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Your employees are making empty promises because they’re short on this 1 thing

When your team communicates to you they’re capable and motivated—but their actions say otherwise—it’s like they are afraid to articulate that they’re lacking this one thing.

Your employees are making empty promises because they’re short on this 1 thing
[Photo: Wallace Chuck/Pexels]

When we try to help our colleagues and employees “up their game,” we typically focus on closing the gaps in their knowledge, skills, and motivation. If they know what to do, have the capability to do it, and want to do it, then of course they will do it. The unfortunate reality is often they don’t do this.

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To understand why, let’s review one concrete example.

Octavia’s marketing team meetings are rambling and unproductive. They take way too long, and accomplish way too little. Her boss, Spencer, wants her to improve how she runs meetings. They talk, and Octavia agrees with his assessment, showing signs she wants to get better. Motivation: Check.

To demonstrate how he achieves success, Spencer explains his way of running meetings. He begins by distributing the agenda in advance, including background and context to any decisions that must be made. He also insist that all participants come prepared, with a format that cuts down on too much discussion, focusing instead on decision-making over information-sharing. He shows Octavia his templates for agendas and emails. Knowledge: Check.

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Octavia is good at modeling Spencer’s way of running meetings. She can copy his written communication, and can interrupt her teammates’ long-winded soliloquies and meandering tangents to keep them on task. Capability: Check.

Yet despite having motivation, knowledge, and capability, Octavia doesn’t actually adopt Spencer’s approach to meetings. She fails to be direct and clear in her emails, so recipients don’t realize the level of preparation expected of them. In the meetings, she doesn’t interrupt unproductive conversations, and fails to hold her team accountable when they ignore the new protocol.

So what’s missing? Let’s take a closer look behind the scenes. Specifically, how Octavia acts beyond getting to work on directives from Spencer. Octavia’s comfort zone is more laid back, avoidant of conflict, and more collaborative. In order to raise her team’s productivity, she needs to override some of those qualities some of the time. This is going to be hard. She’ll have to replace old familiar patterns with new ones she has yet to master. Moreover, she has to be willing start again with her team. And adopting assertive behaviors, which she isn’t familiar with, will bring up uncomfortable feelings, like worries about if her coworkers will like her or if she will have to sacrifice her personal principles to rise up in the organization.

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Unless Octavia develops the courage to feel all those uncomfortable feelings, she will not act in ways that trigger and intensify them. That is, she won’t change.

The one missing ingredient

Think for a moment about a conversation you know you should have with someone, yet you haven’t. Is there an issue you’re reluctant to share with a partner? A conflict at work that you’re not addressing? Subpar performance from someone you’re responsible for? Now consider: Why haven’t you had that conversation yet?

Is it because you’re not motivated? Because you just don’t care enough to bother? I doubt it. The very fact that it’s on your mind indicates that you can feel its importance.

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Is it because you don’t have the knowledge or skills to have the conversation? You don’t know what to say? How to say it? I’d bet you know exactly what you want to say and I’m sure you’re skilled enough to say it. In fact, I imagine you’ve been thinking about it over the course of some time. Sure, you could tweak the words, maybe make them more elegant, but you know what you need to convey.

Is it because you don’t have the time? Haven’t had the opportunity? I’m willing to bet that’s not really standing in your way. When something’s important, you make the time. You find the opportunity or proactively create it.

Those are usually the things that we try to solve for when we want to make change:

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Motivation, knowledge, skills, time, opportunity. And they are the things that companies try to solve for—with communication plans, training programs, and time management—when attempting to spread change throughout their organization. But those are not the things that, in the end, prevent people from moving forward.

So then what’s stopping you? The most likely answer: Feeling.

When you go through the conversation in your end, it’s likely you will feel something, which can be scary. Maybe you feel something uncomfortable—or maybe you have to confront something you’re avoiding. Maybe the other party will respond badly, and you’ll get into an argument. Maybe they’ll feel hurt, and you’ll feel bad for having hurt them. Maybe they’ll get defensive and accuse you of a bunch of things, triggering your guilt or shame, and therefore, eliciting a defensive response. Maybe they’ll just get quiet and stone-faced, and shut down communication entirely. Maybe you’re worried about losing your temper.

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How to push through uncomfortable feelings

But if you don’t have the conversation, you won’t have to feel what you don’t want to feel. It’s a simple and reliable strategy that if you don’t want to feel uncomfortable, don’t do things that feel uncomfortable. So yes, this is simple but it’s also not reliable. It leads to procrastination and dysfunction.

Simple and reliable, but not useful. It leads to procrastination and dysfunction. We don’t follow through on important things that we want to do, know we need to do, and are able to do, because we want to avoid feeling certain uncomfortable feelings.

The solution boils down to expanding your capacity to feel uncomfortable feelings. In other words, build your emotional courage. If you are willing to feel everything, you can do anything.

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Emotional courage is central to the process of changing other people. Building their emotional courage muscle will enable them to follow through on actions that feel uncomfortable, or even downright scary.

When Octavia is willing to feel vulnerable and less than competent as she struggles to master a new skill set, she will risk putting herself in the necessary conversations and situations that she must have if she is to change. When she is willing to feel her teammates’ disapproval of her new management style, she will risk acting more assertively, and may finally become the leader they’ve been longing for.

Simply stated, when we’re willing to feel uncomfortable, we’ll be able to follow through. Which is why, in addition to knowledge, capability, and motivation, we also need emotional courage.

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Therefore, how can Spencer encourage Octavia to work on her assertiveness in written and verbal communication? First, by being a role model, demonstrating courage as he grows and changes in ways that bring up feelings he’d prefer to avoid. Second, by empathizing with her; this will be hard, and will take courage. Third, by expressing confidence in her; she’s tackled many challenges in her career, and certainly has the capability to tackle this one. And fourth, by coaching her to craft a plan that she owns, is energized by, and provides an opportunity for her to grow into the person she wants to become.


Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners. Bregman is the bestselling author of five books, including Leading with Emotional Courage and recently, You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees—Even Family—Up Their Game.

Howie Jacobson is the director of coaching at Bregman Partners and head coach at the Healthy Minds Initiative. He is the host of the Plant Yourself podcast, and contributing author of the New York Times bestseller, Whole, as well as the recent You Can Change Other People: The Four Steps to Help Your Colleagues, Employees—Even Family—Up Their Game.

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