The Evolution of a Changed Behavior

iStock_000017426554_ExtraSmallLast week, Brandon Black, CEO of Encore Capital Group, shared his insights in giving feedback, and the importance of separating content from judgment when delivering a difficult message. Brandon’s evolution with this leadership behavior had several distinct stages that highlight important inflection points in making change.

When Brandon first attended our programs six years ago, he was a well-liked CEO who, as COO, had helped make Encore NASDAQ’s top stock in 2003. Their business environment was now far more challenging, however, and he sensed that they could no longer operate business as usual. One issue the initial 360º Feedback surfaced was a common communication dynamic: sarcasm and debating. Brandon explained to me early on how he used debating to draw out what his reports thought, even while admitting that he never lost.

Although Brandon sensed that debating allowed him to maintain control of situations, he wasn’t aware of the ramifications on his team. Although convivial and confident on the surface, his executives were scared of his quick tongue, and so rarely brought up an issue where he might disagree. Brandon realized that what had helped him rise so quickly through the ranks was now limiting his growth and that of his team. Furthermore, their collective love of sarcasm made executive staff meetings a place where you watched your back, not talked openly about issues.

As Brandon sought to step out of these behaviors, he identified his tendency to be judgmental of others as a primary culprit. He is not alone – in the many talks I give, audiences often tell me that being judged is one of their biggest fears, and being judgmental of others (and themselves) is one of their most frustrating compulsions.

Collectively, we’re addicted to a behavior we detest the consequences of. It’s no wonder that so many people are guarded with their colleagues.

A year or so later, after debating and sarcasm had been banned from the C-suite, the culture amongst the extended leadership team was already far more open and trusting. Brandon, however, was grappling with a contradiction: he had serious issues with one of his reports, but in his desire to not be judgmental, he wasn’t saying anything.

It was at this moment that his crucial insight materialized: he could separate his observation of another person’s behavior from his conclusion about that person’s intrinsic worth or capacity. This is important because it is actually the latter that people fear, not the former. The defining difference was his intention in that moment: was he guided by his desire to help them grow, even if it was uncomfortable, or was he content to feel superior?

When the intention to support others guides us, we develop the capacity to “say just about anything to anybody.”

All of this leads us to a counter-intuitive insight about conflict avoidance. Clearly, Brandon was avoiding conflict later in his development, when he had observations that he wasn’t sharing. What is less obvious is how sarcasm and debating are also symptoms of conflict avoidance.

‘What?!’ I can hear all those hard charging executives screaming, ‘sarcasm and debating are how I thrive on conflict!’

Sarcasm, like condescension, often comes out with people we have issues with. We make a disparaging joke, perhaps hoping that the other person will see the error in their ways. Typically, they just snap a caustic retort and grow another layer of Teflon skin. But whatever message really needs to be delivered is completely absent from the conversation.

Next time, try holding back the sarcasm and turning your comment into a teachable moment. What is the real issue that this other person isn’t dealing with, and how can you state it without judgment? I think you’ll find it brings up discomfort for you — and that’s exciting, because you’ll be on the cusp of identifying a barrier to your leadership.

Debating, in the same fashion, is often fueled by our desire to win. If you shut the other person down by louder or better arguments, does that mean you got the best result (or just your result)? By overpowering the other person, we silence them, ultimately avoiding a transparent conflict on the content of our ideas.

So, sarcasm and debating are conflictual techniques of avoiding the real conversation we need to be having.

I would love to hear your thoughts on changing behaviors and having the real conversation.

  1. Jon Davis says:

    Shayne, this is a fantastic post and you write so clearly! At a team meeting today, I didn’t share an opinion bc I was worried about upsetting the other person. I realized now from your post that I didn’t separate my observation from the person I was dealing with. This particular person is a strong personality, and I let that judgment guide my behavior bc I feared their response. Now I can see what I did today. I really appreciate your piece. Also, I really enjoyed what you said about how sarcasm can be another person’s way to make a disparaging joke. Do you have any suggestions for how to respond when this happens to me? I certainly try to be exploratory but sometimes I get the, “what can’t you take a joke?” Let me know your thoughts.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I’ve been chewing on how to respond to your question, as it’s not easy to give generic guidance without a bit more context. But here goes:

      1. In our last Shared Mastery (our team building retreat), we had a number of teams grappling with sarcasm. A bit part of what helped them was becoming aware of how sarcasm made the atmosphere more guarded. Each would be hurt at certain points, and dish it out at others. Nobody wanted to admit they were weak or effected by it. An honest dialogue got the issue on the table and allowed people to be honest about how the felt about it.

      2. If you think there is an underlying message in a sarcastic joke, take a moment to put your ‘pinch’ aside, and then ask directly about that message? Is there something they have in mind that they aren’t saying — and can you draw it out?

