When “just work it out” creates more trouble

I’ve been sick this week and have been lying down on the job with parenting my kids. I’ve been sleeping a lot in the evenings (or just zoning out on the couch while I try to drink fluids) and my kids have been doing the stuff they’re supposed to do (mostly), which is the benefit of having a teen and a tween instead of little kids who need to be directed. But one thing that’s been happening is that my older one has been mean to his younger brother and I haven’t been catching it and setting up any expectations for better behavior. They’ve been dealing with each other on their own, and it’s become a little lopsided.

Not coincidentally, I’ve been talking to clients and friends who are dealing with situations in which one employee is either bullying others or simply blocking action so no one can get anything else done. And management hasn’t been stepping in to censure or fire the problematic employee because they want everyone to “just work it out.”

IF ONE PERSON IS STONEWALLING OR BULLYING OTHERS, IN ANY SITUATION, AND YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE GROUP, YOU HAVE TO STEP IN.

There’s this fundamental misconception that people are just going to be able to work things out and be harmonious and work together, as siblings or coworkers. And that’s clearly Just Not True. First of all, not everyone wants things to work out or wants harmony. In every work-related situation I consulted on this week, the employee creating the blocks was doing so specifically to attempt to preserve power. And my teen is messing with his brother because he thinks it’s fun. The only people who want harmony in these situations are the people who can’t create it (because the other person is causing the problem) or the manager/parent (um, me) who isn’t stepping in. 

Second, allowing both parties in a dispute to just resolve it on an even playing field only makes sense in a situation in which both (or all parties) have the same intentions and weight of risk of the outcome of the dispute resolution process. Basically, we’re assuming there’s a free market of intentions and that all other things being equal, the logical course of action is going to make the most sense and everyone will agree with it. Insert your own joke about how Milton Friedman must never have met YOUR kids, because there’s no such thing as a free market of intentions in a conflict situation.

If we were in the same room, I’d talk with my hands or use M&Ms to show you how this all plays out, but we’re not, so let me just go back to Game Theory and use numbers to explain it: 

Let’s say that Person X is trying to hoard information about something I need to get done at work, and I can’t do my job effectively because she won’t tell me what she knows. So our boss tells us to go into the conference room and talk it out, ladies. Going into this conversation/confrontation, I’m 100% invested in this, because if I can’t get her to lay off the gatekeeping and just let the info come to me, I’m hosed. I can’t get my job done. At the same time, she’s just trying to stay in power and she knows there’s nothing I can do to her (because if there was our boss would already have told her to cut it out), so she comes in invested maybe 30% in this negotiation.

So I’m at 100% risk and she’s at 30% risk, before we even walk into the room. Now, as all good faith negotiations go, we each use a lot of “I statements” and we take turns with the talking stick and blah blah blah. THE ASSUMPTION IS THAT BOTH OF OUR POSITIONS AND FEELINGS ARE EQUALLY VALID. No one penalizes her for being a jerk who’s trying to screw with my ability to get my job done. No one gives me credit for just trying to come in and do my job well every day. We’re assumed to be equal. So then the solution we arrive at involves each of us compromising equally, 50/50. I give 50% and she gives 50%.

Now do the math: 

Me: 100% x 50% = 1.0 x 0.5 = 0.5 = 50%
Her: 30% x 50% = 0.3 x 0.5 = 0.15 = 15%

So I got penalized 50% FOR A SITUATION I DIDN’T EVEN CREATE and she got penalized 15% for deliberately messing with my job and life and ability to feed my children.

And I still don’t even completely have her out of my business, because we compromised.

You can go in and substitute any situation in which one person is harassing another person or blocking another person, about video games or chores or project metrics or who gets to ride in the front seat or program funding or face time with the CEO or meeting deadlines or anything that happens at home or work. This is why you can’t go into couples’ counseling with an abuser. This is why you can’t go into mediation with a vendor who has no legal repercussions for not fulfilling a contract. It’s all about risk and investment, and the problem of assuming that both parties get equal say and equal priority.

So, what does this all mean? It means that if you’re a parent, please please don’t do any of that “I don’t care who started it; I’m going to finish it” crap we grew up with that assumes a free market of intentions and ability to change a situation. Instead, if you notice that one of your kids is consistently the aggressor, make that a no-win situation for them (without involving the other kid, if possible) to guide them into better behavior toward their sibling.

