© Rhoberta Shaler, PhD
Have you ever painted yourself into a corner in a conversation? You hoped to have what you were thinking of as a "civil" conversation, and it quickly escalated into a multiplying can of worms? No matter how much you didn't want to "go there," you went there and even further?
It happens. I'm thinking of a business client who wanted to have a reasonable, rational conversation with a key employee. Problem was that this key employee--read: the person everyone had problems with but who carried the company history in her head AND was the top salesperson--was brash, abrupt and defensive. Although I coached my client, the CEO, on the conversation, even role-playing it repeatedly, his anxiety at having to tell this employee that her behavior was causing too much downtime from the conflict she caused was palpable. He needed her and he hated her behavior.
Are you beginning to relate? He appreciated all she did to move the company forward. He appreciated her loyalty over the tough times. He appreciated her consistent high sales. What he could not appreciate was her attitude, her sarcasm, and her seeming uncaring approach to those she worked with. He chose a new and different approach.
Now, it was time for "the talk." The CEO was clear about his mission with this conversation. Rather than talk about her behavior, he talked about the shared values of the company.
It started out calmly but soon escalated. Her voice could be heard from every corner of the business. Then, she began to cuss and tell him what she really thought about every person. This employee was so brash that she actually thought she could say or do anything and her high value to the company would supercede her behavior. Of course, the manager had taught her well because he had let her behavior go unchecked!
He was determined to make today different. As she reacted and erupted, he quietly held his ground.
"It is important to the well-being of my company that everyone is respected. No one here will come to work anxious and concerned about their emotional safety. We treat every person with respect and demonstrate that in our words and actions. That is what I am committed to and each and every person here needs to rally around that. Do you agree that everyone deserves to be treated respectfully?"
It was then that the "Yes, but"s..." started. The CEO held his ground.
"There simply cannot be any exceptions for this to work. I am asking for your help with this. You have been with me a long time and your demonstration of this value of respect will help set the tone I require. Are you with me on this? Will you take the lead in demonstrating respect for colleagues, clients and customers?"
There was nowhere for her to go in this conversation except to agree. The manager then future-paced the outcome:
"Beause respect is a key value here, I am determined to uphold it, too. If I see repeated behaviors or interactions that show me less than that, no matter who it is or how long they have been with me, I will understand by that continued behavior that they do not respect me or my desire. Those folks may no longer be a part of this operation. I simply wanted you to be the first to know. I hope you will help me with this."
That was the fresh start required. The line in the sand was drawn in ink. The clarity was unmistakable. A new chapter began. Yes, it was difficult. But, the CEO felt better than he ever had. The employee was not chastised but invited to participate. There were no accusations or threats. Simple statements and requests.
Is there someone with whom you might like to make such a fresh start?
- Be clear about what you want and why you want it.
- Speak only of your feelings and desires.
- Ask for co-operation.
- Indicate generally what lack of cooperation might produce.
- Move on, ready to believe and act.
If you have questions about fresh starts with difficult people, I invite you to put them in the comments section below.