Episode 203: Listener Mail – Don’t Attack the Person, Attack the Problem

On this episode of What the Hell Just Happened?, senior Solution Center advisor Tiana Starke joins Paul and Amanda to discuss strategies for coaching an otherwise employee who is a little sensitive to criticism. How do you strike a balance between avoiding hurt feelings and giving the employee the feedback they need to do their job well? The main thing to keep in mind is this: Don’t attack the employee, attack the problem!


Voice Over: You’re about to listen to another episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul Edwards and his guests as they discuss and sometimes even solve some interesting HR problems. 

Paul: And… I’m gonna go off the rails sometimes and talk about whatever I want. 

Amanda: Hi, Tiana. Hi, Paul.

Tiana: Hey, Amanda. How’s it going?

Paul: Hey Amanda.

Amanda: Not too bad. How are you guys?

Paul: I’m doing good. 

Tiana: Yeah

Paul: I got a brand new grill this week.

Tiana: Oh, new grill?

Paul: I kind of need an intervention, but.

[Tiana and Amanda laughs]

Amanda: Yeah, I feel like. What is this, like, your 500th grill?

Paul: No…

Amanda:  Just since I’ve known you.

Paul: OK, it’s only 8.

[Amanda laughs]

Paul: Dont judge me

Amanda: Wow!

Paul: I feel attacked right now.

Tiana: I don’t know, Paul. You might need to be just a little bit.

[Amanda laughs]

Tiana: We got to put the kibosh on the grill.

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: I just want to say, I just want that everybody who’s out there listening… to our one listener, Kenny in North Carolina-

[Amanda laughs]

Tiana: Hi Kenny.

Paul: I’ve been putting off buying this grill because it was like it was expensive-

Amanda: Mm hmm. 

Paul: -and I didn’t think I deserved it. And I would go through these other grills-  I can’t believe I waited this long to get this grill.

Tiana: Ohhh

Paul: The rest of the grills are pretty much dead to me, that’s all.

Tiana: Okay. It’s like the Cadillac of grills.

Paul:Yeah, it’s a pretty cool grill.

[Tiana laughs]

Paul: And by the way, again, for all of our listeners, it’s not a pellet grill. It’s a real grill. It has charcoal. It uses, you know, wood, charcoal, so. Okay, now back to the H.R. show.

Amanda: So, you know, here I am like it. Does it get hot? Okay, this will work for me as a grill.

[Tiana and Amana laughs]

Tiana: And it does the job.

Amanda: Exactly. Well, I had some viewer mail we got sent to us that I wanted to present to both of you because I think you will be able to dive into this topic.

Paul: Wait. Viewer mail?

Amanda: Yeah.

Paul: Some people watching?

Amanda: Yeah-

Paul: I think you mean listener mail.

Amanda: I guess that’s a better way to say it, right? 

Paul: Uh huh

Tiana: Listener. Viewer.

Amanda: You know, actually, Ali makes those videos on our social media about the podcast. She’s really good.

Paul: She did a really good one for the hitman.

Amanda: She really did. 

Tiana: It’s really fun. 

Amanda: Oh, my goodness. So, listener mail. Excuse me. It’s from someone named Kathryn, and she wrote in to us with a little predicament. She’s having. I’m going to read it to you both and let you kind of just share your thoughts. 

Tiana: Cool. 

Amanda: “I have an employee who is awesome, but she does not take criticism well. Every time another team member and or I go to talk to her about anything, even if it’s just a little workflow change to make life easier, she gets very defensive and offended. I try to kill her with kindness, but I’m getting to the point where I’m scared to talk to her any time I have to make even the smallest correction because she gets moody and standoffish. I’m always having to convince her we like and appreciate her and that she’s doing a great job because she’s very insecure and constantly thinks we’re about to fire her. How can I help her feel loved and appreciated, but also make improvements to help our practice?”.

Paul: Well, I have a lot of thoughts about this. 

Tiana: Ditto. 

Paul: Okay, so-

Tiana: Good question. 

Paul: It’s a very good question. It’s pretty, pretty common, right Tiana? 

Tiana: I would say very common.

