How to Avoid Spontaneous Management Combustion

Published on
October 4, 2016
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We all do it, many times a day. We see someone we care about—at work and home—sell themselves short.

  • We see them play it safe instead of taking the risk to speak their mind.
  • We see them make things harder for others by not keeping track of their calendar or commitments.
  • We see them deflect responsibility for their actions (or inactions) instead of embracing them as the most powerful way we get to learn about ourselves as human beings.

We see, but we don’t act. But we can’t unsee what we saw. The frustration, or concern, or simply a wish that we have for them — it has to go somewhere. It goes underground. Before we know it, we’ve turned that energy against ourselves. And then it starts to come out in our relationship with this person (or, with others). We become frustrated and irritable. We withdraw and disconnect. We make conclusions and judgments. And then, when we can’t bear it anymore, we lash out. That’s spontaneous management combustion. Of course, it only looks spontaneous — it’s the result of weeks, months, or even years of sitting on what we see instead of acting on it. We cut them short in meetings, talk over them, give a desirable project to someone else, promote a teammate without explanation. Spontaneous management combustion comes in too many forms to catalog.

Here’s the pivot: The cycle of employee disengagement doesn’t start with employees. It starts with managers and leaders. It starts with seeing and not saying. It builds by thinking we’re the victim of disengagement instead of the solution to it.

Nobody has the right to show up at work in an unprofessional way. But everyone has the right to hear from their boss when they do — with a clear explanation of what was off about the behavior, how they can correct course, and to feel that you are there to support them in doing so. If you’re not willing or feel they are past the point of help, the only decent thing to do is let them go. It’s a difficult cycle to break. How do you break up the pattern? How do you talk with each person on the team in a way that:

  • Honors who they are as a unique human being.
  • Keeps the focus on work performance, not life coaching.
  • Helps them connect performance to personal themes, so that getting better at work and getting better at their life is the same thing.

Step 1: It’s a Question of Impacts; Four of Them Actually.

If you look hard enough, you can find four types of impacts in every problematic behavior. Use these questions in your individual meetings to find them. Remember, your job is to ask these questions, not to provide the answers (though you can and should mentor and guide to help people make the connections). Yes, to show them how they’re hurting the business, but far more importantly to show them how they’re hurting themselves.

  • “How is this pattern negatively impacting other people on the team?”
  • “How is this pattern negatively impacting our business goals?”
  • “How is this pattern negatively impacting me, as your manager, and our working relationship?”
  • “How is this pattern negatively impacting you personally, holding you back from the kind of person and professional you want to be?”

Learning how to do accountability well is a skill. It draws on your powers of observation. It requires your curiosity to pick up on the bread crumbs most managers miss. It tests your emotional intelligence because the best accountability challenges people to own their strengths more than correct their weaknesses. It calls on the best version of you, the one who cares far more about people than it does about money, profit or deadlines. And, more than occasionally, for the sake of the health of the team and the A players on it, it requires you to be the bad guy.

Your goal is to have your team member draw a line in the sand for themselves, not for you or the business. Ask open-ended questions like the ones below. Encourage them to write down their answers.

  • “So, given what we’ve been talking about, how would you describe in your words what needs to change and why.”
  • “What would it mean to you, what would it change in your life, if you could change this pattern?”

Step 2: No New Year’s Resolutions

People don’t change overnight. It’s human and reasonable to want to believe otherwise. But don’t be fooled by big promises or bold pronouncements—from others or in yourself. It’s a huge moment when someone discovers a deeply personal theme, something that’s been holding them back for years, perhaps even their entire life. As their mentor, it’s your job not to let them waste the moment by falling into the trap of biting off too much change at once. Help them find the next smallest step they can take. It could be refraining from a behavior they’re trying to change for the rest of the day. It could be refraining from it for the next 15 minutes. The biggest help you can be is by going as small as you possibly can imagine.

Step 3: Keep It at the Top of the Agenda

Don’t leave the change process to chance. Schedule a next meeting to complete this round of the process. Or, as is very often the case, to continue a conversation that you feel like you only got partway through. Keeping the conversation on the calendar is not only a best practice, but it also sends the unequivocal message to your team member that this topic matters, and it has nothing to do with whether the current projects or tasks are going well at the moment, or not.

Step 4: Use Your Authority to Support Theirs

While they’re working on taking their small steps, what small steps can you take to support them? What can you do from your position of authority that can make it more likely for them to succeed? Is there a system that you see that needs to be created or updated? A conversation with someone else on the team, or the leader of another department, to clarify roles and responsibilities? Get curious. Ask questions. Listen to their answers for what the solutions might be. Then act.

Having a boss is not easy. If you have one, you know this personally. No matter how well-intentioned or kind they may be, when an authority figure in your life is pushing you to make changes, it’s easy to get triggered, to shut down and to fall into self-sabotage. Talk with them about this possibility. Share with them one of your experiences where someone was trying to help you grow and you resisted or couldn’t hear what they were saying. Be vulnerable about the price you paid. Tell them what you learned from the experience. Share the moment that it shifted if you can pinpoint it. In short, be the manager for them that you’d like to have yourself.

Accountability looks like a paradox, but it isn’t one. Like a parent who loves their child enough to say “No” and set boundaries, managers who care about people do accountability more and not less. Not because the people on your team are children, but because we all need other people to help us see the things we can’t see about ourselves.

Not because you want to punish or shame them, but because you care.

Editors Note: This guest blog is adapted from Good Authority: How to Become the Leader your Team is Waiting For by Jonathan Raymond.