“When I ask people not to get frustrated, they get even more frustrated and burst out. What do I do? Frustration doesn’t solve anything, does it?”
Someone who has a leadership responsibility shared this dilemma with me recently. For once in life I had an almost formulaic advice to give. Acknowledge. Try this. A colleague comes with a problem and is frustrated. Instead of starting with “Don’t get frustrated”, start with “I understand. There is a problem here. You are unable to get any response from so and so.” You would see calmness and satisfaction descending upon the person right away. Now get into “Don’t get frustrated” part by saying, “Unfortunately so and so doesn’t owe us anything. Let’s sit down and see how we can still get our stuff done.” And then go on to suggest ways to tackle it. Should we offer so and so some incentive? Should we go to her boss? Should we issue a threat? Should we change our plans? Should someone else talk to so and so? Even if you don’t have a solution, even if things don’t look good, at the end of it you would have a team member who is on your side, rather than one ready to have a combat with you. You haven’t told him that it is your problem and I don’t expect you to be frustrated about it. You have told him that it is our problem and let’s give our best shot at solving it.
There is another situation in which people in leadership role do not sufficiently utilize the power of acknowledgement. That is when their decisions or directions are changing. It doesn’t matter how egalitarian an organization you have built, there is always a power associated with the leader. What you say will be taken seriously by people, people would look up to you for solutions and directions, they will try to decipher the signals you send and act according to it. Even the best people would do that and it is a good thing that they should do that. Because most decisions are not right or wrong on some universal judgement scale. If everyone started acting according to their personal judgement, the organization would fall apart. There has to be an organizational direction and the leader plays an important role in conveying it, even if he hasn’t single-handedly arrived at it. A large number of people might be involved in deciding the direction.
So, till last month you were pretty convinced that market A is the right one to chase. But things have changed since then. That market doesn’t look good enough and you must put your bets of market B. What do you go and tell your team? De-prioritize x and prioritize y. They have been working hard to finish x for a while. They will get confused, and frustrated. Some may ask questions, some may not. Whether or not they ask question, the best thing for you to do is to acknowledge proactively that there is a change in direction. Don’t leave people to guess and wonder about the reason. If you have a solid reason to share, do that. If you don’t, even then, don’t try to act as if all is hunky-dory. Still acknowledge the change and urge them to trust your judgement. Simple act of acknowledgement will lead most of them to trust you. It will tell them that their hard work and their confusions about changes are not unimportant or stupid. Nobody wants to feel unimportant and stupid.
Acknowledgement goes a long way in making things easier in personal life too.Forgot to pay a bill and your spouse or roommate is mad at you? Many people just try to act as if it forgetting was not a big deal and the other person’s frustration over having to pay a late fee doesn’t matter. They should understand that people forget. Yes. People understand that people forget. But what they won’t feel good about is if their concern is not being ignored. A better way to handle this situation would be to acknowledge right away.”I am really sorry. It just slipped off my mind.” Your spouse and partner will understand.
There is one caveat you need to be careful about though, while using acknowledgement as a way of handling people. Acknowledgement without action to back it up is not going to take you too far.
“Oh! I understand that there is a problem. You are not getting any response from so and so. But you know what. That’s your problem. I need it solved by EOD today.” The colleague may not even come back with his frustration next time. He might start looking out for another job. Similarly “I acknowledge that I have changed the direction and we have lost so many months chasing market A. But I don’t care how you are going to get ready for market B in next one month. You have to.” Won’t help boss! People will be super frustrated. You better sit down with them and do an honest reality check. What does it mean for everyone, personally and professionally? What can everyone do to make the switch? What are the things that aren’t really feasible? How do we work around them?
And if you forgot to pay the bill “I’m sorry, but right now I am just going to sprawl on the couch and watch TV” won’t work. Not too many times anyway. “Let me see if I can still go back and pay it,” is more sincere and gratifying to the other person. If it is too late, do it the first thing next day.
It has worked for a while for the person whom I quoted in the beginning of the post. Does it work for you?