Control Employees By Controlling Yourself

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Dear EQ Coach:
My administrative assistant is quite young (22) and often displays her emotions in an inappropriate manner when things aren’t going well at home or with her family. Though I think I treat her very compassionately, and grant her a lot of flexibility, there are times that her sour, combative moods become unbearable-especially when at these times she also often arrives late to work and doesn’t perform her tasks with care or accuracy and does not provide me the assistance I need in a timely manner. How can I tell my assistant that her behavior and attitude are unprofessional and not acceptable without making things worse?

She is disrespectful and rude-often staying on personal calls while I’m there to discuss an assignment with her. When I comment on any of her behaviors, i.e., that she needs to improve her performance, or that she needs to be here on time (she is an hourly employee), she only responds with increased rudeness and combativeness.

Unfortunately, I work for an association run by a Board of Directors none of whom are on the scene, so see nothing of this behavior. They have even awarded her raises without first consulting me (her direct supervisor) regarding her performance. Of course, this undermines my authority with her, but I still need to work with her every day.

After a time, her behavior wears me down and I become depressed and extremely frustrated and end up snapping inappropriately at someone else in the office, which obviously I immediately regret. How can I tell my assistant that her behavior and attitude are unprofessional and not acceptable without making things worse? What am I doing wrong?

Thank you for any advice you can offer.

K.B., Director

PS It may be noteworthy that we are a very small staff of only 5 people, which in my opinion increases the importance of working amicably together.

Hi K,

Thanks for writing.

There are two things that pop out in your email immediately. One of them is the role of your Board. The other is your query about “how can I do this without making things worse?”

Let’s take the Board situation first.

There are two inherent sources of tension usually present in non-profits. One is between the fundraiser and the director; the other is between the Board and the Director. If roles are not clearly defined, and you don’t establish who has authority for what, with mutual respect and trust, you have a situation like this where the staff’s performance isn’t satisfactory, but the Board then turns around and gives them a raise. Yes, this undermines your authority. It creates the kind of situation an employee like this will take advantage of. It amounts to the child playing off one parent against the other. The employee is getting mixed signals (whereas every employee deserves clear signals) and it would be appropriate for her to assume the Board has higher authority than you do, and therefore to ignore you.

You need to keep in mind that internalized Intentionality (a high-order EQ competency) may not be present. This means the employee doesn’t take responsibility for her own behavior, and may be putting herself in the position of getting it. If you buy into this, it’s a double-edged sword, because then they respond only to supervision and left to their own devices don’t function. External authority becomes the only “reason” for showing up on time, doing good work, etc. What you want, is an employee who is self-motivated, clear instructions and policies, and the “rewards” and “punishments” under your control, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of consistency and clarity, so you can do your job and the employees can do theirs.

Emotional intelligence can be learned, and it also tends to come with maturity (though not always). Someone with low Intentionality and low Integrated Self performs only as much as is required, and only to satisfy external standards. In other words, they show up on time only if not showing up on time brings some consequence they don’t like (pay docked, getting written up, getting fired), or if showing up on time is treated as something not “expected,” but as something special, to be “rewarded” and the reward occurs. When an employee doesn’t have the Intentionality and Integrated Self to show up on time, do good work, treat others with respect, manage their emotions, and follow-through on assignments, you want to structure things so they learn this and quit relying on external authority. You want to manage this so the proverbial “monkey” stays on her back, not yours. The ideal supervisory role is not to have to supervise!

Now let’s look at your question – what you can do about this that “won’t make it worse.”

  • Emotions are contagious.
  • Employees are always watching.
  • People generally “see through us,” especially people who are dependent on us (for food, or for salaries) because it’s worth their time to study us closely!

    If you’re afraid you can do something that will “make things worse,” your employee knows this and counts on it. Thus the escalating behavior. One of the things you’re “doing wrong” is letting this employee hold you hostage because of her ill temper. What you propose seems just, reasonable, and fair to me – that she show up on time, treat others in this small office with respect, do good work, and make a positive contribution.

    Here’s an analogy. You take your 4 year old to the grocery and they throw a tantrum because you won’t buy them a candy bar at the checkout counter. You give in and buy the candy bar, thus setting a precedent that screaming and stomping of the feet will produce positive results. Especially if Mom’s tired … busy … kids pick up on all these things, and so do employees, and so do we all! You have rewarded bad behavior. Expect more.

