Which of these five unhelpful statements are undermining performance in your team?

By Heather Campbell

When I’m coaching senior leaders, a fair bit of time in sessions is taken up with exploring their frustrations with other people. Not really surprising, of course, since leadership is fundamentally about people.

Many of the coaching conversations are about a direct report’s unacceptable behaviour, performance or productivity. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever had a coaching conversation about someone’s fabulous behaviour, performance or productivity. I guess there’s not much coaching needed when things are good 😊.

In these coaching conversations about a direct report’s unacceptable behaviour, performance or productivity, there are five recurring things that leaders say that are particularly unhelpful.

I’ve heard these statements from CEOs & MDs in relation to the Directors they lead, and from Directors in relation to the senior people they lead. Look, I get it. When you’re with your coach, it’s okay to let off a bit of steam.

The problem isn’t really about using these statements in your coaching session. The real problem is that you’ll also use these statements in your own head outside of your coaching sessions and they represent a level of closed thinking about the situation that gets in the way of finding a meaningful solution.

So, here goes. My slightly tongue-in-cheek tour of the five most unhelpful statements I come across time after time and a suggested alternative that will get better outcomes, with less frustration on everyone’s part.

(By the way, to avoid confusion, I’ll use CEO for the person who’s frustrated and Director to describe the individual who is often blissfully unaware that anything’s wrong).

1.When I was at their level, I always…

There are variations on this theme: When I was in their role, I’d have done….; When I was a (job title), I made sure I….

It’s most commonly expressed along with a level of bemusement that the Director in question has not taken a particular proactive step that is blindingly obvious to the frustrated CEO.

My response to this is always ‘Yes, and you were destined to be CEO one day! Perhaps this Director is less ambitious or less capable than you were, or maybe sees things differently. Maybe they even have a reason for their actions. Whatever, comparing them with YOU isn’t helpful because they AREN’T you.’

Ultimately, this statement is unhelpful because it doesn’t matter what you’d have done. All that matters is what the Director is choosing to do or not do, and understanding their reasons for this course of action.

Simple alternative statement: ‘I wonder why they are/aren’t…..’ Asking ‘why’ along with a genuine desire to understand the response will be far more effective.

2.They need to take More Ownership

This statement – usually accompanied by great frustration – actually demonstrates unclear thinking on the part of the CEO. The CEO simply has a generalised frustration that something should be happening – but isn’t.

When I ask what someone isn’t taking ownership of, the CEO mostly can’t answer. There isn’t a specific action that’s missing. But if the CEO doesn’t know what they want someone to take ownership of, it’s really difficult to set clear direction for the Director and extremely difficult for the Director to guess what they’re getting wrong.

What are people not taking ownership of? Things. What would you want people to do differently? Things. What things’ specifically? Hard to say….

To resolve this problem, you really must spend some time figuring out exactly what people aren’t taking ownership of and talk to them about these specifics. If you don’t, Directors will take More Ownership – but chances are, still not of those things that matter to you.

3.How can I get them to think this is their idea?

This statement usually comes along with some kind of change that the CEO wants to implement that they know will not be welcomed and they want to avoid any negative response to it. Rather than having to actually introduce the potentially sensitive change, the CEO hopes to get the person to figure it out for themselves and BINGO! No awkward conversations for the CEO.

Trying to get someone else to figure out what you want without being open with them is time-consuming and wastes energy for everyone involved. I have coached CEOs who have devised unbelievably complex strategies involving dropping hints, asking questions that are devised to get a pre-defined answer and even roping in colleagues to offer suggestions in meetings in the hope that this will push the Director in a particular direction. Devious, huh???

Ultimately, all of these tactics tend to backfire because they don’t get the desired outcome and the other person ends up feeling manipulated when they realise what’s been happening.

It’s far more effective to be clear with the other person about what you have in mind and then have a conversation with them to genuinely explore their views about it.

4.They’re very well paid!

This one is usually the cherry on the icing on the cake after something of a tirade about the other person’s inadequacies.

I find this an unusual justification for feeling frustration or disappointment about what someone is doing or not doing. The ‘Very Well Paid’ person is most likely working hard to deliver results that they believe will meet the CEO’s expectations. The ‘Very Well Paid’ person is most likely failing to meet expectations because they aren’t clear about what is expected, don’t have the skill or the resources to deliver it, or don’t realise that they are not meeting expectations.

Ultimately, it’s most unlikely that the Very Well Paid person is purposely failing to deliver and hoping nobody notices.

I’m not suggesting that people should be ‘Very Well Paid’ and not expected to deliver. But getting frustrated at someone’s lack of delivery because of their high salary doesn’t achieve anything.

Avoid this one! Instead, figure out what you need them to deliver, set this out clearly and give them feedback to help them get the results you need.

5.I just don’t understand why they …

This statement is versatile. It can be used on its own, or combined with 1,2 and 4 above. In fact, it can be the start of a killer sentence…

‘I just don’t understand why they don’t take more ownership because when I was at their level I always did X. I mean, they’re Very Well Paid’ 😉

This statement is unhelpful because this lack of understanding about someone else’s behaviour can often be resolved by asking them why. And yet, time after time, in response to the question ‘Have you asked them?’, the answer is a rather sheepish ‘No.’

And a better way to deal with this? Well, that takes us right back to 1 above – ask why and accompany your question with a genuine desire to understand.

So, there you have it! Do you find yourself using any of these statements? Of course, it’s fine to let off steam to your coach. Just don’t get caught up in believing these statements are an accurate assessment of the situation!

And, as always, whatever you find frustrating this week, observe yourself and others with interest and learning, not with criticism and judgement.

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