Wait, I’m the Problem Child?…Now What? Part 1

So, it’s you. Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you’ve known you’re a bit difficult for your team or boss to handle. Maybe it’s a complete surprise. Maybe you were blindsided. Regardless, you’ve now had the talk. Your boss or your boss’ boss or some kind of corporate superior sat you down to tell you there’s a problem. And that problem is you. Your performance, your behavior, your attitude, your relationships or lack thereof are about to cost you your job, a promotion or an opportunity. Whatever the issue is, you’ve been notified that your organization, team or boss has a problem with you. Your boss has identified specific behaviors and their impact on your team and organization. They’ve outlined clear changes they need to see in the way you do your work and relate to others. Even if your boss handled the conversation perfectly, it’s still difficult feedback to hear. You’ve just found out you’re the problem child. And now you are faced with making changes.

Admittedly, no one really wants to be the problem child. Sure, some people pride themselves on pushing the limits, being a renegade or bucking the system, but being the problem child, well that’s not anyone’s favorite title. And now it’s yours. What do you do?

You have some decisions to make. Yes, you have a choice in the matter. For some reason, many people forget that they’re employed at will. It’s your choice to be at work. It’s your choice to behave as you do. It’s your choice to remain the same and it’s your choice to change. All of this is volitional. If you’re reading this it’s doubtful that you’re an indentured servant or forced labor. So, you can choose to stay or you can choose to go. Don’t make it’s something it’s not. Your behavior has gotten you into trouble at work. The company will choose for you to leave unless you choose to change your behavior. That’s the arrangement and it’s appropriate. Beyond standards laid out by employment law, your organization, your CEO, your boss and your manager get to set the behavioral and cultural norms that govern what works and what doesn’t in your environment. You get to choose to live by them or exit to live without them. If this isn’t the work you want to be doing nor the people you want to be working with go ahead and leave. You’ll be doing yourself a favor and can go search out work you actually want to do. And the team you leave behind will feel a weight off their shoulders as well. Win/win.

Everyone’s initial reaction to such direct feedback paired with what may be an ultimatum is a bit different. Most people are initially hurt. We all respond to such hurt in different ways. Some of us are defensive. Some of us are immediately contrite. Some are sensitive and deeply moved. Some are stubbornly resistant appearing unmoved by the feedback. Some still shut down and boil inside. There are a wide variety initial responses to this type of feedback. Some are more damaging than others. If you’re one to speak quickly, this is a time to slow down your response for your own sake. You can’t take back what you say once it’s out there. You may be hurt, offended or confused. Those are common experiences. This type of feedback is unsettling. You’ll be shaken up for a while. How you respond impacts how this process will play out.

You must decide what kind of person you are and how you’re going to respond. You may be a Misfit and realize the role or environment you’re in isn’t the right fit, so you leave. Or you’re a Combustible and you respond explosively and toxically. Maybe you’re a Subtle Saboteur and you stick around quietly inflicting damage on your team or organization from the inside. You might be a Survivalist needing the job and may make necessary changes to satisfy a need to keep the lights on at home. You may identify more closely as the Icicle who desires to make positive changes, but freezes in place paralyzed by fear induced by the negative feedback. Then there’s the Contritionist who genuinely leans into the process and embraces the coaching working to change their story in the organization. Each type responds differently and have their unique impact on the organization and their team. Stay tuned for greater detail on these types in part 2.


A Culture of Trust


I have been reading some interesting research recently regarding the science of Trust from Dr. Paul Zak, professor of psychology and management, and director of The Center for Neuroeconomic Studies at Claremont Graduate University.  He writes that human beings are “constantly seeking the right balance between being wily of strangers and obtaining the value of interacting with them.”  He shows how our brains are actually wired for greater health, joy, generosity, productivity and wellbeing in relationships where trust is preeminent.

It doesn’t take long on this planet to “get burned”, betrayed, or let down by the people around us.  As a parent, you know how painful it is to watch this happen with your children.

One tendency, when feeling betrayed, is to become cynical, lose all trust, and put barriers up that cause us to look for the worst intentions and motivations from others.  I’ve been there and done that.  Not a pretty picture.  Letting go, forgiving, and moving back to deeper relationships of trust is the only option that makes sense for me.  Risky?  Sure.  No doubt, people will let me down again.  But I still have a choice; get bitter and cynical, or get better!  I have to choose the Get Better option.