Paul: So some form of that question.

Tiana: Yes, some variation of it. But the difficulty in giving feedback to an employee by kind of getting past those interpersonal barriers that are happening with like the way they receive it or, you know, how sensitively they take it. And I think it’s just an illustration of like you’re working with humans, right? Everybody is different. Humans are complicated.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. And feedback is sometimes hard to give. And we talk ad nauseum about feedback loops and how to say it to be objective and not subjective- 

Tiana: For sure

Paul: and to try to not make it personal. The first thing I would say is, is that I don’t- it was Kathryn, right? So Kathryn’s in our H.R. Base camp group. And what was Kathryn’s title? An owner or manager? An office manager- is asking this question so  first thing here is this is going to be a tough one to say.

Tiana: Mmm

Paul: I think it’s very, very difficult to come in and have someone who is this way and try to convert them to a different way.

Tiana: Mm hmm.

Paul: Um, I know that’s not always easy, so my answer isn’t always, well, get rid of them because they they are difficult. That’s not what I’m saying here. Tiana, I think we can go back and forth. So my first insight is, is- when people are hired, they should expect one on one feedback from you.

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: And it should be part of your culture. It’s part of what you actually interview for. Like you past, you ask questions that give you some insight as to whether or not this person’s going to be good at receiving instant and sometimes kind of short feedback because they need to fix something.

Tiana: I agree with that. I think it’s a good thing to vet. This is where I’m going to play devil’s advocate with you a little bit Paul.

Paul: Okay.

Tiana: Because I actually think that this is a behavior that might be able to be coachable. 

Paul: Okay.

Tiana: And so just some context here sometimes, you know, and not to make any assumptions about age, but like younger employees that haven’t had a lot of opportunity to get feedback-

Paul: Mm hmm. 

Tiana: -we see with those groups, sometimes there’s a little bit more resistance to feedback just because it hasn’t become a learned behavior yet in the workplace.

Paul: Right.

Tiana: You know, and another trait that comes in or people who have passed job trauma. So they were in an environment where they didn’t get feedback, they might be fired on a dime for anything. Because what I’m reading through this question is that there’s a lot of insecurity here- 

Paul: Yeah.

Tiana: with the employee. So I do feel that before we get into the assumption and you might very well be right, this might be a situation where they try to take some different tactics and it’s just not something that is going to change in the future.

Paul: Yeah.

Tiana: But like before reaching that point, I feel like some measures could be taken to try to level the playing field a little bit with the employee and like build up that trust and relationship and like the ability for that person to become a little bit more comfortable with feedback when it isn’t always glowing and positive. And, you know, the first thing that comes to mind for me with that would be utilizing one on ones. You know, I think is a really great tactic to just have regular check ins, you know, and have time to even talk about, you know, if it’s not work related- What did you do this weekend? How are the kids, you know, what’s going on with your pets? That kind of thing, because it breaks the ice a little bit. And then I think pointing out those areas where something might need improvement, it can start to go over a little bit better when you’re just more comfortable with your direct report. The direct report is more comfortable with the manager. Does that make sense?

Paul: It does. And and I do want to recognize that. And I think everybody who’s listening can recognize this. And we tend to do it, which is if every time I come to you to have a personalized conversation with you, it is to correct or or or is to correct a behavior or give you feedback that is and in many ways or can’t really be misconstrued as positive.

Tiana: Uh Huh. 

Paul: Then that’s it starts to feel like, you know, I think the old term from like the scalded dog thing, like, you know.

Tiana: Totally like, oh, here it comes.

Paul: Here it comes. Every time they come to me with this tongue or in this way, they’re going to have something negative to say. Mm hmm. You know, you said sometimes the younger generation doesn’t have the tools to deal with this because they haven’t been in the workplace yet. And they just it’s like all of us when we were younger. 

Tiana: Yeah, sure.

Paul: We sure we didn’t we didn’t have the experience yet. And we and on the other side of this, I have to say, I can stand in front of a room and give everybody the fir model and talk about feedback and one on ones, and everybody’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But if you haven’t been doing it and you have an employee who has been in the workforce for a long time and they’ve been not getting any of this kind of feedback that we’re talking about-

Tiana: Right.