    Furthermore, next time you go into the grocery you remember the embarrassment to you of the last trip, and the fatiguing display of emotion, and so, to avoid “making it worse,” you give them the candy bar at the beginning of the shopping trip. The child is manipulating you now by the threat of his or her bad temper. You don’t ever want to be in this situation.

    Now, what to do about this situation, which needs to be addressed on several different levels.

    Let’s start with you, your intentions, motivations, and the part you play. When the employee acts this way, which causes a strong reaction in you, check it out for “triggering” or what’s called “restimulation.” Does she remind you of someone or something from your past? Why have you let this go so long? Take an honest inward look — this is self-awareness, the cornerstone of emotional intelligence — what are you afraid of? Why have you given away your Personal Power here? Check out your beliefs and assumptions.

    You seem to believe that something you could do could make this worse, and you need to be curious about assumption! It could be you believe (either because you’ve heard it, or because it has been your experience) “when things are bad they always get worse,” or “when I was a kid, my mother used to pout and roll her eyes that way and then would hit me and it scared me,” or “my first supervisor fired someone who behaved this way and ended up getting sued.” Consider also, some people avoid confrontation because they’re afraid they may “lose control” and lash out inappropriately. Learn about yourself through this.

    The only way you can deal with this fear is to go through it and find out your assumptions are erroneous. Don’t let fear stand in your way. “All dogs don’t bite.” Chances are good it can be resolved and you’ll learn a lot, and so will your Board, and so will your assistant.

    Next, remember the EQ competency of being relentlessly and adamantly self-forgiving. Forgive yourself for what you may not have handled well in the past, reframe it as “not yet,” or “not until now,” forgive yourself for not being perfect, and move forward. Congratulate yourself heartily for facing the situation and seeking advice, committing to learning, growing and moving forward. It’s the emotionally intelligent thing to do. Cheers to you!

    Remember your learned Optimism — assume that you’ll get this worked out and that you’re the one to do it. (If you’ve taken the StrengthsFinder Profile rely back on your innate strengths.) Avoid the downward spiral, i.e., do not attribute this to something personal, pervasive, or permanent. ( I find it constructive to consider most things like this a “systems failure.” Trust Radius is an EQ competency – trust your people until given direct and continual proof to the contrary.) Begin with the assumption something’s not set up right for things to function well. Avoid the 3Ps of a pessimist – I’m personally at fault here (personalization), I’ll never get this right (permanent), and furthermore, I’m incompetent at everything I do (pervasive).

    At the same time, as you point out, it isn’t right to take this frustration out on other employees and you need to get conscious about what’s going on, and what emotion is coming from where, so it doesn’t get misdirected. If you’re really in a stew, get up, leave your office and go somewhere. Stare out a window. Change your shoes. Go the restroom and splash cold water on your face. Go downstairs and talk a walk. Get away and intentionally get a different point of view. Do not go somewhere where you’ll get into “war stories” and negativity with others. Just clear your head. Call your coach and talk it out. Breathe deeply. Meditate. Put pleasant thoughts in your head, in your self-talk, i.e., I’m confident I can conduct myself appropriately”. Self-soothe. As a supervisor you must know how to self-soothe. (A coach can instruct you in this.)

    It takes 20 minutes to recover physiologically from an anger-incident to be able to think clearly again. Before you return, remind yourself your anger was for X situation, and you need to leave it there. Emotions inform us. Your anger in this case informs you you need to do something about this situation. Experience the emotion, don’t judge yourself for it, don’t act on it impulsively, and heed the message you need to take action. Then get into your neocortex to make a plan! You can think, you can act, you aren’t helpless and it isn’t hopeless.

    Build Resilience, which enables us to handle stress better. It’s earned not given – by growing through hard things, not just going through them. In tackling this, use problem-focused coping, not emotion-focused coping.

    Moving forward, you need to address this at the Board level. You need to reclaim your Personal Power there as well. Again, check in with your Intentionality. This means saying what you mean and meaning what you say, but also being accountable to yourself for your motives. What are your motives here, as the Director of this agency? This is your job after all. Clean out all the residuals, and get down to what will accomplish the mission of your non-profit, whatever that may be. In other words make sure you don’t have any resentments lurking around, or ego-needs, or power-games muddying the water. Sit down and write out your goals for the organization and how the current system is thwarting them. Think of what could be different and what you could do. Break it down into manageable pieces, and take the first action step.