On the other hand, being human, I am pretty sure I will let people down as well, even if it’s unintentional.  I am hoping the realization of the common human condition will help both of us forgive one other and try again for a better relationship.  I call it, “The Triumph of Hope over Experience.”

Brief caveat:  Let me assure you I am aware of the cycle of domestic abuse and abusive relationships.  These are not the kinds of relationships I am addressing in this article.  If you are in one of these toxic relationships, please escape and get safe, even if it is a toxic work environment. 

In organizations management too often thinks laborers are out to take advantage of the company, to get away with doing as little as possible.  On the other hand, laborers have been known to become cynical and distrusting of management, thinking they are out to use and abuse them for the sake of the almighty dollar or to meet some goal.  Many of us bring these past experiences of betrayal to our new environments to the point that we are preconditioned to be self protective.  That preconditioning will definitely shape the lenses through which you view things to the point that you are more inclined to see signs of betrayal and disloyalty over trust and humanity, thus reinforcing your cynicism.  This could be a tough cycle from which to break free.

My question:  What might occur in an organization that is pursuing a Culture of Trust?  You see, Trust is the real engine of economics and economic transactions.  In a Culture of Trust people will still make mistakes, but Radical Candor (thank you Kim Scott) would prevail.  People would address these mistakes, directly, honestly, openly and respectfully in order to achieve a better outcome for all stakeholders.  We would see each other differently.  I would look to my colleague as someone who has the best intentions, even when I don’t see them.  I would work hard to get clarity so that I don’t make assumptions.  I would do my best to provide clarity to others so they don’t make assumptions.  We would have open and honest communication, a rarity in most organizations.  We would offer our best contributions.  We would listen to and value the contributions and suggestions of others, regardless of rank.  We would spread honor where honor is due un-begrudgingly.   We would celebrate successes.  We would move into mistakes and failures with intentions to improve rather than blame.

Some say that my vision for a Culture of Trust is a utopian fantasy.  Maybe.  But the alternative doesn’t do much for me.  So I will continue to pursue this in the organizations I work with.   The one thing that I know for certain, is that in order to make progress toward that vision, each person has to begin by looking in the mirror.

Ask yourself the following questions:  Where am I making assumptions?  Where am I being cynical or distrusting?  What conversations do I need to step into with more Radical Candor?  What conversations am I avoiding out of fear?  Who do I need to forgive so I can move on?   Who do I need to ask to forgive me for being out of line, so we can move on together?  Who needs recognition or encouragement from me today?  Who needs feedback and clarity from me?  How does the work I do have meaningful impact in the lives of others?  Am I finding joy in my work?

Try these questions on for a few weeks before you ask others in the organization to do the same.  Let’s see how this works out.  Could be fun.

Dealing With Your Team’s Problem Child

You may have one of them on your team. Or several. The symptoms vary. Maybe they’re unproductive or unmotivated. Maybe they stir up issues on your team. Maybe they’re the center of office drama. Maybe they’re entitled, demanding or rude. Maybe they’re missing critical details and failing to meet commitments. Or maybe they’re just unaware. You feel like a teacher must have felt when dealing with a unruly student. You’re frustrated, tired of beating your head against a wall and your efforts don’t seem to be working. Yes, this is a full-grown adult on your team and the thought running through your head is, “I’ve got a problem child”.

When mentioning a problem child, you likely know the type. Whether the issue is personality, performance, attitude or disruptive behavior they leave quite the wake behind them in the organization. They’re tolerated by team members, disruptive or avoided all together. And they’re oblivious to it, or worse, indifferent to it. Their numbers or your passivity have kept them around, but their personality is weighing on the organization. It’s time to do something. For the good of the team and for the good of this individual change must take place.

I’ve not yet met anyone who truly wants to be the problem child. Sure, some are brash and love the idea of being disruptive or a maverick, but that’s different than being a problem. While they may be oblivious to their impact on the organization or indifferent to others, the health of the team needs you to take action. You need to take action for your own leadership development and to protect and grow a healthy organization. Every day that goes by with a problem child wreaking havoc in the organization the more ingrained the precedent is being set in your organization. I can’t promise that it will go well. That’s not always in the cards. Sometimes the problem child is just that, a problem. They may make a lot of noise and try to sway others in resistance to the feedback you’ve delivered. If that’s the case, they’ve only reinforced your concerns. Regardless, you must level up and have the conversation.

