“Is Your Personal Life Screwing Up Your Business?”

On a recent flight, I had a most interesting conversation with my seatmate. (He had a fascinating job – costing out massive infrastructure projects all over the world. He had a unique take on the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East – that it would be a boon for Western countries because it would create billions of dollars of projects in underdeveloped countries.) We were discussing what each of us did, and at one point, he said, “Business can really screw up your personal life.” In my own inimical fashion, I heard myself saying, “No, you’ve got it backwards. Your personal life can really screw up your business.” He looked kind of quizzical and asked what I meant. I then had to quickly figure out what I did mean. (As I’ve said, on a number of occasions, I don’t plan what I say, very often. It’s almost always what I mean, but I figure it out after its released from my mouth.)

I don’t think, in the last thirty years, that I’ve seen a time in which so many people and so many relationships have melted down, and created crises in the workplace. Well, you might say, look at the economy for the last three years – that’s your answer. That may play a role, but I think that it’s far from the complete answer. I believe that the economy has been a catalyst for personal and interpersonal dysfunction, but not the fundamental cause. I see the economy serving the same role as alcohol for alcoholics. Liquor does not create addicts. Addicts abuse substances (or food, or sex, or people, ad infinitum) to dull their pain. The substance sparks the addiction and helps make it worse. So, I think, does the economy.
For some time now, I’ve become convinced that at least half the population is personally unhappy and unfulfilled, and has chosen personal, intimate relationships that are massive compromises. I don’t mean by this that the relationships are intrinsically bad and beyond hope. I mean that both parties, at some level, have decided that their relationship sucks less than not having one at all. This results in a decision, almost always unconscious, to lower their expectations, put up with what they don’t like or respect in their partner, and toss in the towel on ever getting their emotional (or, often, their physical) needs met. All the lousy economy does, is bring to the surface, serious, unattended to, personal and interpersonal issues that have been well camouflaged by better financial times. As we say in business, profits can hide a multitude of sins.
This shows up, in the workplace, as escalating irritability, passive-aggressive behavior (I’ll tell you what you want to hear, to your face, and then I’ll go off and do whatever the hell I want to), hostile zingers coming out of nowhere, the inability to focus, constantly missing targets and goals, and a poisonous and corrosive cynicism. An important point here: Work does not have the power to create chronic dysfunction and unhappiness. Only our personal lives can do that. Anyone who stays in a lousy, unsatisfying, and mean-spirited job, for an extended period of time, has the same thing at home.
So, what can you do, when you see any of these dysfunctional behaviours? First and foremost, don’t get tactical. It is insulting and patronizing to start telling people to just do some things differently and everything will be fine. It is equally insulting to tell people, directly or indirectly, that they have no reason to feel the way they do. Invalidating people’s feelings, at best, strengthens their resolve to act poorly; or, at worst, creates an escalating hostility, rage, and need for retribution.
Instead, give them feedback about two things: First, how their behaviour impacts you personally. Do not bring in any other people! (Literally or figuratively.) Keep it between you and them. (People stop listening and get more pissed off, when you depersonalize the feedback.) Second, tell them, in the simplest possible language, how their behaviour impacts your desire to have a relationship with them. For example, “When you put down everything we do here, and act like everyone is an idiot, other than you, I want to get away from you as quickly as possible.” Then the most important thing – a question: “Is that what you want to accomplish?”
This almost always leads to a dialogue, the focus of which is that the counter-productive behaviour under discussion is methodically destroying relationships that keep the person connected to the organization. I’ve never met a person who then can’t understand the logical extension of this relationship-killing behaviour. This, you may be thinking, sounds like a threat. That’s because it is. It is intended to begin a process of presenting the person with some tough choices, the first of which is whether he wants to start changing his behaviour, or leave the organization.
The next set of choices involves the person looking at the connections between his poor actions at work and his life outside of work. This is catalyzed by a challenging assignment – “I want you to think about why you act the way you do, and come back and let me know what you discovered. For the purposes of this first discussion, you can’t bring up anything about work. I’ll be glad to listen to suggestions about improving things around here, but only at a later date.”
The last key point. This assignment will typically lead to a discussion of a personal dilemma or problem. Your response is critical, and always in the form of a question: “What do you think your options are, and which one are you going to exercise?” Don’t ever answer the question – “What do you think I should do?” Once you do, you relieve the other person of any responsibility for managing their life; you participate in an informal adoption; and you lay the groundwork for litigation. My response for the last thirty years, has always been the same: “Beats me.”
By the way, up to this point, you have not violated any knee-jerk liberal law about employee privacy, nor are you in danger of the HR police coming after you. The “protected areas” are, ironically, irrelevant to the conundrums people create for themselves, and telling people what to do with their lives is about the most useless and counter-productive thing you can do.
I have had people ask me if this methodology is not tantamount to putting undo pressure on people who are already under immense pressure. My response is – absolutely! I call it, the “Kick’em When They’re Down” theory of change. People only change when the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of staying the same. The best time to initiate change is when the pain trajectory is on the upswing.
If you want to be genuinely helpful to people, the last thing you want to do, is remove the source of pain and discomfort in their life that is driving their dysfunction. You may feel a temporary sense of pride and beneficence, while they slide deeper into their self-destructive and illusory world.
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