behaviors often repel what they are designed to attain. That is why behavior is difficult to manage; a manager responding to the overt rather than the embedded behavioral command will be dealing with the wrong issue and will thus get unsatisfactory results.

Inflexible managers ignore troublesome behaviors because, short of firing people, they have had little success in effecting a desired change. But resisting a difficult behavior is like resisting your favorite fattening food: The more determined you are to ignore it, the stronger its hold over you.

Addressing unwanted behavior is actually quite simple. It requires understanding the underlying motivation, suspending judgement, moving beyond the system of conditional rewards, and entertaining this premise: All behavior is positively intended. Oooh, I can hear the objections. Yes, yes, it’s hard to find the silver lining in the dark cloud that was Jeffrey Dahmer. But short of the occasional sociopath with a fondness for the Andes plane crash diet, behaviors, however counterproductive they may appear, are designed to achieve some beneficial end. The positive intention behind addictions, for example, may be to manage stress. Seeing the positive intention takes the charge out of the behavior and creates the opportunity to transform it.

Below are two behavioral strategies that frequently show up in the workplace (as well as the home) and are difficult to manage. People who engage in these behaviors will, on the surface, appear resistant. When dealing with them, it is essential to remember that these are unconscious behaviors; they are reflexive and not specifically intended to drive a manager into early retirement. Managers, in fact, are notorious for exhibiting the first behavior themselves. It’s a strategy called Counterpointer/Crazy Maker.

Counterpointer/Crazy Makers are masters of finding the flaw. They are sophisticated nitpickers, and they will browbeat you with their erudition until they establish a one-up position. If you have the misfortune of expressing an idea, they are experts at “Yes, but...” They believe their ideas are always right and enjoy finding the defect in yours. Like the song says, if you say “tomato,” they say “tomahto.” They are not joiners, preferring to maintain detached control. They are experienced by others as persecutors.

Working around a Counterpointer/Crazy Maker is like being in a Cuisinart. People report feeling stupid and, in the extreme, afraid of going crazy. They feel they constantly have to prove themselves, and they often become angry or depressed. But here is the embedded behavioral command:

The positive intention behind this strategy is to get respect. Where there are persecutors, there must be victims, so the second behavior is called Victim/Blamer.

Victims believe that it’s never their fault and often not their problem. Unlike Shakespeare, they believe the fault lies in the system, not in themselves. Victims will construct real or imagined persecutors, villains will be perceived, and blame will be assigned.

Do not underestimate the allure of victimhood in our culture. A study done at Boeing found that a full 95 percent of the workforce held themselves as victims. Top management felt victimized by unresponsive middle managers. Middle management felt victimized by resistant employees and unreasonable demands from top management. The employees felt victimized by management that did not care about their issues.

The creation of victims is encouraged by imprudent management practices. Managers support this strategy by demanding that subordinates do things on impossible schedules with inadequate resources and then blaming them for the inevitable failures.

Feeling powerless, wronged, and owed, the people who hold themselves as victims will find ways of getting even. They may falsify time sheets or steal from the company. They will spread complaint and discontent and give less than their full effort.

People working around Victim/Blamers frequently feel trapped, bitter, and resentful. Eventually, they quit.

The positive intention behind this strategy is to get appreciation and attention. The irony is that the last thing you would want to give a person who is presenting these behaviors is respect or attention and appreciation. But that is precisely how the strategies can be dismantled: by giving those people what they want before they act out. (Giving it to them afterward only reinforces the behavior.)

The act of giving respect or expressing appreciation must be genuine, however. Find something about the person you sincerely respect or appreciate and say so. Then, ask for what you want, accept what you get, and work on the difference. The results may not be immediate, but then again, they may be surprising.

Dismantling the Victim/Blamer strategy will be challenging because it is based in fear of failure. Employees have learned that along with failure comes a litany of undesirable consequences, including judgment by peers and superiors, public shame, loss of status, and possibly the loss of a promotion or a job. Defecting blame has, for many, become a survival strategy. Removing the threat can disarm the strategy.

A healthy working community is one in which there is no failure, only learning and logical consequences. In such an environment, a manager might say to a struggling employee, “I can see that this hasn’t gone well and that you encountered many problems we did not foresee. I appreciate how difficult it must be for you to accept this responsibility, and I respect how you’ve handled the situation. Now, let’s see what we can learn from this so that we can prevent it from happening in the future.” Then, the manager and the employee could explore the specifics of the event (scheduling, resource allocation, additional training requirements, etc.), and make the necessary adjustments. Both learn from the “failure” and reduce the probability of repeating it.

Granted, looking past the behavior to the person is an acquired skill, and the following objection is frequently raised: “But some of these behaviors are really intolerable, so how can I give them what they want when I’m angry?” Momentarily suspend judgment and remember this:

People are not their past, nor are they their behaviors. Ah, more objections? Well, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true. What matters in this context is that these behaviors are run unconsciously and are not representative of the real person. Dealing only with the behavior is like chopping off the top of an iceberg: More of it will surface. Seeing beneath the behavior allows the manager to bypass the persona and contact the essential being; that’s where change is possible.

Everyone engages in at least one of these strategies (both employees and managers); I’ve never met a person who didn’t. I, myself, can expertly run both as the situation warrants. So, if you catch yourself employing one of these behaviors, what should you do? Stop! Notice what you’re doing, and own it. Admitting it aloud can be very cleansing. Imagine, in the middle of a heated discussion hearing a Counterpointer say, “I’ve just noticed how invested I am in winning. In my desire to be right, I was being dismissive and disrespectful. What I really want is to listen to what you have to say.”

So, when was the last time you heard a manager make such an admission? When was the last time you, yourself, were that real? That such insight is uncommon in the workplace, such courage rare, confirms our lack of flexibility and our penchant to remain trapped in behaviors that don’t work and that we do not fully understand.

The skillful and sensitive manager can choose a better way.



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