Elusive Detractors

Elusive Detractors: sounds like a new physics-based business term. I love that stuff, but it’s really much simpler than that. Remember the movie, The Bad Seed? Little Rhoda was an absolute charmer, until she was alone with her victims. Most of them never saw it coming, nor had the chance to complain about her behavior.

Clients pose a recurring question about how to impact the communication patterns of an associate, who never seems to openly display behavior that negatively impacts other associates, and leads to recurring complaints. Hence: Elusive Detractors. The concealed behavior may be creating undue tension, inhibiting teamwork and productivity, or actually reducing retention.

In some cases, a form of psychological self-survey will indicate a tendency and open a discussion. A 360 might also out the offending pattern. However, I’ve known cases where even when a highly descriptive report was openly presented to the offender, the response was a deft denial. “I just don’t do that!” This result is particularly confounding. What next?

Videotaped interview or coaching sessions sometimes capture aspects of communication that show how an unconscious (?) look or a tone might easily be negatively interpreted. Yet denial or a strong need to defend can also fail this approach.

There is always the possibility that the complainer is the culprit…yet if you’re getting the same story from more that one associate, chances are the reported offender is your proper subject.

What works consistently in this kind of situation is open communication. Whether the reports are real or not doesn’t really matter if the situation is negatively impacting productivity. If a meeting is called in which the parties involved can openly discuss their experience, the issues of real or imagined, right or wrong, tend to fall away. Be sure the objective of the meeting is to re-establish working relationships and move forward, versus assign blame. People make agreements and set standards. Then, everyone must drive accountability.

One would think it makes the most sense to focus training efforts on the offending party, and that’s where we usually start. Instead, consider training complainers to comfortably and respectfully stand up for themselves.

In my experience most of these situations are about a more senior person who is – inadvertently or not – doling out some sort of abuse to reports. There is a mismatch of perceived power and usually a sense of the report’s livelihood being at stake. It’s natural for the report to be conflict averse in this power construct. Junior associates may need to be given permission, and the skill to respectfully perform a pattern interrupt. That sounds complicated but simply means reporting with openness and good spirit – pointing out behavior, or requesting different behavior at the exact moment it happens.

A common structure for the pattern interrupt using ownership language is:

  • Describe the behavior as it is happening
  • Report its affect: feeling and/or thinking
  • Ask a question about the behavior
  • Offer what would work better

I’ve seen pattern interrupt work miracles. And have a few good stories about the results. Feel free to call me to discuss this solution!

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