You Can’t Make a Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear

A vice president presented the following challenge to me, “I have an excellent division manager who knows our product and strategies better than anyone I’ve seen.”

“I anticipate a ‘but’ coming,” I responded.

“Yes, his people skills are among the worst.  Customers love him but he berates and embarrasses staff.  He is very argumentative with me and the president.  His vocabulary is filled with demeaning curse words.  Many have complained and three long-time, high-performers have quit.”

“I assume that you have talked to him.”

“Yes, many times.”

“So you want me to coach him on his people skills?”

“That’s right.”

“His behaviors are so hard-wired, he is very likely incapable of making significant, lasting improvements in his ability to work with people.”

I continued to explain that no matter how good you are at coaching, you will not likely convert a narcissistic-neurotic-whining-argumentative employee into considerate-cooperative-respectful team player.

When dealing with extremely disruptive people, my experience suggests that you have two choices.  One, put up with them the way they are; or two, remove them.

The “silk purse, sow’s ear” proverb—meaning that you are not likely to convert unrefined, dirty and base behavior into refined and desirable—apparently emerged in the mid-1500’s.  Some still don’t get it.


When the Voice in Your Head Says “Retreat,” You Should Probably “Charge”

“As I was walking into the office,” commented a manager, “out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Cade (a long-time team member) entering through another door.  I’m sure Cade saw me, but I pretended that I didn’t see him and hurried off.”

The manager feared that Cade was frustrated and communication would likely be unpleasant.

At the end of the previous day, a customer and Cade got into a snit about a delivery issue.  After the encounter, Cade criticized his manager to several peers.  “I should never have had to deal with this.  The boss misled the customer and I’m expected to clean it up.”

The manager admitted, “I was concerned about the customer but I had other commitments and just did not want to deal with Cade at that moment.”

Awkward encounters are challenges for most us.  We know we need to have a candid conversation.  We rationalize our decision to postpone as in, “I had other things to deal with.”  “That’s not how I wanted to start my day.”  “I thought I should let things cool down a bit.”

So when the voice in your head shouts, “retreat,” it is likely a signal that you should charge into the fray.

Play “Hard Ball” with Competitive Negotiators

A vendor explained, “I have a customer who always insists on haggling over price.”

“How do you deal with that?” I asked.

“I simply add about ten percent at the beginning.  We exchange messages, do our little dance, and I agree to knock off eight or ten percent.  Eventually the customer agrees, with a sense of satisfaction I’m sure, gained from haranguing me into submission.”

After reviewing negotiation research, Georgetown University professor Jeremy Yip and others concluded that gratitude and forgiveness in competitive relationships can be costly.

As in the example above, aggressive stances with competitors are more beneficial. Understand there may be some unnecessary posturing and babbling.  It’s not personal.  Leave room for compromise.  Aggressors expect this.

Competitive negotiators will likely see grateful, cooperative negotiators as naive–opportunities to be plucked.  Cooperatives often get their feelings hurt and strive to avoid the sordid mess.  Many stalled negotiations are of this mix.

Whatever the approach, both parties must eventually see the final agreement as beneficial.  It is delusional for one party to see him/herself as smart enough, big enough or bad enough to consistently take advantage of another party.


Do You Over Value Loquacious Staff Members?

Although Estes attended every board meeting and did a great job auditing financials, I don’t remember him saying six sentences in twelve meetings.

In the midst of discussing a complex fund raiser involving multiple chefs, donated food, and unpredictable weather, Estes said, “I’d like to chair this project.”

Estes’ seemingly bold statement shocked eight other confident board members into silence. After a pause, Estes repeated, “I’d like to lead this effort.”

Because I had judged Estes as the classic, withdrawn introvert, he would have been the last member I would have chosen for this purpose. But since no other members seemed anxious to tackle the challenge, we reluctantly accepted Estes’ offer. As you might guess, Estes did a superb job planning, coordinating and executing the event to great success.

I think managers and peers often over value talkative extroverts while short-changing quiet, unassuming introverts. Recent research by Professor Cameron Anderson and others suggests that extroverts tend to lose status over time as their performance falls short of expectations.

By contrast, while they may have fewer opportunities, the status of anxious and withdrawn introverts tends to increase over time as their unrealized talents produce above expectations.

The Five Toughest Personnel Decisions

Part 4 of 5

In describing an employee, a manager said to me, “Jessica’s job performance is excellent.  I don’t remember anyone better.”

“You are about to add a ‘but,’” I interjected.  “What’s the rest of the story?”

“She wants to do only the assignments that she likes.  More than once she has said to me, ‘Give that to someone else.  I’m not interested.’”

“Anything else?”

“Yes, she insists on doing things her way.  She may leave meetings early or even skip them altogether.”

“How does she get along with others?”

“Not well.  I’ve had one person quit and I think two others are looking.”

“I assume you have talked to her about this.”

“I have but our discussion usually ends in an argument.  She was transferred to my team about seven months ago when we restructured the division.”

Unfortunately, people like Jessica see themselves as the smartest one in the room and their fuse is always fast-burning.   They are not likely to change even with expert coaching.

Most teams can put up with a little disruption from high-performing grouches.  But when neurotic behaviors seriously disrupt team performance, it is time for the leader to “cut bait” and replace the evil genius.

Rude Behaviors in the Workplace Cost Money

I observed a vice president leading a contingent of visitors into an early-morning meeting.  As the group approached a conference room, the vice president noticed what appeared to be spilled coffee on the new carpet.  A staff member happened to be walking by.  The frowning, vice president gruffly said, “It looks like you need to teach your friends to be more careful with their coffee.”

Studies suggest that, during a work week, about half of employees engage in rude behaviors.  Further, Dr. Woolum and associates, writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, report that merely witnessing rude behaviors costs the company money.

Examples of rude behaviors include:  crude language, interrupting others, failure to show appreciation, loud talking, checking your phone during conversations, eye-rolls, gossiping and so on.

Apparently, observation of rudeness sets a frame in the brain.  Later, when employees see what may be ambiguous behaviors—not necessarily rude; they interpret the behavior to be uncivil. Employees who perceive rudeness may avoid interactions with others and dampen their commitment to tasks.

In the interest of civility, not to mention the bottom line, leaders would do well to model respectful, courteous and considerate behaviors, while professionally calling out team members who slip up.