And it means that if you’re a manager, step in. Don’t tell your employees to hash it out on their own. That’s lazy and cowardly, for one thing. You can be conflict-avoidant on your own time, but if you’re being paid to run a team, run the team. Spend some time and do some due diligence on what the underlying dynamics are so you can identify who’s doing the blocking. And then require better behavior of them. If they can’t stop, they need to move out of your team. You cannot sacrifice the entire team and your employees who are 100% invested because you’re afraid to fire someone who’s trying to hoard power or prevent the team or others from doing the best work.

Here’s a plug for my RISWS process for managers: It’s a low-stress, high-reward way to figure out what the flow is in your department so you can see this stuff coming and head it off before it becomes a big problem OR you can gather the evidence you need to be able to fire someone who is taking the whole department down. Anyone acting in good faith benefits from using this process and anyone who’s not acting in good faith gets flushed out.

If you are an employee in a department in which the manager won’t take any action to guide a bullying/blocking employee into better behavior: Ouch. I’m sorry. It’s not you. And you can’t fix this. And being kinder and nicer and more accommodating to the blocker is only going to make things worse (because they’ll gain even more power from that and less investment, while you now have even more investment). You could refer your manager to my RISWS process (because we spend time working on interpersonal dynamics in the department as I teach the manager the process) if you think they’d go for it. You could find another job someplace else (that’s probably the simplest thing to do, as long as you don’t carry any bad feelings about not having been able to fix the situation on your own). You could see if you can go over your manager’s head (DICEY, and I don’t recommend it unless you really have a direct line that won’t come back and bite you later). Whatever you decide to do, just know that it isn’t you. 

If you want to read more about Game Theory in a way that you don’t have to be a mathematician or strategist to understand, check out The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life by Dixit and Nalebuff.

Giving the benefit of the doubt

(I pulled the best of the emails I sent to subscribers from last year and posted them at https://storia.me/story/098239b0d5c7d000 so you can read them. If you missed them or have been thinking about subscribing but want to know what the emails are like, now you can see.)

The other morning my younger one, who is 10 1/2 now, was cuddling in bed with me, and he looked at me and whispered, “I just want to snuggle with you forever.”

It was the moment you think is never going to come when you’re dealing with a non-sleeping newborn or a recalcitrant preschooler. It was the moment that validated everything. And it was a continuation of the night before, when he said to me, “Mom, I like that you treat me like I know what I’m doing.” What a gift he gave me, to give me that feedback that I was saying the right things and with the right attitude to let him know I trust him and think he’s good enough.

People just want to be given the benefit of the doubt. And then they’ll do a good job, because they want to know what they’re doing.

That same day a friend told me she was looking for a new job, because she’d had her annual review and her boss had spent the entire review berating her. So she was walking, because she isn’t about to be treated that way. 

My first reaction was to be thrilled that she knew she could find something else, and wasn’t telling herself she had to stay and be treated like that. (Remember when I figured out that people weren’t stuck anymore so companies had to start getting their acts together?) And then my second reaction was to hope her boss didn’t have children, or was radically different at home than at work. Because anyone who thinks that berating another person who’s putting in a good faith effort is a legit way to manage people probably also thinks that berating kids is a legit way to parent.

My friend is going to move on to something better, and new people will cycle through the position with the ineffective boss. Those people will be unhappy and then will leave, and the company will never do as well as it should, but everything will basically be ok. But if the boss is treating their kids with the same lack of care and common sense, it will harm those kids for life.They can’t escape their family and that parent. And your parents voices are the voices you hear in your head forever, or until you’ve done some really extensive therapy. So berating a child has very real, long-lasting negative consequences.

If you are an employee and you are not being given the benefit of the doubt for good faith effort at work, find another job. Now is the time.

If you’re a kid and you’re not being given the benefit of the doubt by a parent, I am so sorry. You deserve to be treated like you have the capacity to make good decisions, even if you’ve made some mistakes. It gets better. Hang in there until you can leave. If you’re an adult child of someone who doesn’t give you the benefit of the doubt, know that it’s not normal or healthy, and you have a right (some would argue a duty) to put up some boundaries so you aren’t hurt anymore by your parent’s lack of faith.

If you are a manager or a parent and you find yourself berating an employee or child or withholding the benefit of the doubt, remember that this says way more about you than it does about them. It might mean that you’re overwhelmed with having to be in charge. It might mean that you’re out of resources. You might simply be reenacting what happened to you as a child or an employee. Take a little bit of time to figure out why your first reaction is anger at someone who is primarily trying to make you happy. Then figure out why you’re letting that first reaction dictate your behavior. (There are probably two distinct layers here. Tease them out so you really know what’s going on.) 

Then make a plan to fix whatever problem you’re having that is causing you to react in such a negative way. How can you give yourself enough space/confidence/energy/perspective/etc. to be able to use this as a moment to teach and to work with your child or employee to solve the problem? Remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Self-care is VITAL, in the workplace, too.

