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When I was in charge of HR lots of people found their way to my door to plead their cases. By “plead their case” I mean tell me how bad someone else was and how the world would be right if only….  I listened thoughtfully and sometimes found myself quite convinced of the wrongdoings being described. I had the good sense to say very little at the time but once the person left my office I felt compelled to take action. Any action! I now had this critical piece of information that may have an adverse effect on the business. And if 2 people told me the same saga I was on the edge of my seat ready to move mountains. Quick! Something needed to be done and I was the one to handle it.

There are so many things wrong with this picture that it’s embarrassing. But I reveal these shortcomings because it is what happens in the real world for real leaders all the time. It is human nature to tattle or point fingers at others for something gone wrong. It is also human nature for the listener to get ensnared in the drama. But going down this path can lead to no good. It’s just a mess.

As a leader you must learn to redirect traffic. If there are concerns between 2 or more people you must instruct those people to speak to each other…not you. The more you become the receptacle for everyone else’s rantings, the more you set yourself up for ongoing anxiety. Let me break this down.

  • Deflect, diffuse, deny responsibility. When Sam comes into your office to tell you what a loser Joan is this is what is actually happening. Sam is making a preemptive strike to warn you that some project has gone off the rails and it is not his fault. He’s letting you know it is all Joan’s fault. You are understandably concerned about the project so you take this information seriously. Unfortunately you took Sam at his word rather than hearing the real message. “The project is in trouble.” But you heard what Sam intended. “Joan is a problem.”
  • An absent person can’t defend themselves. This is such a cheap shot. Sam is going to trash Joan, hope you take his word for it and then Joan is in the dog house and doesn’t even know it. How mature, don’t you think?
  • You own the problem and the solution. By telling you all this awful stuff Sam has now made you a party to the drama and expects you to fix it. Even if you have the good sense to say, “Sam, what are you going to do about this?” by even hearing his case it is easy for him to reply, “Gee, I don’t know. This is a big project and this situation is above my pay grade.” Even if he agrees to go away and talk to Joan directly he has set the stage to walk back in and let you know how unreceptive she was. You are the dumping ground.
  • Beware of the chronic complainers. Staff that feel compelled to complain to a senior leader about their peers are operating out of a suspect set of values. I’m not talking about the occasional frustrated employee who needs to vent. I’m talking about a habit. Be careful. Be very very careful. He’s probably trashing you in someone else’s office.
  • You have put yourself in this position. Whether you think you are a good listener or it’s part of your responsibilities or you are providing a safe haven (all positive intentions) or you, too, thrive on what amounts to gossip this is not good form for a leader. You will have trained those around you to believe that all they have to do is badmouth others and you will take care of it. That is most certainly NOT your job.

As someone who fell prey to this dynamic on occasion I learned the hard way to make it clear that I would not be party to any discussions about a third party who was not present. (The only exceptions were gross misconduct.) Each time I stopped someone from speaking further with, “You’ll need to speak directly to Joan about this. This is between the two of you” I was able to redirect traffic.

Look, we are talking about groups of people tossed together in a closed environment. We will naturally regress into dysfunctional behaviors from time to time. But leaders have more responsibility to resist playing into this dynamic. We need to help others address their concerns directly with each other. Very few issues should escalate to our level.

Once the word gets around that you won’t play ball any more people will stop dropping in. That results in three great things. One, employees will be forced to deal with each other directly…or drop the issue. Two, you will get lots of your time back and have less anxiety from the conflict du jour. And last, you can replace that carpet in front of your door.

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