Have you ever felt like one or more people on your team or work group needs to be told off? Wherever people get together to do some kind of job, such feelings are pretty common.
The truth is, hardly anyone ever needs to be told off. But sometimes both leaders and team members need to just be told certain things.
v Told where the boundaries are, what their duties and other people’s duties are.
v Told what it is their leaders and fellow team members want from them.
v Told their efforts are appreciated, and told when they are succeeding at the tasks they have been set.
v Told where they aren’t succeeding and how they can work on it.
v Told how negative consequences of their actions may be playing out. Preferably before it is too late to make some improvement in those consequences.
Of course, the best way to tell is often to show instead. Teaching by example may be a cliché, but it works best in the long run. In the short run, a bit of telling may be needed to deal with particular situations.
Sometimes showing or telling doesn’t happen just because nobody is asking.
v Ask if they really meant what you thought they meant.
v Ask if they are aware that some aspect of their behaviour is causing you a problem.
v Ask what you can do to help.
v And ask yourself what your own motivations are. Ask yourself, is your intent really to improve conditions in your volunteer or workplace group? Is it to make things better between yourself and your fellow members? Or is it only to ‘zing’ your target from behind the cover of a group of fellow grumblers, huddled together in anonymity?
Here is what happens when you don’t ask, show and tell your problems, feelings and concerns to the person who needs to know:
v The problems don’t get addressed. So you get more annoyed with the person than you were to start with.
v As your frustration builds, you feel even less able than before to face your ‘problem person’ in a calm manner, so instead you gather supporters amongst the team members to commiserate with you. You reinforce each other’s feelings about the person you are upset with. But no one of you is willing to take responsibility for those feelings, so still no-one goes to the person being complained about to work it out. The feelings get still worse, you talk still more, and talk to more people.
v Meanwhile the ‘offender’ doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. The most they may have is a vague feeling that something isn’t right, but they don’t know what and don’t know who to ask. The problem is farther from being solved than ever.
v You start talking to people outside the group, hoping they will get your message across to the ‘offender’ without you actually having to step up and look them in the eyes while you make your complaint. You don’t stop to ask yourself why you don’t want to do that; maybe you are afraid that if you did so, you would have to be willing to hear any complaints your target might have against you. Or maybe you would have to admit to yourself that your complaint wasn’t really worth getting this worked up about.
v Finally, by this circuitous route (perhaps weeks or months after you first started getting annoyed with them), ‘a’ message gets to the person who is your target. But it turns out the message they receive is not along the lines of ‘please do x, y and z differently and we will all work better together’. The message they actually receive is more like ‘practically everybody in this group can’t stand you and would be really glad if you just left’ (even if some of the group members still actually don’t know about the situation)
v The target does not feel like they have learned anything useful, and at this late date can’t do anything to make matters better, especially as the accusations are rather vague and general; nor can they ask for clarification, because they don’t know for sure who has made the complaint. But they risk telling one or two people in the larger group they sense are sympathetic to them, and/or tell some outside friends what has happened.
v Now those friends and supporters of the target, in your group and beyond it, are offended at you, and bad feeling pervades the whole group and even reaches beyond it. The team has turned into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that is not only not at peace within itself, it is having a bad effect on others outside its boundaries.
And this is the end result of failing to communicate directly and respectfully, but instead gossipping and tearing down a chosen scapegoat behind their back: If what you really wanted was to get rid of the ‘target’, you may at this point get your wish.
But it will be at the cost of several things, including:
v Loss of trust within the entire team and leadership
v a loss of respect for the group among outsiders
v the loss of one or more members of the team who have had enough of the backstabbing
v loss of morale among any remaining members
v and a loss of quality in the work done, as the primary task of the team is forgotten amid the petty personal politics.
When leaders and team have failed to ask, show and tell the necessary things to each other, it can be remedied early on by simply having the courage to have an honest conversation about whatever has been bothering you. This is the best of all ways of dealing with your complaint.
If you aren’t willing to do that, it isn’t a wrong choice to just grin and bear it till you decide that either the problem isn’t all that bad after all, or that the time has come to screw up your courage for that honest conversation after all.
But if you choose otherwise, the fatal juncture that leads to all this pain and conflict is your first decision to grumble your discontent in the ears of a third party. That choice can never be a good choice, and nothing good can come of it.
Sorry you talked behind their back? Screw up that courage you couldn’t muster before, and apologize to their face. It’s the first step on the hopeful road back to trust.