Little Behavior, Big Impact

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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  • Hi Dan,
    Wonderful post highlighting the basic premise of people skills — what we do impacts others even if we don’t intend it that way.

    If it impacts others it also impacts us for every action breeds a reaction.

    The larger effect is the lingering impression it leaves about we think about others.

    Perhaps this is the most overlooked part of it. Not only do our actions impact others ability to do their work (e.g. not completing email threads creates a bottleneck of confusion) — our actions also send a message of what we think about others. At least that’s how others interpret it.

    Lesson learned: Be mindful of our actions and ask how they impact others.

    Great post!

  • Kate, thanks for commenting. It seems a basic lesson, doesn’t it? And yet, for that reason, easy to take for granted or to only see in others’ behavior but not our own.

    You are so right about the lesson learned — ask! And, I would add, ask in two ways, since many will offer only half the answer. For those who will tell you about your own behavior (e.g. “You keep your door shut much of the time), extend the feedback by asking also what the behavior means to the person. For those who only offer the meaning (e.g. “You don’t seem to think our work is that valuable”) extend the feedback by asking for examples of the behavior that trigger that feeling.

    Thank you again for sharing your wisdom, Kate. I so appreciate your insights!

  • Hi Dan

    OK I have a confession…no I don’t EVER do this in my email communication but I admit to being emotionally triggered when I am at the other end of it (which seems to happen often with business connections).

    While I chalk it up to the insane pace and amount of emails people in organizations get today, it still feels uncomfortable every time I get one.

    Then there is the general lack of personalization or warmth that accompanies many of these emails when you do get them. I’m not looking for a chat, but how was your weekend would feel nice.

    To your central point though, yes little behaviors – can have huge impacts – personally and professionally. And as in the case of your client – people are completely unaware of their behavior. Another case for mindful business practices.

    We tell clients this all of the time – just because people are not telling you what they experience and what they need – it doesn’t mean its not landing on them emotionally.

    And yes, yes, they fill in the blanks about the WHY of behavior all of the time. This is so important – and could be generalized to many aspects of communication in business – and beyond.

    Another spot on set of close in observations that you always offer in your work!


  • Apparently, it’s an epidemic, Louise, and yes I can get triggered too, most often by the lack of response to important emails; summarizing agreements, for example, or offering some additional observations into which I just have thrown a bit of my heart and soul. And, no, like you, I NEVER do this in MY email communication! Perish the thought!

    There are so many ways in which we may be off point the only thing I believe we can do reflects Kate’s comment above: learn to ask and try to reduce the natural defensiveness that appears with bad news, especially when messengers are just trying to help.

    Ambiguity breeds misunderstanding quickly and is often the biggest source of the influenza.

    Thanks so much for coming by!

  • Dan, found your blog through Kate Nasser’s twitter earlier. I liked how you laid out how a very small behavior, even done with no bad intentions, can impact people. And it’s not that everyone has to change when they hear negative feedback, but most reasonable managers would at least listen to the feedback and consider whether they need to stop (or start) a behavior. Criticism is rough but can lead to better things if seen as a lesson for growth.

  • Hi Gary — Thanks for stopping by. And yes I do agree that it’s “not that everyone has to change when they hear negative feedback.” The best kinds of personal growth seem to depend on a sense of understanding — especially understanding the impacts and options — and then choosing with a sense of personal freedom how to respond. With the kinds of issues I’m addressing in this post, most people, I believe, do want to know. So glad you enjoyed this piece!

  • Since Gary brought the topic of “Not considering every negative feedback”, i remember a yearly feedback session of mine where my Manager told me the following:
    “Pavithra, you are very hard working & incredibly honest & your team loves you but when you talk to a superior you should not be very honest(or blunt) instead you should ego-massage the sentence prior to telling your point”.

    I actually was taken aback by the feedback, what he implied was that when your superior is wrong, you cannot say he or she is wrong, instead sugar coat whatever your are trying to say so that it falls into your superior’s ears as a suggestion and not a confrontation. In laymen terms, 2 + 2 is 4 and if my superior thinks it is 6 , then he is wrong & i don’t agree with sugar coating the sentence to say “Your answer might not be correct” instead of “You are wrong”.

    I think nowadays taking a 365 degree feedback is not something the managers encourage.

    PS: Nice writing, Dan!! I enjoyed the article.

  • Thanks for writing, Pavithra. To me, there are some deeper implications to what you are saying. I often wonder personally what the advice would be if we took the power differences between boss and employee totally out of the picture. To me, this would be the standard as it would apply to people as people, not people as roles. Under those conditions, would your approach to your boss, simply as another human being, have been regarded as too harsh? In my coaching work, I try to consciously put aside the power differences not to become more blunt, but to become more empathic as well as clearer in my feedback. Truth + care in offering feedback is the formula I always try to use, as it is also the standard I most appreciate personally, as well. If someone wants to tell me something, I want it straight up, but I also want to know that the reason I’m receiving this feedback is because it will be helpful to me and the feedback offerer actually cares about my well-being. This makes feedback a gift, not a condemnation.

    This would seem to me to take the whole process out of the realm of ego-massaging without giving up on either the truth or the relationship.

  • I agree with your point of view.
    Also “Truth + care in offering feedback by ignoring the role that one plays” makes perfect sense. It is basically good for both the parties involved. Thanks Dan.

  • We always need to be mindful of the limitations of email, social media and other non-face-to-face communications. There’s no way to gauge the recipient’s reaction in real time or provide ‘mid course corrections’. Email’s greatest strength is its ability to broadcast the message to many people; but this just increases the likelihood that someone will not understand or take it the wrong way. It takes a significant amount of planning to craft an effective email or social media post — including thinking about how the recipients will react to this.

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