Dialogue: A Crucial Leadership Skill

Carlos has recently been appointed as a new supervisor of production. His feelings about his new job are mixed. He loved working on the floor and had a good relationship with his co-workers. He wasn’t sure he wanted all the responsibility and hassles of being a supervisor and how it might change his relationship with his former peers.
Carlos was pleased that the transition seemed to go pretty smoothly, initially. Except for a little good-natured teasing, his co-workers had wished him well and for the first few weeks they’d been cooperative and even helpful as he adjusted to his new role.

Then late on a Friday afternoon of Carlos’s second week in his new job, a disturbing incident took place. He stopped by the lunch room and found a couple of his old buddies, Mike and Bobbie, sitting at a table ready to go home for the day.

“Hey, you guys. You shouldn’t be in here this soon. It’s at least another 15 minutes until quitting time,” said Carlos. “Get back on the floor and I’ll forget I saw you here.”

“Come off it, Carlos,” said Mike. “You used to slip up here yourself on Fridays. Just because you’ve got a little rank now, don’t think you can get tough with us.”

Carlos replied, “Things are different now. Both of you get back on the job.” Mike and Bobbie said nothing more and they both returned to the floor.

From that time on, Carlos began to have problems as a supervisor. Mike and Bobbie gave him the silent treatment. The operators seemed to forget how to do the simplest things. Every few minutes there was a machine shutdown. By the end of the month, Carlos’s department was showing its poorest record ever for production.

Carlos is facing a key moment, which I define as a situation or event that presents a challenge and demands a response. And how Carlos handles this key moment will greatly influence his success as a supervisor and the productivity of his entire department.

Unfortunately, our natural tendency when facing a challenging key moment is to react in one of three ways, each of which is harmful in the long-run. We tend to dominate, accommodate or avoid.

Dominators

Dominators impose their will on people and try to get them to do what they want with little regard for other’s thoughts, needs or feelings. Dominating behaviors include: lecturing, arguing, defending, belittling, controlling, labeling, attacking, blaming, pointing fingers, shaking fists, refusing to listen, being sarcastic, taking over, being bossy, etc. Dominators don’t like to be wrong and they don’t like to lose. Their strategy is to convince, control or even coerce other people into thinking, doing or believing what they want. They tend to say things like:

“You must (should, ought to, better)”
“My way or the highway”
“You always/never”
“That’s dumb”
“Why don’t you”
“You ought to know better than that”

Dominators communicate the message that “if you don’t do what I want, I will intimidate, coerce, or overpower you until you do.” At the extreme, dominators go on the offensive and attack other people, trying to win through intimidation, power, and control. They tend to be action-oriented, direct, demanding, opinionated, critical, and appear to be self-assured.

If Carlos is a dominator, he’ll handle his key moment by being aggressive with his employees and letting them know that he won’t tolerate their poor performance. He might become more vigilant and seek to find out who those people are that are causing problems and tell them that he is willing to fire someone if things don’t improve.

Accommodators

Accommodators put the opinions, needs and feelings of others ahead of their own. Such behaviors include: deferring to others, being silent, giving-in, appeasing, harmonizing, taking the blame, placating, pleading, apologizing, etc. Whereas dominators don’t like to lose, accommodators don’t like to be disliked or rejected. What other people think about them is more important than what they think about themselves. So they get wrapped up in always being nice. They try to get others to change using indirect tactics. They say things like:

“Whatever you want”
“I want you to feel good about this”
“It doesn’t matter to me”
“I may be wrong, but”
“Is that okay with you?”
“Let’s try to get along”
“I just can’t seem to”
“What do you need?”

Accommodators don’t want to offend. They hope that by being nice they can not only avoid rejection and criticism, but that others will see how nice they are and eventually come around. Over time, accommodators may also feel and act like martyrs, pout, get sick, be depressed, or act out their feelings in passive-aggressive kinds of ways. They tend to be polite, easy to get along with, non-judgmental, passive, and self-aware.

If Carlos is an accommodator, he would likely withdraw, fret and worry about what is happening within his department. He may apologize to Mike and Bobbie (not a bad thing) and take the blame for what is happening. He may also bend over backwards to make his employees happy and, in the process, undermine his own authority.

