I’m always amazed at how we make meaning out of others’ behaviors — even, and maybe especially, the little stuff.
I worked with a manager once who had a bad habit of not completing email threads. You know, that last confirming “Thanks, I’ll see you then,” or “Okay, I’ve got the document. I’ll take a look and get back to you.” As a coach, when I hear such things from others about a client, I become attuned to the behavior and wait to see if it will happen with me, too.
Sure enough, in this case, it did, as part of our routine scheduling of appointments. I went back to my client and offered the feedback that she was not completing her threads. I used myself as an example.
“No, you’re wrong about that,” she said to me. “I’m sure I replied and completed the loop. Look, I’ll show you on my computer.” But although she searched high and low in her email, no record was there of the message she thought she had sent.
She sat back in her chair with a disconsolate, perturbed look on her face. “I was just sure I got back to you. Now I’m confused.” It was clear that this was an unconscious, unintended pattern.
“Would you like to know how others view this pattern?” I asked. She’d requested I gather feedback from some of her colleagues and customers, so there was no surprise in my offer.
“You mean I do this often?” she asked. “Often enough, and here’s the hard part,” I went on. “It has to do with what people told me was their theory of why you don’t finish off your threads. It comes across to them as superiority. They wonder if you think of yourself as not having to do so, as if you don’t have time for them or are better than them.”
Now my client was truly nonplussed. “Oh, no,” she said. “That’s how they see it?”
“Yes,” I said. “It is. And the pattern seems to happen not only with people within your organization, but with customers I talked with, too. Some said this made them hesitate to engage with you via email or call you. I know this is not good news. And because it has happened to me, too, I must say I can understand the interpretation. I don’t personally agree with the interpretation,” I said, “but I certainly can understand how your reputation could be affected in this way.”
Even though the fix seemed simple enough, my client was suddenly very disheartened. It was never her intent to hurt others or project an image of superiority. I could see she was already apologizing to others in her head, and I did my best to reassure her and talk it through.
It’s a bummer to find this stuff out, yet as leaders, being open to such news is essential. Here you or I are, going our merry ways, thinking we are doing the right things, and then a little piece of bad news comes in like dross from a dirty tide.
Some of us aren’t strong enough, really, to handle it. We blame the others, go into denial, become more distant, wallow in the hurt “that others could ever think such a thing!” And some of us are strong enough, and like my client take immediate and constructive steps to make it right. (In the future, for example, it was something she practiced in our own email exchanges.)
We don’t need any big theories to explain this stuff. We just have to understand that little behaviors can have big unintended impacts. Behaviors trigger interpretations. And it is up to us to welcome and deal with both — if we want to really understand the feedback and ourselves in context. What you or I did, and also how that doing is viewed — what hidden conclusions others draw about us. Just one part is not enough. We need both, and we especially need time for reflection to discern the truth about what others have concluded.
You can bet, for example, that my client wondered about that impression of superiority. That one cut pretty deep and, combined with some other behaviors and interpretations, led not only to a discussion of her shy temperament in general but also to one about stereotypes, about ambiguity and assumptions, about disclosure and openness and what it meant to be a somewhat conservative black manager in her role and organization.
If we don’t have both pieces it’s often a challenge to know exactly what to do because without the full data and time to assess, it’s hard to feel the true magnitude, importance, and direction of change.
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