Al Switzler is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have been working with a supervisor on her people approach. People who report to her often describe her as “condescending and controlling.” Several other directors and I have spoken with her many times with the goal of helping her with her people skills and making her successful. I have gotten to the point of being very blunt in what the expected behavior is. We’ve offered an outside work coach. She still does not understand.
She usually blames the other person and does not see her role in this pattern of behavior. Even when I have pointed out the pattern. She states she has changed her approach by asking questions instead of directing. I get the same comments about her new approach as her old approach, even from new employees.
Any suggestions as to how else this can be addressed?
At Wit’s End
Dear Wit’s End,
You’re dealing with a situation similar to those that other people face regularly in different settings. The problem–there’s a pattern going on that keeps you stuck and you can’t seem to get out of it–even when you deal with the pattern. Coworkers can’t seem to get a colleague to deliver when promised; parents can’t get their son or daughter to take out the trash on Monday morning in time for the pickup–and this has been going on for five years; a salesperson over-promises and makes exaggerated claims to get the sale, even though production and marketing have repeatedly told him or her to stop. You feel you’re knocking your head against a wall–it’s painful and the wall isn’t moving.
So what do you do? Do you push harder? Persevere, cope, do workarounds, give up?
Before I offer a suggestion or two, let me pause to praise you for your perceptions and your efforts. It takes courage and patience and caring to stick in there like you have. Way to go.
Now for some suggestions:
First, as you look at your challenge, think about getting meaning in the pool. You’ve done a great job. You’ve put your meaning in the pool. You’ve had others put their data in the pool. Yet the person doesn’t get it–no change or improvement is visible. Perhaps you should change the kind of data you’re sharing. Sometimes when we put our meaning in the pool, using our best skills, the other person doesn’t get it or believe it.
Now, I’m not going to repeat all the skills you’ll need to use, but the key skill to remember is to start with the facts. These are most often observations. This approach often works well because facts are verifiable, less controversial, and safer. Sometimes the approach can be made more effective by adding anonymous survey data. It’s one thing for this supervisor to hear from you and her colleagues; it’s often more effective to see data that comes from 360-degree feedback. The data is anonymous, it comes from multiple sources, and it is data–it is seen less as opinion.
During the last twenty years, I’ve had the experience that helping different groups of people see where they’re skilled and where they need to make improvements is best done with feedback data. These groups include management, highly technical individuals, attorneys, physicians, accountants, and more. When the other person agrees to participate in a survey feedback process, there is often enough mutual purpose (both of you want the same thing and the other person is willing to improve) that the action steps that follow lead to progress–progress that can be measured. The general principle here is that meaning in the pool, surrounded by mutual purpose and mutual respect, can lead to action. Survey feedback can help the meaning in the pool move from perceived opinion to more solid data or facts.
Second, think of the acronym CPR. There are three levels of discussion you can have in a crucial conversation: Content (talk about the issue the first time it’s a problem); Pattern (when the issue keeps coming up, discuss the pattern, not just one instance); and Relationship (when the recurring issue is affecting the way you interact or work together, discuss the impact it’s having on your relationship). It sounds to me like there are some significant relationship issues here. Are you beginning to not trust that the person can manage this group well? Are you thinking that this person’s condescending and controlling style is affecting morale, productivity, and customer satisfaction? You need to tell the supervisor this and help her understand what it means to you, to coworkers, and to customers. Outline the positive consequences that will happen if she makes improvements, and the negative consequences that will happen if she doesn’t.
Finally, you need to move to action by determining who does what by when, and how you’ll follow up. I would venture a guess that if the person is unwilling or unable to make improvements, and unwilling to participant in a survey feedback process, that you should begin progressive discipline. This will help the supervisor realize why it is important to improve. The status quo should be unacceptable. The reason it is called progressive discipline is that you provide enormous clarity and feedback and provide the person with time and resources to improve. If the other person doesn’t improve, he or she should leave—the negative impact on relationships inside and outside the team and company is too severe not to act. It’s not easy, but it is essential.