I recently had the opportunity to invite a friend and her grandchildren to a local fair. I’ve been going to the event for years and like the predictability and tradition; plus it supports a good cause. The carousel is always in front of the big house, the face painting under the elms, and you can count on the stampede to the rummage sale and vintage clothing tent. There is something remarkably calm about the entire experience and the kids, young and old, love it.
The girls whom I was with were more into creating than game playing, so we spent considerable time at the spin art booth and colored sand art tables. They were having a great time and I savored the chance to watch the decisions they made and the surprises that emerged. They enjoyed being with other children. It was all going just fine, and then the parents appeared. “You ruined it!” yelled one father. “Too much red!” barked a mother; “Give it to me, I’ll show you,” said the grandfather grabbing the paint dispenser from a shocked little boy’s hand.
Surely, I’ve seen this behavior before, the demanding, dominating, helicopter adult, and the resolved, teary-eyed child. It never ceases to upset me but I’m also never surprised. Then it started to drizzle. Mean dad opens the kind of umbrella only used by doormen at fine hotels and caddies for golf pros. Emblazed all over its sails was the name of a well-respected, global financial institution. It got me to thinking, “What is this person like as a boss?” Then I speculated how the woman must react, when one of her staff over or under estimates something. Finally, I wondered if grandpa hadn’t yanked the brief, scalpel, or pen out of many an intern’s hand.
The management consultant and coach, Marshall Goldsmith, stands by his belief that most management issues are behavioral. He feels we can assume top executives have the skills and are smart enough to do their jobs. What gets in their way is their behavior, particularly with regard to people. I agree and witness it time after time.
Is mean Dad so focused on the outcome that he fails to see other options? Or is he a “my way or the highway” type of guy who really is looking for obedience, be it at home or in the office? Do the members of his staff wait until the last minute to tell him something has gone wrong, or do they lie, saying everything is “okay” for fear of his wrath?
Is “too much red” Mom dominated by her need for perfection? Is she convinced her aesthetic is superior to those of the others? Does she hire people who imitate rather than innovate? Would she question each and every time a staffer crosses that invisible, but very real, line? And, would grandpa rather do everything himself, than delegate and risk a different outcome?
My answer to all of those questions is “probably.” Maybe home tempers some of us and empowers others to act more like jerks around one place or the other, but the patterns and attitudes are always there, and if we chose to accept, or at the least live with these traits, we are doomed to be like the father, mother, or grandfather at the fair.
As one who sees options in most things, I believe people can change, even if at first they aren’t particularly interested in the prospect. When working with coaching clients, I find the first step particularly hard. That beginning move where you acknowledge you might just be doing or not doing something is a big gulp.
So, let’s say, as a results of a 360 survey, feedback comes back that you don’t particularly listen to your colleagues or direct reports. You adamantly disagree, citing examples of your deep and active listening. I then offer a challenge to you to prove us wrong because I have also experienced when you cut me off, talk over me, or go “yeah, yeah, yeah,” so I’ll finish faster. “Deal!” is your retort. Next time we meet, you acknowledge, to your surprise, there were “a few times” when you might have interrupted, then you quickly justify it with something like “but she was off topic.” I think “success.” Because catching yourself is the first and probably the most important step to changing, modifying, or stopping a behavior.
Do I think the parents at the fair intentionally wanted to hurt their offspring? Of course not. Many parents won’t have dedicated the time and put up with the inclement weather if they didn’t want to bring joy to their child and bring them to the fair. The problem isn’t their attitude, it’s their behavior.
Here’s the challenge, catch yourself doing something others don’t particularly like or appreciate. It might be you don’t always express gratitude, you respond to an emotional request with a logical reply, or maybe you don’t listen as attentively as you would like. Keep a mental tally for a day. Ask yourself, “How is this behavior useful?” (There will be ways it is.) And, “How might it actually be working against me?” (It is.) Then choose to try something different or new.
All of the parents at the fair had a choice. What they chose is to use a well-crafted behavior that might work for them in other situations. But, this wasn’t one of them. Regretfully, Grandpa had only one chance at the spin art because his grandson gave up and let him finish the work. The boy who liked red shook the tube and mixed all the colors – no more red and the “ruined” piece went home in the same hands as the umbrella. There’s always next year.