Paul: both positive and constructive.

Tiana: Mm hmm.

Paul: Then they push back because they’re all of a sudden like, Why are you attacking me? Like, it’s like, I love attacking you.

Tiana: Totally.What is this formality?

Paul: Yeah. So I always try to. Okay, so first piece of a  little nugget -don’t attack the person, attack the problem.

Tiana: That’s great.

Paul: Right?

Tiana: Absolutely. Good advice.

Paul: Yeah. You go to them and say, we have this problem and I need your help solving it.

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: And and this is a little bit different. It’s like you’re involved. We’re involved together, and you’re the person who can solve this problem. 

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: Now, that’s not always effective, but I guess right now what we’re trying to do is give Kathryn some different approaches to it.

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: I want to say one other thing Tiana and I’m going to turn this back over to you, is it’s exhausting to have to reassure an employee who’s default is. Is the reason why you’re telling me this is because you don’t like me and because I might be fired.

Tiana: Right.

Paul: I feel like that’s actually a passive aggressive behavior, a way of getting control, because you then make your your concerns the center of what the conversation is going to be.

Tiana: Yeah

Paul: And it’s as a manager, it’s very difficult to get past someone who who defaults to that because they’ve been taught that or they’ve taught themself that.

Tiana: Totally. And it’s really, really hard to interact with somebody who’s taking on that victim mindset. Like that’s their first go to where they go with that. You know, one thing that I might say to that is and I’ve coached our members on this before, sometimes with employees like this, it helps to give them the reminder to challenge themselves to look for the positive in things. I think people can get caught in a negative thinking-

Paul: I do it.

Tiana: -pattern for sure. And like once they have a negative view about what’s going on around them, they want to look for other pieces of evidence to reaffirm their, you know, assumption

Paul: Right.

Tiana: -that things are negative. So it’s sort of a challenge of like, why don’t you focus your efforts and intentions on ways that other team members have lifted you up or really positive interactions you had with patients. And if you’re like training the brain that way, you know, sometimes somebody can shift a little bit out of that. But I also find with employees like this, it can be helpful to just have a moment of relatability with the manager as well and kind of a moment of, hey, it’s like feedback is not easy to receive. I remember a time where my boss ended up telling me that I had totally botched a project.

Paul: So you’re going to share something us.

Tiana: Yeah. So maybe share something, you know, and just kind of model the behavior of the way that I have learned how to succeed at this organization or at this practice is by being able to constructively implement feedback that’s given to me. And this is really helped me grow and understanding that I don’t always get everything right, you know? And I think the more that that’s modeled for somebody, it could help to like guide them out of that. You know, like you said, these personality types are really challenging and tough to deal with sometimes. And if they’re stuck in that, you know, there’s only so much you can do. But just trying I think some of those steps could be helpful.

Paul: Yeah. Look as a manager, you kind of have somebody you have their livelihood in your hands. And you know that some managers are more sensitive than others. 

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: And I mean, I don’t know what I mean by that, but I, I just know I have some managers who are like, I would just get her out of there. Made a mistake-I’ve got to have a team that can have feedback that can fit the team. We shouldn’t have hired this person.

Tiana: Totally. Not comfortable to have that conversation.

Paul: Yeah. They just they don’t want it. Well, they don’t want to they don’t want to deal with it. We have other managers who are like, look, these are people. I care about them. I’m close to them. I want to do everything I can to give them an opportunity to succeed. And then everybody that falls in between the spectrum. So if you’re listening, well, we get it. But eventually it has to be about the person. 

Tiana: Yeah

Paul: And as a manager, if, you know, if you’re setting some goals, if you’re communicating, you know, a little bit of some vision for where we’re headed and we’re all working towards it. And you can relate whatever that particular maybe we’ll call it a problem is or that need for correction is. If you can relate that to the overall picture I think you can dilute the personalization of it even a little bit more.

Tiana: Oh yeah.

Paul: Right? 

