What do you do when a team member does something ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’?
Instinctively, we want to write them off and judge their character (this is called fundamental attribution bias).
Sometimes our instincts are right. The misdeed was a wilful attempt to cause harm.
But it’s rare.
More often, the misdeed will be a reflection of someone’s lack of capability and/or awareness to effectively navigate a situation. Because, as Hanlon’s razor guides us, we should ‘never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity’.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by a lack of competence or awarenessHanlon’s razor (adapted for leaders)
Keeping this in mind is essential as a leader. Because, seeing people as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ reflects a fixed mindset. If that’s how they are, then there’s nothing they (or we) can do about it.
Instead, we should see performance as a function of people’s capability, awareness and attitude. Each of these things can be improved through coaching, training and mindful practice. And they can fluctuate with context and time (none of us is at our best when, for example, we’re dealing with something painful at home).
So, how do we override our instincts?
The best way I’ve found is to suspend judgement and instead ask ourselves, why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?
Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do this?The humanising question from Crucial Conversations
This is a question from the excellent book, Crucial Conversations. It humanises the other person that our instincts are trying to villainise.
We’ll usually find several plausible reasons why a person might have behaved that way. Often, the person might be acting on subconscious motivations that they’re unaware of themselves.
Next, we can approach the person with open-minded curiosity. We can share our observations about their behaviour, including the impact it had on others, and ask them what was going on for them.
Then, with a good understanding of their motivation and circumstances, we can make an informed judgement about their behaviour.
This will usually lead to a coaching opportunity with the other person (even if it’s a peer or your boss: we’d all be better off, if we tried to help one another out).
Sometimes, it might require an accountability discussion (because good and well-intentioned people can still make unacceptable mistakes).