You Talkin’ to ME?

The other day I was having a conversation with my son about his grades. His report card was excellent and he had lower grades in only two classes – Math and Health. I was curious about the health grade – it seems like an easy class, so I wondered out loud to him why he was not doing better. He said, “Mom, all they teach us in health is what you tell us all the time anyway. I call it the ‘Mom class’ because it is just your words over and over about taking care of ourselves. And we have these units on bullying – three years now and what difference does it make, kids still bully and the rest of us get sick of listening!”

I thought how this perspective – having information given over and over to a broad group hoping to capture the minority (in this case, the bullies) but not having human behavior actually change as a result – mimics what I observe in corporate America all the time. I see a company where there are a few people who are doing something “wrong” – it could be coming in late, it could be bad-mouthing the firm, it could be taking long breaks, but whatever it is, management wants to fix it. However, instead of addressing the people involved directly, the management will call a meeting and give a “Let’s set the record straight” talk. What happens? The people who were already doing things the proper way (like the kids who would never think of bullying) feel they are being spoken to and think about how they can continue to improve, while the guilty one(s) don’t even know that the message is intended for their ears!

In my work, with a goal to help people understand one another better, I observe how there will be one person who wants to learn, is inquisitive and questioning and willing to take responsibility for their part in a communication breakdown, but they suffer frustration because the person on the other side simply won’t see what role they might play in the dynamic. We all do this at times. For me, when I get into a debate with my teenager, I want to believe that I am just playing “good Mom” and she is the problem – but when I can step outside and be honest, I see that I often exacerbate the situation by my unwillingness to see the world from her viewpoint. I want what I want in the moment, and stepping outside to consider why she wants something else can be challenging.

So it isn’t easy for us to hear the message if we aren’t ready, willing and in a position where we can take in something new that tells us we are in the “wrong.” But think about the wasted time and energy in schools and in businesses from this global “just get the message out there” approach. If we examine it, we see that we are wasting time and opportunity talking to people who already get it in the hopes we will capture someone who doesn’t. Wouldn’t that time be better spent looking at the individual behavior and performing an intervention with someone or some group directly who might need the honest discussion?

In my consulting work, when I talk with management, they will tell me they don’t want to carve out the guilty parties and “alienate” them by talking only to them. In school they say that all of the kids need to hear the message so they can be part of the solution. But is this really working? Are we seeing a behavior change as a result of this approach? I think my son’s observation may be on target – the kids are hearing the message, but nothing is changing in their day-to-day life. And in businesses, people will continue to voice their frustration at management’s unwillingness to tackle a problem head-on because the guilty parties don’t seem to know it is them, and don’t seem to make any behavior change as a result.

The problem with the blanket approach is that the problem doesn’t go away! We frustrate the people who aren’t at fault by continuing to talk to them as if they are, and we don’t get through to the people who need to hear the message.

Honest, direct and negative feedback is very difficult for most of us to give – and to get. In the emotional dance I do with my daughter, I don’t want to acknowledge sometimes that my approach isn’t helping and is potentially hurting the situation. I’d rather be the one telling HER to improve and going along my merry way. Knowing this helps me to realize how hard it can be if we just aren’t ready or able to hear that we need to change. I believe that in general, in our society we need more training on how to recognize behavior in need of correction and we need to teach those in a “teaching” or managing position how to give feedback in a more direct and helpful way. Oftentimes an offender doesn’t even know they are at fault, or someone with a chronic need for attention might find a way of acting out as a method to meet their needs.

There are lots of reasons why an offender offends, but if those in charge want to bring about a behavior change, instead of just feeling they have conveyed the message and can move on, it’s critical to isolate those at fault, speak with them directly and find ways to solve the problem where it actually lives. It’s not easy, but I believe it is a shift that needs to happen if we ever want to see true behavior change with impact.