One of the objectives of the Mental Model Dōjō community sessions is to create space for people to discuss hard-to-put-a-finger-on subjects and taboo topics.
How to manage disengaged team members is a regular topic in my executive coaching sessions. On further enquiry, I see they fall into two categories. On one end of the spectrum are the “quiet” people; i.e. people who leaders perceive as passive and instruction waiting. On the other end of the spectrum are the “smart” people; i.e. people who leaders perceive as holding high esteem of their abilities and sometimes causing complications in teamwork, including withholding and closed behavior.
There’s something uncomfortable about labeling people as “quiet” and “smart”; maybe it’s the impression of passing judgement and the risk of stereo typing. Nonetheless there’s a pattern here, so for the many leaders and coaches tackling the topic, let’s dive in and take a look.
Typically, what is troubling behavior of the other is troubling to us, and not to the other. In their mind they are doing the right thing, however irrational and crazy it might seem from our perspective.
So, as with any situation involving interpersonal dissonance, the first step is to empathize with the other. Here I’ve pulled out the empathy map tool from Design Thinking.
Let’s do it together. Imagine a recent situation where you observed a troubling office behavior of a “smart” or “quiet” person.
- Picture that person in your mind. Let’s start by observing their behavior.
- What do they say?
- What do they do?
- Now let’s put ourselves in their shoes and imagine what’s going inside of them.
- What’s your guess on what they’re thinking? What’s going in their mind?
- Can you feel how they’re feeling? What’s it like? What’s the emotion?
Do this exercise for a few people, and see if you can find patterns.
Here’s what I came up in thinking about the “smart” people with troubling office behavior. Interestingly, I found that there were two patterns of people along the motivation spectrum; “motivated, but disgruntled” and “demotivated and resigned, or sabotaging” “smart” people.
Both categories of “smart” people yearn for recognition, and the “acting out” behavior of people in the first category of “motivated, but disgruntled” people largely stop at the level of voicing out or bottling up on their frustration of perceived lack of recognition:
- This is stupid, why are we doing this? My opinion doesn’t matter, I feel unheard.
- My way is a better way, but I don’t have a say. I’m given no freedom, I feel untrusted.
- It’s too complicated to explain, just leave it to me and I’ll get it done. No, I don’t need someone else to do it with me. Don’t slow me down.
- This work is too low level for me. I’m not batting in my league.
- I’m doing all the work and not getting the recognition.
However, it could be a threshold or spectrum matter but there is certainly a category of “smart” people that display the more troublesome “demotivated and resigned, or sabotaging” behavior:
- This is stupid but I don’t care. No point voicing. I’ll just do what I’m told.
- I could do this work with half a brain. Just cruise, stretch the work, save energy.
- Just tell me what you want and by when, and till then don’t disturb me.
- My expertise is mine, I learned it the hard way and it’s my God-given right to enjoy the fruit of my labour. Why should I share my work?
- I deserve to game the system. This place is not worth me. I’ll just work “smart”.
Similarly, in thinking about the “quiet” people with troubling office behavior, I saw two categories of people, this time also along the “capability” spectrum across the “motivation” spectrum.
Perhaps on the lower “capability” side of things, and typically showing up as behavior of staff with lower seniority, we see the “willing but timid, and maybe lost” “quiet” people:
- Every day is overwhelming.
- I’m scared I’ll make mistakes.
- I’ll listen carefully to the instructions and follow as close as I can.
- I don’t want to fail.
- I don’t want to look bad.
- What do you mean “figure it out yourself”? I feel abandoned.
- You need to teach me how to do it, or else how would I know?
- I can’t do things you haven’t told me to do.
And then we have the “half checked-out” “quiet” people. Potentially these people are more capable than the work performance they display, yet for one reason or another they show significantly withdrawn behavior at work:
- Bosses do the thinking, I do the doing. Thinking takes too much energy. I’m okay to just be told what to do.
- I’m being asked to do a lot of things. I think it’s unfair, it’s beyond my pay grade. I’ll make it look like I tried and let it fizzle out.
- Do things without being told? Go beyond? Be a self-starter? Nah, not my thing. I’ll let others who can do it, do it. I’m good with where I am.
- There’s so much stress in this work. It’s payback time for all my sufferings. Minimum effort into the work is justified.
- The work here is too demanding. Time to look for a better job.
What, so what, now what. Now, what can we do with these people? How do we manage these “smart” and “quiet” people?
Now that we have better insight on their behavior, we’re once step closer in thinking of renewed approaches of engagement and management, and I think there are many many ways that we are resourced to try.
