When a misunderstood relationship causes a communication breakdown

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

“Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other and the sooner we recognize that the better for us all.”

Erik Erikson

Last week I was meeting with one of my clients and I asked as I often do at the start of our meetings, “What’s keeping you up at night?”

His reply provided the basis for this post.

“I think I have a communication problem,” my client said.

As is my practice I said, “Say more about that.”

He went on.

“Last week I was looking over my upcoming schedule for delivery coverage and realized that we didn’t have enough people set up to work. We had authorized too many people to be away on vacation during school break in early April. I contacted my supervisor in charge, let him know we had a problem and he said he would take care of it.

The next day one of my drivers — usually an easy-going guy — didn’t even acknowledge me when I said good morning. In the break room, I saw the supervisor and asked what was going on with that driver. He thought for a moment then said that the driver was probably upset because he, the supervisor, had told him he would need to cancel the vacation trip he had scheduled with his son to make sure we have coverage during school break.”

I told my client that what he had identified as a communication issue was actually a relationship issue.

He asked for further explanation, and I offered this perspective.

“When you brought the issue of the schedule up to your supervisor he determined that you were not happy. He went away, got rid of the problem that made you unhappy, and, in his mind, everything should have been good. You now had coverage; you would be happy and the world would again be in order. The supervisor has identified his role in your relationship as making sure you are happy. For you it was about the schedule, for him it was about your happiness. The fact that his solution made someone else unhappy was simply collateral damage.”

My client just looked at me for several moments. Finally he said, “I never would have seen what you have just pointed out. In my mind the supervisor had just made the situation worse, in fact I had gone to the obviously upset employee and said we’d work something out without even mentioning it to my supervisor.”

(You can see that in the end the action my client took, going directly to the aggrieved employee has undermined the supervisor and you can probably sniff out the downward spiral waiting to commence.

At this point I again addressed my client.)

“So can you see that your initial communication was fine.  Ideally you would have a relationship with the supervisor where you saying, ‘we have a problem’, would be an invitation to put your heads together and come up with a solution that worked for everyone. Given how he sees his relationship with you he pulled away from your unhappiness and took action intended to restore your approval of him.”

My client shook his head and said, “Looks like I need to have another conversation with my supervisor and this time I need to make sure he gets the ‘we’ part as being what is important.”

While I was pleased with my client’s recognition of the issue I made sure to let him know that the upcoming conversation might be challenging. He was going to offer the supervisor the opportunity to enter a new reality. It might take more than one meeting to get the desired result.

Where can you see that you may have an issue at work like the one described here?

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