How much time and energy do many of us spend planning and developing strategies to work around people’s poor behaviour, to “deal” with them, to act on what we think is going on? Yet how many of us have the courage to have that initial, potentially difficult or uncomfortable, conversation with the person in question before doing a lot of work behind the scenes?
The following comments are all things I’ve heard clients and friends say over the past year.
“I’m spending all my time managing this woman’s poor behaviour, everyone else in the community does too, it’s exhausting, we’re all tiptoeing around her.” Elizabeth
“This person isn’t doing their job right, so a few of us have decided we’re going to get rid of him.” Kate
“Something’s wrong between my friend and I, we went away together on a weekend, I felt she was quite cold towards me and even though I’ve rung her a couple of times, our friendship isn’t the same. I don’t think I’ll bother anymore.” Helen
“One of my team is hopeless and I’m going to have to move him as he doesn’t have the skills to do what I need him to do.” Angelo
What do these comments have in common?
Well they’re about interactions with others, they’re about difficulties in relationships and they’re about actions people are deciding to take in response to another person’s behaviour. You can see people are devoting a lot of their precious time and emotional energy on trying to manage the situation.
What they’re not about though is having a conversation with the other person to surface the issue, find out what is going on and THEN working out how to act to move forward.
Does this sound like a familiar scenario to you in your workplace? People talking ABOUT others rather than TO them?
The key Leadership Skill you can develop to help you more effectively deal with your people’s behaviour is that of Emotional Courage.
Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage - how to have hard conversations, create accountability, and inspire action on your most important work, says that a lack of Emotional Courage derails leaders from acting powerfully, in their lives, in their relationships and at work. We avoid following through on uncomfortable actions because we are afraid of feeling the hard feelings, we are unable to sit in discomfort and try to move away from it and shut it down. His work has shown that increasing your willingness to feel, increases your courage to act. When we posses Emotional Courage, feel discomfort and act anyway, we are able to have the hard conversations, create accountability and inspire action. Peter says, “Any gap you have in Emotional Courage limits your freedom to act. When you avoid feeling, it’s a huge drain on your productivity and your organisational outcomes.”
With the scenarios from clients and friends I've shared above, you can see how there is potentially a gap in Emotional Courage at play. They’re avoiding having the initial conversation because they feel uncomfortable. This can escalate conflict and is not helpful behaviour.
I can remember in a previous career being blindsided when conflict towards me from a team member, who was acting Team Manager, surfaced at a team strategic planning workshop. She unleashed an angry tirade saying that she didn't like me and didn't want to work with me. I had no idea that one of my team mates felt so much dislike for me. Afterwards, on the advice of a mentor, I went to talk to the Executive Director of our division, who wasn’t at the workshop, to let him know that I had just become aware of the problem and wanted to do all I could to resolve it.
His response? “You’ve got to be kidding me!” he exclaimed incredulously and angrily. “All of this work we’re doing with the team, all of that is because of YOU! The other women in the team have been coming to me and I’ve been working with them, especially the acting Team Manager, about how to find a way to deal with YOU!”
It was one of the most shattering experiences of my working life. After my conversation with the Executive Director it emerged that this facilitator was actually there to run a workshop with the team to help them deal with me, rather than undertake a strategic planning exercise, which is what I'd been told. It seems a lot of work had gone in behind the scenes for quite a while. Many people, including from outside the team such as the Executive Director and even Human Resources, were involved - all of whom knew what was going on….except for me. No-one had spoken to me.
This may sound a bit unbelievable but it is true. Not one person had ever come to me to have a conversation and I honestly had no idea what had been going on. It clearly shows how things can escalate when difficult conversations, early on, are avoided. It was a real low point in my career.
However the experience taught me many valuable lessons about teams, dynamics, below the line behaviour, cultures, courage, assumptions, resilience and shame. It also ignited a passion for working with people to build self-awareness. I feel so strongly that we need to do the right thing by others in our teams, behave fairly, and build the skills to have difficult, open conversations about behaviours regularly in our workplaces so that tricky situations can be nipped in the bud, things don’t escalate and people aren’t blindsided.
I think that’s why the work of Brene Brown on courageous leadership resonates with me so strongly. Her mantra – Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind. We fear being unkind, yet avoiding difficult conversations is more unkind in the long run. It means that we end up talking about others, rather than to them. She says about problematic behaviours, " What this means is that we must find the courage to get curious and possibly surface emotions and emotional experiences that people can’t articulate or that might be happening outside their awareness. If we find ourselves addressing the same problematic behaviours over and over, we may need to dig deeper to the thinking and feeling driving those behaviours.” Is this a skill you have? Is this a culture you've developed in your team?
Netflix has a similar ethos in one of their values around Integrity. All employees are provided with training in the Netflix Culture.
Here's an excerpt:
"Integrity - In describing integrity we say, “You only say things about fellow employees you say to their face.” This attribute is one of the hardest for new people to believe — and to learn to practice. We believe we will learn faster and be better if we can make giving and receiving feedback less stressful and a more normal part of work life. Feedback is a continuous part of how we communicate and work with one another versus an occasional formal exercise.
We build trust by being selfless in giving feedback to our colleagues even if it is uncomfortable to do so.
Feedback helps us to avoid sustained misunderstandings and the need for rules. Feedback is more easily exchanged if there is a strong underlying relationship and trust between people, which is part of why we invest time in developing those professional relationships. We celebrate the people who are very candid, especially to those in more powerful positions. We know this level of candour and feedback can be difficult for new hires and people in different parts of the world where direct feedback is uncommon. We actively help people learn how to do this at Netflix through coaching and modelling the behaviours we want to see in every employee."
This to me embodies Emotional Courage at work.
Peter Bregman says that our Emotional Courage is like a muscle, that like all muscles, grows with exercise. He says, "Each time you follow through on a task you might be avoiding, you are working with your emotional courage muscle, building it helping it grow stronger. Every time you choose to initiate a difficult conversation, you are developing your emotional courage. Every time you take a risk, make a decision, or influence others, you are growing your emotional courage. Even something as seemingly simple as hearing someone's opposing viewpoint of criticism of you without getting defensive - in other words, even listening - that's increasing your emotional courage".
I've put a sticky note on my computer to remind me to keep exercising this muscle. Yesterday instead of sending an email to avoid having a conversation, I picked up the phone. The result - we had a great interaction! This builds confidence in me to keep asking myself - how's my emotional courage right now?
My encouragement to you - what would change in your team if there was more Emotional Courage displayed? What would be different for you personally, at work and in the rest of your life, if you chose to develop your Emotional Courage muscle? What might be some ways you could start to do this?
I'd love to hear more from you if you decide to experiment with this. Good luck and let me know how you go. :)