      If the sarcasm is a reaction to cover conflict avoidance, and you can resolve the conflict avoidance, perhaps the sarcasm will diminish.
      3. You can always say that you enjoy a good self-deprecating joke, but that sarcasm at someone else’s expense isn’t that funny to you. This last one isn’t a sure bet because if you have an agreement to have an open, trusting team, I think you could ask for others to avoid being sarcastic with you. If there is more of a no-holds barred atmosphere, then you’re lacking a foundation to make such a request. In which case, it sounds like you need to bring your team to see us! 🙂

      1. Thanks Shayne. This was very helpful. Another great reminder to just ask more questions and not let the pinch cause you do react when the brain is shut down! Hope you are well.

  2. Tesse AKpeki says:

    I love this piece. Recognising what ‘we’ are avoiding and getting to the bottom of what ‘I’ really need and how ‘I’ can have this need met can help me to be more authentic with others and open to what ‘the other’ needs and a discussion about how that need can be best met. That is the vulnerable spot and yet it is the spot of courage, wisdom and learning. Thanks Shayne for sharing.

  3. Erica Vautier says:

    This one reminded me of my wife. She doesn’t use sarcasm, that’s me, but she does debate everything. I think those that do debate do so for power, rather than finding the best solution. (although my wife is usually right!)

  4. Tracy Godwin says:

    Being non-judgemental is difficult, but it is what the best leaders do. Creating teachable moments and offering insight are sure fire ways to spread a contagious formula for leadership rather than berating them with sarcastic comments or unwinnable debates.

  5. Cheryl Snyder says:

    No one really wants to be judged. It is a huge fear of mine as well. I don’t want someone to say that what I think is not very smart and so I often don’t speak up in meetings. I one asked for a letter of reference and my current boss even put in the letter that although I was often quiet at meeting, when I did speak, everyone listened. I never really knew how to interpret that. Was he saying I don’t contribute much or what he saying that when I do speak I am saying something worthwhile? Anyway, I am still that way because I know that sevretly I judge the others when they speak up…especially when they seem to be talking just to hear themselves.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I think you point out a key aspect of the “judge others/fear others judgment” juggernaut: they go together. In my experience (of myself and coaching many leaders on this), we judge others when we fear being judged. It’s our self-defense mechanism. If I discredit a colleague (in my mind or out loud), then their judgment of me is less potent, since they’re more imperfect than I am.

      Of course, my reaction of judging them makes them feel judged, so they react by judging back. And thus the downward spiral of a low-trust work environment is begun.

      I would bet, in your case, that your colleagues sense that you’re judging them. If you work on letting go of these judgments and seeking to hear your colleagues’ contributions, you’ll make the space of communication safer — and then maybe you’ll feel more comfortable to speaking up.

  6. Brett Wall says:

    I am currently in my 7th year as a school administrator and I rarely see sarcasm among the leaders of the school, but I also have a great principal who can turn most things into a teachable moment. Of course, I have had other principals that run their schools and leadership teams like a dictatorship.

  7. Edith says:

    Disparaging jokes have no place in the workplace, or society for that matter. Sarcasm can be a useful tool, but often it is directed the wrong way is harmful intentions. If a workplace can do without this, more power to them.

  8. Eleanor Singh says:

    I learned a long time ago that I was not a good debator. I am excellent with sarcasm though. I stay away from discussions in meetings, but I am quick with a one liner. I think I need to cut down actually and try the teachable moment thing more.

  9. Erik Bowen says:

    I am the one in the meeting who tends to point out everything that is negative in an idea. Some might call me a pesimist, but I tend to think of myself as one who sees both sides of things and then I point out the downside(s). Whether or not I am helpful or harmful to the process I have never been told, it’s just the way I see things.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      Do you do this with yourself, with your hopes, hobbies, passions? Does it help you see all parts of an opportunity and then follow through on your dreams or convince you to not try?

      I define a behavior as counter-productive if it undermines our desired, chosen goals (or prevents us from gaining clarity/action). I don’t have an a priori in your situation but these questions might help you identify for yourself.

  10. Shannon Drake says:

    When sarcasm is used to get another to see the error in their ways, I think there needs to be some leadership building done so that there is more trust in each other. Obviously we don’t always have the best ideas, but our co-workers should be there to support up and help improve us rather than shoot us down.

  11. Kit says:

    So true. Sarcasm and debating are ways we avoid the real conversation. But how can be get around this? Is it more than a trust issue? Is it a personality conflict between workers? Can we put our feelings aside and just speak our mind without worrying about others? Or ourself?

  12. Marcia Sutton says:

    I have never really witness sarcasm to the point of condesention in the leadership discussion, but I do see it a lot with middle management and lower at my job. There must be something to it, but I haven’t figured it out.

  13. Nora says:

    Nice piece to get one to start thinking about how they are communicating with colleagues. I see the sarcasm a lot at my job and, although I think much of it is aimed at humor, I think it negatively affects the work atmosphere.

