June 19, 2024

Defining the problem

Harold walked into his boss’s office to report on the project he’d been given earlier in the week. Before Harold said a word, his supervisor, clearly agitated, asked why the completed project was not yet on his desk.

Harold’s blood pressure rose and in an instant he found himself in a potential fight, flight, or freeze situation. He chose to defend himself and offered myriad valid reasons why the project was not yet done.

The battle had just begun—and not for the first time. Harold’s supervisor frequently set expectations of Harold that Harold felt were unreasonable. In other words, this dialog was not foreign to either participant.

Sound familiar? Office hierarchies, family dynamics, even volunteer organization staff interactions frequently repeat patterns of drama over and over again. It may even seem like a script is written and followed and repeated over and over, usually to no one’s satisfaction.

At various times I’ve coached such a supervisor and such a Harold. And everybody usually wants the same outcome. They want the other guy to meet their expectations!

I’d like to address these patterned dysfunctions in two parts: 1) How and why they occur and 2) What can be done to alleviate them.

First, and just to keep it simple, we’ll look at the challenge from the “two-person drama” point of view. It certainly can be more complex than that. If I can get my readers to understand how this happens in the simplest situations, perhaps they can extrapolate them to larger ones.

Harold grew up in a relatively warm environment. Mom and Dad fought about the same things that all the other neighborhood moms and dads fought about. They made up, then jousted again. And Harold had his bouts with both Mom and Dad. He felt that some of the accusations cast his way by his parents were unwarranted, and so he would deflect them, point at a sibling, or otherwise try to defend himself—even more so as he got older and prepared to leave “the nest.”

By the time he was seven or eight years old, he had established a pattern of frequently expecting to be called out for things he was supposed to do or talents he was supposed to demonstrate and did not. Dad always raised his voice. Harold always slumped his shoulders and then attempted to explain. Then Dad’s voice got louder. Harold couldn’t win.

So let’s set Harold aside for a moment and talk about the supervisor.

The supervisor grew up in an environment where Mom and Dad were both professionals: Dad a lawyer and Mom a CPA. For the most part the supervisor (eldest of three children) grew up on his own. As the oldest, he sometimes filled the role of de facto parent since the real ones were absorbed in their own professions. He too could get called out for not meeting expectations, but sometimes they were his siblings’, who intimated that he had some responsibility (as the oldest).

Fast forward 30 years. Can you see where this is going?

The patterns these two adapted way back when they were kids still play a huge role in how they interact today. As a matter of fact, by the time they reached the age they are today, they each have a programed response for pretty much anything that crosses their paths. They know what to like and what to feel good about. They know what to dislike and push back from. They know what offends them and what invites them. They know when to defend themselves and when to demure. They’ve written their “rules of life” and it pretty much doesn’t change. How often have you heard someone say, “Well, that’s just who I am.”? For the most part, that’s an accurate statement. The question is: Is that justification working for them the way they want it to? To my readers here, we call this the Knower/Judger. The part of us that’s hard-wired and pretty inflexible.

So what happens in the repeated pattern of Harold and the supervisor is that two very different K/Js bump into each other—one that’s used to getting emotionally beat up for not meeting someone else’s expectations, and one that’s used to demanding performance out of direct reports. Harold wants the supervisor to be more empathetic. And the supervisor wants Harold to be more aware of his boss’s needs and deadlines.

That’s how we get here. Two people, who both feel that this is just who they are,  wanting the other to modify to avoid the drama.

But what to do about it? Please read this month’s second article….

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