That’s my friend Sally, chatting with me at lunch.
“Oh? How so?”
That’s me, ever the inquisitor.
Sally took a new job a few months ago and we were catching up on life.
“Well, the VP of my division stopped me in the hall the other day to ask how it was going. I was immediately on alert – I’m thinking, what had I done wrong? Oh, crap, did somebody complain about my department? Evidently, I must have tensed up before I responded, because he said, ‘Hey relax, I just wanted to know how it’s going.’ That’s when it hit me: my other job had turned me into a paranoid mess.”
Sally went on to explain that even though she loved her previous job (especially working with the team she led), she had fallen into an unhealthy pattern of behavior. In her past job, whenever an executive approached her and asked, “How’s it going?” Sally was being set up for criticism or bad news. So she started to equate a casual inquiry with an impending smack-down.
But at her new job, “How’s it going?” means nothing more than a genuine inquiry into one’s general state of being. “My VP just wanted to know how I was adjusting to the new role. And, get this—he wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help” Sally remarked with astonishment. “I was like, wait, what? That’s it? There’s no other shoe that’s going to drop?”
We had a chuckle about Sally’s visible reaction to the VP’s benign inquiry—“Maybe you better work on getting rid of that nervous eye twitch” I joked.
Joking aside, here’s what you should know about Sally: she’s one kick-butt leader. She’s smart and confident. She’s fun to work with. Her teams have won industry awards. In other words, she’s no slouch.
But even talented, assured people can get beat down by dysfunction. As W. Edwards Deming wrote, “Put a good employee in a bad system and the system always wins.”
As a leader, are you creating a culture in which people flinch when asked seemingly benign questions? If so, that’s a clue that good employees are losing against a bad system.
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