All Business Is Personal

All Business Is Personal

Modern-day business is built on the theories of economics, a central tenet of which is that people behave in a logical and straightforward manner. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Given the amount of time people spend working, they often bring even more of their emotional baggage into the workplace than they deal with at home, which can cause them to play out their feelings (without even realizing it) in ways that can be very detrimental to themselves, their co-workers and the business as a whole.

There are various reasons why workplace behavior can become counter-productive. For example, hierarchical structures at work tap into people’s natural issues with power (both having it and subjugating themselves to others who have it); work relationships and dynamics along with pressure to perform can bring out other strong emotions, such as envy, greed, competition, need for approval and fear of loss; people can’t always choose their co-workers, which means that a group of disparate personalities is often thrown together and forced to try to work together harmoniously, despite any natural friction that might exist.

Complicating these situations further is that there are specific (and necessary) restrictive social rules in the office by which people have to abide, which makes letting out — or even acknowledging — those emotions difficult. Because of this, these feelings often fester inside people and are therefore realized in unproductive ways.

To be a successful employee and manager, you have to work hard to look beneath the surface and try to determine what’s really driving people (and yourself). Being able to channel potentially counter-productive forces into positive and helpful behaviors requires not only a deft understanding of human nature but — more importantly — the willingness to spend a fair amount of time working closely with people to help them succeed despite these issues.

Obviously, I am not advocating becoming your co-workers’ and employees’ therapist. However, working to understand what drives others (even when they themselves may not recognize it) can allow you to short-circuit damaging behavior, get the best out of people and ultimately make the business more successful than it would otherwise have been.

For example, a complicated situation arose where I had to move oversight of a specific department from one of my team members (call her Thalia) to another (call her Patricia). Patricia was simply more experienced in the department’s area and was overall a better manager than Thalia. Once Patricia was running the department, she replaced the head of it with someone with whom she had worked before (who I’ll call Scott). Thalia was upset at the diminution of her responsibilities, but she handled it badly. She continued to come to me with ideas and suggestions for the department. At times, she even went straight to Scott’s team to ask them to do things for her. When Patricia found out about this, she stormed into Thalia’s office, accused her of acting deceitfully, and demanded that she stop going behind her back to her team. Neither backed down, and ultimately productivity plummeted as trust evaporated between the two teams.

I thought Patricia was simply protecting her turf. However, in speaking with her more deeply I discovered that loyalty was critical to her (both receiving it and demonstrating it). Her primary motivation for her frustration was not needing to keep control over her group but rather the strong impulse to stand up for Scott and ensure he knew she would help him and that she was loyal to him.

For Thalia’s part, she admitted that she was frustrated that she lost control of the group, and that she wasn’t able to overcome that to work collaboratively with Patricia. She was blinded by her anger and her need to be in control, which prevented her from resolving the issue and moving ahead productively. Thalia hadn’t realized how upset she was and how she had channeled that feeling into her negative behavior.

Once we were all able to understand these issues and bring them to the surface, they dissipated. The key was providing a safe, open forum where employees felt comfortable sharing their concerns, knowing that they wouldn’t be judged or ridiculed. Both Thalia and Patricia were pleased that they had the opportunity to air their frustrations and to discuss what had motivated them, and they began to work together effectively again over a relatively short period of time.

In addition to helping manage these feelings as they arise, you can help avoid some of these situations altogether by creating an atmosphere where people feel empowered and nurtured. This will pay dividends by allowing them to overcome (or at least de-emphasize) negative emotions and concentrate on being productive. The following methods can be helpful to achieving that goal:

  • Despite the constantly shifting sands of economies and business, try to provide stability for your team. Consider carefully before making changes that will affect them. This is critical, as not knowing what to expect drives fear, mistrust and disloyalty among people, dramatically decreasing productivity and increasing turnover.
  • Be clear about the organizations’ goals, and continue to reinforce them.
  • If you must make changes, communicate them as far in advance as possible, and be open about the repercussions for them and your expectations of the team and business going forward.
  • By definition, as a team leader, you will have more information than your team does, so it’s incumbent on you to hold regular meetings with your team(s) to ensure information is being shared in a productive, actionable manner. Otherwise, rumors will take hold and cause worry, which will lead to people acting out of fear (and possibly destructively).
  • Spend time with your employees to determine what truly motivates them, and adjust the work situation if possible. For example, some may prefer to work remotely for family reasons, while others want a higher title, and still others are mostly focused on earning as much compensation as possible.
  • Hold skip-level meetings to get direct access to critical information from people who are working in different functions in the company.
  • Insist on work-life balance for your team.

Passionate employees are often the most valuable. The key is working with them individually to motivate their passion toward productive and gainful results. This takes time, energy and patience, but the ultimate payoff is positive and dramatic.