I love the ongoing relationships I have with organizations who bring me in whenever an issue involving communication threatens to impact morale, productivity, or effectiveness. I get to be like a superhero called in to save the day or in some cases, pronounce the situation terminal. In this instance, I was able to diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment plan that may have saved a person his job, the organization the expense of having to hire additional staff and/or replace a valuable employee AND created a vibrant more efficient department.
The call came from Nancy, a director of an organization I’ve been working with for five plus years. (names have been changed) Nancy told me she wanted me to work with one of her IT staff members, let’s call him Carl. Carl had a long history at this particular organization and Nancy felt some loyalty to him but that was wearing thin. She was entertaining the possibility of letting him go.
Nancy had heard from some of her staff that Carl was rude or dismissive. In addition, Carl’s immediate boss, George, felt that Carl didn’t do things the way he wanted them to be done which made him think Carl was taking shortcuts and did not respect his authority. Carl was asked to contact me over the summer but did not do so. In October, Carl was late for work one day and lied to George about it. That was the last straw. Nancy told him he MUST contact me or else.
I spoke with Carl by phone and met with him for a coaching session. He was soft spoken and easy going. For those of you familiar with my ActorType communication styles, Carl would be a Whiz Kid with a bit of Curmudgeon. On the phone, he revealed that he felt that he was being expected to conform in ways that he didn’t think entirely fair. Carl is a minority and a large majority of the staff and customers are not. I also discovered that Carl had been at his job for several years before George was brought in from the outside to oversee his work and run the department.
I shared some of David Rock’s NeuroLeadership work with Carl during our first session. Rock’s work involves something he calls the SCARF model that identifies 5 areas of human social behavior or human needs. – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, & Fairness. When these needs aren’t being met, people exhibit a threat response, when they are being met people experience a reward response.
Carl immediately saw that he is very much triggered by threats to his autonomy – and feelings of uncertainty. In fact, we could see how this particular situation at work threatened Carl in all five of the domains.
However, communication is always a two – way street and since Fairness is one of Carl’s triggers and it’s something that I feel strongly about as well, I didn’t think my work could be effective without being able to meet with Carl’s boss, George. Nancy agreed and I set up a meeting with George.
George initially came into the meeting thinking he would just tell me his version of what it was like to work with Carl, however, I shared the SCARF model with him as a way to explain how certain behaviors from Carl may be a result of some of these domains being threatened. George immediately saw the domains that he himself were triggered by. We uncovered many things the two had in common. George was also very much a Whiz Kid but since taking on a leadership role has been working very hard to bring out some Hero/Buddy qualities.
Carl: Having been on the job for 9 years before George came, Carl felt his Status was threatened. He thought that George was constantly monitoring and micromanaging him and thought George didn’t respect his ideas and opinions but just wanted it his way or the highway. This feeling of being micromanaged and having his Status and Autonomy threatened triggered him so strongly that when George asked him if he was late, he admitted that he instantly and stupidly reverted to a childish lie. As David Rock points out, sometimes we experience domain threats as strongly as we experience threats to our lives. I also discovered that Carl values creativity. He was not doing things a different way to be stubborn. One of the joys he gets in his work is finding alternative ways of doing things. Feeling like that part of the job was being taken away, he no longer felt engaged.
George: Knowing his Whiz Kid weakness of being overly regimented and detail oriented, George was trying to mitigate those qualities to be more of a Buddy, which resulted in his not giving Carl any defined systems or clear responsibilities. This resulted in a lack of certainty for Carl which led to his lack of focus and accountability. And not having systems and certainty in place made George anxious and resulted in his micromanaging. I believe Carl’s shortness with the staff was also a result of the lack of certainty. He was expected always be on call to fix things but there was no clear system for how they were supposed to be fixed which led to frustration and feelings of inadequacy which he took out on the staff.
First, I worked on mindset. I had Carl identify the feelings that come up for him when he is feeling threatened by any of the SCARF domains and taught him ways to label and re-frame his emotions at the moment so that they dissipate more quickly. I also acknowledged Carl’s feeling that there may indeed be some unconscious bias involved and pointed out that unconscious bias goes both ways. What bias might he be using to read into some of the behavior he is experiencing as bias? I encouraged him to have conversations with both Nancy and George that expressed how he was feeling. I gave him some of my very specific Chemistry of Communication formulas to use and we role-played and videoed how he might deliver those conversations effectively.
For George, I explained how the lack of systems and clear responsibilities was affecting Carl and the whole department and suggested he do a SWOT analysis (a method to evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) of the department at their next meeting and that he set up a whiteboard that clearly laid out the tasks and responsibilities for each of them (Certainty). I also encouraged him to give Carl some ownership of establishing the systems (rewarding his Status and Fairness need) even though George would have the final say.
The SWOT analysis was an overwhelming success. Setting up a way for the department to openly express their strengths and weakness was powerful. In talking about the department’s strengths, diversity of backgrounds came up, Carl was able to point out that if that is a strength, they need to also allow for different ways of doing things. For the first time, Carl felt comfortable expressing his opinions. George expressed how grateful he was to hear what Carl was thinking. It took them two meeting to complete the SWOT but at my last session with Carl, I saw a completely different person.
He was engaged again, excited about his job and he and George had been getting along brilliantly. Based on what was uncovered in the SWOT, they were working on a detailed systems document which George put Carl in charge of. As Carl works on different sections, he checks in with George for his input. George said that it finally feels like they are working as a real department. George also followed through on the whiteboard which Carl loves. He gets to see exactly what they need to get done and gets to feel the excitement of being able to check things off. The rest of the staff has benefited as well because due to George and Carl’s clarity and order, they now have more time to proactively assist the staff with their needs.
One of the tasks that George had on his hands was to assess the needs of the company to see if they needed to hire a new person on the team. This was another reason for Carl to feel insecure. However, after the SWOT Analysis and Carl stepping up, George feels they may not need a new hire after all – saving the whole organization stress and money.
I encouraged Carl to share these positive results with Nancy. It’s important for her to know that progress is being made so that she can gradually begin to shift her lowered opinion of Carl.
This might sound like a fairytale ending and just like the disclaimers on medical commercials, these results may not be typical, but they are POSSIBLE. Is there a communication-based issue infecting your workplace? Maybe it can be cured with some Communication Rx.