Tiana: Yeah. Like you can be like, Okay, so look, we got to just talk about what I just overheard on the phone we’re shooting for this and I’m a little concerned that you were off script and you were far enough off script that we’re not going to be able to figure out if we have a good script or not.

Tiana: Mm hmm

Paul: Right? So I don’t think we got the best outcome of that. Let’s get back on the script. And, and then as a manager, Tiana I think you got to recognize just within just a few, maybe hours or the end of the day or within a couple of days. And that one on one, you got to go, Hey, I saw you were back on the script. I see why you were struggling with it now. The script is just not working. 

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: You know, so let’s change the script. What do you suggest that we did?

Tiana: Oh, that’s great, Paul. And it’s a real clear example of, like, problem, not person. 

Paul: Yeah. We’re, we’re going after the problem. So maybe from this podcast we’re saying, Kathryn, that if if she’s overly sensitive, if someone is what I’m terming as overly sensitive, other people may not agree with that. But if a person is kind of victimizing themselves and everything you can try some different things. But I’m going to tell you, because I’m a cold hearted H.R. person, eventually they have to do their job and they’ve got to be and you’ve got to be able to give feedback. And if you feel like you’re as a leader, developing your feedback, your ability to give feedback and this person is stuck in there in their inability to receive it from you and from other people, and they get defensive then then your next step Tiana, is to actually go after that. 

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: That to me would be your last line of defense is to say, Look, I don’t even want to talk to you about what we’re trying to crack.I want to talk to you about how you’re receiving what I’m saying.

Tiana: I agree. Yeah. You get to the point of corrective counseling for the problematic behavior at this point.

Paul: Yeah. From the actual thing that’s driving you crazy as you get to that. And I think if they can’t, if you again, this is leadership development, you got to be a good leader. 

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: I mean, tell me, what would you what would you well, what would they say? What would the managers how would the manager shift that conversation from I need to talk to you about a behavior, but never mind the behavior.

Paul: Let’s talk about how you’re going to break down and start crying before I even get through this.

Tiana: Yeah. I think the conversation you get to the point where, hey, you know, the reason why we are approaching you about this behavior is because we all have to be able to take ownership of our actions and take accountability when issues come up. And that helps us collaborate as a team. So by us not being able to give feedback to you when needed, as is expected for employees and what we do for other employees as well, this is causing a rift in our team dynamic. And and now it’s hampering our ability to effectively serve our patients. You know?

Paul: The ability to be able to hear us.

Tiana: Yeah. And sometimes you then add in there, you know, this is also going to impact your ability to succeed in your career path. This isn’t just about your employment with us, but you have to learn this skill to be able to succeed at other places. And that’s what we want for you and we’re trying here. 

Paul: Yeah, yeah. 

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: So counseling, we’ve talked about counseling for the problem.

Tiana: Right.

Paul: And we’ve talked about counseling for the behavior of which the person kind of takes control of things by playing the part of the victim or or by getting instantly upset.

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: And if they can’t help themselves then they don’t get-. Well, you have to make a choice.

Tiana: Yeah.

Paul: Do you want to work with that or do you not want to work with that as a manager or as an owner? 

Tiana: That’s it. 

Paul: Yeah. Well, this is a really good question.

Tiana: Really good.

Paul: So we try to put it in on the podcast that if you’re a listener and you have a question, you can email it to us and you know, we take these in and we get-we’ve gotten quite a few and we’re always trying to pick one and sometimes we can give a really quick short answer to some of them. And I think we’re going to play around with some of those. But this one is so common and such a good subject to talk about. 

Tiana: Mm hmm. 

Paul: That is really kind of fun to just kind of break it down and spend 10 minutes with it.

Tiana: Oh, I love this one. And thank you, Kathryn. Awesome question.

Paul: Thanks to you Tiana.

Tiana: And thank you Paul.

Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What The Hell Just Happened? do Paul a favor; share this with your network. If you have an HR issue or a question, you’d like us to discuss on this show, send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. For more HR advice and insights from Paul and his team of experts, you can also join the private Facebook group, HR Base Camp, or visit HRbasecamp.com. Make sure you tune in next week. And remember: better workplaces make better lives.

Nov 8, 2022

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.
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