In the following scenario, a client (Michael the CEO) learns of a conversation which ensued between one of his partners and a senior manager on the team.  First read through the dialogue and see if you can tell what went awry in the discussion. I’ll give you my views after the transcript.

Who: Co-founder (Tim), Team manager (Bob), team members (Bart, Betty, and Sal)

Venue: Team meeting a meeting via Slack over several days.

Discussion Sept 7

Bob: I’d like to start gather solid metrics about coaching call distribution
I created a channel called #coaching
All you need to do is type:
Ip (iPad)
Pm (set up)
Bp (billing and payments)
Ideally this will be done when you’re starting or finishing the call. Same day at a minimum.
Think this will work?
It’s set up so if you post those codes it will trigger some automation and we can get solid numbers.

Bart: (thumbs up!)

Tim: @bart please talk to me about this first

Bob: It’s a counting system. We have no way of measuring currently; tried setting it up based on intercom tags, zoom participants, calendly events. This was the most automated I could get

Tim: put something on my Calendar.

Sal: (thumbs up!)

Bob: it’s time tracking for my team

Tim: Can we talk?

Bob: There’s nothing to talk about Tim, they’re typing 2 letters into a slack channel to count their calls

Tim: Greg …, don’t be difficult

Bob: something we’ve tried to figure our forever. I’m 100% serious right now

Tim: Me too

Bob: this is such a non-issue there is nothing total about

Tim: Let’s talk

Bob: and I won’t be undermined in from of my team. Are you really questioning this?

Tim: you need to align with me. Yes

Bob: what is there to align on? I want to count how many calls people are doing. You want that too

Tim: I have no idea what you’re trying to do

Bob: Do I have any authority here?

Tim: You need to align with me when you do things that affect success (edited)

Bob: this is no impact on success; it’s an accounting for how team members use their time

Tim: Put it on the calendar

Bob: It’s time tracking for my team; you are asserting some kind of dominance in front of them and it’s undermining my role as a leader. It’s bullshit

Tim: I’m your boss as you are theirs

Bob: Michael (the CEO) is my boss, you are a co-founder

Tim: Wow

Bob: I respect your role in the company but I have never reported to you

Tim: I’m done here. Simply put so not implement until you align with me on coaching tracking

Bob: Sure thing boss!

Tim: That’s the spirit

Discussion Sept 11

Tim: Heard you’re not feeling well (headache). Let me know what I can do to help.

Discussion Sept 12

Tim: Let me know when you want to talk about tracking training

Discussion Sept 13

Tim: Hey ready to talk?

Bob: I’m still convinced that this is one of those times we’re having a “meeting that could be a slack message” because it’s really straightforward.  After the coaching call type “bp” “ip” or “pm” into a slack channel. That populates a spreadsheet where numbers are calculated; if that plan doesn’t sit well with you we won’t do it. If you have questions I’m happy to answer. If it sounds like a good plan, let’s do it.

Bob: I think a more pressing issue that was passed over yesterday are Mary’s messages that are unanswered in intercom from Sue and Peggy. There is also a candidate that’s waiting for you to reach out.

Tim: Sounds like a good plan that has impact on coaching which success is responsible for. I wanted to understand it better, what impact it will have and any other details not mentioned in slack. I’m one of the owners and creators of this company and I have every right to ask for time and explanation. You no agreeing to speak with me is an issue that will have to be resolved. Also this year I’ll be taking Tina with me to the conference so no need to make plans around it. I want to give her a chance to go and see the conference.

Let’s move forward with your plan, send me a link to the sheet and we can go from there.

Sept 14: Bob resigns

—-

Have you had a similar experience in your career? It’s a sad, painful and all too common occurrence in the workplace. While I don’t like to play Monday morning quarterback, as an executive coach, I am often called in to mediate and dissect situations to understand what goes wrong and how to stop doing it. So let’s look closely at the above.

It’s a rich dialogue from a number of dimensions. You have several elements at play including:

Choice of delivery vehicle: Corporate cultures have increasingly become dependent upon using text as forms of primary communication. While technology has been nothing short of amazing in this last decade, there continues to be an increase in poor communication and many people feeling lonely and isolated. When conversations begin to get heated especially if you’re using text or email, stop what you’re doing. In this case, the conversation got out of control pretty quickly, but Tim or Bart could have said :“let’s table this conversation and get on a phone call after this meeting then we’ll circle back to the team with any follow-ups.”

