I recently read a question in April 23, 2007 BusinessWeek magazine (the Analyze This article of the UpFront section.) Part of the question was the following: “We have an employee who turns every interaction —work-related or not—into a conversation about her. She’s otherwise good at her job, but folks are beginning to avoid meetings with her or task forces on which she serves. “She sucks the air out of the room,” a co-worker complained. Is there a polite way to stifle this behavior?”
There you have it. A situation we have all been in at one time or another. Maybe it’s even us who are constantly turning the conversation into one about us. We are after all the most interesting people we know.
The official person responding to this question answered as follows:
“Since the current strategy, avoidance, doesn’t seem to be helping, you’re going to have to confront her about this. That doesn’t mean merely hinting…. someone, preferably her supervisor or a colleague who has enough of a relationship with her so that constructive observations aren’t rejected out of hand— should talk to her privately. Politely but firmly, tell her that her work is valued but that she may not realize how much she turns the subject to herself. …. You’ll need to keep her contempt in check. Otherwise, she may make that the subject of your talk, once again hijacking the discussion to meet her needs.”
There you have it. The official answer from BusinessWeek. My response is that the recommendation… won’t work.
BusinessWeek’s response contains a seed of truth in it… in the sentence “…someone, preferably her supervisor or a colleague who has enough of a relationship with her…” All purposeful influence requires that a positive relationship exist first. You can have accidental influence without it, but if you want to intentionally move someone in a direction, you must first have a relationship. And I do mean “first”. If you don’t have a positive relationship first, you can count on your message getting either ignored, rejected, or misinterpreted. That’s pretty much the only part of the BusinessWeek response I agree with.
So let’s start at the beginning. We all know someone who takes the whole conversation over making it about them. It may be us sometimes. It may be others. It may be our boss. It could be technical colleagues or non-technical colleagues. It could be customers. It may occur some of the time, it may occur only when relating to certain subjects, or it may occur all the time. If you are a technical manager or even a member of a technical team, how do you either control this situation or at the very least help influence it in the right direction… the direction of full participation by everyone?
You see, I don’t see this situation much different than the person who never talks and never contributes their ideas. The person who constantly turns the conversation into one about them is just the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the person who never says anything. So as a technical manager or a technologist who wants to influence this situation, what should you do?
We’ve got to take one more step back for a moment before answering that important question. And the step back is this. I believe that people behave in ways that they have found useful. People do not knowingly behave in ways that hurt them. They behave in ways that they believe will help them to succeed. So the person who is constantly turning the conversation into one that is about them has found that very useful in the past, just as the person who says nothing has found that behavior to be useful in their past. Perhaps it has to do with safety or with success or with visibility. Frankly, I don’t care about the “why” reason. I only am concerned to notice behavior and to understand that that behavior has been useful for that person in the past and they continue to think that it will be useful; that’s why it is still showing up.
Now notice, that as soon as I take the position that the behavior is useful in some situation, my attitude toward what to do begins to change. It’s not so much a problem. It’s more a situation where I, as the person who wants to influence this behavior in another person, must provide an alternative so that the person will find a new behavior more acceptable to their outcome than the current one. One of the best ways to do this is to determine if the person is “moving towards” something or is “moving away from” something. If they are moving toward something, then I must give them a better way to achieve it. If they are moving away from something then I have to give them a better way to avoid it. (The article didn’t even mention this. The article’s answer was essentially to threaten the employee….”shape up or else!”)
So the first step is to determine if the employee is either moving toward or moving away from and this can be done with some casual conversation. Once you know which it is the next step is to build non-verbal rapport with the person. This can be achieved over the phone or in person. In either case, the goal is to build a comfortable relationship that allows the employee to feel comfortable with the conversation. Contrary to many impressions, building rapport can take a couple of minutes, no more.
Once rapport is built the influential conversation can go something like this for both cases:
Moving Towards (For this example, I’ll assume the person wants to be heard..)
“Sue, I understand that you want to be heard because you have many good ideas. And I also know you want to be influential as a team member and have your ideas integrated into those of the whole team. Most of what we accomplish now days can’t be accomplished by one person, nor by one person’s ideas. Our accomplishments are really due to all of us contributing our ideas. You would be more effective and more completely heard if you would question and pull ideas from your colleagues and once all the ideas are on the table, you can help us integrate all the ideas, including yours into a coherent whole.”
This is the first conversation to have with Sue and it is the conversation that must be on-going. It must be said in various ways and when it seems appropriate. In this way, Sue will find other and better ways to achieve her outcome while helping the team and you, the manager, achieve the team outcome.
Moving Away From (For this example, I’ll assume the person is attempting to avoid criticism or avoid embarrassment.)
“Sue, I know sometimes our meetings can get pretty intense and sometimes even contentious. I know that sometimes technologists want to avoid all that conflict and tension. Sometimes I do to. And yet, some people who avoid speaking can have the best ideas. We need those ideas. We need all the ideas in order to do the best job we can. There are some good ideas and there are some not-so-good ideas. If we put all the ideas on the table, regardless of who put them there, we can all look at them and I’m convinced that the best ideas will be obvious to everyone. It’s like cream rising to the top of the milk. Everyone is part of the team.”
This is what I would say to Sue if she didn’t speak up often. However, in this case, I can’t leave it with this. I have to couple what I’ve said to Sue with something I have to say to the whole team at the next meeting. Whenever possible I have to start saying the following at every meeting that Sue attends; “I want you all to understand that everyone’s ideas are important. My approach is to put all ideas on the table and as we look at all those ideas, the best ideas will become evident to all of us. We’ll see it, modify it if necessary and move on from there. So everyone’s ideas are necessary for this process to work and I expect all of you to participate.”
This sends a message to the team that all ideas are to be heard and respected and it sends another message to Sue that you expect her to contribute and that the team knows all ideas are welcome.
The process I’ve outlined obviously needs some practice, but it works. It has worked for me and it works for those who have taken my classes and those whom I’ve coached. It’s not simple, but people often aren’t. Situations like this don’t lend themselves to 100 word responses, but I can guarantee you that the approach I’ve outlined here works, and that guarantee is based on experience.