A few posts ago I wrote about Erica Andersen and her cool book, Growing Great Employees: Turning Ordinary People into Extraordinary Performers. Here’s part one of a Q&A with Erica. She’s the founder of Proteus International, a consulting firm that works with CEOs and top executives of many major corporations like Molson Coors Brewing, MTV Networks, and ESPN. Enjoy!
Q: For the manager who abhors—and I mean really, really dislikes—confrontation, how can those with people reporting to them manage their discomfort? What kind of training should they be getting?
A: This is a fascinating question. First, let me make sure I’m clear: I think you’re asking how employees whose managers dislike confrontation can make it easier for those managers to confront. As in, I would think, giving corrective performance feedback, or addressing conflict between their employees, or saying “no” to people about things that are important to them.
If that’s what you’re asking, I do have a few suggestions. For most people who are confrontation-phobes, their fear is – basically – that confrontation will only make the situation worse. They worry that if they surface difficult issues, people will get mad, or cry, or hate them – and that the issue won’t get resolved anyway. So why put themselves through all the agony?
There are two ways an employee can reduce that fear. First, by inviting the confrontation and assuring the manager that you (the employee) won’t react badly. For instance, the employee might say something like, “It would be really helpful to me to know both what I’m doing well – and you’re great about telling me that – and what I could do differently or better. I’d appreciate that feedback and it wouldn’t upset me to hear about the things I’m doing that need to change or improve.” Then (and this is even more important), if the manager actually gets up his or her courage to give you the feedback, you have to demonstrate that it was a good thing to do. In other words, you have to listen to what the manager says with curiosity and interest, make sure you understand it, and then work to implement what you’ve heard. You have to show them, through your response, that their fear isn’t valid. Every time you do this, it makes it easier for the manager to confront the next issue.
Q: Can you give us some examples of what you refer to as “petty squabbles and irritants” that seem to meander through offices?
A: Sure. Mostly these problems fall into three buckets. The first is the Rodney Dangerfield bucket – that is, people feeling like other people don’t respect them. The specifics are almost irrelevant – somebody ignored me at a meeting, I wasn’t on the list to be involved in that project, so-and-so rejected my proposal: the core unhappiness is that somebody feels like somebody else doesn’t think they’re smart, and/or good at their job, and/or nice.
The second is the Junior High School bucket – where people get into little cliques and rag on each other. (How this sounds: “Can you believe that Judy wore that/said that/did that? All those people on the sixth floor are so tacky!”)
The third major petty irritant bucket is the Poor Corporate Citizen. In Growing Great Employees, I talk about the four core responsibilities of a good employee, one of which is “being a good company citizen.” By this I mean being pretty consistently cognizant of the rights, needs and constraints of others in the organization, and operating so as to – insofar as possible – acknowledge and accommodate those rights, needs and constraints. In other words, not to make others dread working with you! An example: let’s say an employee in accounting has been asked to gather some information from the sales group. Let’s further suppose that the sales group is right in the middle of their busiest time. A good company citizen would work with the sales folks to figure out how to gather the info in the least disruptive way. A poor corporate citizen would just barrel through, insisting that the sales people provide the information right now, complaining to higher-ups if he/she didn’t get the info immediately, etc.
In my experience, this third bucket creates the most ill feeling – and too many managers don’t think it’s part of their job to rein these folks in. I think every manager has the right (and the responsibility) to require this kind of good corporate citizenship from his or her employees.