Lack of getting in sync with each other prior to the meeting. This is a very important part of the communication process and probably the most important part of your job. There are a number of elements in the back and forth that are ripe for improving communication.  The first aspect is understanding who your stakeholders are in any communication.  A stakeholder is a person, group or organization that has interest, concern in an organization, can affect and be affected by the organization action, objectives and policies. Bart made the point of Tim not being in his direct chain of command and therefore didn’t see the value in connecting with Tim to ensure being in sync.  This is clearly a mistake on Bart’s part. While Tim might not be Bart’s manager, his position as a co-founder and interested party in the operations of the company would suggest that changes in operational process should be discussed and agreed to before deploying them to the company.

Assertion vs. curious questions. When a conversation gets heated, a number of physiological responses take place. When we get angry, the heart rate, arterial tension, and testosterone production increases, cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases, and the left hemisphere of the brain becomes more stimulated. What can you do about it? Stop! Whatever it was you were doing that got you to that state, take a deep breath and table the conversation.  It’s ok to say “I feel really heated at the moment, let’s put this conversation aside and come back to it when I feel less tense.” As you noticed in the interaction about, neither Tim nor Bart had the presence of mind to stop what they were doing.  In those moments, if you’re able to start to ask questions.  Once you begin to question you start to engage the cerebral cortex and that action in itself signals to the brain that you’re no longer in a fight or flight situation.  Had Tim been able to engage his higher brain centers he might have approached that conversation with curious questions. Here are some examples:

Tim: Bart, I don’t know that I understand what you’re trying to accomplish with your new tags.  I’m sure it’s a thoughtful plan and I’d like to get a deeper understand of what you’re trying to solve. Can you take a quick step back either now or later in private so that I understand how this will benefit your team and possibly the rest of the organization?

There is always the possibility that Bart could have reacted badly to this question as well if his nature is to fly off the handle, however, he’s less likely to do so if he feels respected to handle his responsibilities and that his authority is being undermined. In life it’s usually not what you say, but how you say it.

Reacting Vs. Responding. 

“When I look back on my knee-jerk reactions now, I realize I should have just taken a breath.”

— Fred Durst

There may be a slight difference between the words react and respond but there is a gulf of difference. When people react, it comes across as defensive. You will usually be at a disadvantage and the entire situation is awkward and uncomfortable what is being said and done and often the interaction is emotionally charged. Your face heats up and our defenses are on red alert. The fight or flight reaction has engaged and you are prepared to either fight the tiger or run for your life. Reactions are easy to recognize when you see them. The downside is that you’re letting emotions without logic or reason carry you forward.  Some people refer to themselves as being passionate in these moments, however, passion without purpose produces unexpected and often poor results.

Respond on the other hand is more thoughtful.  While there is still an external stimulus, it is more thoughtful and contains reasoning and logic. The upside of responding is that there will be a quality back and forth conversation with active listening, questions, and human civility.

Expressing empathy

Most times, we tend to confuse empathy with sympathy. Empathy means being able to understand the needs of others and what it might feel like to stand in their shoes. You are aware of their feelings and how it impacts their perception. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things. You can shift your perception to see the situation through their experiences and perceptions. And the reason that empathy is so important is that leaders who take the time to understand the needs of their employees can provide them with the support they need to press ahead, to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their goals. They build trust and strengthen team collaboration and productivity. Empathetic people listen attentively to what you’re telling them, putting their complete focus on the person in front of them and not getting easily distracted by what’s on their monitor or smartphone. They spend more time listening than talking because their want to understand the difficulties others face, all of which helps to give those around them the feeling of being heard and recognized.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Bart and Tim (names changed to protect confidentiality) but it’s not too late to unpack the conversation and try to be conscious in our future communications. Here are some key elements that you’ll need to develop for effective communication:

  • Self-Awareness – If you feel yourself getting overheated, stop and count to 10. Take a long slow deep breath and stop doing whatever it is you were just doing.  Deep breathing is the fastest way to you calm you down.
  • Ask probing questions.
  • Let go of needing to win the argument. Focus on intention and highest good for all.
  • Be empathetic – If you’re not naturally an empathetic person, you can learn.
  • Don’t expect others to read your mind – never let small situations fester – deal with them at the moment and communicate what is happening in your mind. Don’t assume the other person feels the way you think they do.
  • Always pick up the phone and speak one-to-one with the person you are having a challenge with.
  • Count to 10 and take a deep breath before you respond.
  • Listen more than you speak – I’ve always said there is a reason why you have 2 holes in your head for listening and one for speaking – if you do twice as much listening as you do speaking, you will strike the right balance.
More to come on this story in the coming months…
Executive Coach

Chief Coach and "Fixer"

Gina Lepore is the CEO and founder of MACH4 Ventures offering coaching, team building and execution consulting for individuals and organizations. She is a board certified coach and experienced executive with multiple decades of practical business experience. Services include: Executive Coaching, Training and Building Team Trust and Collaboration and Business Oversight Services. For a consultation, call (413) 728-2398.