If you take issue with a team member’s personality, performance, attitude or behavior and you do nothing about it, you carry responsibility for their impact on the organization. You have a responsibility to level up and have the hard conversation.

So, what do you do? You can let them go (transition, fire, layoff, or whatever P.C. term you prefer). You can reprimand them and demand change. You can put them on a self-managed development plan. You can hire a coach and do a deep dive with them giving them every chance to succeed.

Whatever your course, you need to do these three things:

  1. Be honest and be crystal clear. Are you at your limit with this individual? Is this a put up or shut up moment for you? Are you wanting them to get their act together or get off the bus? If that’s the case, be honest. Be honest with yourself and be honest with them. It’s the right thing to do. Problematic personnel don’t come around to change via subtle messaging. Many need a wake-up call to make change. It’s your job to give them that wake-up call. Don’t shroud it in “development” when it’s really a do or die situation for this person’s career. Sit down with them and let them know the reality of the situation. They’re an adult and so are you. Be candid, be respectful and be very clear with expectations. If their job is on the line, let them know that. If a promotion is in jeopardy then be clear. If they’re going to be removed from a team then be forthcoming with that information. You’re not respecting the individual by dancing around the topic. Nor are you doing so by avoiding it. Leave nothing to ambiguity.
  1. Assess willingness to engage. You won’t be able to gauge willingness if you don’t take a direct approach. If you position a process as leadership development when it’s really meant as a correctional process you’re misleading the individual and crippling yourself in the process. You must give yourself the opportunity to truly assess their willingness to participate. To do that, see how they respond. Be prepared to give them the night or the weekend to consider their commitment to a change process. Let them stew with it and come back with a thoughtful response so you can assess their position outside of the raw emotion of the initial conversation. You’ll let them know their progress will be measured, you’ll be engaged in the process and the expectation is they’ll show evidence of change in the way they show up in the organization. Some will commit heartily. Others will commit with hesitation. Some will blow smoke to buy time to find another job or rally a resistance. And others will refuse immediately and opt for an exit. You can easily work with the heartily committed and the hesitantly willing. Even those who refuse and opt to quit offer you a clear path. The difficulty comes with those who want to buy time to line something else up or engage a passive resistance. You must follow up to gauge whether someone is wholly committed to the process. Evidence of a person’s willingness is shown through tangible change efforts and adhering to the agreed upon plan.
  1. Decide on a course of action and measurement. Outline specific areas of improvement, how it will be measured, and who will be measuring it. Make the timeline and measurement very clear as well as the consequences. “If you make these changes you will retain your position, grow in the company, be in good standing, etc. If you do not make these changes then you’ll be asked to leave immediately or be removed from a specific team or responsibility”. Write it out. Sign it yourself, have them sign it, and hand them a copy. Refer back to the measurements in your follow up conversations. Set your follow up meetings immediately. If you’re managing the entire process set a standing weekly meeting for the entirety of the process. If you have a coach working with the individual, introduce them within 24 hours and ensure their first interaction is scheduled.

If they have committed to the change process, then embrace their commitment, support them and prepare them for the hard work that is to come. It’s not an easy journey and they need to know you’re going to walk through their development with them to the extent you’re able. What change do you need to see by what date to show evidence of progress? The initial steps can be extremely simple (show up to meetings on time, leave your laptop, phone or tablet off in meetings, learn a certain task in the business, apologize to your peers for xyz, meet with a coach weekly, etc). You’re looking for measurable progress. As you see measurable progress, even in the small things, you have a great foundation on which to build. 360 feedback assessment, other reputationally based profiles and coaching offer great resources to support an individual through this process.

If the person with whom you’re working expresses an unwillingness to step into change then follow through on the consequences. It’s their choice to change or not. So, it’s their choice to stay with the company, in the role, on a particular team, etc. If you need to see change to retain the individual and they refuse to step into the change process then they have chosen their path. Frame it as their choice and help them on their way. They do have agency over their decisions.

Sometimes you’ll find the problem child isn’t as much of a problem as you thought. You’ve had them mislabeled all along. They’ve just been allowed to go their own way with little feedback. You may find that you, your team and the organization have played a part in creating the circumstances and all that is needed is some guidance. You need to step up and lead, mentor, encourage and to show the way to success.