    Then you will have to approach the Board and how you do this will depend upon your Intuition, an EQ competency. What’s the best way to go about it? Talk with the Chairman first and alone? Bring it up at a meeting as a group challenge to solve? Your goal is to get roles clearly defined and for everyone to buy-in to the decision. There are no failures; just learning experiences.

    Get some personal support. Work with an emotional intelligence coach who can see things objectively, help you build skills, and perhaps walk you through this one. Perhaps you know another Director who handles his or her Board well you could learn from. Check resources in trade magazines you subscribe to for tips. Working with a Board effectively is a continuing professional growth challenge for Directors of Non-profits. There’s always a lot to learn! Educating your Board is another full-time job and you need your Board! Working with them takes a lot of EQ.

    Then, address the situation with your assistant. My first question would be, “Why would you want to keep someone like this?” I haven’t read anything positive about her. If you want to fire her, you’ll need the documentation, and you’ll need the Board to quit rewarding her.

    Meet with your assistant in private and check things out. Get your emotions managed before you do. Breathe deeply. Aim for the state of curious detachment. Be really curious as to why she behaves this way, what she’s after, what’s she experiencing, what she’s aware of, what the payoff is, and how you’re rewarding this.

    Name the issue and give a specific example as illustration focusing on behaviors, not character traits. Describe how it makes you feel and what it does to the rest of the office and productivity, i.e., what the effect of her behavior is. Acknowledge your contribution – not addressing this earlier, and leaving confusion with the Board – express your wish to work this out, and then invite her to respond. From there you will have to take the ball and run with it.

    You can ask her what her intentions are in behaving this way, and what she would consider doing differently. Clearly state what behavior you expect in the future, again using behavioral terms. “I expect you not to ignore me and roll your eyes at me I expect to be treated with respect and this means X, Y and Z.” You can’t assume someone knows what “treat me with respect” means.

    Take for instance her talking on the phone and ignoring you when you come out to give her instructions. Now, clearly this needs to occur- you’re giving her instructions. Ask her how the two of you could set this up differently. Be willing to listen.

    Emphasize what’s at stake. It could be her job. Does she care?

    Together you can come up with a plan and an accountability system. Spell out what you will and will not tolerate, and what the consequences are for non-compliance. Then you must be willing to enforce this. For instance, if you say that two tardies mean she’s fired, be prepared to back it up. Spell out ways she can earn back your former flexibility; this is a privilege, not a “given.” (As always know legalities; check with legal counsel if need be.)

    I would also suggest your bringing an EQ culture into your workplace. This is a way of addressing the problems at a foundation level without focus on a specific issue (or in addition to that). It’s a rare office that can’t benefit from learning emotional intelligence. This means educating and laying out the parameters for “how things are done around here and how people are treated,” and in an office as small as yours you’ll all work better if you get along better.

    Work with an EQ coach, who will know how to present the program, give everyone an EQ assessment, start them on distance learning foundation courses, and a weekly ezine. Individual coaching can help address deficits and group process work once a week is invaluable. Social and emotional skills have to be put into practice to be learned. Cognitive learning can be rather fast (memorizing a table), while this is limbic learning, and takes repetition, repetition, repetition. It also takes feedback, because again, the assumption is, if we knew how to do it we’d already be doing it.

    Congratulations, again, on your decision to take action with emotional intelligence. I hope this has been helpful, and wish you well.

    Warm regards,
    Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach

    Susan Dunn, MA, Marketing Coach,
    http://www.webstrategies.cc. Marketing consultation,
    implementation, website review, SEO optimization, article
    writing and submission, help with ebooks and other
    strategies. Susan is the author or How to Write an eBook
    and Market It on the Internet. Mailto:sdunn@susandunn.cc
    for information and free ezine. Specify Checklist.

    Control Employees By Controlling Yourself
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  • About Susan Dunn
    Susan Dunn, MA, Marketing Coach, http://www.webstrategies.cc. Marketing consultation, implementation, website review, SEO optimization, article writing and submission, help with ebooks and other strategies. Susan is the author or How to Write an eBook and Market It on the Internet. Mailto:sdunn@susandunn.cc for information and free ezine. Specify Checklist. WebProNews Writer
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