It’s possible that you’re going to have to do some intensive teaching and mentoring of your child or employee so they know what you need them to do. That’s good. Yes, it’s easier and faster to do it yourself. But the time you put into walking them through what to do so that they fully understand is going to pay off for both of you. If you have an employee who genuinely can’t do the work, find another place for them in your organization or somewhere else. If the employee doesn’t want to do the work, let them go with kindness and good wishes.

I’m not suggesting that you give everyone off the street the benefit of the doubt: Trust in God but lock your car. But the people who are on your team–your kids and your employees–deserve the benefit of the doubt from you, repeatedly and instinctively. If you can’t give that to them, that’s a problem you need to solve.

Is it your problem to solve?

Ellie Newman interviewed me for her radio show “That Got Me Thinking” on KDPI 88.5 FM out of Ketchum, Idaho. Listen to the interview on Ellie’s website here.

The interview is on the topic of change, and how we solve problems to create change. Which is, of course, what I’m always thinking about. The fantastic thing about this interview is that Ellie immediately got my focus on both parenting and managing people, and how they’re the same thing for me. I know it’s a big leap for a lot of people to switch back and forth from the work space in their brain to the parenting space in their brain, but that’s where I live all the time—those two zones—and Ellie didn’t bat an eye at my assumptions that they’re the same thing. There’s also a lot in the interview about my process of solving Flash Consultations, and the types of questions I get.

Last week was the first week back for most of us, to work and to school, and I think it was both a relief and a confirmation that there are real problems for a lot of us. A relief because being out of the regular schedule is stressful. Kids get very very stressed out by the combination of being out of the regular routine and not necessarily knowing what to expect next, and seeing people they don’t usually see while not seeing the people that they see every day in school. If they don’t like school, it can be hard to process the relief of not being there, plus there’s the negative anticipation of going back. If they like school, they may genuinely miss it, and they might feel at a loss without those activities and those people.

Adults are the same way for the same reasons, and there’s another huge layer of cultural expectation that we’re not supposed to want to be at work. (Think of the Powerball frenzy of the last week. Half a billion dollars would utterly ruin your life if you won it out of the blue, but everyone’s so conditioned to think we’re supposed to not want to work that people stood in line for hours to buy tickets to misery. 4 8 15 16 23 42.) But being at home (or “at home” if you were running around a lot or visiting people) has its own kind of stress and dislocation.

So getting back to the regular routine can be a big relief, despite the initial shock of having to get up early and put on pants to go somewhere. But then by day 3 or 4 of the week, all the old problems that were chewing at you before the break popped up again. And you have to confront the fact that a) they actually exist, b) they didn’t magically go away on their own, and c) you’re going to have to do something about them.

Problems such as: your child getting in trouble at school or your boss assuming the worst of you (same problem), your child or your employee getting entrenched in roles and resisting doing something that’s good for everyone just because they don’t want to feel like they have to (again, same problem), chronic miscommunication (with kids or coworkers), gaps in process that means no one’s responsible for something crucial (at home or at work), and generally just being tired of having so many complications to deal with and just wanting to do your work (everywhere). In the worst-case scenario, you really just don’t want to be there anymore.

All of this stuff, though, is just a problem to be solved step by step. Or maybe a few interlocking problems that you have to tease apart. If solving the problem is your responsibility, then you must solve it. And you can solve it. Just look for the most variable part of the problem, and start looking at why that aspect of the problem varies and what that means, and how you can figure out the motivations of the other people involved to change things.

How do you know if the problem is your responsibility? If you are the parent in a parent/child problem scenario, then it’s your responsibility. If you are the manager in a manager/employee scenario, then it’s your responsibility. None of this, “They’re acting childish so I don’t have to fix it” stuff. Step back out of your ego and look at the situation from a systems perspective and figure out where the block is and how to fix it in a way that lets everyone feel good about themselves and learn from the whole thing. That’s heroism (as well as good parenting and good management).

If you’re the child in a parent/child scenario or the employee in a manager/employee scenario, then you probably can’t solve this problem, just because you don’t have the right access or authority to. So think about how honest you can be with the person who can solve it, and ask them to solve it for both of you. Or, if you can’t be that honest, figure out if there’s a way to sidestep the problem so that you can still get the things done that you need to do, and be as free of stress about it as possible.

If this “Whose problem is it to solve?” perspective is interesting to you, check out the books Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott and Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon. Both of these books are super-useful for managers, whether or not you’re a parent, and a lot of the concepts in them have informed my managing process, RISWS