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Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Terry Hill (UK).
Matt, the new telesales guy had a great talent for putting himself down. “I’m just useless at this!” he would wail when things were not going his way or when assigned a challenging goal. His manager was the nurturing kind, responding with encouragement, compliments and extra support, though quietly wishing Matt would ‘just grow up”.
James was the super-agreeable guy around the office. Everyone loved his cooperative attitude…well initially. James was enthusiastic about everyone’s new idea and agreed to every request. The problem was, having always overcommitted himself, he rarely delivered on his promises. However heartfelt his apologies his manager was getting tired now.
Sarah was the senior administrator with the permanent scowl. An office fixture for 20 years, she was efficient at the basics of her job but had become a harsh critic of all things new. Her constant put downs of anybody or anything positive was affecting morale. Her manager, under pressure to “do something with her raged“ She can always find reasons not to do something! The annoying thing is that she is sometimes right, which only makes her worse!” Sarah’s usual retort was, “I just tell it as it is… of course people don’t like it!”
The Pareto principle suggests 80% of workplace stress comes from 20% of the people, so it’s worth spending time to explore what’s behind the problem behaviours of the few. When the right rewards are applied in the right way, most of the “bad guys” can actually come good.
What makes people difficult?
Psychologists tell us that difficult behaviours persist for one reason; they are successful for those who practice them. The perpetual victim gets attached to the sympathy received from others. The bully is rewarded by feelings of power and vindication as the victim rolls over. The non-assertive are rewarded by the reduction in tension that comes with avoiding conflict. The harsh truth is, we as managers are almost certainly contributing to the problem. We are instrumental in maintaining the difficult behaviours that can make our working lives unbearable. You create your own experience.
Matt was a case in point. When faced with self put-downs, supportive managers often respond to compliments, confidence building and a slackening of expectations. So Matt got his reward, ensuring the behaviour was repeated.
James was simply conflict adverse and wanted to be everyone’s friend. By agreeing to every request, he managed to achieve his goal – for a while at least. Short-term consequences typically exert more leverage over our behaviour than do long-term consequences. So it’s just too tempting to get the immediate reward – the thanks for cooperation and the reduction in tension that comes with avoiding conflict. James could worry about the inevitable fallouts later.
So what reward did Sarah get from being so negative? Well, she was once held in high esteem for her skills and knowledge, a true resource for the team. Now she felt threatened by the march of new technology that was gradually making her skills redundant. The new young, bright office staff were the main perpetrators whose enthusiasm needed to be crushed. Sarah’s talent for criticism was not only a defence, but made her feel significant again. Her acid tongue ensured others backed down in “respect” for her experience.
So all three “bad guys” were just doing the rational thing. They pursued the rewards that were meaningful to them. The easiest route, the fast lane, just happened to be the unhealthy one. They were all successful, at least until their bosses woke up to how their “support” was simply perpetuating the problem.
So what’s to be done with our problem trio? Having identified the likely rewards each were getting, and which maintained the problem behaviours, the rationale is simple: Change the rules for getting the rewards. Just cutting off the rewards could encourage our trio to find even more unhealthy ways to get their “fix”. It would be like ripping out the electricity before gas is installed. So first we must show our people healthier and more productive ways to get the rewards they want.
In Matt’s case the self-deprecating behaviour quickly disappeared when the reward was removed. Now only results, self-development and taking responsibility were rewarded by support and praise. He soon learned to play by the new rules.
James’s manager owned up to her role in creating his problem. She could appear somewhat perplexed or even hostile when her requests were questioned or turned down. Now James‘s ill-considered agreement was met with scepticism instead of generous thanks. As part of his job requirements James would now give the downsides of each proposal plus a realistic timescale for delivery. He quickly learned the new rules for gaining approval and avoiding conflict. A constructive no mattered more than an ill-considered yes. His manager soon elevated assertiveness to team value status. James proudly displays a new notice on his desk that makes his point with humour, “I can only please one person a day and today isn’t your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either”.
Sarah’s behaviour badly needed a fast fix. Her manager successfully encouraged Sarah’s younger colleagues to meet her criticism with a challenge, as in “So how would you make a success of this?” Stripped of her usual quick wins and “cornered” by positivity, Sarah became less critical but more resentful and withdrawn. Her potential still wasn’t being realised.
There was another underlying driver to Sarah’s behaviour. Her “motivation direction” was mainly of the “move–away” variety: In other words she put her attention and energy into avoiding what she didn’t want rather than “moving towards” that which she did. Move-away people are typically good at troubleshooting and avoiding problems, but lose their drive once the threat has receded. Some 40% of people have a predominantly move-away direction for motivation so we aren’t just talking about a few “odd-ball” individuals here.
Move-away people focus on the painful stuff most of the time, so tend to come across as negative and pessimistic as opposed to move-towards people that focus readily on possibilities. Move-away motivation has its own strengths, but needs to be harnessed in a different way.
So Sarah’s manager could have redesigned her role so that it played more to her strengths. A troubleshooting role came to mind, perhaps avoiding and dealing with customer problems. This wasn’t possible at the time. So what else could be tried? Sarah clearly needed to develop her IT skills, but how could she best be convinced? Sarah was highly motivated to move away from problems – particularly the exposure of her dated skills. So training could be offered as a means of avoiding what was painful for her.
Talking of goals to be achieved might sound like a foreign language for move-away people. So instead you might say:
“This will help you to avoid…..”
“You’ll be able to steer clear of ….”
“We can get rid of……”
Sarah was eventually persuaded to work through her fears by enrolling in a company sponsored IT course. In return, she would teach the new recruits what she had learned. Her initial reluctance was overcome by the feelings of significance attached to the new role. So at last Sarah found something to move-towards. People change most when we change the perception of their roles. Sarah’s attitude and behaviours quickly came into line with the new responsibilities.
So when dealing with difficult behaviours just ask yourself what reward your employee is getting from these and what has been your role in creating or maintaining them. Be assured your role is there. You will now be in a position to change the problem behaviours by first changing your own. Change what you reward and help your people find productive ways to get the rewards they want or to avoid the things they fear.
Prevention, of course beats cure. Getting in touch with your people’s feelings is your best way of avoiding future problems. What is it they really want in a job? What was their best ever role and why? What was their best ever moment in that role? What feelings did it give them? Such questions will give you a few clues to what your people really want. These wants will not go away in a hurry. Your staff is likely to pursue these rewards by whatever means are available to them. Help them find healthy and productive means and everyone wins.
About Terry Hill
Terry Hill is the author of ‘The Inspiration Code’ and a performance coach and trainer, with over 30 years’ experience in the pharmaceutical industry, where he has held a number of sales, management, training and coaching roles in major market-leading organisations, winning a number of awards in the process, such as Trainer of the Year and Performance Coach of the Year. A registered Business Psychologist, Terry is currently Lead Consultant at Mindscape Associates. His passion is for motivation and communication skills, which include leadership, coaching and influencing science.
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