I had been dreading a difficult conversation with a team member. I needed to communicate that something wouldn't be going the way he wanted it to and why. In typical fashion for when I'm delivering "bad" news, I ran through my thoughts dozens of times in my head. I wanted to get the tone right. I wanted the person to know that he is valued and that the choice to go a different way didn't reflect a lack of appreciation for his perspective. I wanted him to know that the decision wasn't necessarily permanent in the long run. I wanted him to know that I knew he would likely be frustrated. And I wanted the message to be one human to another.
I feared that if we met in person, I would get part of the message out and then botch the rest. Or I'd focus too much on the details and forget the human side. Or I'd come across as compassionate but not firm in the decision to go another way.
The more I thought about it, the more I leaned towards sending an email first before the in-person meeting. An email would allow me to get the wording and the tone right. I would have time to form the message, and the recipient would have time to process the news before we talked.
I crafted and sent an email. Later we met in person and had a productive and honest discussion.
Normally I rant about email and how it's annoying and a time sink, but on this occasion, it allowed me to be more human.
Even though I felt betrayed by my own body language, I had to laugh. My coworker and I had an awkward exchange that was a textbook-perfect example of how personality type affects communication. Although I didn't ask her afterwards, I'm willing to bet we saw the same situation very differently. I’ll share the same story twice to decode my introvert body language.
The Extrovert’s Version of the Story
I stopped my coworker in the hallway to ask how she wanted our team to celebrate her upcoming birthday. She always arranges a birthday lunch for each of us, so I wanted to do the same in return. Her response was kind of weird though. She tried to deflect the question and writhed sideways as if physically uncomfortable. I just wanted to do something nice, so I’m not sure why she responded so strangely.
The Introvert’s Version of the Story
An outgoing coworker stopped me in the hallway and asked me an unexpected personal question. It was a perfectly reasonable question, not too intrusive, and came from a place of genuine caring. But I wasn't ready for it. As I thought about my answer, I unconsciously turned to the side almost as if to protect myself. I realized this a few moments later and turned back, hoping I didn’t seem disinterested or rude. The combination of the unexpected attention, answering a personal question, and our close proximity made me feel vulnerable even though my coworker radiated nothing but warmth.
I often wonder what percentage of my energy each day gets spent on communication, both sending and receiving. On days where I feel exhausted from communication, I wish I were a robot. I picture a robot rolling around, performing my daily responsibilities, and approaching every moment of communication without the fear, second guessing, or energy loss that I experience.
Need to deliver bad news? The robot would send a short, accurate message without worrying about how the recipient will take it and whether the message has been delivered with enough care.
Need to write an email about a debated subject? The robot would state the pros and cons of each option without worrying about how the list will come across and what will be the outcome.
Just received bad news? The robot would process the impact of the news without worrying about what it should have done differently or how to deal with the aftermath.
If being a robot didn’t also mean losing the best parts of being human, I think I would go for it!
Dear Yesterday’s Self,
There’s a line between helping and smothering, and you’ve crossed it. Recently you attended a training hosted by a team member on a familiar topic. On previous occasions you’ve led the training, but this time you were there to support the presenter and hear audience questions. During the presentation, you were surprised by a procedure being shown and interrupted to correct the presenter. Instead of being helpful, this led to you stealing attention and fielding subsequent questions that the presenter was fully capable of handling. Not surprisingly, the presenter was a bit flustered by the interruption. To make things worse, you later learned that the different procedure was intentional and not a mistake after all. You failed to give team members space to grow by not allowing the presenter to try her own way.
Note to self: Be humble, recognize that your way is not the only way, and give your team members their own creative space.
You may be the cause of your employee's "bad" behavior. Ouch. It's painful to hear, I know. It took me a while to realize this. If I have an employee who is less engaged than I want, I need to evaluate my own actions as much as his. It's easy to see someone exhibit a "bad" behavior and jump all over the behavior, but the behavior is only a symptom. This realization led me to an effective alternative to disciplinary action.
For example, say you have an employee who spends too much time on his phone during the workday. How would you respond?
A common answer might be to give a written or verbal warning that escalates in severity depending on any prior offenses. So now you’ve administered disciplinary action and told the person to stop the behavior. What do you think happens next? The threat of consequences may have curbed the initial behavior. But have you really fixed the situation? No. Policing behavior and demanding that an employee change will, at best, lead to a different behavior. Perhaps now the person will spend more time at the water cooler or start doodling or take more bathroom breaks. Any of these new behaviors are still symptoms of the original problem. The real issue you are battling is not the time spent on the phone, but rather what it represents. The employee is not as engaged as you would like.
What if instead of disciplinary action, you give him access to a resource that will make his job easier? What if you sponsor him to attend the certification program he’s been eyeing? What if you find a side project that showcases his strengths? What if you recognize his efforts in a personalized way? Restricting an employee’s undesirable behavior doesn’t cause engagement. Work to increase engagement instead.