“She’s only been here two weeks – two weeks in the business and two weeks in the industry. I have 23 years experience of our industry and 23 years knowledge of our customers. Every time she comes up with some ill thought idea I feel my insides turn. Yesterday she started going on about what she had done in other European countries – as if that is relevant to us! She really makes me angry and I switch off and go searching for reasons to rubbish what she is spouting.” Long-serving Harry.
A common challenge I have to address through coaching is the arrival of a ‘different’ individual. Difference often refers to bringing a difference in perspective, experience from different sectors, personality, culture or modus operandi. The example quote from Harry gives you a flavour of what it can feel like for the long-serving employee. Now to the new arrival, we’ll call her short-serving Sally. Let’s get a take on how she is feeling after two weeks.
“This place is bizarre. They have processes that have existed for over 10 years and nobody knows why! Last week I met this guy who seemed to struggle with the fact that I am female, French, have worked in four European countries, three sectors and am not intimidated by some narrow minded so called director who is in the level of detail of a first line manager”. Short-serving Sally.
I have managed coaching programmes with lots of directors who can relate to Harry and Sally. The scenario is not uncommon, two capable and motivated people with the best intentions are at each other’s throats after two weeks. This has huge implications for the business. The new person gets excluded and so the value the organisation expected them to bring to the business is unrealised. Therefore a selection investment quickly becomes an expensive mistake. Organisations may try to address this conflict by telling them to respect differences and referring them to a set of rules, charters or value statements and talking to them about unacceptable behaviour. However, this will rarely help and the reason why lies deep in the primitive part of our brain.
When I refer to the primitive part of the brain I mean the instincts with which you were born. At the most basic level it can be the flow of adrenaline resulting from a fight or flight scenario e.g. you walk along a country road and spot a large angry looking four legged creature with shiny white teeth coming towards you. If you do not react, the adrenaline starts to generate anxiety prompting you to do something. It is not restricted to extreme scenarios, it can come from a driver cutting you up, being put down in public, the need to deliver a presentation to a certain audience – the list is very long.
However, you are born with that primitive part of the brain and some people get to know how to work with it and others do not.
Back to Harry and Sally. Harry has got to where he has because he’s done things in a particular way. That may include attention to detail, very careful calibration of risks, a high level of command over his staff and respect for authority; and a set of norms that prevent things that have gone wrong in the past from happening again.
Sally threatens a number of principles Harry has learnt and followed that have got him to where he is. This threat is not one that Harry thinks about, it is one that the primitive part of his brain instinctively reacts to. She is saying things that are ‘different’ (and to our primitive ancestors therefore maybe dangerous!) and he reacts. The memory is the fastest part of the brain, the primitive part of his brain reacts next and the logical part of his brain is slower than the first two. Therefore, Harry has got to understand how he is reacting and why before there is any hope of introducing logic and rules. Once he is wound up (which may take seconds) he will not hear Sally’s points, he will simply want to attack or retreat.
Understanding how your brain works and then getting it to work for you has been well researched in sports psychology in the UK. A summer of Olympic results has been a testament to the success. I am increasingly using the same principles with executive coaching to maximise the effectiveness of how different people work together. So, if I were coaching Harry and Sally, I would start by creating an environment where we can properly understand what, when, why and how the instinctive reactions occur. Through coaching, we can then work together to apply different techniques to ensure nature is working for you rather than against you.
If these instincts are not addressed we risk months and sometimes years of frustration, lack of value from new individuals and fundamentally not benefitting from the very thing the new ‘different’ person was brought in to address. The more the negative history grows, the greater the memory bank of evidence for both parties of why it cannot work and hence the focus on the exit of one or both of the individuals.
When addressed successfully it is usually a combination of one-to-one and one-to-two coaching and in some cases structural changes to create an environment, accountabilities, boundaries where success is dependent on both individuals contributing to the solution.
You are not responsible for having an instinctive reaction. You are born with it, and in many cases it can save you from danger and it often forms the basis of your character. We all know how difficult it is to develop courage, but too much courage for the context becomes dangerous. However, you are completely accountable for how you behave and getting to know how your brain works is a powerful starting point for maximising your performance.
The Harry and Sally quotes at the start are based on real people with whom I have worked. The nationalities, personalities, genders, experiences and modus operandi are all a potential advantage in many life scenarios. However, instinctive reactions to difference can cumulate in disaster rather than opportunity.
Therefore, it is critical to manage your instinct effectively so that it works for and supports you.
When done effectively, Harry will be listening to hear opportunities for change, which will benefit the organisation. Sally will be listening to hear how to affect those changes and explore which constraints are real and which are merely perceived. He will use his wealth of experience to ensure her different or riskier approach is provided with the backup needed to succeed.