Copyright 2006 Vivian Banta
A newsletter subscriber asked me to write an article about what she called positive intention. To her, it meant the idea that one should initially ascribe positive intentions to those around us until time and experience proved that they were operating in some other fashion. Another way to describe this is to say that one should look for the good in people and expect that this is where they are coming from instead of thinking in some paranoid way that they are acting with evil or devious intentions and intend you harm. As an HR professional, she often finds herself dealing with employees who come to her with hurt feelings, misunderstandings, anger, frustration, confusion, tension, stress and so on stemming from work relationships with their bosses, direct reports and co-workers.
I gave the idea a lot of thought and came up with something a little different. In my experience, I have found that most people do not actually act with any intention whatsoever in the sense that they are not actually carrying out some grand master plan that they have conceived and are now executing. What Ive seen is that most people are driven primarily by their personal needs. Typically, people are unaware of what their needs are or if they do know about them, they dont usually acknowledge them and get them met appropriately.
To provide a quick example of what Im talking about, picture that person at work who always seems to be having some sort of drama going on. They are constantly seeking attention, creating conflict when they dont get it, and everyone else is getting frustrated at them. This person may actually just have a need for recognition or a need to be acknowledged that is not being met in other parts of their life. They may not even be aware that this is a need for them. They are acting out at work because this need is driving them. If they were getting this need met appropriately and in different aspects of their life, you might not even be able to tell that this is one of their needs because they are walking around with this need met in abundance.
A personal need is something you must have to be your best. Everyone has them. Everyones needs are different. Needs are not good or bad; they are just needs. Just like bodily needs (air, water, food, and shelter), they are neutral. After all, we dont go around and say, Wow, I dont need to breathe as much air as you do. Therefore, Im better than you. Similarly, we should avoid judging someone elses personal needs. They are as real and necessary to them as our needs are to us.
Tension, frustration and misunderstandings can often arise in a work setting because a) we spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else and b) many people derive their sense of identity from what they do for a living and so have a tendency to try to get their needs met here. Sometimes, one persons needs step another persons needs. One person may have a need for freedom while another has a need for control and they clash.
So, what do you do when faced with this? When a client complains about a co-worker, boss, family member, or acquaintance in this vein, I typically ask five questions.
Question 1: Can you clearly identify what behavior is annoying or upsetting? Usually people are so upset when they talk about these issues that you end up hearing a whole story or series of illustrative stories about the annoying person. I find that it is often helpful to boil it down to the root behavior leaving out all of the extraneous detail about the person, how they dress, what they eat, what their resume says, etc.
Question 2: Is the reason that you find their behavior so annoying really rooted in your own unmet needs? For example, one client really hated it when a co-worker would receive public praise for his accomplishments and felt that it was unjustified. This anger actually stemmed from the clients own need for recognition and acknowledgement which was not being met. The client realized that if his own needs were being met, he probably wouldnt dislike the co-worker.
Question 3: Can you accept that you cant change the other person? Often, clients will say But if only he/she would act like X (or stop acting like Y), everything would be fine. This is usually sheer fantasy and should be accepted as such and eliminated as a reasonable option. The statement And Im not the only person who thinks thismost of the office thinks he/she is wrong too is equally self-defeating. Walking around and expecting others to modify their behavior to suit us or our co-workers as if it were a democratic process is simply a waste of time. Its like being told you have to dye your hair red or lose 40 pounds because the office took a vote and decided that you would look better if you did it. Its just ridiculous.
Question 4: How important is this person to your daily life? Here, I am trying to gauge the level of intensity related to the issue. Is this a family member that you have to deal with a few times a year, perhaps at the holidays, or every day? Is this a co-worker whose work has no impact on your own or a boss who greatly impacts your security and salary at a company?
Question 5: What will your response to their behavior be? You have the choice to tolerate the behavior, set or enforce a boundary or eliminate the person from your life. If the behavior is minor or temporary, then clients often choose to tolerate the behavior. Why quit your job over a summer interns behavior if they will be gone in a few weeks? Sometimes, clients choose to set or enforce a boundary. This involves talking to the other person. For example, in the case of a co-worker or family member who uses derogatory pet names as a way to refer to you (heyloser, you moron, and so on), you might simply ask them to stop using these words and remind them of your name. If this doesnt work, you simply escalate the boundary enforcement. If you dont call me by my name, I wont respond.
At some point, if the boundary is not respected, you have to decide how far you are willing to go to enforce the boundary. Is the co-workers behavior so intolerable that you are willing to quit your job and go elsewhere? Is the family members behavior so obnoxious that if they violate your boundaries, you are willing to stop speaking to them? I ensure that if clients decide to not enforce their boundaries and choose to stay in the situation, then it is just that: a choice, willingly made, and no longer something to complain about.