Is your employee your customer?

Karla was tearing her hair out in frustration over two employees. “They just won’t get along. They’re constantly bringing me their problems. First one complains and then the other, always about each other. Neither of them is wrong, exactly. I just wish they’d focus on getting work done instead of worrying about what someone else is doing.”

Karla had been in coaching for just a couple of months, and already I had gotten to know the conflict between the two men who worked for her. I had come to recognize Karla as brilliant and conscientious, caring deeply for her employees as well as her results. While her employees Martin and Chip were stuck in victim mode around each other, they too were dedicated workers, and typically great problem solvers. Just not about each other.

I can feel tempted by complaints about someone’s behavior. Whenever Karla brought up the latest office drama story, I had to remind myself not to ask how Martin feels, or what Chip’s intentions were.  My client was Karla, so I needed to focus my attention on her process.

Karla and I worked to understand the dynamics in play. We broke down exactly what happened in what order with each incident, and eventually this pattern began to emerge:

One of the men would bring Karla an alert about what the other was doing. (It could have been either and frequently shifted between them, but for clarity in this example I’ll say it was Chip complaining about Martin.) Karla would ask questions to make sure she understood the issue: exactly what was observed and the consequences of the action. (Karla asked Chip questions about what he’s seen and what he thought the problem really was.)

She would then approach the other one and seek his side of the story. (Karla then approached Martin and asked him what he noticed and did, and what he thought was really going on.) Karla would make a decision based on what she had seen and inform the two men about what action was the correct action to take.

There’s so much here that Karla was doing well. She understood that nobody can see and understand everything from their own point of view, so a complaint always needs to be taken as just one side of the story — never “the truth.”

Karla took reasonable steps to establish a better understanding of what was going on. And, this approach is exactly the right approach to take when the organization’s mission and results are on the line. However, in Karla’s case, she was using this approach as the rule, not the exception.

Contrast Karla’s deliberative, deeply caring process with this cliche’d scene from buddy cop films and tv:

Partner detectives: *arguing in front of the chief*

Chief: “Shut up, the both of you! I don’t got time for this. Go work it out.”

Go work it out.

Not exactly the approach Karla was taking, is it? But let’s look at the consequences of her habitual approach over the Hollywood police chief’s:

  • Karla is investing a great deal of time in being the arbitrator in Chip and Martin’s disputes.
  • Chip and Martin have developed a dependency on Karla, so now they bring every problem to her, requiring more and more of her time.
  • Despite Karla’s belief (and the complainer’s expectations), Chip (or whoever brings the original complaint) does not become serene and trusting because she has accepted responsibility for achieving a solution. Instead, he continues to carry anxiety and/or anger about the situation until Martin’s (the other person’s) behavior changes.
  • Neither Chip nor Martin is developing the skills to resolve their own disputes.
  • Neither of the men is getting to know the other at the same deep level Karla is enjoying.

Sometimes purpose-driven leaders (especially the kind and compassionate ones) fall into a trap like Karla’s. It’s as if the mantra is, “I care about the whole person, so I have to be deeply involved in everything that comes up for the people I work with.”

If this feels familiar to you, I can only imagine how exhausted you must feel.

The solution can be somewhere in the middle, between the barking police chief and the micro-servant-leader, and it bears resemblance to a coaching relationship.

Instead of accepting responsibility for someone else’s conflict, a healthy leader will keep the focus on the person who brought the complaint. You can do this by asking questions:

How are you feeling about this?

How important is this to you?

What do you need in this situation?

What will you do for yourself so your needs can be met?

How does this approach strike you? Have you ever tried something like this? What happened?  Leave me a comment here! I’d love to learn from your experiences, too.

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