Ondieki laboured for two years under the yoke of a tyrannical boss at a Nairobi-based insurance firm. The executive metaphorically terrorised his staff until which time the human resources team acquiesced to harassment claims and terminated his employment.
As part of reconciliation and rebuilding, the CEO invited Ondieki and his colleagues to participate in a department project committee tasked with redesigning departmental work tasks and restructuring reporting lines. Other colleagues including Atieno, Mutua, Njeri, Lengoko, and Juma all joined the committee and set a two-week timeline to analyse, decide, and then put forth their recommendations.
Ondieki found that whenever he gave improvement ideas, both Lengoko and Atieno would feel extremely hurt at the insinuation that their teams were already not good enough.
Their sensitivity hindered progress on agreeing on ways forward.
Mutua and Njeri both proved amiable to go with whichever direction agreed upon by the majority. But then Juma stood firm on nearly every issue, refusing to budge, and insisting that he knew the best route. How could Ondieki possibly contend with the whims and follies of such an emotionally diverse work committee?
Social scientist Dolly Chugh at the Stern School of Business at New York University and her new research and publications holds some answers that could prove useful to Ondieki by detailing the internal conflicts that people go through in their quests to become better people.
Her research would argue that Lengoko and Atieno suffer from thoughts that they are good people and that they thrive as good employees.
Most Business Daily readers surely know at least a few people in our respective offices who feel hurt, offended, and bewildered by suggestions that they need improvement in their work tasks.
Dr Chugh highlights that when people feel that they prosper as good individuals, ethical people, or excellent workers, then their capacity to receive helpful criticism is greatly diminished.
People who feel that they perform at high levels have the hardest time realising mistakes, processing negative personal information, or accepting their faults.
An example she discusses involves her feeling that she holds strong gender equality beliefs and actions, but when she invited a researcher to track how she lecturers classes, Dr Chugh discovered much to her horror that she calls on men more than women and interrupts female students more in her classes. As a fellow lecturer, this author himself noticed through third-party observations over the years that I call on fellow extroverts far more in my own classes, which was a painful fault for me to accept.
In order to remedy our behaviours and reactions to feedback, we must think of ourselves as “goodish” people, not good people.
We must recognise and believe that we are all works-in-progress and none have achieved perfection whether in our personal lives or certainly not in our work lives. We must get away from the binary good or bad labels imposed by workplaces.
When one says that they are a good person, then they become complacent and stop trying to become better.
One feels bad about mistakes and, according to MRI scans during feedback in the research, those who think they are good, their brains actually shut down temporarily from processing new information. Criticism literally knocks them completely off-guard.
When managers present the “goodish” concept to their staff and share their personal struggles with improving and continually becoming better, then it opens up diversity and skills training wide open with much stronger results.
Then also how should Ondieki handle Juma, the problematic employee? Managers can follow the 20-60-20 stylised rule.
In presenting new information or controversial issues, 20 per cent of people will never change their minds and will dig their heels into the ground and never alter their minds.
Do not spend time trying to convince such individuals. If these figurative sticks-in-the-mud hinder project, team, or committee progress, remove them from the team.
Next, the other 20 per cent prove amiable and tend to agree with logic easily. The remaining 60 per cent will go in whichever direction the majority favours, like Mutua and Njeri in our above example.
However, if you work with the lower 20 per cent stubborn employees and do not hold the power to remove them, then research shows that humanising issues proves far greater at changing minds as opposed to statistics, arguments, and figures.
Share your struggle with a topic or explain how others evolved their opinion too. A metaphor to think of: heat in an issue stands as more effective at changing systems, like systemic racism or workplace gender roles, but a lamp proves more effective at changing minds.
In order to achieve process or systemic change, then anger, pushing, and shouting, that is, generating heat, succeeds in problems in work or society works.
But to get people to internalise and really change themselves as individuals, then calmer discussions with personal examples prevails as dramatically more effective.
Dr Scott may be reached on [email protected] or on Twitter: @ScottProfessor