Recently, I’ve been working with a senior leader who was slowly losing patience with a team member. My client noticed the team member was struggling to complete his work, which led to a dip in performance.
The leader had a fortnightly meeting with the team member to go through the allocated tasks, and couldn’t understand why he was so quiet and showed no engagement or eye contact in that time. Although the tasks were accepted, something didn’t feel right.
I asked the leader what she thought was happening. Her responses were:
Maybe he doesn’t like the job? Maybe he doesn’t understand? Maybe he doesn’t like me? I think he probably lacks confidence.
It was clear my client was grabbing at straws, but what was telling was that all of her guesses placed the problem at the team member’s door. However, when I hear something like this, there’s normally something the leader can do! It usually involves looking at their own behaviour, or reflecting on their practice.
I shared with the leader one of my beliefs “People don’t come into work to do a bad job.”
As soon as I said this, the leader had a lightbulb moment. She had come to the meetings already sure that something was wrong with the team member. No matter how many meetings took place or how many tasks were allocated, nothing would change unless she challenged her thoughts by asking the team member what he felt was going on.
She realised the meetings were focused purely on achieving the tasks. As the tasks weren’t always completed, or weren’t completed to the leader’s standard, she had very quickly assumed the team member lacked confidence, or didn’t like the job.
She also realised how draining she found the meetings, as there was no mention of anything positive. Despite her efforts to learn from mistakes, she saw how her focus had been on what’s not gone well, what the team member could do differently, and how he could change or improve.
We reflected on the situation together, and planned how she could make the next meeting different by asking questions about what was getting in the way.
In our next meeting, the leader shared she had asked the team member what the barriers were to achieving the tasks, rather than assuming he lacked confidence. What was shared back, was a complete surprise! The team member replied, “you!” He shared how he was petrified of making a mistake and was nervously waiting for the leader to ‘rip him apart’, which had affected his confidence.
The leader shared back how the last thing she would do was rip him apart, and acknowledged how her focus for the meetings had been on achieving the tasks, not on him and how he was getting on. She quickly moved the conversation to what the team member is doing well, what he had energy for, and what he is good at. Following this, they agreed expectations of the role, and explored more about how they could work together in the future to encourage ownership.
During the next few days, the leader started to notice more eye contact and smiling from the team member. He started to think of solutions, rather than just coming for advice or guidance from the leader and generally seemed more engaged.
Because she had made assumptions about what was affecting the team member’s performance, my client had started to think negatively about him before he even walked in the door. This had exacerbated the situation and made it almost impossible to change things, because the leader hadn’t felt the need to ask what was really going on.
It’s easy to accept your assumptions as true without actually looking for evidence. Instead, making the effort to ask questions enables you to find the facts, rather than working with what you think is the truth. This allows you to move past difficult situations and improve relationships with your team.