Avoiders

Avoiders disengage from key moments by minimizing the concerns of both others and themselves. Avoiding behaviors include: denying the seriousness of a situation, suppressing their feelings, leaving, minimizing, being apathetic, rationalizing, acting as if it’s “business as usual,” using humor, distracting, dismissing, escaping, etc. Avoiders don’t like conflict and, in particular, the strong emotions conflict brings, so they try to pretend that everything is okay. Their strategy is to leave issues alone and hope that they will go away. They tend to say things like:

“It’s no biggie”
“Let’s not make a mountain out of a mole-hill”
“What problem?”
“You’re cute when you’re mad”
“I said I was sorry”
“Let’s be logical about this”

Avoiders communicate the message “Let’s pretend that everything is okay.” They don’t want to make waves and hope that by glossing over a situation it will go away. Because they have a hard time dealing with emotional issues, their relationships aren’t as deep. They don’t disclose their true selves to other people but seek to play it safe. Avoiders tend to be easy going, independent, rational, and detached.

If Carlos is an avoider, he’s likely to minimize what is happening and hope that things will improve over time. He would rationalize the decrease in production by telling himself that this is part of the natural transition to supervision.

Unfortunately, the long-term consequences of each of these three communication styles are harmful. They diminish trust and set up an unsafe and adversarial atmosphere of “me versus you” and “us versus them.” They impact self esteem and how people feel about themselves on the job. Organizational performance suffers. Problems go unsolved. Employees are unproductive and unhappy.

Collaborators

Of course, dominating, accommodating and avoiding are not the only choices available during a key moment. A fourth and better alternative is collaboration. Collaborators are tough on two dimensions of behavior. They care about outcomes and they care about people. These leaders recognize their own authority and don’t let pleasing others override their opinions. Yet they are also optimistic about people’s capabilities and motives and so willing to go to them directly to work things out. They step up to difficult conversations when differences of opinion exist, but they do so seeking win-win outcomes rather than imposing their own will on others.

Their communication is grounded in three core skills, which are the hallmark of a healthy leader-employee relationship. They continually “shift gears” between these three core skills depending upon the needs and flow of the conversation. Being aware of the skills allows them to read what is happening and plan where to go next.

Supporting others is the foundation of good communication. It is interacting with employees in ways that promote trust, respect, goodwill, openness, and exploration. It includes the ability to listen deeply as well as show respect and give praise to others.

Confronting others is a willingness to be honest and tell the truth. It includes being real and vulnerable about our own experience as well as caring enough about others to not let them act in harmful or mediocre ways. It is communication which we use to address poor performance, resolve conflicts, or address sensitive topics that effect work.

Empowering others is instilling responsibility and authority in them. It is helping them set goals or define actions to move forward as well as holding them accountable for what they say they’ll do. It also includes expanding the scope of what people do by establishing boundary conditions and providing them with resources, information, and training to succeed.

Let’s watch Carlos in action as he addresses the problems going on in his department as a collaborator, as someone who uses these three core skills to improve the situation with Mike and Bobbie.

Carlos decides his first step is to approach Mike and Bobbie and explore what happened. Late one afternoon he invites them to go with him to the cafeteria. After buying them a drink, they all sit down at a table to talk.

Carlos: “I want to talk to the two of you about what happened a couple of weeks back when I confronted you here in the cafeteria and told you to get back to work. I’d like to know how my message affected you and how you’ve felt since then. I’d also like to be able to talk more about some of my feelings and concerns as a new supervisor. Would that be okay?”

Mike and Bobbie look at each other and are quiet for a moment. Carlos doesn’t break the silence.

Bobbie finally speaks up: “Sure, why not.”

Carlos: “Let’s start with your point of view. It seems that my approach upset you. Is that right?”

Mike: “You better believe it. You came down pretty hard and we didn’t appreciate it. We don’t deserve to be treated like that. I had just put in a very productive day and was feeling pretty good. I don’t like your new attitude of being the big boss.”

Carlos: “So you felt I treated you really poorly. You saw me as using my new authority in an uppity, destructive way.”

Mike: “Yup.”

Carlos: “Bobbie, how about you?”

Bobbie: “I agree with Mike. And it’s not like you didn’t do the same thing yourself before your promotion. It seems pretty ridiculous to me that everything changed all of a sudden.”

Carlos: “So you felt mistreated as well. And it doesn’t make sense to you that I would change the rules so suddenly when I used to do the same thing myself.”

Bobbie: “That’s right.”

Carlos: “I know things have not gone well between us since that day and I recognize that the two of you have felt pretty ticked and disappointed in me.”