  14. Marc Harrington says:

    I would be very leary of a person in a leadership position that devated everything until they won. What’s the point of a leadership “team”???

  15. Rebecca McPherson says:

    It takes a special leader who’s sole purpose is to help others grow. Oten leaders want everyone to be reminded that they are the leader and for some strange reason the leader doesn’t want to help others grow for fear of them replacing them or becoming better at something.

  16. Evelyn Bean says:

    Wow, banning sarcasm? I couldn’t exist in such a place. My humor is so dry and sarcastic. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps we awake in the meetings!

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      LOL. Sounds like there is an observation you have about the value of your meetings that you could express directly, but without judgment, and see if you can be part of making them more useful.

      You seem to be illustrating how sarcasm masks conflict avoidance. Let me know!

  17. Jonathan says:

    Exactly. Those who debate everything just want to win…even when they don’t know what they are talking about!

  18. Monica Hicks says:

    Debating is a skill. Some can do it very well while others struggle to find the words they need on the spot. However, the skill of debate can also be an asset to the workplace and when done correctly with a leadership team, the best solution can be attained.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      “Debating is a skill”, not an end. Like so many of our strengths, what purpose is it serving? Is it serving a larger goal of clarification, of supporting the team to make the best decision possible? (So I’m ok to ‘lose’ the debate if the dialogue helps us clarify that my position is wrong?) Or is it serving the all too common (and often unconscious) goal of being smarter, of winning, of not being wrong? In which case, my misdirected skill has become a liability for me and for our common endeavors.

      When we refer to the ‘Egosystem’, we are highlighting this, the self-worth focused goals that usurp our strengths and intentions.

  19. Jeremy Nicholson says:

    Not sure I understand the comment “separate his observation of another person’s behavior from his conclusion about that person’s intrinsic worth or capacity.” Isn’t the behavior directly connected to the intrinic value of the the person to the company?

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      Yes, how I behave (e.g., do I address conflicts directly?; am I procrastinating on the difficult and essential tasks the organization needs me to do?) directly impact my contribution to the company, and therefore my overall value. There are consequences to my dysfunctions; this is why they are important to address.

      The all too common dysfunction that Brandon was highlighting in his post is our tendency to write off the entire person when we are frustrated with a specific behavior. Because we don’t state our observation (e.g., “It’s my perception that you’re not moving forward on this initiative — what’s going on?”), our dissatisfaction snowballs into a general, unstated conclusion about the person (e.g., “I can’t count on so-and-so to get things done”). We withdraw our investment in that person, work around them, complain to others. Soon they are nothing more than incompetent deadweight.

      It takes a lot of pent up frustration to finally tell someone they are an incompetent loser and need to be terminated (and it’s not very empowering to receive such a message). So the avoidance can lag for a long time.

      Brandon discovered that he wrote people off quickly, and then found it hard to deliver this harsh message. When he worked his way back to the specific behavior, and detached it from his judgmental conclusion, he was able to offer useful (and often greatly appreciated) feedback. My experience in working with leaders over the last decades is that this is very rare indeed.

  20. Tammy Ross says:

    When I do observatons of other employee’s I often try to separate my observations from them as employee’s and try to just look at how well they do their job. This is the real test as to their worth to the company. At least that is how I was taught.

  21. Paddy says:

    I totally agree, confilct avoidance by sarcasm or debating happens all the time. And when someone is in a leadership situtation and they are trying to avoid conflict, I wonder if they should be in leadership at all.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I agree with the sentiment you are expressing: when someone in a leadership position avoids conflict, it has consequences and is detrimental to their effectiveness. When the consequences are severe enough, a person may merit being removed from their position.

      However, let’s be straight. EVERYBODY avoids conflict, so if we removed all the leaders who did it, we’d have nobody left. I am including in this list the people who are conflict ‘prompters’ (i.e., they thrive on conflict). When a leader tears into someone else (typically it is a harsh, one-sided affair), s/he is also avoiding a real dialogue about the issues. The root fear is often the same.

      So the inability to have useful, content-conflict discussions is one of the greatest deficiencies I see in business and govt today. We need to be more transparent and earnest in our work to improve this.

  22. Sally Myers says:

    It was probably a good idea that sarcasm and debating was banned, but I wonder if personnel should be changed. I think that debating can benefit leadership. The debater needs an open mind though.

  23. Brooke Terry says:

    I find that the sarcasm doesn’t surface until after the leadership meeting. Many of my co-workers are afraid to speak up in the meeting, but have no problem as soon as the big boss is gone.

    1. Shayne Hughes says:

      I believe you. Your example helps us see how sarcasm is an ‘anti-leadership’ behavior. Meaning that when I am venting to others thru sarcasm instead of productively and directly stating my observation, I am not creating a teachable moment (see the end of my post above). So I’m not leading in a moment that needs it.

      You could ask your colleagues (or yourself, if you are a part of this), when am I going to step up and take responsibility instead of being a victim?

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