Dear Office Politics,
As a director of marketing, I manage a great team of nine in a large organization. Lately I’m experiencing some challenges from a senior member of the team (let’s call her Sharon). Based on her proven and potential ability, I have sent Sharon on a major conference, provided financial recognition for work well done, been supportive in some interpersonal issues, and given her the lead on important projects. However, considering she reports to me, her behavior towards me has increasingly felt dismissive, disrespectful and arrogant.
Some recent examples: Sharon has repeatedly shown up late for group meetings I or others have set. I’ve spoken to her about this, and she has been either apologetic or defensive, saying she feels ‘picked on’. She did not show up for two individual meetings I set with her, due to other meetings with colleagues I assume she felt were more important than me. She has not made a team presentation that all team members are expected to do after a major conference. She has accused me of trying to ‘take credit for one of her ideas’ when I mentioned I would be referring to her project in a presentation I was making. I have tried to take the high road and discussed the importance of time management, pointed out that it is my role as department manager to showcase the lead projects of my team members, and discussed the importance of treating others with respect. This has not resulted in any significant change.
I recognize that I’ve probably undermined my own authority by providing too much positive reinforcement (downplaying weaknesses and emphasizing strengths) and not enough constructive criticism, and being more informal in my manager-employee interactions (with all my team members) than I probably should be. Sharon is on a two week vacation and I want to meet with her when she returns to clarify that this behavior is not acceptable and needs to change. Any tips?
Finding the Balance
OFFICE-POLITICS ADVISER ERIKA ANDERSEN
Dear Finding the Balance,
I’m convinced that giving corrective feedback is one of the most challenging parts of the manager’s job. How do you let people know they need to change without making them defensive or damaging the relationship?
Fortunately, I do have some tips. And, at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I might also suggest that you get a copy of my book, Growing Great Employees – there’s a whole section on how to give corrective feedback that expands on the ideas I’ll share here.
Focus on behaviors
First, I’d suggest that you focus on the behaviors (late to meetings, not making a presentation after a conference, missing appointments with you) that aren’t acceptable, vs. talking about how it feels to you (dismissive, disrespectful, arrogant). It’s much easier for people to hear about behaviors that you want changed; if you tell someone they’re being “disrespectful,” it feels like you’re saying they have a character flaw – and they’ll simply become defensive and tell you all the reasons it’s not so.
Start by listening
Second – and this may be the most important – when you sit down with her, I’d recommend you start by listening. This may seem counter-intuitive, but we’ve found it extremely helpful. Here’s how this works. You ask to meet with Sharon after the vacation, letting her know you’d like to discuss the difficulties the two of you have been having lately. Then when you meet, begin the conversation by saying something like, “I want to share my point of view about how we’re working together and some things I’d like to see change – but first, I’d like to hear how you see it. From your point of view, what are you doing that’s working in our interaction, and what do you think you could be doing differently?”
Then really, really listen.
A number of things might happen: Sharon might try to deflect the whole thing by saying some version of, “What about what YOU should be doing differently?” In which case you can get it back on track by responding, “I’m happy to talk about that later, but right now, I’d like to focus on you.”
Sharon might also say, in effect, “Nothing. I’m doing everything right.” In which case, you’ll know where you’re starting from – AND you’ve given her the courtesy of listening, which is a powerful statement of respect, and tends to lower defensiveness a lot. If she does this, I’d suggest you summarize (“So, from your point of view, your interactions with me don’t need to change”) and then share your feedback. (“I see it differently. Here are three behaviours that I want you to work on changing….”)
She might also acknowledge part of her contribution to the problem, in which case you can build on what she says (e.g., “Thanks for acknowledging that – I agree. And there are two other related things I’d like to mention…”)
Sharon might also share new information – about how she sees herself, you, or the relationship between you that gives you insight into her and will help you share the feedback in a way that’s more acceptable or meaningful to her.
And, she might surprise you by giving herself the feedback – acknowledging what you’ve seen. In this particular situation, it doesn’t sound likely – but it’s possible! Then you’re in the enviable position of simply coaching her to decide how to behave differently.
In any case, the critical thing is that you listen without interrupting – really focus on understanding how she sees the situation. This will, as I mentioned, lower her defensiveness and provide you with critical insights. Then, once you’ve summarized her point of view to make sure you’re clear and to let her know you’ve heard her, you can give your feedback, making it as behavioural as possible. (You may then have to listen and summarize through a round or two of explanation and defense – do that sincerely, while staying on message when you respond.)
Finally, once she seems to have heard the message, go on to next steps. And I’d suggest that you first ask her how she’ll change, vs. telling her how to change. If she won’t respond (e.g., “I don’t know what you want from me,”) then you can say what you’d like and get her agreement – but it’s preferable if the suggestions come from her; she’s likely feel more ownership of the action plan if she says it.
And the ‘next steps’ should also include an agreement to check in at some defined point (2-4 weeks away) to see how things are going. This will help to make it clear to her that you’re serious about requiring change.
Overall, if your approach is respectful, practical, hopeful and firm, you’ll have the highest likelihood of success. It also helps if your mindset going in is “I’m Sharon’s boss; it’s perfectly legitimate for me to require these behaviors.” Then you’ll be less likely to be apologetic or unclear.
Hope this helps – keep us posted! Thanks for writing to OfficePolitics.com.
Erika Andersen, Author
Erika Andersen is the author of BEING STRATEGIC (May 2009). Talk of strategy abounds in business — but moving from thinking strategically to acting strategically is an enormous leap. BEING STRATEGIC is a roadmap for consistently making choices that best move you toward your desired future. What’s more, it explains why being strategic is worth the time and effort required, what’s involved, and how to do it. The book explains the core skills and practices needed at each point of being strategic and provides simple models, real-life examples and self-directed activities for learning and applying them.
Erika Andersen is founder of Proteus International, where she has served as consultant and adviser to CEO’s and top executives around the world. She is the also the author of Growing Great Employees, published by Portfolio in 2006.
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