One of the toughest things to do is to confront people when they get off track. It doesn’t matter if you’re a high-flying CEO or a frontline supervisor, one day you’ll have to have the talk. You’ll look at someone’s work, their numbers, the result of some experiment and think: “What the hell are they doing? Are they trying to make my life miserable?” When this day comes, you’ll have to make a choice about what you do: do you call out the person or their behavior?
In Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she provides valuable insight into the choice you should make as a leader. Brown is a shame researcher whose books are often found in the self-help section but are also valuable tools for leadership.
Brown suggests when it comes to having the talk, you should avoid playing the shame game. Instead, lead with compassion by setting boundaries and asking for accountability.
Avoid playing the shame game.
Many leaders play the shame game at work. Maybe you do too. The shame game goes like this. It doesn’t matter what behavior the employee exhibits—leaves work early, turns in work late, fails to turn in a report, or misses their quarterly numbers—your response is to shame the person and not focus on the behavior.
Managers, supervisors, and CEOs who use shame as a management tool like to single out people in meetings and shame them in front of their peers. These leaders focus the attention on the person— not the behavior—hoping that by shaming the person in public, the behavior will change.
However, this tactic usually backfires, Brown says. Instead of placing the focus on the person, shaming places the focus on the leader’s behavior. In the end, the leader is angry, the employee is ashamed, and the rest of the employees have lost respect for the leader.
Set boundaries and hold people accountable.
If you want to have more success with the talk, focus on a person’s behavior, not the person. Set boundaries and hold people accountable for their actions. This is what leaders with compassion do.
First, you have to set boundaries. At work, these boundaries could be office hours, deadlines, or work expectations. For example, if you have a set time for a meeting, that is a boundary. If someone shows up late, you could choose to shame them by saying something sarcastic, such as, “So glad you could make it.” Or—you could make the employee accountable for their behavior instead.
Second, accountability is about consequences. There’s no point in having boundaries if there are no consequences. For the meeting example, accountability could be having to miss out on the meeting, being marked down on a quarterly evaluation, or having to buy the avocado toast for the next meeting.
Focus on the behavior not the person.
The difference between using shame as a management tool and leading with compassion is what you focus on. When you play the shame game, you focus on the person. The person is the problem.
When you lead with compassion, however, you put the focus on a person’s behavior: arriving late, turning in shoddy work, or failing to meet deadlines. The discussion focuses on what the person is doing, not the person. The solutions focus on changing a person’s behavior, not at making the person feel bad.
Leading with compassion takes more work, but the rewards are better than leading with shame. When you lead with shame, everyone feels bad: you, the employee, and whoever witnesses the behavior. When you lead with compassion, you hold people accountable for their behavior, gaining everyone’s respect.
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