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Doomed to be Human

Jun 9, 2022


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Some while ago, a wise old former boss of mine chuckled and said to me: “We’re all doomed to be human, aren’t we John…” in the face of another whacking great people problem. 

With twinkling eyes and his trademark smile, he then set about making a few phone calls and firing off some email. By the end of the week he had turned a problem which was “as big as a house” into one which was boxed-off, contained, and manageable by a mere mortal like me. At this point, he twinkled again and smilingly dropped the remnants of the mess on my plate to finish off. He had a truly remarkable way of receiving, reducing, and then effortlessly offloading problems….

Another old boss of mine had a similar theme. His was that none of us is perfect, and we all have at least one great big flaw. Often called “derailleurs” in the jargon, these are blind spots or ineffective behaviours that come out when we are under stress; or might just be things the job sometimes requires that we’re simply not that good at. I always remember he said that a manager’s most important job is to compensate for the bits the person they’re managing hasn’t got; which is an unusually compassionate take. But hey, in his analysis, we’re all flawed diamonds in the end. 

At the time I was receiving these sage nuggets, I certainly wasn’t as impressed with them as I am now. In an earlier incarnation, I thought the problem was “problem people.” Bad attitudes, bad behaviours, blockers, dissemblers, underminers and idlers. 

In my thirties, I worked on a taxonomy of ten types of people—although we rebadged it as “behaviours” to spare HR blushes—you might encounter in the workplace, with a cheat sheet of how to manage their difficult behaviour. It’s telling that 9 out of 10 are negative….

All organisations struggle with performance management. But in my experience, none more so than long-service public bodies. I found this particularly acute as a civil servant in the UK Government. The main issue was often not capability, or even performance per se, but attitudes and behaviours that brought everyone and everything down.

Perhaps frustrated ambition was a factor. Being constantly overlooked for promotion and not “progressing” can sour anyone over time—not least as promotion was usually the only way to get a pay rise. There were also those with rose-tinted memories of “happier times” who lamented what they perceived (rightly or wrongly) as the ever-corroding psychological contract between employer and employee.

Re-reading them, I’m so glad to be out of that context:

MANAGING BEHAVIOURS

The stereotypes below are behaviours that people can display and do not describe people themselves. Your own behaviour can elicit different reactions and you should be aware of the styles and behaviours you display before challenging them in others. People may adopt a mixture of these behaviours, switch or deploy several at once. Nevertheless, these stereotypes are based on real-life situations people have described when managing the behaviour of civil servants:

1) AFFABLE: happily acknowledge shortcomings and performance issues, but either say that’s just the way they are and they can’t really change or say they might try to do something different but don’t follow through.

2) CHOOSY: enthusiastically focus on the list of things they have done, like to do, or can do, and make you feel guilty about challenging them on other aspects of the job or performance.

3) PLODDING/JOB’S WORTH: argue for narrow definitions of their role, justify performance on historic grounds—“I’ve always done it this way and no-one has complained,” may stress they work to live, not live to work.

4) HYPOCHONDRIAC: focused only on themselves and their own workload, don’t recognise context or pressures others face, often refuse offers of help or resources as no one else is sufficiently able or knowledgeable. (Often comes with Perfectionism, as below)

5) HIJACKERS: often deployed by hoarders of information, relationships, skills, processes or technologies, hijacking is implicitly or explicitly threatening withdrawal of key “know-how” with catastrophic consequences.

6) EMOTIONAL BLACKMAIL: using emotions and sometimes tears to stop a discussion on performance and in extreme cases displaying their upset to colleagues and other team members to rebuke you.

7) SUMO WRESTLING: coming back at you hard, challenging or criticising your style or behaviour to try to knock you back and barge you out of the ring.

8 ) PERFECTIONISM: often backed by great delivery, but often at great cost either to the person or those around them, aggressive defensiveness about excessive, exclusive or obsessive focus on their own work.

9) PAIN IN THE @RSE: antagonistic, argumentative, dogged, ignoring your context and time pressures, often ultra-critical of the organisation, people or processes.

10) STAR QUALITIES: listening, taking responsibility, offering to help, making suggestions for improvement and change, sharing pressures, offering to lead and deliver. Make time to recognise, nurture, support, and reward any of these behaviours, at all costs.

With the passing of years, I look back on this list and can see now why it both shocked some and delighted others who saw it back then. It does describe something—and maybe even some people—we’ve all met and worked with. But the entire framing is that people are “the problem” not the solution; that we are objects to be nudged, blocked, shoved, or propelled. 

The epiphany for me came in my late forties, in large part thanks to my growing appreciation of that patient advice from those older wiser bosses: Focus on what people can do, and help them with what they can’t. People are indeed people, not problems.

We’re all the products of our circumstances, and we’re all generally doing what we think best in our way, on our own terms. As my old bosses said: we are doomed to be human, and we are all deeply flawed. When I think of those two old bosses: both hugely experienced, “tough as old boots” and sometimes not a little cynical, one thing they both shared was a ready smile and a twinkle of the eyes when dealing with people. 

Back in the day, I used to spend most of my time with a knotted brow. With the passage of years I’m twinkling more. 


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