If I have a problem with anyone in my life, the best way to solve it would be to speak directly with that person right? Intuitively, I think we all see the uselessness of addressing a problem we have with particular colleague by talking with another. But many executives and other business professionals avoid dealing with relationship challenges directly. Instead, they will engage in activities that do nothing to address the problem or may even make it worse.
I have had the opportunity to witness many efforts to “deal with” a problematic work relationship. Weather the case is an executive trying to mend some friction with a peer, or senior management trying to address the “bad attitude” of an employee, too many of these efforts are void of the kind of directness that fixes work relationships. This is usually because they take place without both people present. In one case, a VP at an insurance company was having a problem with someone she had recently promoted to a managerial level in her department. The VP and the Human Resources department had at least 4 meetings to devise a way to deal with the issue.
Upon being hired to help, I tried to learn about what strategies had been used so far by attending one of these meetings. When I arrived, the person who had the “attitude problem” was not present. In fact, she had not been included in any of the discussions so far. The VP and HR representative had not even considered that she should be there. They told me that “they needed to devise a way to deal with her”, as if she was an IT problem that needed fixing, or case study in a psychology course. The VP told me that they needed to discuss how to “read” her in order to devise a tactic for dealing with her. The problem is that we don’t read people, we read books (and newspapers) – people, we communicate with, we talk to. Even if we think we are intuitive and a good judge of people, we cannot read anyone accurately. The other issue is that “deal with” is pretty poorly defined.
In a case like this, we need to first discover what “deal with” looks like. Is it that the VP wants her to not scowl when asked to do something, or is it that she wants her to take more initiative in solving work related problems? Without figuring out what “deal with” means, this duo ended up trying to analyze the employee. This type of analysis is rarely accurate and if you think about it, analysis can only lead to the type of characterization that produces defensiveness. In other words, discovering that she is insecure and telling her this will not make her attitude better – it will make her defend herself and make the relationship worse.
The VP should also attempt to address the problem by asking for what she wants – more of this or less of that, and then work with the employee to make this happen. Often, it is a good idea to begin this face to face conversation by establishing the goal. An opening question like “Are you willing to talk about how we can work better together?” can get things going by establishing a common goal and avoiding blame and judging.
Often, executives devise seemingly brilliant interventions in order to address peer relationship problems. One of the most common is to ask around and survey people in an organization in order to “get to the truth” about an issue. The problem is that there are usually multiple truths, making this is useless exercise. As well, even some version of the truth cannot trigger improved relations between people.
In one case, the owner of a medium sized professional services company was having a problem getting along with his President who runs the day to day operations of the company. Rather than going to the President himself or seeking advice from one of the other 5 executive team members, he went and engaged a consultant (not me) who bought into the idea of surveying rank-and-file employees about what they think of the President.
This is bad idea for a few reasons. First off, it is tough to fix a relationship with one person by keeping them out of the process altogether. Secondly, what kind of message will this send to the staff? It might very well undermine his authority, impede his leadership and de-moralize the staff, which in this case greatly respect and admire the President’s leadership. Finally, the collection of opinions about the President will most likely be all over the map, and even if they are not, what does one do with this information? Should the owner and consultant present it to the President and say “here is what the staff say about you…now defend yourself!” This type of search for the truth can never amount to anything other than a debate, more conflict, and a waste of time and money.
It might have been better to use the consultant to mediate a discussion between the two in order to get each to define what they want from the other to improve things. Without a discussion that focuses on how each party can modify behavior to improve things, the owner might as well just let the President go. As the plan stands now, the outcome can only prolong the poor relationship and add unnecessary drama and conflict to an already bad situation.