How to Keep Elephants out of the Hall
There’s a bull elephant in the hall. He first appeared as a nit but problems almost always grow. Everyone sees the problem but no one’s talking.
Successful leaders point out the obvious.
It’s likely you don’t like conflict. You adopt strategies that keep you out of confrontational conversations and stressful situations. Susan Shearouse says, “The goal of some managers is to make it from their office to the elevator without talking with anyone.”
A frequently ignored problem:
“On survey after survey the biggest complaint workers have is the perceived unwillingness of managers to take action against poor performers.” (From: Conflict 101)
Ignoring obvious performance issues is an elephant that drains vitality and demoralizes dedicated employees.
Deal with elephants before they become elephants; become a nitpicker. Force yourself to dig in and start picking early. Silence is consent. Tolerating minor infractions eventually affirms bad habits.
- Ask questions that expose the obvious before the obvious becomes oppressive. Keep asking.
- Don’t let anger fuel your courage.
- Gently explain that small infringements may have big impact on others.
Dealing with elephants:
- Plan your conversation. Identify the desired outcome and explain your intent up front. Determine the type of conversation you desire and stick with it.
- Explain the impact of behaviors on organizational mission. If you attack a person they will become defensive, offensive, or they will clam up.
- Create a framework of safety by dealing with fears, both yours and theirs. For example, don’t feel pressure to deal with an elephant if it’s brought up in a public meeting. Say, we can deal with that later.Deal with an employee’s fears. For example, if your conversation isn’t an official reprimand, let them know.
Do you put off difficult conversations?
What conflict resolution techniques work best for you?
This post is based on an informative and insightful conversation I had with Susan Shearouse. Check out her book, “Conflict 101: A Managers Guide to Resolving Problems so Everyone Can Get Back to Work.”
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Agree with Dan’s points in this post. Problems do not age well. I’m happiest with the outcomes when I simply address them head-on as soon as I know about them. It’s gotten easier over the years because I’ve developed a track record of addressing facts, not picking at people, so most of the time I don’t have to wade through a lot of personal feelings on my way to a solution.
Most critical point: The best thing you can do for your good people is not to tolerate bad performance.
The wisdom of your experience shines through in your comment. Thanks for highlighting the critical point. It comes from Susan Shearouse.
Whoa, I am SUPPOSED to nitpick? Sweet!
LOL, not everyone needs encouragement in this area. 🙂 Have a great week
Excellent post Dan. I also don’t like to let things fester. It leads to built up resentment, a lot of mental and social graffitti and eventually yes the big elelphant. I try to focus on process issues and encourage poor performers to adopt a high performer as a mentor. I have found that providing frequent small bursts of feedback promotes changes that are easier to accomplish. Sometimes we all discover that a low performer may just be in the wrong “spot” and switching to a different position may conform better with hsi/her capabilities. Evaluations have to be fair and pluralistic to convey trust and engage all concerned. Working on promoting the right attitude fixes more problems than actual training for skills in my experience. Attitude vs. skills and values is always under your control. All workers want to succeed and we as leaders are challenged to help them.
“mental and social grafitti” — what an awesome word picture. And it captures what goes on perfectly. And I agree that the first place to look when someone isn’t getting it right is in the mirror — did I train well, and explain well, and resource well?
Whoa, I’m SUPPOSED to nitpick? Sweet!
I have found that “nitpicking” becomes a lot less stressful when there is a free flow of communication between leaders and those that they lead. Once your team knows that you are open to feedback or constructive criticism, they find it easier to accept your “picking”.
Nitpicking must be sandwiched between appreciation and support. Small infractions can very easily become elephants when the person receiving the feedback feels unappreciated. Once you validate their worth it is much easier to discuss problems. Once everything is put out on the table, you can further suppress the growth of the elephant by making it known that you will actively support their continued improvement and growth.
In the book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott provides a “formula” for confronting people that I use when dealing with conflict. The formula she puts forth is pretty simple yet ver powerful. And, it works in such a way as to open up the conversation to allow for a more candid dialog regarding the topic. I highly recommend this this book.
Gary, “Fierce Conversations” is a good playbook when dealing with potentially difficult conversations. Scott says, “…we have arrived here one conversation at a time.” These difficult conversations are building blocks for personal and organizational growth. In the forward of this book Ken Blanchard offers this: “While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a business, a marriage or a life, any single conversation can.”
This is a huge issue in education. The public laments about the poor teachers who cannot be fired. This is not actually the case. Yes, it is much more difficult to be fired after one receives tenure, but it definitely can be done.
The bigger problem is that administrators (of which I am one) oftentimes lack the courage to confront the issues. This is a major problem. I think the best way to handle this issue is to just confront it. For sure, it is difficult. But, if you’ve established a reputation as a leader of being upfront and honest then people know where you are coming from when you have a crucial conversation.
