Killing Them With Kindness

kindness at work nice people active listening leadershipA friend of mine is having a problem with her boss. (This is not, by the way, one of those “I have a friend” cases where in the friend is actually me, honest.)

In the topsy-turvy economic ups and downs of the last couple of years, a fair number of people have ended up doing different jobs than they used to do. I’m one of them, and I’ve been lucky. My new position’s a great fit. My friend, Olive*, on the other hand, is struggling.

Driven, highly skilled, vivacious, and spunky, Olive is a former Director who’s used to leading a half-dozen staff members. She’s also used to achieving at a very high level.

A corporate re-organization moved her into a different department six months ago and significantly shrunk her scope of duties. She’s now reporting to a new boss–one whose heart is in the right place and who has every intention of being welcoming, supportive and encouraging.

The new boss certainly doesn’t need leadership training to fix her basic personality—she’s a maternal, hand-holding, reassuring type.

Which is the problem in a nutshell.

In a time of stressful transition, Olive doesn’t want or need to be reassured, supported, or encouraged. All of those actions—even when they come from  a place of sincere warmth and concern—are driving her up the wall.

What she wants is to be heard.

“She’s driving me crazy,” Olive told me over lunch recently, a little purple tell-tale vein  in her forehead visibly throbbing. “The thing is, she doesn’t mean to drive me crazy, so on top of being crazy, I also feel like I’m being a complete [censored]. But, for example, take today. A few of us who transferred to her department found out, by talking to each other, that we’re all doing exactly the same thing. We’ve got three different job titles and descriptions, at three different pay grades. But we’re all working on the very same aspects of the very same project, duplicating work and wasting company resources. So we brought it up in a meeting with our boss and told her we could do a lot more, and do it more effectively, if we had a strategic plan from her.”

Olive sighed, exasperated.

“Do you know what she said?”

I sipped on my iced tea, shook my head, and maintained eye contact.

“She said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be alright. You guys are great! You aren’t going to fail.’”

At that point, the purple vein grew two sizes, I swear.

“Of course we aren’t going to fail! That’s not the point! We want to do better than not fail. We want to be organized and smart about our work, and the only person who can make that happen is her. But we can’t seem to get her to understand. It’s like she’s not hearing word we’ve said for the past six months. This has happened over and over again.”

I nodded again and said, “You’re frustrated because it seems like she isn’t listening to what you’re telling her . And she doesn’t get that you’re asking her for guidance, not reassurance.” (Note to veterans of leadership training: You noticed I was using active listening. Right?)

When we think of communication roadblocks, it’s easy to remember the “negative” ones—ordering, judging, preaching, blaming, and so on. But the “positive” roadblocks can be just as damaging to morale, productivity, and efficiency.

Olive and her two colleagues know they’re competent. They know they’ve got what it takes to succeed. They’re asking for changes that will help them do their jobs better. They want to excel. Being told they’re doing just fine isn’t going to help.

This is one of the first concrete examples I’ve seen in a long time of how reassurance, sympathy, and praise can shut down communication just as quickly and decisively as name-calling, ridicule or arguing.

I didn’t offer Olive any advice over our last few bites of lunch, or try to problem-solve for her. I figured if I did, the purple vein might reach across the table and strangle me all by itself.

But I do think if we have another lunch like this, I might ask whether she thinks she and her new boss need to explore how leadership training could help ensure that not only their hearts, but also their minds, are in the right place.

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