Radical Candor!

I can’t get the thought of it out of my head.  I don’t know Kim Scott or her organization, nor had I ever heard of her before I saw a post on LinkedIn that referred to her organization and her highlight of this term.  I cannot overstate its simplistic value.  I have been serving as a consultant and executive coach for years and have witnessed the destruction and dysfunction that results when Radical Candor does not exist.

Scott defines Radical Candor as that sweet spot that combines genuine care for people with open, honest and direct communication.

If genuine care for people is missing the result is Obnoxious Aggression, where people are blunt, direct and lacking empathy.  This usually results in a toxic work environment that people cannot run from fast enough.  Those led by Obnoxiously Aggressive managers keep their heads down, don’t speak up, never offer their ideas for fear of receiving the blunt end of their emotional reactions.  They are in it for the pay check and are usually actively looking for somewhere else to work.

If open, honest and direct communication are missing the result is Ruinous Empathy.  What a great term, and probably the most valuable aspect of Scott’s work.  While we’ve all witnessed it, I am not sure we actually had a term to define it until now.  Thank you Kim Scott!   Ruinous Empathy creates an environment in which we fail to make the hard decisions, engage in the crucial conversations, or hold honest performance reviews for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.  We hand out titles, bonuses and raises in hopes that these acts of “kindness” will lead people to behave better and act more responsibly.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  This is just another version of a toxic work environment.  Only the toxicity is more covert than overt.  People tend to feel or get trapped in these environments because they cannot replace their salary or title in anywhere else.  They die a slow and painful death as the fires of dignity are quenched from within.

It stands to reason then, that the only environment in which people thrive and grow and bring their best every day are those where Radical Candor is the norm, or at least is the standard that is being strived for.  Achieving the fine balance of genuine care for people with open, honest, direct communication is truly an art.  And like all art, it is only perfected with focus, attention, and practice.

Caught in the Whirlwind


How do you sustain your vision? I often have the privilege of coaching executives who are having trouble sustaining their effectiveness. While the following three stories are not identical, their response was similar, and that response is what was contributing to their diminishing results.

In one case, the executive was leading his department through a large-scale reorganization resulting in a significant downsizing of his team. Any of us would agree that this is a tough situation. In addition, this was his first big opportunity to shine after a career set back that almost derailed him. Talk about stress.

In another case, the executive was facing numerous pressures at work and at home. She was managing a rebellious, insubordinate employee whom she had been handling with kid gloves for fear of a lawsuit, and was almost single-handedly managing the care for a very ill parent who required a significant portion of her time and energy away from work. All of this distraction caused her to lose confidence in her capacity for leading effectively.

In another case, the executive was faced with new customers who had new demands, and home office that had even higher expectations of him to secure these new relationships. He classified himself as an engineer who would prefer managing operations than building and leading his team to create an environment where operations can thrive.

In an effort to be effective in these stressful conditions each of these executives allowed themselves to become buried in “whirlwind of operations” such that they have lost their focus on their vision for leading, if they ever really had one in the first place.

In his timeless classic, “The Effective Executive,” Peter Drucker said, “If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he or she works on, and what he or she takes seriously, he will fritter himself away operating.”

This is what these leaders were doing, and they didn’t realize it until they stepped back to gather a more objective perspective.

Each of these leaders utilized the time with their executive coach to step back from this whirlwind to renew their vision for their organization and their leadership, and to develop a strategy to ensure that vision becomes a reality.

They were asking themselves the big questions about why their teams existed, and what was the team’s purpose, mission and vision. They were asking about the values and behaviors they wanted to see exhibited in their team, i.e. the things that would lead to the highest levels of performance and execution. They started evaluating their talent and discussing team members’ development needs. They began to ask themselves what team members needed most from them, and how they could create the environment that would allow these to come to life. They were redefining their role and their priorities. They were setting aside time to work on these things, and to ensure that they did not let themselves be overwhelmed by constant “whirlwind of operations” that would consume them if they allow it.

Once they began to develop the plan for bringing these things to life, it was evident that their fire and passion for leadership was reignited.

What are you doing to keep the whirlwind of daily operations from snuffing out your vision?