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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