Monday, September 5, 2011

It's Not About You

Photo by cobalt123
Have you ever found yourself intensely frustrated or angry at a team member?

Frequently, this happens because we take what they said, did, or didn't do very personally. Consequently, we start saying to ourselves something like, "How could that little so and so treat me like this!" It is not long before we're mired in anger and adrenalin.

Every emerging leader and manager I've worked with (and not a few veterans!) has experienced this. It takes many forms depending on our own reactions to frustration, but the pattern is the same: someone else does something we don't like and we conclude that they did it to us.

However, effective managers and leaders understand an important secret: it's not about you.

Most of human behavior is not intentionally designed to irritate you, to be disrespectful, or to make you angry. (For everyone starting to shout exceptions - please read on to the end.) To the contrary, most of an individual's behavior is about them - their problems, their needs, their pain, and their view of the world.

A quick example: It is common for a new manager to become frustrated with a team member who does not perform as the manager expects. Often, the manager assumes the employee doesn't respect them or that they're intentionally trying to undermine the new manager. However, the employee may not have performed as expected for any number of reasons:
  • They might not have understood expectations.
  • They might have had competing expectations from another source or previous employers.
  • They might not have the skills to perform the task.
  • They might not have adequate time given other demands.
  • They might be in a position unsuited to their skills.
  • They might have had a bad day personally. The day I found out my wife had cancer, my performance was not up to normal.
  • They might not realize their behavior is off-putting or inconsiderate.
  • They might not understand the importance of the task and so lack motivation.
  • We might have inadvertently hurt them and they lack the skills to deal with this productively. (A partial exception to the "it's not about you" rule.) 
And so on - you can add many more items to the list. The point is that effective leaders and managers are able to step back from their tendency to personalize someone's behavior and investigate why it is taking place.

Please understand, these are not excuses for team members to under-perform. We want to help the individual either acquire the skills and motivation to succeed in this role or to help them find a role more suited to their skills and motivations. You simply cannot do this effectively if you're caught up in personalized anger.

Finally, yes, I know there are rare times where individuals are truly malicious, mean-spirited, and personally disrespectful. In these instances, however, it is often still about them. They have their own reasons, dysfunctions, and pain for acting the way they do. If we refuse to personalize these attacks, reinforce expectations, motivate, and equip for change, we still have acted with compassion and helped them - even if it ultimately means they need to leave the team.

David M. Dye

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Twitter: @davidmdye
David shares twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing in youth service, education advocacy, city governance, and faith-based nonprofits. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer for Colorado UpLift and enjoys helping others discover and realize their own potential.

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