A coaching client was hesitant to talk with me about something. It was the last topic on her agenda for our coaching session. We nearly didn’t get to it.
“My new direct report seems like he’s primed to fight with me,” she finally told me. “He’s pretty aggressive with his opinions, pedantic even. He interrupts me and restates what I just said.”
This client, recognized as a superstar in her organization, is brand-new to management. This is her first direct report.
“I don’t want to seem like I can’t hack it as a manager. I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining or oversensitive, and have my management decide I’m not ready,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have anyone I can talk about this with.”
Recognizing this behavior as problematic, she said: “I want to nip it in the bud before it becomes entrenched.”
We talked through several strategies for managing these behaviors.
Reframe the problem. My client was seeing this behavior as her problem — something she needed to accommodate, excuse or work around. “Maybe he’s just needing to prove himself as he gets up to speed,” she theorized. “Or maybe we just have different communication styles.”
I suggested she think about how this direct report’s behavior is a career limiting problem for him. As his manager, she needs to help him recognize this or he risks always struggling with certain people at work.
“Sometimes it can be easier to fight for someone else, to depersonalize the problem,” I explained. “You like him — you’ve said he’s otherwise a nice guy — so fight for his career. He’s going to need to change this if he’s going to be successful with different kinds of people.”
Get curious. “Rather than reacting to his behavior, name it and ask him what’s going on,” I told her. By not reacting to the emotional charge, and not making it about herself, my client avoids becoming defensive.
“So this sounds like: ‘Whoa, that’s a really strong reaction! What’s going on?’” I said. “Or, ‘I’m noticing you interrupting me. Tell me what that’s about.’”
By not reacting to the behavior, she can calmly and kindly help him recognize his impact on others.
Develop alliances. My client didn’t want to talk about his behavior with other people because she didn’t want to seem weak or ineffectual.
“If you’re feeling this way — strong, smart, credible you — how do you think other folks in the organization are feeling?” I asked her. “Do you think you’re the only one impacted by this behavior?”
My client checked in with colleagues. One co-worker said, with relief, that yes, there was something:
“She said she felt undermined by him,” my client said. “She told me that he was routinely double-checking her decisions with her manager.”
My client planned to remind that manager about pushing back on those unnecessary escalations. “This is not a single person’s problem,” she said. “We need to work together to course-correct here.”
Amplify each other. My client noticed her direct report interrupting and restating her own manager’s points, claiming her ideas as his own.
“I think we can work together to call that out in meetings,” my client said. “We need to say, ‘Hang on, let her finish,’ or ‘Yeah, she just said that,’ and toss the ball back to her.” (Read my column about amplification.)
“But you’re right,” my client said slowly. “We can’t do that if we don’t talk about it and solve it together.”
First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.