Effective Management Consulting

Turning Furious Into Curious

By Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CEAP


“Frustrated.” “Exasperated.” “At the end of my rope.”
This is the vocabulary of a supervisor who has slipped into an emotionally driven over-personalization regarding the conduct of a challenging employee. It is the language of discouragement and even hopelessness.
The struggle usually builds over time, as the employee drifts into uncooperativeness, misunderstandings, interpersonal drama, or insubordination. The supervisor may find that management training and mentors may not have offered the tools to cope with these types of conduct problems. This leads to discouragement and a sense that the employee has become unmanageable.
It is my observation that exasperation may be a key motivator for a supervisor to seek a management consultation with the EAP. The opportunity for the EA consultant is to help the supervisor depersonalize the struggle and manage the employee back to acceptable performance and conduct.

People Aren’t Problems… Ideas are Problems
I find that engaging the supervisor in depersonalizing his or her experience with the challenging employee can be the best strategy during trying times. We are drawn into over-personalizing problems when we attribute them to the employee’s personality, communication style, or interpersonal skills. The more the problem is attributed to these types of traits, the more it seems inseparable from the person. An insistence on seeing the person as the problem by magnifying how the employee is different from the supervisor only serves to disconnect the two parties.
If, however, we can help the supervisor perceive that each party holds a unique view of how something should get done at work, and that those ideas are merely out of alignment, then the supervisor can be empowered to have a stimulating and lively debate with the employee about bringing those ideas closer together.

Turning Furious Into Curious
Frustration and anger tend to discourage the search for alternatives and options. To help unlock that bind, I seek to engage the supervisor in non-judgmental curiosity. A return to exploration and inquiry opens up the possibility of finding a solution that was previously blocked.
Here are some examples of curiosity-based questions I suggest to a supervisor:

* “Huh, I wonder why…”
**…she appears frustrated right now?
** …he is raising his voice at me?
**…this particular topic seems so important to her?

* “Hmmm, that’s interesting…”
** …that he just walked away without answering me.
** …that she won’t accept my instruction.

* “Sheesh, I wonder…”
** …how anything gets done around here? And somehow it does.
** …what qualities the hiring manager saw in him?

There are often tangible and useful answers to these types of questions, and understanding them will help the supervisor create a development plan for the employee.

All Behavior Is Communication
To help the supervisor demystify the conduct of the employee, I find it useful to share these two observations: At its core, most human communication is an attempt to seek fulfillment of an unmet need; and, all behavior is a form of communication.
Melding these together, we are now able to suggest to the supervisor that the conduct of the challenging employee is his/her attempt to telegraph a message about an unmet need.
When a follow-up question is asked, “What unspoken need do you think this employee is attempting to communicate with this behavior?” it’s not uncommon for the supervisor to reply, “I don’t know what this employee needs.” But that’s exactly where consultation can change the discussion to explore the supervisor’s style for connecting with employees on a deeper level.
The unspoken needs acted out by a difficult employee typically include poor job fit, under stimulation, disenfranchisement, loss of efficacy, burnout, or even his/her own desire to become a supervisor. This latter need seems unthinkable to the exasperated supervisor, who equates insubordination with an inability to lead. I have a number of real-world examples in which a challenging employee has blossomed into a valued contributor when promoted to a team leader or supervisor position.

When Your Only Tool is a Hammer
Have you heard this humorous truism? “When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail.” I use this joke (when I have sensed that the supervisor can be playful and/or insightful) to introduce the idea that effective people-management requires a multi-modal approach. In other words, a supervisor’s style may only work for 95% of employees. So a common source of frustration is the power struggle with the remaining 5% of employees over which party (supervisor or employee) is going to adapt to the other.
A multi-modal management style recognizes that employee cooperation and collaboration is more likely to occur when the supervisor can modify his or her communication and management techniques to tailor a supervisory relationship that removes the power struggle.

The author invites you to network around all topics of effective management consulting through his LinkedIn profile, at www.LinkedIn.com/in/JeffHarrisCEAP, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/JeffHarrisCEAP.

Jeffrey Harris, MFT, CPC, CEAP has provided management consulting to a wide variety of organizations throughout his 21-year career in employee assistance, including corporate, government and union organizations. The author also has extensive experience as a manager and executive coach, from which he draws insight for his consulting. Jeff currently serves as Program Manager of EAP & WorkLife at the University of Southern California.