Monday, October 31, 2011

risk of asking for a behavior change

I was talking with a group of engineers this week about letting another person know when his behavior is making it difficult for them to do their work. Many of us complain and gossip: "can you believe he's late to every meeting!" "Once again she goes on travel without letting anyone know where she is!" "He's so creepy -- he comes up behind me when I'm working on the computer and rubs my shoulders!"

The outcome of this complaining is that we get solace and comaraderie -- the person or people to whom we complain agree the complained-about person is a creep or an idiot or selfish or whatever characterizing term seems to fit. There is no actual change as a result and our improved emotional state lasts only until the offending person behaves in his "usual" way again.

We have a chance of changing behavior when we let the other person know how his behavior is negatively affecting us and our work. We can say, "we can't make rigorously-analyzed decisions when you arrive late to meetings -- we're missing too much of your input." Or, "when we don't know you're going on travel, we assume we'll be able to work directly with you. It would help our work planning if you'd give us advance notice of travel plans." Or, "I'm uncomfortable when you come up behind me and rub my shoulders. I'd prefer you simply come around my desk and say hello"

Speaking up has the advantages of enabling us to experience ourselves as people with the potential influence to make changes rather than as whiners, providing the other person with the opportunity to change behavior he may not realize is detrimental to others, and limiting gossip, and therefore outgrouping, at work.

One person in the program said, but what if I speak up and the person doesn't change his behavior? Yes, this is a risk. Perhaps the other person's habits are so deeply ingrained that he can't change them, he lacks the emotional intelligence to make changes, or our requested behavior was unreasonable.

I have a student with whom I've talked in person and to whom I've sent several heart-felt emails about arriving late to class. I've talked about what he's losing, what his learning group is losing, and what our class is losing by his missing so much of the class period. He continues to arrive about 30 minutes late. He will not change. That's his choice; a choice that will be reflected in his grade. And if you're thinking, well that gives you positional power, not so fast. This student is the first to complain about course process (often about things he insists I don't do for students that I do at the start of classes which he misses) and I have no doubt he will complain to the department and in his evaluations. These complaints can influence the department about hiring me for future classes and can influence future students' thinking about taking the class. His coming in late will cost me.

I can't change his behavior but if I had not tried I would not have changed his behavior nor would I ask other students to make this change. Yet every other student who habitually arrived late changed behavior after a few words from me. We must see each person and situation as unique. If I stopped speaking up, I'd see myself as powerless and I would become powerless.

When we say nothing, we get nothing.

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