For Best Results, Don’t Trigger the Subordinates

5 minute read

In this blog, we’ve talked at length about skillfully handling our own emotional responses when dealing with peers and superiors, but have you ever given thought to situations in which you might be triggering your subordinates?

There are times when leaning harder on subordinates does not necessarily result in getting unmet needs for competency, efficiency, reliability, collaboration, or clarity met. In fact, turning our frustration, anger, and disappointment toward them is patently counter-productive. We’re much more likely to get the outcomes we need by leaving our frustration, anger, and annoyance at the door.

An everyday example of this principle at work is what we choose to do when a service provider has not met our expectations. We don’t do ourselves any favors by putting customer service representatives under such pressure as to emotionally trigger them. In that state, a person cannot think clearly, and thus cannot meet performance standards, or worse yet, might retaliate against your food, your plumbing, your cable bill, or in other disastrous ways.

This is not to say we as leaders should abandon our duty to hold team members accountable—quite the opposite. Our suggestion is to have a peer whom you can vent to, especially before communicating with the source of your ire, so that when you do have the conversation, it can be productive.

This skill is crucial in managing others well, because in our experience, only the most emotionally intelligent 1-2% of the population are capable of not taking on someone else’s confusion, resentment, and aggravation when confronted. Typically when a person is confronted angrily by a superior (as you’ll recall from our previous discussions), they feel threatened. Their adrenaline, cortisol, and pulse levels elevate, and blood flow drains away from the pre-frontal cortex to their major muscle groups. You’ve just become the sabretooth tiger at the mouth of their cave, resulting in your subordinate’s inability to react professionally, or even coherently.

Once your team member’s threat assessment center has been activated, depending on his or her self-awareness level, their perception of your irritability and anger is a threat to their job security, which in turn threatens their financial safety, which then threatens their most basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. And just like that, the very foundation of his or her well-being is threatened. Gone are the higher levels of thinking—forget about aspiration, self-expression, and fulfilment of potential—your supervisee just wants to survive.

In previous entries, we’ve talked about how helpful the “What If” game can be when you are feeling anxious or fearful, so you can learn to maintain your leadership gravitas in the face of difficult situations. The “What If” game is equally helpful to talk yourself off the explosive edge before dealing with disappointing subordinate behaviors or performance.

For example, Betty didn’t turn in the report she promised you before the holidays. What’s the worst that could happen?

I’ll be behind when I get back from the holidays.

OK, so what’s the worst that could happen then?

I won’t be able to finish any of my projects on time this month.

What’s the worst that could happen then?

My boss will be angry with me.

And then?

She could fire me.

And then?

My reputation would be ruined and I’ll never be able to find work again!

Of course, we know the likelihood of that actually coming to pass is slim to none. By talking ourselves through the likely outcomes, we can step back from the ledge of hijacked emotions, and hopefully talk with the subordinate in a calm, productive manner.

It bears repeating: whatever their shortcomings may be, jumping down a person’s throat, so to speak, will not help.

You may be wondering, are there exceptions to this rule? What about cases in which the person is truly incompetent?

In that circumstance, we’d argue the bigger, long-term conversation to be had is relative to goodness of fit between the staff person and the job at hand. As we frequently point out concerning growth and new roles: nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to go to a job they are incompetent to do.

Taking a beat to calm ourselves down before approaching the offending party gives us the opportunity to consider what it must be like to be in their shoes. It is scary and disheartening to feel inadequate at one’s job. A 21st Century Leader needs to be able to have constructively critical conversations with their subordinates and peers without torpedoing their sense of efficacy and self-worth.

After some time to cool off and consider the situation, you might say to a struggling subordinate: It looks like these last few months have been really challenging for you. What’s your sense of your overall fit for this role?

Just know that even such a forthright yet neutral inquiry can be triggering to some. The crucial thing to remember here is  the leader’s role is not to berate a person concerning their gaps in skills and competence; it’s to get the desired deliverables delivered, and to preserve the company’s investment in that staff person if at all possible and reasonable to do so.

It pays to remember in this instance that someone will only follow you if they think you can help them get where they want to go. That kind of leadership requires a variety of tools—not the least of which is the perception of care, which is immediately and profoundly deteriorated whenever we present as emotionally unskilled or triggered.