I’ll change if you go first

“That guy is good, but he often acts like Attila the Hun,” commented the CEO of a technology company. He was referring to the disruptive behavior of a key project lead. The question is, what can a leader do to effectively handle this situation?

I’m sure many leaders can relate to feeling frustrated over the bewildering behavior that sometimes shows up in otherwise competent and capable employees. And I’ve been right in there with them. In the past, very little could get me more perturbed than behavior that I could not understand. Included on my list were colleagues who acted out in meetings with disruptive or passive-aggressive behavior, stonewalling or dominating the conversation. Like many other executives, I continually asked, “What is wrong with these people, why are they acting like this, and why don’t they change?”

Needless to say, a person who acted like Mr. Attila Project Manager would have failed to appear on my “favorite people in the world to work with” list. I would have been the last to admit I could benefit from changing my view – or for that matter, my own behavioral response when others are not acting the way I expect them to act.

Fast-forward several years and I found myself sitting across the table talking to the project lead, amazed at his brilliance and talent. He was an incredible bundle of wisdom, humor, and commitment to the company, despite some reports to the contrary. I’m sure the leadership team thought I was insane when, after an initial evaluation, I suggested that he not only had a high potential for contribution to the company but also for leadership. In the past, I would have wondered about my sanity, too. Several leaders were ready to ask him to leave the company.

I can only marvel at the change in myself that has helped me see past misguided behavior of the project lead and others like him to appreciate their phenomenal level of potential. In this case, there was a happy ending, because through the lead’s dedication to change, he quickly modified his behavior to act in more positive ways to achieve what he really wanted to achieve. Specifically, despite the appearance of his old behaviors, he wanted to have a positive impact on others.

One VP wrote in an email, “I am pleasantly surprised that I’m actually starting to see him as a leader, too.” I respect the members of that leadership team tremendously for their openness to accept new possibilities for this valuable employee.

I admit that it’s not always possible to access that potential. However, I’ve noticed that as soon as a person is lumped into a category through name-calling (e.g., he’s a jerk, or she’s the wicked witch’s sister), access to that potential is immediately limited. Implicit in most labeling (even softer labels such as “he’s not interested in changing”) is the assumption that the other person doesn’t care or that he does what he does on purpose, which may or may not be true. Even more important, once people are “labeled,” it limits a leader’s ability to “peel the layers of the onion” in order to identify the underlying driver for the behavior and access the person’s ability to find positive alternative behavior.

The difficult truth pill I had to swallow about my own past name-calling and assumptions about behavior is that these are fear-based reptilian brain responses rooted in frustration or anger. The result is that the name-caller and recipient are simultaneously stuck in reptilian fear-based responses, making it more likely that we will both get “stuck together.” The hard lesson is that if I go into any interaction, whether it is a discussion with a friend or coaching, with a smidgeon of judgment about the behavior or with doubts about the positive intention of the other person, that person is likely to retreat (turtle) or attack (tiger) and sometimes both. Judgment (of the kind that appears to make the other person wrong) drives people right into fear – the reptilian brain and protection mode kick in.

I found that as soon as I shift my question from “what’s wrong with him/her” to “how can I help bring out the best in him/her,” a world of opportunity emerges. When I enter any conversation with a genuine interest in the other person, committed to help us focus on the best that we both have to bring to the table, we will both stay in our problem-solving cerebral cortices. It is there that we will be most likely to find positive solutions, even under the most difficult situations. The most powerful words in the English language might be “help me to understand.” Many people, like the project manager, sincerely want to make a positive contribution, yet are unsure how to adopt new behaviors that better serve that desire.

The method described above applies equally well to helping the most talented as well as challenging employees. Everyone I know has had a moment where his or her behavior is less than optimal. Any leader adopting a similar approach would find he or she is more likely to quickly redirect challenging behavior with more ease than he or she might imagine. The results are often astounding.

I am grateful that I have changed so that I can see what is so incredible about the project lead. I admire his knowledge and ability, and I enjoy working with him. I didn’t want to be the one who freed my mind and changed first, and yet it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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