Be Careful While You're Trying to Change the World
July 8, 2016
Mary C. Schaefer
TopicsCharacter-based Leadership, emotional intelligence, Growth, humility, Self Development
I was so excited. I finally got my first HR position. I was going to make my mark. I was going to show people how HR could be done.
There was one employee in my constituency who had a reputation for blowing up on others. The politically correct term was that people felt “poorly treated” by her. She would go from zero to 100 in milliseconds. You wouldn’t see it coming. Her teammates were exhausted from dealing with her. Her manager even seemed intimidated.
Eventually she ended up in my office. Her supervisor had talked to her about her counterproductive behavior. She did not receive it well.
She and I were sitting together at a table in my office. She railed about her supervisor. At one point stood up, moved closer to me and stood over me. I presume she was trying to intimidate me. Nope. The buck stops here. That was not going to happen.
I worked with her supervisor. I worked with them together. I worked with the entire team to clarify roles to create a forum for collaboration.
At times when I met with her and her supervisor the supervisor would cave and undermine the plan to hold her accountable.
I was frustrated. I was also frustrated with my predecessors. This woman had been getting away with this behavior for years. It was going to stop under my watch.
Pride Comes Before the Fall
One day I was meeting with her and her supervisor. Something set her off. I responded. She responded by twisting my words. That’s beyond a pet peeve for me.
At that moment it all came together. I knew she could outlast me in this interaction and all others. Nothing I said was going to make a difference. I was in over my head. I started crying.
Her supervisor finally stepped in with a good idea. What if we all took a break? We did. Indefinitely.
I called my supervisor. I went home for the rest of the day. I couldn’t stop crying.
Later I regrouped with my supervisor and his supervisor. We decided my supervisor would take over managing this situation. Within 6 months the employee left the company happily with a severance package.
One of my favorite quotations is:
Sometimes the fool who rushes in gets the job done. – Al Bernstein
In this case, I was the fool. I certainly didn’t get the job done.
What Could I Have Done Differently?
I have strong feelings about those who get away with hurting others at work. I go crazy when I hear, “Oh that’s just so-and-so.” I needed to be clear about my own baggage and how it affected my job.
I also needed to get good advice on a practical response to the situation. To give myself credit, I did ask for advice. I didn’t like the answers I got. It was not being taken seriously enough -- for me. People were going to continue to get hurt. That is all true. And, I didn’t know the depth of the situation with the alleged perpetrator.
The situation needed to be handled with a lighter touch. I couldn't imagine a lighter touch, but I was wrong. When my supervisor explained how he delivered the message that it was time for her to move on, it was clear he handled it with amazing dexterity. I was also amazed that she didn’t over-react. Who knew? Uh, someone other than me apparently.
I’m struggling with the nuance between pride and arrogance to describe my behavior. When I find myself rationalizing I describe myself as responsible. It occurs to me that pride and arrogance can be the shadow of "taking charge." I was over-flexing my responsibility muscle to the detriment of all involved.
I hope others can learn from my humiliating and painful misstep. Though this was years ago, I am still learning.
What a great essay on how messy this dealing with people stuff can be. We read, we study, we plan, we do all the right things … and things just don’t work the way we think or hope they should.
I admire your consistent willingness to look at your own behavior and analyze it, which benefits both you and all the rest of us. That “save the world” idealism runs through most professionals I know, regardless of their field … we all want to make the world run better for everyone.
Don’t give up your idealism. When you help us look at ourselves honestly and consider our past actions in order to make our future actions more effective, you are indeed changing the world, one person at a time:)
By the way, crying is a sign that you need to step out for a while and regroup. You did exactly what you needed to do in that situation – good on ya, as my cousins would say:).
Thank you, John. I always look forward to your comments.
This one was tough for me to share. Nearly as tough as the story of the time I made an employee cry sorta on purpose.
I like what you say both about willingness to look at our own behavior AND idealism. I feel both have served me to be even more level-headed and effective in seemingly inconceivable situations. The more we know about ourselves, the less our baggage and incredulity will get in the way.
I’m okay with the crying at work. In this case it was full of so many conflicting and embarrassing feelings in the moment, but in general I’m okay with it. I would love to destigmatize crying at work. That’s altogether another discussion 🙂
Thx again. Thank you for helping me feel okay, again, with being transparent about my missteps.