Responding to concerns as a people manager

You are the people manager for a team, and a team member comes to you with a concern. How should you approach it? I have been in this situation multiple times, and have admittedly made some wrong turns. After some corrections and learning, here is what seems to work well for me (although YMMV). If you like lists, here is a snapshot of the path I take.

  1. Listen
  2. Empathize
  3. Don’t take notes
  4. Descend into the particular
  5. Check with others
  6. Socialize, if the issue is common
  7. DO NOT become an apologist for status quo

Note that this doesn’t talk about the resolution for the issue. That is very specific to the issue at hand. What I have is more of an approach to understanding the issue in a manner that is respectful of the stakeholders. With that disclaimer, let’s unpack each of those bullet points.

Listen

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When someone in the team you support talks about how things are not a 100%, just listen. And I mean really listen. Take what they are saying at face value, even if you suspect something else is at play. Be non judgmental. Give full attention here. This is a lot harder than it sounds! Beware of you mind trying to make connections with that you are hearing. Resist that impulse. Repeat back to them what they said, but in your own words. Ask for a confirmation if you have captured their thoughts and feelings well. Rinse and repeat until they respond affirmatively.

Empathize

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Now that you know what the team member is talking about, do not respond yet. Stop to empathize with them, or their situation. Even if you do not agree with them, still take the time to understand where they are coming from and why they are feeling the way they are. Talk to them to make sure you do understand where they are coming from. It is important not to come across as someone with all the answers, or worse, with condescension. It is important that the person feels validated and not diminished for sharing what they did share. Not giving them that luxury is a sure way to get them to express themselves less and hold things within themselves until it gets to a point where they decide to leave.

Don’t take notes

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Really, put your pen, phone, laptop (or whatever you use to take notes) down. Taking notes during this process does harm on two fronts: (1) it impedes your listening and your ability to empathize, and (2) it can have a chilling effect on the other person’s candor.

When you start taking notes on what you are hearing, your brain stops listening because it’s too focused on ensuring that what it hears is making it into the notes. This directly impacts empathy in that when you don’t listen, you cannot empathize. You might think that by the other person see you take notes, they get the impression/message that you care and you want to make sure nothing is lost/forgotten. However, when it comes to matters where they want to be heard as much as they want their concern addressed, they are looking for a real conversation, and taking notes decidedly gets in the way.

Many such conversations where a team member is bringing a concern comes with an automatic expectation of some form of confidentiality and discretion; otherwise, they would have brought this up in a group and not in private. The moment you start taking notes, you are giving the impression that everything they are saying is ‘on the record and in writing’ so to speak. This makes the speaker guarded; they no longer feel comfortable speaking in a fluent stream of thoughts; they might feel the need to measure their words lest it be misinterpreted from the notes.

Descend into the particular

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After hearing the person out, remain focused on the specific issue they are bringing up. Do not try to generalize. By generalizing you risk losing important details that might be critical to addressing the issue. Also, when it comes to such issues, it helps to solve the exact problem at hand first, and then look to address the general case outside the scope of what the team member is bringing up.

For instance, I had a team member come up to me and say that their lead engineer was micromanaging them too much. The lead would literally look over the engineer’s shoulder and insist that the engineer do things exactly the way the lead wanted them to do it. To get away from the lead, the engineer started working away from their desk, but the lead ended up following them to where ever the engineer was and proceeded with the same behavior. Here the engineer is coming to me for a solution for this particular issue, and it does not help for me to start thinking about generalities such as hostile work environments, issues of gender and under-represented minorities, or workplace aggression. Instead, I chose to focus on the two individuals involved, and the current situation that needed addressing. I strongly recommend you do the same!

Check with others

So, you listened, empathized, kept your focus on the issue at hand. Next, we start trying to resolve it no? No! Don’t try to solve the issue yet. Check with others to see the issue is more widespread than the single individual.

There are multiple ways to do this, and it really depends on the issue at hand. You can bring it up with others in various contexts and situations, but be sure to respect the original team member’s privacy and discretion. And do this urgently. Letting too much time go by sends the wrong signal to the person who brought up the issue in the first place.

By checking with others you get an important signal. Is the issue singular int hat it is just this individual facing it, or is it an issue that multiple people are facing it, but one only of them brought it to you attention. This signal has a strong bearing on which way to proceed next.

Socialize, if the issue is common

If you find that the issue raised actually affects more than one individual, it is important to socialize it. It conveys that the organization is willing to engage in difficult conversation for employees’ benefit, and it is important that everyone sees that. Of course, you have to mean it, and actually follow up with actions that address the issue.

DO NOT become an apologist

This is a strong temptation. Given what you know about how your organization and your leadership works, you might want to explain how the issue arose due to misunderstandings, or how the person who brought up the issue is misinterpreting things, or how things really are working the way things should and all that this person needs is a little faith and patience, etc. The argument doesn’t matter. The mistake is to make any such argument at all.
By becoming an apologist for the status quo, you are effectively victim-blaming. You are telling the person who brought up the issue that it is somehow their fault that this unpleasant situation has come about. You can only imagine the ramifications of that insinuation. So, just don’t try to justify any part of what happened.
Once you have these pieces in place, whatever resolution you come up with likely to be better received, and therefore, result in a better outcome.

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