The following are some ideas from me. As demonstrated, I found it useful to think along the lines of the motivation spectrum, so I’ll share my “now what?” by grouping the “motivated” “smart” and “quiet” people and the same for the the “demotivated” people.
If motivation of the staff is less of an issue, then it could be that the troubled behavior you see could be a matter of the level of support, delegation and empowerment that you are providing them as their leader. Let’s use the delegation and empowerment spectrum model to take a look.
For the motivated but disgruntled “smart” people, generally the direction that they will appreciate is more delegation and empowerment. As leader, maybe it’s time to make a renewed effort to release the grip on the reins for others (classic topic, never easy to do). Meanwhile, everything is an experiment. In the spirit of facilitative leadership, set them up for success as best as you can, and let them give it a run. Maybe they will flourish as their confidence predicted, or maybe they’ll flounder. This is “eustress”, good stress, as opposed to distress, bad stress, which will stretch them in the right way and help them grow.
For the willing but timid, and maybe lost “quiet” people, it’s all about the art of support – one of the most nuanced, intricate management skills to master. To a certain extent reverting to instructive leadership is fine, yet you would not want to create dependency where your staff feels comfortable waiting for your commands. Rather, consider management of these people (or for that matter any person) as a foundational exercise of relationship building, built on a steady series of trusting, encouraging, influencing and as necessary, nudging conversations – a genuine practice of dialogue. One conversation at a time, if at some point they start seeing you as a mentor leader, then that’s evidence you’re on the right path on guiding them higher.
Now let’s move on to the more challenging cases of demotivated and resigned, or sabotaging “smart” people, and half checked-out “quiet” people. I’ll try a couple approaches here.
The first one is a matter of fact, direct approach to the troubled behavior observed. Essentially it’s a cool-headed application of critical feedbacking.
The opening step is to invite the troubled behavior staff to the conversation table. There’s no need to sugarcoat the topic, nor keep what’s to be discussed under wraps. Lack of transparency will only make the staff feel uneasy and come to the meeting with their guards up. Keeping things straight-forward, even if they know it’s going to be a critical feedback session, would be better for their psychology. Even better, if this meeting would be perceived not as a one-way conversation but a mutual dialogue between you and them, they will feel respected. My recommendation to is to do “social contracting” in lieu of an invitation to speak. A social contract is verbal and relational in nature, but it goes back to the essence of a contract where two (or more) parties agree to something. It powerfully sets the stage of fairness and mutuality. How to do it is simple, just state your intent and seek agreement; e.g. “I’d like to discuss with you how we, that is, you, me and the team, can best work together in a comfortable, productive and rewarding way. Would you be open to that?”
Fair Process is a leadership engagement model that seeks alignment with people through a dialogical process of (1) engagement, (2) explanation, (3) expectation clarity. Yes, there’s no avoiding making a specific request for behavioral change to the staff in this situation, but just “telling” them that will only make them feel resentful – it would feel unfair to them. They have the need to be equally heard, and hence the very first principle of engagement.
Meanwhile, in communicating the troubled behavior that you seek to be rectified, perhaps SBIN can be a good feedbacking model to chose. SBIN stands for Situation, Behaviour, Impact, Next steps. The key here is to give feedback that does not sound as a personal character attack, but is fine-tuned on a person’s specific behavior and the factual impact that it creates as a consequence. With that as a basis, we then make specific requests for actions of improvement.
Of course, we’re talking behavioral change here, and just one conversation won’t fix things. Again, buckle down and prepare for this to be a foundational exercise of relationship building, built on a steady series of genuine dialogue.
The second approach to working with demotivated and difficult people is, not surprisingly, to attempt to tap into their motivation.
One way to understand demotivated and disengaged people in an organization, is that they don’t see merit in active participation. Merit, can be typically translated into a “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) statement.
And when we map WIIFM with a motivation model such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it becomes quite insightful.
The demotivated and disengaged people will not sabotage their work to a degree that threatens to lose their jobs (i.e. job security); they do have survival and safety needs.
However, they probably see weak benefit in belonging (e.g. being cared by other team members), esteem (e.g. job title, respect from others), self-actualization (e.g. pursuit of performance, expertise) let alone self-transcendence (i.e. doing things for the greater good).
Or not? You never know, maybe they’ve never been given the opportunity to be better welcomed into the team, or given sincere attention and recognition for their work and who they are. And maybe few have attempted to listen to them on their deeply held personal and professional aspirations.
It’s easy to dismiss people. It takes a person courage to stop and find interest in other people. Maybe you can be that person. Go ahead, with love, care and compassion, embrace the troubled and difficult ones in office. You might change their life.