Mike: “You’ve got that right. We thought you had more class than that. We don’t appreciate you being on your high horse.”

Carlos: “Are there other things I’m doing since that day that send that message to you—that I’m the boss and you’d better do what I say?”

Bobbie: “Well, yes. It’s your whole attitude.”

Carlos: “What, specifically, are you seeing about my attitude that is bothering you?”

Mike: “You’ve been changing things like our procedures for data entry. We don’t get it. It seemed that things were working well in the past. Why all the changes? And, you don’t even talk to us about them. You just announce them and expect us to like them.”

Carlos: “So you don’t understand why I’m making changes in our procedures and, if I’m hearing you correctly, it bothers you even more that I’m not asking for your input or involving you in the changes.”

Bobbie: “That’s right. We’re getting the message that we’re just a bunch of peons. You’re the only guy with a brain.”

Carlos: “Wow. I can see that you would really resent me for taking that approach. Is there more that I’m doing that is bothering you?”

Bobbie: “Everything is so serious. Our staff meetings are right to the point and we can’t get off topic or laugh and joke with each other for even a few minutes without you steering us back on task. We know you have high expectations but it’s making the rest of us feel like imbeciles.”

Carlos: “So the way I’m running our staff meetings and my focus on productivity and getting results all the time is really getting to you. It’s keeping you from enjoying your work and making you feel like dummies.”

Mike: “That’s right.”

Carlos: “Well, I think I’m hearing you. You’re telling me some things that I didn’t know. It is beginning to make sense why our overall productivity is down in the department. To tell you the truth it has been baffling to me. But now I’m beginning to understand. I appreciate your honesty. I think I’ve got a lot to learn as a new supervisor.” Carlos pauses. “Could I share my point of view?”

Mike and Bobbie: “Go ahead.”

Carlos: “Frankly, this job has felt pretty overwhelming to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted it. I was really uncomfortable with the idea of supervising people who had been my co-workers and even friends. Somewhere along the way, I decided that if you guys were going to accept me as your new supervisor and if I was going to make the transition, then I’d have to act the part. I couldn’t be your peer. I had to be your boss. But maybe I overdid it.”

Bobbie: “I’ll say.”

Carlos: “I had no idea you were feeling the way you are about the new procedures. I thought they would help everyone be more productive. But I can see that, instead, they are making people feel left out, maybe even stupid.”

“And I also thought a way to earn respect was to run a tight ship. Like our staff meetings. I’ve always thought they were pretty loosey-goosey and unproductive. To tell you the truth, I thought people would respect me for bringing more discipline to them.”

“I’m not saying by this that my point of view is right. In fact, I can see how we have been seeing things in very different ways. I’m realizing that I need to do more listening to understand your point of view.”

Mike: “That would be good.”

Bobbie: “I can see what’s happening. We know, Carlos, that you want to do a good job. You just have to remember that we’re all in this. You’ve been acting like it’s a one man show.”

Carlos: “Wow. I can see that now. That’s not what I intended. I just wanted to earn your credibility as your supervisor. I wanted you to recognize that I know what I’m doing.”

Bobbie: “I can see that. We do believe you know what you’re doing. You just need to treat us better. We like to think you believe in us too.”

Carlos: “You’re right. And I can see some changes that I need to make. I want to do a better job of listening. I need to involve you more in changes. Will these things help?”

Mike: “Yes, you’re beginning to sound like the old Carlos.”

Carlos: “I’m glad. But I do need you to know that I still have some pretty serious concerns. As we talked about in our last staff meeting, our numbers are the lowest they have ever been. I’m really feeling the heat. I would like us to talk about what we can do to solve that problem. I recognize it is not one I can solve on my own. Like you have said we’re a team. What suggestions do you both have?”

Mike: “Well, for starters, I would suggest we have this conversation with the whole department. It’s not just Bobbie and I that are the problem. We’re all a part of this one. If you could approach the whole team like you have been talking to us, I think we can get things back on track.”

Carlos: “I think you’re right. Let’s do it in the next staff meeting.”

Collaborators address sensitive issues directly. And they communicate with people in ways that strengthen them—that help them grow, feel good about themselves, and motivate them to perform at their best. It’s not easy. It’s a different way of talking. But it’s also a much better alternative than dominating, accommodating, or avoiding. An alternative that will get the best from your most important resource—your people.

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