“But I don’t like her,” I told Michelle. I had hired Michelle several years ago, and now she worked for me as one of my managers over the department. Our long partnership made us equals, a little more open than the more traditional boss-subordinate relationship.
“Why don’t you like her?” Michelle probed. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Okay, I don’t know what’s wrong with her. But there is something wrong with her,” I stated emphatically.
“Mary” was hired to fill an open slot on the team a few weeks before Michelle was scheduled to go out on maternity leave. I had a deep respect for Michelle’s hiring experience and talent. But I was convinced Michelle had made a terrible mistake with this one.
“Give me an example,” Michelle pushed.
“I stop by her desk every morning to try to get to know her. You know, I say ‘Hi. How was your evening? What does your husband think of the city? (Mary moved to Chicago from a small town in southern Illinois). Is there anything I can help you with?’ That sort of thing,” I told Michelle. “And Mary looks at me like a blob. She just sits there as if I have fire coming out of my eyes. She’s like an abused animal. It’s gotten so bad that I walk the long way to my office to avoid seeing her.”
Michelle said patiently, “I think she’s a little more reserved than we’re used to. But you have to work with her.”
“But I don’t like her,” I whined.
“I don’t care if you like her. When I’m out, you are going to have to tap into her. Or you are going to have to do everything yourself, ” Michelle said as a way to shut me up.
And it worked. I shut up.
Fast-forward a few weeks. Things were so busy, that nearly every member of the team was stretched as far as they could go without snapping. Finally, I decided it was time to test Mary. I called her into my office and asked for her help on several projects.
And something weird happened. During the course of an hour, my thinking about Mary changed. It changed drastically and completely.
When she came into my office, I’m not going to lie, I still saw a scared, wounded animal. I saw someone who seemed uptight and nervous, and that made me nervous. It was like Mary had donated her personality for transplant to someone else, and all that remained behind was the shell of a person.
But while discussing with Mary some of the creative challenges on my plate, she became alive and even passionate. In fact, several times we ended up feeding off each other and laughing as the ideas started to flow. By the end of the meeting, I opened up my calendar and scheduled several recurring follow ups to meet with her.
Days after Michelle’s baby arrived, I sent flowers to her house as a congratulations. But in the note, I wrote: THANK YOU FOR MARY! I LOVE HER!
What happened? Did Mary go from blob to superstar overnight?
Has someone ever told you rotten, negative things about another person? And you believed it without having any firsthand knowledge or experience? That’s what happened to Mary. Mary had been subjected unknowingly to a primitive Rosenhan Experiment.
One of Mary’s coworkers, “Janice”, had been on corrective action for some time, and Janice knew that she needed to improve her performance quickly, or she’d be out of job. Hungry for acceptance and to have someone to complain to, Janice befriended Mary. Janice told Mary that the department leadership was terrible, and Janice encouraged Mary to stay to herself and trust no one. The top piece of advise Janice told Mary: “Scott is evil. Don’t talk to him.”
Shortly after Mary and I started working together, Janice violated one of the terms for her continued employment, and she was terminated. By the time the negative, self-serving influence of Janice was removed, Mary had formed her own opinions.
After Michelle returned from maternity leave, she and Mary discussed the “turnaround”. It was then that Mary told Michelle that she had been coached to avoid leadership and, especially (gulp), me. That explained a lot.
Did Mary suddenly become a superstar? No, Mary’s performance didn’t change. She had been a superstar from the start. But her day-to-day performance got buried in what appeared to be a standoffish attitude and style. But once armed with firsthand experience of her leadership team, Mary let down her guard, shared her opinions, and became instrumental to leading the department. The “reserved” Mary also became an outgoing cheerleader to the rest of the team.
I had picked up on some bad vibes about Mary, but I didn’t understand what supported those negative thoughts. This experience taught me several lessons:
- First impressions can be misleading.
- The root cause of a perceived attitude problem might be buried several layers beneath the surface, beyond the obvious.
- In the absence of compelling, firsthand knowledge to the contrary, it’s easy to believe the bad things attributed to others.
- Everyone deserves a second or even third (and forth) chance to shine. Most employees want to, they just need the chance.
- Relationships are a two-way street. If you think you’ve reached a dead-end, you might have to try coming at it from a different angle.
- Disengaged employees are cancerous tumors that need to be removed to save the rest of the team.
In the end, I wish every member of my team were as rotten as Mary…