My friend Jennifer wrote to me with an interesting, though not uncommon, conundrum. She was asking for help with an employee who is very “defensive” and won’t acknowledge the defensive behavior. She wrote, “the employee continues to interrupt me when I’m providing feedback, and says she has, ‘a right to substantiate’ her perspective. I have tried to tell her that, yes she can explain her point of view but she also needs to listen actively to ensure she understand what I am saying. I’ve suggested that while she is listening she is actually building her case to ‘substantiate’ or defend and therefore not really ‘actively listening’, nor willing to ever acknowledge what I am asking her to change. I’m feel like I’m not getting through to her and am getting frustrated. She is at a director level, not a newbie, and I want to just scream at her, ‘Just do your job!’ but I know this would not be effective. Any suggestions?”
Now, I’ve known Jennifer a long time, I’ve worked with her and I know she’s a terrific manager. But we’ve all run up against people like her current employee. And the good news is, there’s lots she can do.
First off, she needs to stop telling the employee to listen, or listen actively. The employee in question thinks she is listening actively. So pointing out that she may not be (IMHO, she isn’t) won’t do and hasn’t done any good.
Second, Jennifer needs to find a neutral way to talk with the employee about her shortcomings or what she’s doing wrong. But she cannot use the word “wrong” with her or she will likely feel attacked and respond with a “fight or flight” reaction. And we know this employee will dig in her 3-inch heels and fight! I’m sure Jennifer is not attacking her employee but that is certainly how she’s being perceived.
Describe specifically what the employee is doing that is not acceptable. That’s the “what.” Then describe why it’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed. That’s the “so what.” So named because of times when I’ve described a problem or shortcoming to an employee and they responded with, “So what?” Then finally the “now what.” This is the change you expect to see and when. If the unacceptable performance is a deficit of knowledge, then the person needs time and training to rectify it. But if it’s a deficit of performance due to attitude, then when you finish describing the performance you expect to see, you will often end with, “and now!”