By Liz Bentley
No one shows up to work and thinks, “Today, I am going to do a really bad job and annoy a lot of people. I am going to create conflict, not deliver on goals and communicate poorly.” In general, people at all levels of the organization are genuinely doing the best job they know how to do – the key words being “they know how.” Almost always, we think we are holding up our end at work, performing well and the problem is with everyone else. Unconsciously or consciously, we blame peers, bosses and subordinates for mistakes, conflict, poor communication and lack of productivity.
When conflict and problems arise, it appears to be human nature to see the faults in others before we see the faults in ourselves. We can easily see how other people contribute and create problems and are often blind to how we too are contributing to the mix. We become the classic “blamer.” In some cases, people converge around one person’s faults, creating a circle of gossip to dissect how this person in particular is causing the demise of the group or organization. In these instances, people seek evidence to prove their theories right. They over focus on the person’s flaws, which leads to heightened sensitivity and drama, exaggerating the problem and setting people up to fail. Note, we see this happen at all levels in companies. The person being attacked can be a CEO or in the mailroom; job title and position are not necessarily relevant.
The group mentality can be the most detrimental because it makes people feel more justified in their thinking, which makes their behavior not only contribute to the problem but become a problem in and of itself. The person identified as the offender has little chance for recovery and each group member’s individual self-awareness continues to decrease to the point that the member feels either vindicated or victimized. The people in the group rarely take responsibility not only for how their actions play a role in the problem but how their flaws and weaknesses are showing up in all areas of their job.
When this happens, organizations struggle and teams can fall apart. Productivity goes down, negative emotions permeate the office and communication misfires. People confuse the message, lose sight of goals and the meaning of their work gets lost.
There is one main solution to this dilemma and that is to get people focused on themselves. We always tell people, “There is only one person is this lifetime that you can fix and that is YOU.” You are the lead character in your play of life. You are your main and only project. And while you may influence many people, you will never control them. For example, you can’t control what someone else will say; you can advise them on what to say but you do not control the words that come out of their mouth; whereas, you control every word that comes out of your own mouth.
In coaching as well as in HR and other leadership roles, these issues come up on a daily basis. Everyone comes to the coach or leader armed and ready to complain about people around them. But the goal of the coaching is to focus on the individual in front of us – our client. We have come up with a new saying this year that has seemed to stick and is helping people refocus their energy in the right direction – “Win your own MVP today!” We tell our clients that each day they come to work, it is their job to be the most valuable player to their colleagues, their team, their clients and most importantly to themselves. In other words, they have to do their absolute best job each day with no excuses and no matter the conditions. When we turn the mirror back onto the clients and off of their colleagues, they are frustrated at first but then they start to see how their own weaknesses are getting in their way.
Groupthink Is Unproductive and Blame Is Contagious
Here are a couple of reminders you can implement to get your own MVP instead of getting stuck in unproductive groupthink and/or blaming:
- Bring your personal best everyday. Take it one day at a time and leverage your strengths to be your best.
- Stop focusing on other people’s flaws. Everyone has faults; focus on fixing your own because you can’t fix anyone else.
- Stay away from the gossip and people who speak negatively that impact your mindset negatively. These people create energy that’s counterproductive to the goals the team is striving to achieve. In fact, studies have shown that blame is contagious; people are more likely to blame outside factors for personal failures if they see others doing it. Insulate yourself by not exposing yourself.
- Stop blaming other people and making excuses for your own lack of performance. You control your career and results. Your success is up to you and there are no excuses.
- Focus on your goals and the team goals. Make sure that the work you are doing is driving toward them.
- Be a problem solver not creator. People want to be around people who are above the waterline, not ones who are drowning below it.
- Be empathetic. No one is coming to work trying to do a bad job. Don’t torture people for their weaknesses.
What can you do if you are a leader and find that someone on your team (above or below you) is being attacked by the group?
Speak to everyone in the group separately about the bullet points above to remind them how to show up as effective team players. Let them know you will not tolerate any unsportsmanlike behavior and that focusing on other people’s flaws is merely a distraction from seeing your own.
Then bring the person who is being targeted into your office and do the same. Let them know they need to be accountable to their own behavior and need to create buy-in with their peers, subordinates or bosses. If they have lost the respect or the trust of the team, it is their responsibility to earn it back. They may have a mountain to climb so they better start immediately and grow their emotional intelligence to recognize the team’s needs and shift their style to work better with their colleagues. They may need to exaggerate “good behavior” in order to regain trust and it may take time to earn it back. While it was not right of their co-workers to gang up on them, they are not necessarily victims and likely had repeated bad habits to get them into this predicament. It is their fault they did not have the self and social awareness to fix the problem before it got out of control.
As a leader, you should also try to model the behavior you wish to see on your team. Taking public ownership of mistakes can help break the cycle.
What can you do when subordinates are complaining about a boss that is “mean,” “unfair” or “does not like them?”
We teach our clients strategies to win the boss back. Complaining about mistreatment will not improve the situation and a bad attitude will definitely make it worse. As we all know, life is unfair so better to figure out how to make it as fair as possible and get people on your side.
A Case Study in Resisting Groupthink and Negativity
While getting my coaching certification, I came across a case study that has stayed with me as a good example of someone staying above the fray and focused on the goals.
In this case, the CEO was seen as angry and aggressive by his executive team. He would belittle them in public and always seemed frustrated with the results. His subordinates always talked about this leader around the water cooler. They complained that he was rude, unfair and inappropriate. They disliked working for him and let the board of directors know, but the CEO was driving great results for the company and the board felt he was a valuable leader.
A new person was brought into the company to take over a position on the executive team. Right from the start, he was told all of the problems and faults of the CEO from the executive team. But instead of jumping into the groupthink, he decided to take a different path. He listened carefully to the CEO’s demands. He worked hard to deliver on the objectives the CEO requested and stayed focused on his specific demands. The CEO yelled at him, like he did everyone else in the meetings and the coworkers again tried to get this new person into their groupthink. But he resisted and continued to work hard for the CEO, focusing on his needs and goals.
With time, the CEO recognized that this new executive was honoring his requests and working hard with a good attitude. Even though the CEO did not know that the others on the executive disliked him as much as they did, he could feel that this new executive had a completely different energy. So the CEO gave him more responsibility and eventually even started to compliment him in front of the group, which never happened to anyone else. The new executive continued to thrive, gave credit where it was due and kept his ego in check. Eventually he was promoted and had a good working relationship with the CEO and the others.
This new executive forced the other executives to recognize that the problems on the team were not just the CEO’s but were everyone’s problems. Everyone was responsible for their own behavior.
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Remember, it all rests with you. To be the MVP, you have to stay focused, be purposeful, and avoid the blame game when things don’t work out according to plan. In fact, that’s why MVPs clinch the award – they’re the one’s who make the clutch plays, lead the comeback, and keep the team going strong.