In education I think you probably have a characteristic that is common in industry as well, which is people on the team who have a highly developed skill set or expertise. In many cases leaders move into management before they develop their skills to the same level. That adds the old “how can you judge me when you know less about it than I do” argument, which is a favorite of chemists, engineers and 30-year production folks. The approach Paula describes below becomes even more necessary.
I happen to be a core “I” in DISC vernacular. Along with many qualities I like, is the burden of wanting to be liked/loved. Which means I didn’t like conflict/ confrontation. I say “didn’t” because by the time I had been in leadership about 10 years I knew I needed to get over this aversion if I was ever going to be a more effective leader. (By the way, about 86% of the population struggles with what to do with conflict. I love company.)
My process began by learning not to take things personally and to not make assumptions. Those were huge. Then I recognized that I often made value judgments about the information I needed to deliver rather than seeing it as just information. When I learned to see difficult conversations as a way to convey information people needed to do their work/life better, it was a lot easier to deliver the information with compassion while being clear.
The final piece was learning to ask effective, evaluative questions that helped people see for themselves. “Mary, do you think that your ________ (absenteeism, mistakes with your work, arguments with your co-workers, etc.) are helping or hurting your success?” Evaluative questions are very powerful tools in helping others see the gap between what they want and where they are.
Dan, always a great topic.
I think your response is dead on. We all want to be liked and are afraid of the conflict we see developing if we point out the issues of others.
I also think as leaders it is our job to give people the training and tools to enable them acquire those skills.
You figured it out yourself and most leaders do but why not help people with those skills making them more successful sooner.
Do you put off difficult conversations? – yes – but I have gotten better at not delaying them as I have had more work/life experience.
What conflict resolution techniques work best for you? Being specific and (sounding) neutral. “You had a 40% tardy rate in the past three months. The consequences of this were less productivity on your part as well as difficulty on my part enforcing our punctuality policy when it is pointed out that not everyone obeys them anyway.” This is different than “You are late all the time and that clearly means you could care less about your work.” One leaves the door open for a constructive solution (and possibly understanding the employee’s issues (an ill parent, some sort of personal stressor)) while the other can only shut doors, not open them.
Excellent point. When you simply present facts, then the individual will respond to the facts, which are separate from you. If you present emotion or viewpoint or personal stake, then you invite the individual to respond to these things which are very much a part of you. And you’re absolutely right that bringing the other person’s motivations or character into it will not take you anyplace you want to be. Great constructive advice, thank you.
Great example! This is one of those “nits” that could easily balloon into a big problem. I think in a situation like this you could question the behaivor. You may find that there is more to the nit than you thought and it may open the door for organizational improvement.
Great Blog Dan. Very applicable! Thanks for it.
I see my focus first. If difficult conversations deviate me, I usually prefer to put off. When putting off difficult conversations allow me not to concentrate my focus, then I definitely deal with it. My conflict resolution technique is attack on problem and practices. This works and people do not feel offended directly. Though cultprits know it but feel to discuss problem than to avoid.
I strongly believe that Fear is the greatest deviator. And the best way to deal with fear is attack it. Fear is vanished when it is attacked. As long as, we avoid, it keeps on piling up. So , it is better not to allow fear to escalate. I also believe that fear stemps out of insecurity and lack of support system. So, to alleviate fear, one needs to strengthen support system.
Great article!! I have worked for so many companies that do this!!
A couple of other points to consider along with this article:
If there is a problem that needs to be addressed, address it with the parties responsible, not in a general office meeting. Here is why. The people who are doing the thing wrong will ignore you while the overachievers will worry themselves to death to determine if they are the problem! (As an overachiever, I am guilty as sin!!)
Also, be specific when addressing the problem and encourage the person you are speaking with to be a part of the solution. Let them own it!
“Tolerating minor infractions eventually affirms bad habits. ” <— While this is true, when does one draw the line between 'necessary nitpicking' and 'nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking'? Some bosses tend to make mountains out of mole hills and conjure up imaginary 'elephants'. And doing this can create an oppressive atmosphere at work. So one needs to know the difference between the two categories of nitpicking and take actions accordingly.
– Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)
Your observation is correct and important.
I suggest focusing on behaviors that impact morale, productivity, and office relationships. Let the other stuff go.
What do you think?
That makes sense.
And I also think that the manner in which you ‘nitpick’ is important. You can point out a mistake or a bad habit without being discouraging. And that is what is important.
There is a similar school of thought around the adage, “accidents never happen”. Accidents are an accumulation on tiny, apparently insignificant, events which pass by unnoticed; until the inevitable happens.
It requires self-confidence and a degree of gumption to know when to speak out, in both instances.
Richard, I love your definition of “accident”. As a mother I see inevitable accidents all the time. Some of those accidents, although you see them coming, a parent allows them to happen. Children need to learn. Other accidents, however, we rush in to stop because we see that the consequences out weigh the lessons. I agree, within organizations we must know when to step in.